On Saturday, I caught the final night of "Full Force: The New Rock Complexity," a three-evening festival curated by John Zorn at Tonic. All things considered, I'm sorry to have missed the previous two evenings; friends in the audience were still buzzing about memorable sets from Jerseyband, Newspeak, Time of Orchids and Capital M. (The other two bands that performed on previous nights were Rashanim, whose music I know from a series of fine discs on Zorn's Tzadik label, and Stay Fucked, a wiry math-rock trio that features my friend and TONY colleague Hank Shteamer on drums.)
The concept behind "Full Force" was succinctly stated in Zorn's press release for the event: "This festival presents an exciting new generation of musicians who are expanding preconceived concepts of form and content in the rock idiom. Inspired by a wide variety of influences and using elements of advanced composition, improvisation, noise, rhythms and harmony, these groups bring a stimulating new energy to the musical firmament. Full Force hopes to shed new light on this exciting community of young musical explorers dedicated to complex, compositional rock."
Three bands that participated in the festival have issued CDs on Zorn's Tzadik label; of those, the discs by Time of Orchids and tonight's closer, Kayo Dot, are part of the label's "Composers Series," which means their music is categorized in the same line as music by Milton Babbitt, Charles Wuorinen and Alvin Singleton. This is in itself an extremely provocative statement.
Presumably, Zorn might have expanded on that notion at tonight's pre-concert discussion, which I wasn't able to attend. As it turned out, neither was Zorn, who called in sick. Still, tonight's lineup -- Kayo Dot, Electric Kompany and Larval -- provided an excellent case for this festival's central thesis, since the three bands involved pursued utterly disparate paths toward the stated goal of "complexity."
The opener, Larval, I'd caught once before at the Knitting Factory. A Detroit-based ensemble led by guitarist-composer Bill Brovold, Larval primarily draws upon the instrumental style pioneered by King Crimson in the early '70s: terse, angular constructs punctuated with gentle interludes. Perhaps it's due to the band's Motor City provenance, however, that its best tunes throb with a physicality that beckons back to more blues-based bands. The riffs that underpinned its complex compositions pulsed with an earthy throb that suggested Led Zeppelin and Steppenwolf; deceptively tricky rhythms often disguised a primal 4/4 beat.
Unquestionably a rock band at heart, Larval included two saxophonists and a violinist in its arsenal; in contrast, guitarist Kevin R. Gallagher's Electric Kompany posited the traditional guitar-keyboards-bass-drums configuration as a new medium for formal composition. Playing from scores on music stands, the group opened with Grab It!, a composition by the utterly fascinating Dutch composer Jacob ter Veldhuis. Originally composed for solo tenor saxophone with an accompanying track sampled from the documentary film Scared Straight, the piece worked equally well when translated for rock quartet. Sharp, funky syncopations derived from vocal cadences, reminiscent of Scott Johnson's music, proved well suited to Electric Kompany's driving rhythm section. Three pieces by guitarist-composer Nick Didkovsky -- whose band Doctor Nerve was a clear antecedent for the impulses behind this festival -- provided a showcase for Gallagher's well-honed improvisational skills. "Egil the Skald," "We'll Ask the Questions Around Here" and "I Kick My Hand" allowed the leader to soar at length over percolating rhythmic ostinatos; the music sounded something like Canterbury-era prog-rock retuned to a twitchy Manhattanite pulse.
A premiere, David Langanella's Burn, was announced as the first-ever piece fully scored for rock quartet. The work consisted of a fast, agitated introductory movement, a mysterious interlude and a reprise of the initial mood, during most of which Gallagher supplied glowering feedback opposite the band's juddering rhythms. This, more than anything else the group played, felt formal; keyboardist James Johnston, bassist Alex Walker and a guest drummer whose name I didn't catch (regular drummer Thad Wheeler serving at the time as conductor) performed together in sync, but the music they played didn't especially convey the interdependence that is a rock band rhythm section's lifeblood. Three closing miniatures by Marc Mellits (Broken Glass, Lefty's Elegy and Dreadlocked) translated the arpeggio-fuelled drive of Philip Glass to the rock-quartet format idiomatically, the band breathing as one throughout.
Boston-based septet Kayo Dot closed with a set of characteristically lengthy, enigmatic songs, three of which were drawn from the band's latest album, Dowsing Anemone with Copper Tongue, on the Richmond, Virginia-based indie label Robotic Empire. (My Decibel magazine review of that album is here.) Vocalist-guitarist Toby Driver drew his initial inspiration from European doom-metal bands -- an influence more acutely felt in the output of his previous group, Maudlin of the Well. The dense, intricate soundscapes conjured by Kayo Dot, on the other hand, seem equally inspired by Ligeti, Feldman and the druggy torpor of Ummagumma-era Pink Floyd. The band's set opened with a quiet reverie, an opiate dream stirred by rippling guitars, Forbes Graham's trumpet, Mia Matsumiya's electric violin and Driver's quivering voice; before long, this was utterly engulfed in a gargantuan wash of distorted guitars and primal drums. Here and throughout, Driver's voice was less the center of attention than simply another thread in the ensemble's tapestry. For the band's final song, "_____ on Limpid Form," Forbes hauled a massive fuel drum onto the stage. As guitarists and bassist mounted to a gloriously prismatic roar, one player after another abandoned his or her instrument, taking up drumsticks to beat a tattoo on the amplified vessel at center stage. It was a radical reinterpretation of "bang on a can," for sure.
Grateful Dead - Dick's Picks, Vol. 24: Cow Palace, Daly City, CA 3/23/74 (Grateful Dead/Rhino)
Public Enemy - It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Def Jam/Columbia)
Grateful Dead - Dick's Picks, Vol. 20: Capital Centre, Landover, MD 9/25/76 and Onondaga County War Memorial, Syracuse, NY 9/28/76 (Grateful Dead/Rhino)
Tinariwen - Amassakoul (World Village)
Giacinto Scelsi - Ohoi; Ave Maria; Anâgâmin; Ygghur; Natura Renovatur; Alleluja - France-Marie Uitti, Munich Chamber Orchestra/Christoph Poppen (ECM New Series)
Bill Frisell - Bill Frisell, Ron Carter & Paul Motian (Nonesuch)
Ornette Coleman - Sound Grammar (Sound Grammar)
Medeski, Martin and Wood with John Scofield - Out Louder (Indirecto)
Grateful Dead - Download Series, Vol. 12: Washington University, St. Louis, MO 4/17/69 (Grateful Dead/Rhino download)
Emperor - In the Nightside Eclipse (Century Black) and Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire & Demise (Candlelight)
Henry Cow - Unrest (East Side Digital)
Brightblack Morning Light - Brightblack Morning Light (Matador)