Monday, May 14, 2018

CD Review: Dan Weiss - Starebaby

Dan Weiss

After recording a suite that was built upon particular drum breaks played by Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Ed Blackwell, Kenny Clarke, Tony Williams and Philly Joe Jones, Dan Weiss has created a vastly different album. Starebaby combines the visceral, weighty attack of heavy metal together with the influence electronic music and improvisation. His skill with Indian beat cycles, coming from his experience as a tabla player, factors into the compositions, as does his interest in music from the Twin Peaks television series. In fact much of Starebaby's eight tracks sound like soundtrack music, developing slowly, as if they're keeping pace with visuals. (I often hear music that way, but this time, it's not just me.)

The more intriguing aspects of the album comes with the kindred spirits who join Weiss (who has played with Rudresh Mahanthappa, Chris Potter and Jen Shyu, to name a few). All are well known as progressive improvisers in various styles, and they all apparently share Weiss' affinity for the heavy stuff. Bassist Trevor Dunn's inclusion might not be a surprise, as he's played in harder rock bands like Mr. Bungle and appeared in some of John Zorn's heavier groups. Guitarist Ben Monder has always been skilled at peeling off guitar lines that sound loud even at a low volume, so he feels like a natural for this set. But also along for the ride are both Craig Taborn and Matt Mitchell, both on piano and electric keyboards. The album utilizes their respective skills at creating musical scenes, but they can clearly shred with the best of them.

The reason heavy metal doesn't get much respect can be attributed to the excess that has become part and parcel over the years. The big hair, the rapid guitar solos (which, after awhile, start to sound like cartoon characters singing, "Figaro, Figaro" too fast), and the Cookie Monster vocals - they've all contributed to the comic value. If a band can do all that in 5/8, just remember my old tenet: it ain't what time signature you play it, it's what you play in that time signature. But strip away all that excess, and the best part still remains - the weight of the sound. Like Bobby Previte's Mass album from last year, Starebaby avoids the excessive pitfalls here.

Weiss doesn't use this material as a chance to show off his flashy drum skills. In fact, he almost prefers to sit back and let his playing add color to the work of his bandmates. Many of his parts are built predominantly on snare drum whacks, which are pushed in the mix to make sure they land between the listener's eyes. When he does play solos, they aren't solos so much as beat cycles. This is noticeable during what sounds like a free passage in "Episode 8." In "The Memory of My Memory" the cycle of beats keeps shifting, ratcheting the intensity each time, especially when Monder grabs onto the section.

The aforementioned tracks move slowly but with a sense of determination, as the sections rise and fall in volume and velocity. "Episode 8," over 14 minutes in length, does this particularly well. Other parts of the album almost feel too focused on riffs and suspense, at the expense of resolve. Granted, an album like this is most definitely going to have a foreboding, murky feel to it most of the time, but it could use more moments like the brutal coda of "The Memory of My Memory" or Monder's freak out in "Depredation." However the jazz-metal heads (who are out there) will no doubt eat this up.

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