Wednesday, October 21, 2020

CD Review: Dan Weiss Starebaby - Natural Selection


Dan Weiss Starebaby
Natural Selection

On a bill stacked with innovative players, Dan Weiss' Starebaby quintet nearly stole the show  at Brooklyn's Sultan Room during last January's Winter Jazz Fest . The music was heavy, loud and full of ever-shifting time signature quick cuts, but it never felt bombastic or flashy. Coming shortly after the death of Neal Peart, Weiss' technique as a drummer and composer were on full display, making him a good candidate for the next generation to emulate, much as he did for the Rush drummer.

Most, if not all, of their set drew on the material that appears on their new album. Natural Selection consists of a series of tulpas, "beings that are created through spiritual or mental powers that take on similar forms as the original," according to Weiss. With inspiration coming from David Lynch's Twin Peaks series and a love of heavy rock, "Episode 18" comes out of the gate shredding, with Ben Monder's guitar in the front, sounding like every metal dude's ideal. The track alternates between these taut moments and slow atmospheric breaks. When Monder takes a solo towards the end, he sounds less like a metal player than a prog master, laying down sustained, rich tones rather than some fast pyrotechnics. Trevor Dunn kicks on the fuzz to dirty up his bass, which blends well with the dual keyboards of Matt Mitchell and Craig Taborn. Two seconds shy of 13 minutes, "Episode 18" doesn't waste any of that time, expertly splitting weight and ambiance.

Progressive rock is nowhere near as repetitive as pop music, but there's a certain strain of repetition that can come up with the music. A certain form gets repeated, which is good for the listener because it makes a choppy rhythm more familiar as it proceeds, usually continuing to add more sonic dimension as it goes. King Crimson did something like this on the Red album on the title track and in "Starless," but honestly the idea of repetition plus increased dynamics goes back at least as far as Stan Kenton. 

I'm going off on this tangent because Weiss writes this way throughout Natural Selection. It happens during "Episode 18," where it adds to the phantasmagoria of the music. "A Taste of Memory," however, has almost half of its 14 minutes devoted to a piano motif. After an opening, where Monder gets a great fuzz sound like he's playing through a blown speaker, things break down to a piano part. As it repeats, the rest of the band joins in, slowly building it up, but it never leads to anything further, just the end.

"Today Is Wednesday Tomorrow?" feels like six minutes of an intro. Weiss even adds some tablas and like many tracks, it features acoustic piano (though it's hard to tell Taborn from Mitchell; and Weiss also gets a piano credit!). But once everyone is playing, the piece is over without much climax.

Starebaby brings back the energy of the Sultan Room on the album's last two tracks. "Accina" begins with a rolling rubato, again lead by piano, before slamming into a heavy riff, which the crew continually revisits through these 15 minutes. In between, Monder plays another solo that's sounds just a bit off-mike, which means his tone drapes the rest of the band as he plays. The pianos go off into a section that keeps threatening to go back to a walking straight 4, but never does. After returning to the song's main riff (following a few open seconds of tense silence each time), Weiss tricks listeners with this ending by splitting instead of going back to it.

"Head Wreck," though not quite as lengthy, has plenty of the same strong elements:  power chords. keyboard breaks, plus atonal banging that could be keys or guitar plonks. Not only that, it ends with the closest thing to a drum solo, which either means Weiss overdubbed some extra cymbal crashes or he played like a four-handed drummer, rolling on his kit while unleashing said crashes. Either way, it's a solid closing statement. 

One thing that's clear throughout Natural Selection is how tight Starebaby sounds. The album was made following a tour, so the music was deeply ingrained by then. All eight tracks have some moments that feel electrifying and their atmospheric moments sound pretty eerie and evocative. But the band is best when they're rocking out, keeping it heavy and fleet at the same time. 

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