Jacky Vincent–Life Imitating Art: V12 guitar engine meets synths & beats

Jacky Vincent – Life Imitating Art

Times not recommended for listening to Jacky Vincent’s Life Imitating Art: basically anytime you want to chill. It’s not that the late-era Shrapnel Records alum is relentlessly hyped through his whole new album—relaeased August 31, 2018—but he never goes long without cranking open the throttle on his seeming V12 guitar engine. Even on the less bombastic tracks within the 40 minute collection, there’s relatively little that can reasonably be called “unhurried” or “restrained.” Nonetheless, for those familiar with Jacky Vincent from his work in the bands Falling in Reverse and Cry Venom (post-hardcore and power metal, respectively), Life Imitating Art is a different intensity.

Album opener “Awakener,” “Nowhere to Look but Inside,” and “Soul Shines Through,” all incorporate big synth sounds that would be at home in a dance club or at an arena-pop show. In some places, I wondered whether he is using a guitar-synth controller of some kind.  Replete with sudden shifts in texture; staccato heavy rhythm guitars sparring with complex synths; a neoclassical breakdown; and a brief breakneck solo excursion over a pumping dance beat, among other sections, “Awaken” lays it on thick from the start. There’s a lot of motion and contrast in the tune, and I could see Vincent going over well performing music like this on a bill with EDM acts and lots of bright lights. Nothing else the album throws in the kitchen sink quite as hard, perhaps for the overall good of the album, but each of the synth heavy tracks features interesting textures and shifts. The synth soloing on “Nowhere to Look but Inside” sounds like it could have been done with a guitar-synth controller; some of the synth lines are shaped much like Vincent’s often deployed sweep moves. With abundant guitar harmonies and high note-density runs, and with contemporary touches in lower proportion than in the album’s first two tracks, “Soul Shines Through” and “Grand Uppah” both veer into classic Shrapnel territory. Vincent’s chops are both undeniable in themselves and a key piece of the adrenaline-hyped mood he creates. Arguably the signature mood of Life Imitates Art, Vincent’s energy is thrill-ride, skateboard-getting-some-air, killer gymnastics routine, TIE-fighter battle variety; there’s little-to-no darkness to be found, something that separates Vincent’s music on this album from the gothic currents of many of the Shrapnel Records classics. Also contributing to the upbeat vibe of these tracks is the eschewing of frequency-eating, down-tuned, distorted rhythm guitars; Vincent’s charge is more power metal than djent.

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The Posies Do Not Suck

The Posies Do Not Suck

Someone once told me a story about a bunch of college friends who had an inside joke around the line “The Posies suck.” If I understood correctly, this bunch had seen an early, raw, and, no doubt, very cool Nirvana show at their college, and, as a result, viewed themselves on the cutting edge of where rock was headed in the early 90s. The Posies, who played the same college circuit, were less of the moment. With the signature vocal harmonies of principal members Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, the Posies were never really a grunge band, even when they turned up their guitars and stomped their fuzz pedals more frequently in the 90s. However, there has never not been a time when they put the power in their power-pop with soulful, creative guitar playing. On the road for a big chunk of 2018, and having appeared recently in New York City, the Posies are still not of the moment, but they endure heartily with their core intact.

Regardless of what a bunch of proto-hipsters may have thought, the Posies do not suck. Now well into their third decade working together, Auer and Stringfellow are most recently out with Solid States, a new album that may be their best collection of songs since their underappreciated 1993 classic, Frosting On the Beater. (Solid States was released April 29, 2016—this is a new edit of a piece written in 2016.) The Posies have always been poppy, in the best sense. At their best, a Posies record flows from hook to hook. Solid States is no change in this respect; the songs are well-structured, melodic, and catchy. There may be stray hints of prog and art rock (“The Sound of Clouds”), but there are no long jams or meandering ambient grooves.

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Harriet Tubman, featuring Brandon Ross, at the Jazz-Rock-Funk Throwdown, June 2018

Harriet Tubman, featuring Brandon Ross, at the Jazz-Rock-Funk Throwdown, June 2018

Brandon Ross at NuBlu, June 22, 2018

Harriet Tubman’s music was nearly entirely new to me. Before the Alternative Guitar Summit, I checked out a few tracks from Araminta, Harriet Tubman’s latest album, but I had no time for a deep dive. Consisting of bassist Melvin Gibbs, drummer J.T. Lewis, and guitarist Brandon Ross, Harriet Tubman has now been a band for more than 20 years. The group’s members each have varied resumes full of prestigious gigs. Given the members’ respective artistic ranges, it would be slightly arguable to say that Harriet Tubman is the most “alternative” or out-there project for any of them, but this group’s musical vision is undisputedly way past the borders of anything that can be reasonably considered mainstream. The imposing electric bass presence of Gibbs—who is equally able to lay down a deep ostinato; jam a fuzzed-out single-note solo; and loop some noise—and the highly sympathetic drumming of Lewis created an environment in which Ross explores sound and melody free of pretty much every known conventional guitar trope.  

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Adam Rogers at the Jazz-Rock-Funk Throwdown, June 2018

Adam Rogers’s DICE at the Jazz-Rock-Funk Throwdown, June 2018

Adam Rogers at NuBlu, June 22, 2018

Following Fiuczynski, Adam Rogers took the stage, leading the trio known as DICE and playing material drawn from their eponymous album. The onstage trio also included bassist Fima Ephron and drummer J.T. Thomas, the latter of whom was subbing for regular drummer Nate Smith.

On one level, DICE’s music was the most straightforward fare of the night. Equipped with just a Strat, a single pedal of some kind, and a modest-sized blackface Fender amp, Rogers stood tonally apart from his guitarist mates in not making use of an array of effects boxes and expression pedals. The guitar tones he applied could have comfortably satisfied a Stevie Ray Vaughn-esque blues rocker. Even though his bridge-pickup tones can get edgy, Rogers undeniably Fender sound has both tautness and girth. And, Fima Ephron’s fat, steady bass grooves would have, likewise, been at home in a more traditional blues-rock setting. But, this being the Alternative Guitar Summit, nothing was truly straightahead and traditional.  

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Dave Fiuczynski at the Jazz-Rock-Funk Throwdown, June 2018

Dave Fiuczynski’s Micro Kif Jamz, at the Jazz-Rock-Funk Throwdown, June 2018

Dave Fiuczynski at NuBlu, June 22, 2018

Dave Fiuczynski plays a lot of notes—in the sense that is usually meant and in another sense that is decidedly a path less traveled. For sure, his musical approach includes cleanly picked note barrages and long peaks-and-valleys jazz-fusion lines, but its most unusual salient feature is microtonality. Fiuczynski explores the notes between the notes of the twelve-tone equal tempered Western scale, drawing inspiration from a variety of both the scales of non-Western musics and the explorations of microtonal composers who fall under the broad classical umbrella.

Pretty much all guitarists are familiar with a little bit of microtonality. When you bend a note ever-so-slightly to get it to sound just like Eric Clapton, for example, that’s a tiny bit of microtonality.  Often transcriptions will notate these bends of less-than-a-semitone as quarter tones, though I kind of doubt that Clapton or the blues greats who inspired him intended anything so precise. More elaborate microtonality, however, is a game changer. Fiuczynski joked from the NuBlu stage that microtonal music sounds out of tune, and that’s not an unusual first impression. Microtonal music certainly sounds different from the styles of Western music that have found their way around the globe. Like many adventurous flavors, it starts out as an acquired taste. For some, acquired tastes become flavors they can’t live without.  

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Jazz-Rock-Funk Thowdown at the Alternative Guitar Summit, June 2018

Dave Fiuczynski’s MicroKif Jamz, at NuBlu, June 22, 2018
Adam Rogers at NuBlu, June 22, 2018
Harriet Tubman at NuBlu, June 22, 2018

The Alternative Guitar Summit announces itself as “a yearly festival of daring, inventive players who emphasize new and unusual approaches to the guitar,” and its Jazz-Rock-Funk Throwdown more than lived up to that promise. Held at NuBlu, on New York City’s Lower East Side, on June 22, the three-set bill boasted Dave Fiuczynski’s Micro Kif Jamz; Adam Rogers’s DICE; and Harriet Tubman, featuring Brandon Ross. Three-and-half hours of ear-bending, imaginative, guitar-centric exploration ensued, a celebration of some of the outer reaches of musical expression.

“Alternative” is one of those words that, I think, don’t mean much when applied to music. But, in this context, maybe it’s apt, since most of this music was out the broad wheelhouse of my listening. Some of it still is, while some it has found its place in my frequent listening. I found that writing about the individual performances required a noticeably different approaches, reflecting the state of my understanding and enjoyment of what each was up to.

All were totally worth the experience! It is good to have one’s ears stretched! This is the first in a three-part series. The pieces I’ve written here fall somewhere between reviews and reflections on the process of wrapping my head around new sounds or musical approaches. Please check out each short installment of the series, and be sure to click the links for performance videos, bios, and/or interviews!

Words to live by from Eddie Vedder

“Actually, you know what? If someone wants to have something in their hands that wants to make ’em feel really powerful–like really fuckin powerful–you don’t need a automatic fuckin weapon. How about you just get fucking guitar and a big ‘ol fuckin amp? Like Mike McCready did when he was 10 years old!”

Word.

Five Times Alex Skolnick Played on Someone Else’s Album

Alex Skolnick concentrates at the 55 Bar, Feb. 23, 2018

Alex Skolnick’s eclecticism is well-known. Recent projects in which he is a leader or principal player include his eponymous improvisational trio, the Alex Skolnick Trio; the current incarnation of Testament; metal-tribute-turned-original band, Metal Allegiance; and the acoustic, world-music exploring Planetary Coalition. Even with all this activity, Skolnick frequently extends his musical reach with contributions to projects led by others. I recently had the pleasure of hearing him sit in for two sets with Nathan Peck & the Funky Electrical Unit, at the 55 Bar. With Skolnick’s collaborative bent in mind, here are quick looks at a handful of his guest appearances:

“Atman,” on Rodrigo y Gabriela’s 11:11 (2009)

Nearly four minutes into “Atman,” the penultimate track on 11:11, Rodrigo y Gabriela’s Latin-acoustic-by-way-of-metal extravaganza, comes the most surprising moment of the track—an electric guitar solo, courtesy of Skolnick. The track is intense from the beginning, and Skolnick’s burning solo is its molten core. Massive bends and tremolo picked eruptions culminate in an epic chromatic rising-and-falling sequence.

Album cover for Rodrigo y Gabriela’s 11:11
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Sheryl Bailey Quartet at Fat Cat, February 2, 2018

I had the good fortune to catch the second set of the Sheryl Bailey Quartet’s February 2 performance at Fat Cat, in the West Village. In the same large NYC basement as dozens of people playing pool, ping-pong, Scrabble, table bocce, foozeball, and who-knows-what-else, guitarist-composer-leader Bailey guided pianist Jim Ridl, bassist Andy McKee, and drummer Sylvia Cuenca through a five-tune set of her originals.

Throughout the set, the band played with a clear, unexaggerated, almost-light-definitely-not-heavy attack. At no point do I recall them rising to a bashing, thunderous level. While their set was certainly not meditative, can-hear-a-pin-drop-in-space quiet, just as much it wasn’t a self-consciously loud set. They infused the set with energy, but without spending much time at the extremes. In this ensemble, that tendency, shared among all, did not result in anything that could be mistaken for middle-of-the-road background filler. I understood the avoidance of volume extremes as saying to those in the distraction-filled environment who chose to put the music first, “Stay focused! Listen The interesting stuff isn’t only at the extremes.”

Sheryl Bailey performing at the 55 Bar, Summer 2016

The set consisted, in order, of “An Unexpected Turn,” “Lazy Dazy,” “What She Said,” “Last Night,” and “Starbrite.” Bailey gave each number a brief introduction. Most memorable were her intros to “An Unexpected Turn” and “Lazy Dazy.” The former, she related, was inspired by unpredictable and creatively satisfying run-ins with NYC jazz cats, including her quartet bandmates. “Lazy Dazy,” Bailey said, came to her in the aftermath of a rare day off—something, as a self-described “type-A” personality who needs to “get shit done,” with which she’s not entirely comfortable. The tune, which is as yet not to be found on any of her albums, does conjure some discomfort; its A and B sections have a playful, but somewhat awkward relationship. It’s not difficult for me to imagine Bailey as constantly busy, not only from her involvement in numerous projects, but from my observation that every time I’ve been to one of her gigs as the leader, she has performed a new composition. I’ve come to expect and look forward to hearing her new and unrecorded tunes at her gigs. 

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Review: Steven Wilson – To the Bone

Although parts of his new album recall his work with his earlier project, Porcupine Tree, Steven Wilson’s To the Bone is not a simple throwback to an earlier stage of his career. To my ear, it sounds like the Porcupine Tree guy and progressive solo artist jettisoning the metal riffs and keeping the song lengths (more or less) under control, while holding onto his earlier project’s melodic hooks, broad dynamics, and sprawling atmospheres. Wilson’s dialing back of his earlier metal and prog leanings casts his melodies on To the Bone in a direct light and allows his earthy, Gilmour-influenced guitar style and pop instincts to leaven the progressive depth of his songs. It’s ironic that Wilson’s music seems most welcoming of human contact when he is making more of it himself. On To the Bone, when Wilson features another musician—specifically vocalist Ninet Tayeb, who takes lead vocal turns on three tracks, most spectacularly on “Pariah”—the contribution really packs dramatic impact.     

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