Thanks In Advance
An electric bassist who as a young man already sported lotsa instrumental
flexibility, not to mention highly developed playing skills, as a composer
Bryan Beller was something of a late bloomer, his first (and, until recently,
only) solo album, View, appearing in 2003, when Beller was already a thirty-something.
Given the nature of his main collaborations at the time of View's
release - with group Z alongside Frank Zappa's sons Dweezil and Ahmet,
with former Zappa virtuoso Steve Vai, with former Zappa contributor Mike
Keneally - it was in a way surprising to notice how little Beller's music
resembled Zappa's. On close inspection, View appeared as a specimen of
"composite-modern" mix of "rock, blues, jazz, with a pinch
of fusion", to which one could add a touch of classical music. All played
with uncommon warmth, stamina, and precision.
It was only a logical move that for his first solo album Beller
decided to choose some decidedly familiar faces to act as his contributors:
drummers Toss Panos and Joe Travers, guitarist Rick Musallam, Keneally
himself doing double duty as guitarist and keyboard player. Another of
his Keneallyan colleagues, drummer Nick D'Virgilio, recorded and mixed
the album, Beller himself acting as producer. And while all the aforementioned
musicians proved to be quite skilled, and rich in musical and timbral invention
(would I have expected anything less?), the real revelation for me were
Jeff Babko's organ, and the incredible guitarist Griff Peters (maybe because
this was the first time I had listened to them?).
Once in a while, in the course of the last five years, I thought
about Beller's Chapter Two: What real chances of it ever being released?
Would Beller have the required interest, patience - and money! (these are
not the times when being able to play extremely well will get one an audience
anymore) to do it all over again? Would the new CD sound "just as
warm, but with more definition" than View, like Beller (if memory
I have to confess I had already abandoned any hope of ever listening
to a new Beller album, when suddenly there were news about the release
of Thanks In Advance. An album that immediately (well, almost immediately:
a lot of this music being of the "hidden complexity"
variety) reveals itself to be a rich and mature work that shows (in many
ways) Beller's artistic growth. Quite a bit more varied than its predecessor,
with a more assured control on form, a much-to-be-admired timbral palette,
and an incredible amount of attention and care about the recorded sound (which
is warm, but more detailed), which is a wise choice (but an expensive one,
I suspect) at a time when the sad "free downloading" phenomenon
tips the scales in the general direction of "doing it cheaply".
While those musicians who so finely performed on the previous album
are here again, there are also a few (nice) surprises. The first one was
for me reading in the liner notes that so "live" a sound, where
instruments appear as reacting to one another in a live atmosphere, is
really the result of an accurate process of coupling stuff recorded at
different times, and in different studios!
The first real surprise is the way the album starts (one is excused
for thinking one put the wrong CD inside the CD player): here we have a
slow, soulful track that smells of Muscle Shoals (one closes one's eyes
"Aretha arriving"!), though here the guitars are much more
"modern-sounding". Snooze Bar has a backing track that's full of
"holes", with appropriate drums (Marcus Finnie), piano (Jody Nardone),
Hammond organ (Clayton Ivey), and guitars by Bruce Dees (rhythm) and Chris
Cottros (lead); nice pick dynamics and playing force by Cottros, with the
amplifier producing musical, controlled distortion.
Just as surprising, and no less beautiful, is Casual Lie Day. What
we have here, more or less, is the same "rhythm section" of the
previous track. A nice pattern played on the ride cymbal, a "dry"
bass "in synch" with the bass drum, nice theme played on the guitar,
which has a fine solo (Cottros again) over a changing map. The whole mood
of the piece - which starts as "swing", makes a passing reference
to Steely Dan, and then blooms like a very large Big Band - reveals itself
as a skilled arrangement work of vivacious colours: kudos to the overdubbed
violins (also pizzicato: it's Ann Marie Calhoun), the excellent wind section
(Jim Hoke, clarinets; Steve Herrman, trumpets; Doug Moffet, tenor and baritone
saxes; Roy Agee, trombone and bass trombone), and - it goes without saying
- the fine arrangement (by Tom Trapp and Bryan Beller).
Right at the time when one tries to imagine what'll come next, here
it comes... the sound of a stylus hitting the grooves of a (noisy) vinyl
record! (A nice production touch, it makes the transition to the third
piece sound more believable.) A bit disconcerting at first, maybe, but
in a nice way, this reminded me of... Santana! Greasy Wheel has Joe Travers
on drums, Rick Musallam on guitar, and Jeff Babko on Hammond organ. Bells
a go-go, distorted bass, multiple themes, a good solo by Musallam - which
at times goes quite near the Variations On The Carlos Santana Secret Chord
Progression by Zappa -, and an explosive Hammond solo that's pure... Gregg
Cost Of Doing Business is a brief and frantic interlude for bass,
drums, percussion, and keyboards. Blind Sideways sounds quite
"fusion", and to me sounds like the only weak moment on the album.
(Please notice: my antipathy towards Fusion is the stuff of legends.) Toss
Panos is on drums, Musallam on guitar, Babko on Rhodes. Nice solos by Musallam,
Babko, and Beller. Life Story is another brief interlude for overdubbed basses,
quite melodic, nicely acting as a bridge towards the next piece.
about 8', Cave Dweller is a track that just for brevity's sake I'll call
"a slow blues/boogie" with surprising melodic vistas and turns.
Toss Panos is on drums, Beller on bass, Griff Peters on (various) guitars.
In a way, this is the track that I was really glad to find here, given the
fact that in my opinion it shows the full spectrum of Peters playing capabilities
(in terms of style, timbre, and sound architecture), given the fact that
on the previous album he often impersonated a "luminous character",
single-coil style, compared to your typical mahogany-dark, humbucker, Musallam.
Cave Dweller is better left to listeners' free exploration. I'll just mention
those moments (especially at 4' 27" - 4' 31", and again, a few
seconds later) when one almost can see the speakers in Peters's enclosure
just about to explode.
strange, and the only vocal ("Just one more beer/And I won't have
no fear") track, Play Hard has obviously a right to be here (besides
the obvious structural reason to separate the longest tracks on the album).
more than 10', Love Terror Adrenaline/Break Through is the album's
"intellectual metal" masterpiece (also the first appearing of a
trio): Beller (who here also plays piano and synth, besides the rhythm guitars
he shares with Musallam), Keneally (all the lead guitars, plus "vibes"),
and drummer Marco Minneman. There are quite a few visible traces here: a
tension that's pure King Crimson, a dark majesty that reminded me of Univers
Zero (or Steve Vai?), some "honking" Zappa guitar tones, Terry
Bozzio-like wide rolls, and decidedly symphonic-sounding Floyd-isms. But
it's a good track (my description doesn't do it justice), which I imagine
to be terribly difficult to play well. There's a nice melodic closure acting
as a resolution for bass and piano.
In Advance brings us towards the album's close: fine melody, excellent
guitars, both rhythm (Musallam), and lead (Peters), fine Hammond by Babko
(nice solo, too, with a nice two-handed counterpoint), Travers on drums,
fine Rhodes touches by Kira Small. It's a track of many merits (and fine
solos: by Peters, Beller, and Babko), beyond the fact of acting as a release
after the preceding track.
album has a surprise conclusion: From Nothing sounds as a "Free for
All", with Scheila Gonzales playing an uninhibited tenor saxophone
that reminded me of the late, great Gary Windo, and a fantastic performance
also a "special edition" featuring a CD just like the one I've
just reviewed, and a three-hour long DVD-V acting as a documentary to the
album that I have yet to see.)
© Beppe Colli 2008
CloudsandClocks.net | Sept. 23, 2008