Mike Keneally
Scambot 1


And so, after a very long wait (we're talking years), at last, it's Scambot time. Better said, it's time to listen to Volume 1 of a trilogy. And so, repeated listening sessions having convinced me beyond any reasonable shadow of doubt that this is a musical work of excellent quality, I have to admit that my wait for Scambot was tainted with doubts, my very high expectations being combined with a certain degree of anxiety.

And this is why. Announced as being quite similar to a "concept album" or a "rock opera", Scambot promised to be very long (a double album, at least, maybe a triple), featuring a story rich with characters and dialogues, a complex artwork which was to be featured in a substantial book, with a no-deadline gestation: all factors that to me are the perfect recipe for a potential disaster (even though I implicitly imagined Scambot as resembling more, say, Joe's Garage than, say, Tommy).

But Keneally has brilliantly succeeded in surprising me once again. As he has clearly stated in the course of a few interviews that appeared at about the same time the album was released (also, in a way that's logically coherent with the fluid way he approached his stated goals), the music, the plot (and the characters), and the artwork have all influenced each other right from the start, the process of creation being quite different from the usual before-after stages that are more typical for this kind of endeavours.

So, what do we exactly have here? An album that's long but not too long, a booklet featuring a story, a plot, very rich artwork, the song lyrics (but the album is for the most part instrumental), adventures and characters that listeners are invited to "picture" more than "see". I hope Keneally won't take offense if I say that the album works equally fine even when not taking the booklet and the complex storyline into consideration.

So, what about the music? Here I have to say that (even if I'm perfectly aware that different listeners have their individual preferences) I like Scambot 1 in a way that hadn't happened to me since the days of Sluggo! (Sluggo! being in many ways my favorite Keneally album). I'd say the two works could in a way be considered as similar, meaning that they feature a great deal of variety (the two albums being quite different in many ways).

Stressing the fact that - though it features many diverse musical climates, instrumentation, and styles - the album presents a quite coherent whole can be a good start for a quick description like this one. Here Keneally the producer, ably assisted by Scott Chatfield as the executive producer, managed to make a lot of material, originally recorded in different studios and by different engineers in the course of a decade, sound as being "all of a piece". And let's not forget "chief engineer" Mike Harris, whose work here can work as the right example for those who (quite rightly) lament the lack of depth and height that's typical of so many albums recorded today (listeners are invited to listen closely to a lot of vocal parts, sounding so life-like it appears as one could almost touch them).

Though there are quite a few episodes where Keneally plays all featured instruments himself (more than a few times I was surprised to see that it was he who played both electric bass and drums), there are also some fine names: Evan Francis on sax, flute, and clarinet (a presence, and some instrumental colours, I'd like to see featured a bit more often on Keneally albums); Keneally's usual "rock quartet" featuring Rick Musallam, Bryan Beller, and Joe Travers; the exuberant Marco Minnemann, who often overdubbed his drums over pre-existing material; Beller on acoustic double bass; and a small platoon of Dutch musicians, all playing admirably.

Scambot 1 is varied but also coherent. While, as it's only logical, the whole Keneally musical palette is featured here, this time Zappa's influence appears to be more implicit than in the past; when this debt is more apparent - as is the case with the guitar solo in We Are The Quiet Children - to me this sounds like due to the polyrhythms played by Minnemann, which reminded me a bit of Chad Wackerman's. The orchestration and variety of a track like Gita easily show Keneally the composer now master complex languages. It goes without saying that we still have those "British accents" (The Beatles/XTC on Hallmark, those vocals so influenced by Gentle Giant on Life's Too Small); what really surprised me was the sudden apparition of the "very wonderful Northettes" on the album finale, DaDunDa (and "where have I heard this name before", the liner notes say it's Jesse Keneally overdubbing herself).

The album opens with a funny TV episode (Big Screen Boboli), then it's an instrumental that says a lot in a very short time (Ophunji's Theme), then it's time for a beautiful ballad with some skillful piano and a pleasant bridge (Hallmark); then it's time for a composition rich with diverse timbres (almost a track off Hot Rats arranged for King Kong) where the aforementioned Dutch musicians (trumpet, trombone, violin, saxophones, guitars, percussion, and keyboards) move with agility (Chee); then it's time for a song for rock quartet featuring only Keneally (Tomorrow); an impressive composition in two parts (Cat Bran Sammich) with in between a piece whose melody reminded me of Michael Mantler (You Named Me), another song (Saturate), a brief "intermezzo" (M), and a fine ballad played on acoustic guitars that stays with you long after the record is over (Cold Hands). Eleven tracks, thirty minutes.

It's precisely at this point that the album really goes up to the stratosphere, the remaining seven tracks lasting thirty-eight minutes. Originally an improvisation for guitar and drums, We Are The Quiet Children was later orchestrated, so becoming a complex entity, the same being true of Foam, which takes it all to a logical conclusion. After the very brief intermezzo The Brink, Life's Too Small opens with a beautiful melody by multiple voices treated with echoes and reverbs; then, it's time for a intense guitar solo framed by harmonics from two acoustic guitars; then it's time for another vocal section, whose polyphony (dealing with memory and consciousness, by the way) sounds as being straight off the Gentle Giant songbook; then it's time for another part, for voices and instruments, which one has no choice but to define as being "quite intense". Maybe the most unusual track here, Behind The Door is "empty" and thoughtful, a concentrated meditation; the finale is quite touching, and here I'll say no more. Originally born as a string quartet, Gita is the complex work I already referred to above. Plenty of acoustic guitars and voices by Keneally, with some help from the aforementioned "Northettes", DaDunDa takes the album to a relaxed conclusion.

(There's also a limited edition, with an added extra CD, that true Keneally aficionados will find truly indispensable. It's all interesting material: real "musical extravaganzas"; a few demos and alternate mixes; an acoustic ballad that's really great, titled Broken Chair; the long The 3rd Eye, which deserves repeated listening; and the closing Credits, incorporating a Homage to Zappa that's really quite subtle.)

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2009

CloudsandClocks.net | Dec. 12, 2009