Mike Keneally
Scambot 2

(Exowax)

The fact that this album didn't exactly win me over after a few listening sessions isn't the only reason this review is so late. But it was a long, tortuous process all the same, me having so many doubts and rethinks, my thought process in the end getting valuable aid by none other than Mick Jagger, the singer in The Rolling Stones!

Lotsa surprises, starting from the moment the postman gave me my copy of the "limited edition" of the new album, #821 of 2.000 pressed. Here I have to say that, even if we live in an age of growing disaffection towards all things physical, I had tacitly assumed that Keneally's being a member for a long time now of Joe Satriani's group both live and on record would make a pressing of Scambot 2 "limited edition" at least as large as the one for Scambot 1 practically a given (my copy of that "limited edition" carrying #601 of 3.000).

The rarefaction of Keneally's solo output is something that has had me worrying for a long time, his (much lauded) collaboration with former XTC Andy Partridge on the album Wing Beat Fantastic (2012), and the "Mike Keneally supplement" album You Must Be This Tall (2013) being his only studio releases after the first installment of Scambot (2009).

Though it may sound funny, I have to confess that every time Keneally embarks on a new collaboration "for the money" I hear the voices of Flo & Eddie singing "Do you have any idea?// What that can do to a man?".

Mike Keneally is a very gifted artist (I'm talking in the present tense), who unfortunately found himself living in an age that doesn't reward greatness. It's easy for me to picture Keneally in the 70s as a "cult artist on a mass base" such as Todd Rundgren - I still remember somebody from Rundgren's record company saying something like "when the moment comes that you can't even move 100.000 units...". Different times, those.

And "what that can do to a man" is to show him live, minute by minute, how tacky music needs to be in order to win people over: "Wing Beat Bombastic", indeed!

As it's to be expected, the listener is not "naked", carrying instead long lists of expectations that when it comes to an album such as Scambot 2 have to be taken into account at length. The first series deals with those kind of aspects one could define as being of a "subjective" nature (but let's no forget that, in so differently from what argued by those who are nave and those who prostitute their opinions, matters of taste can be rationally discussed). Here Scambot 2 has not an easy life, given the fact that I regard Scambot 1 as one of the best albums ever released by Keneally, also the kind of album that I immediately reach for as soon as somebody puts forward the "nowadays there ain't no good music anymore" argument.

But there are also expectations of an "objective" nature, which deal with the sound of the announced Scambot Trilogy, with each of the three volumes to be clearer than the one before, with a gradual lessening of sonic density as time goes by, a quality that was also discussed after the new album's release.

Funny thing, Scambot 1 sounds almost transparent. Not too many times I've had the chance to listen to such a complex album sounding so airy and light, with a width dimension that's even bettered by the height dimension, with the vertical placement of sounds appearing way above the tweeters, way above the speaker cabinets - something that I'm sure was the result of great effort, that gave me great joy. My recently comparing the two Scambots on a CD player that was still to come at the time when Scambot 1 was released confirmed to me that the album really has a "vertical" dimension, while at the same time giving an added "growl" to Bryan Beller's double bass on the last track.

Readers can easily picture my disconcerted expression upon listening to In The Trees, the long opening track to Scambot 2. Something that sounds like "Angular Metal" (if Death Metal, Meth Metal, Math Metal, or what else I couldn't say) with vocals in an "Evil Pig" style, and a thunderous rhythm section. Even after several listening sessions, I had the feeling that what I was listening to was not a Keneally piece in a "Metal" style (there were a few items in the past), but to a Metal track composed by somebody else on which Keneally appears (which is a totally different matter). Adding insult to injury, the use of compression (or something similar) makes everything sound "tiny", with very strange results: like seeing a roaring lion that's as large as a mouse.

I'll hasten to add that the album got very favourable reviews - though reading lines such as "Scambot 2 shows that Keneally is much more than a shredder" makes it apparent that there were also those who didn't do their homework - and, as readers will see in a short while, my opinion of the album is not unfavourable.

But all that thinking made my sleep disturbed. One night I saw Mick Jagger sitting on a chair by my bed, telling me: "It's easy to say: 'Ah well, they're not as good as they were before.' It may be your eyes that are jaded, rather than us."

And so, since Mick Jagger's opinion is something I value dearly, I swallowed hard, and went back to work.

I don't know what happened after the release of Scambot 1, but I could find almost no trace of the promised lessening of density. (I remember - I'm quoting from memory - reading about a Vol. 3 with an "Ambient" flavour, maybe featuring an orchestra - a CD that I pictured as sounding positively "gaseous".) The new album has a brusque - but very welcome - change after track #11, Constructed, and it's true that in the space between the opening Metal number and the Hendrix-influenced Rock-Metal #10, Roll, "density" is highly variable. But I have to say that - when compared to the giant, transparent canvas that's Scambot 1 - the new album has a "tiny and dense" feel that doesn't enrich the music.

This doesn't mean the album is monochromatic. In fact, the opposite is true, with many styles, instruments, mix styles, and volumes, appearing.

Let's have a look at the featured musicians. Many familiar names: Bryan Beller, Joe Travers, Rick Musallam, Evan Francis, Doug Lunn; a fine drummer who has played with Keneally in concert: Gregg Bendian; three "new guys" whose work is of great importance for the final result: Ben Thomas, Pete Griffin, Kris Myers.

I only heard Myers drumming for Umphrey McGee on Similar Skin, the only album by the group that I know. Here he sounds better to me, which wasn't too difficult, given the amorphous nature of the music featured on that album. A Web search showed me that both Thomas and Griffin come from the Zappa Plays Zappa line-up, hence a good technical standard is to be taken for granted. Unfortunately, Griffin shares Myers's propensity to act as the proverbial "octopus in the bathtub". Compare the way Beller "drives" the groove on Race The Stars or the authority and intonation of his measured contribution - one that's perfectly perceivable though it acts as a dark colour placed over a dark background - on Roll.

Thomas is the element that I found the hardest to stomach. When I was in a good mood it was not impossible for me to think - see at about 8' 40" of the "Metal" track - that he sounded a bit like Ike Willis, but quite often I though he sounded like the singer in Staind. In a nutshell, Thomas sounds like a "typical American rock singer". The problem is that a voice like that can make anything sound "meh", and sure enough this is something that happens here. While Keneally - who's a fine, versatile singer; and it's only his masterful command of both guitar and keyboards that has people overlooking his vocals - has an "English"-sounding vocal timbre (not like Lemmy's, of course) that combines very well with similar-sounding voices, just like it happened on Wing Beat Fantastic.

I tried to give a factual basis to my value judgment. On the minus side: a "tiny" sound, a "thundering" rhythm section, the added singer. Now let's have a look at the featured tracks.

In The Trees is the aforementioned "angular Metal". Quite dense, it features strange filtered sounds, guttural vocals, a quite able rhythm section. Starting at about  5' 47" there's a "swing" moment that's pure Keneally. Funny "boogie" starting at 8' 40".

Roots Twist, featuring the Beller-Travers rhythm section, has a lazy, mid-tempo groove, with fine electric and acoustic guitars. Almost sounds like a "Country"-flavoured sing-along to me. Excellent guitar solo.

Sam has acoustic guitar arpeggios, thundering bass, something which sounds like a banjo, the whole sounding quite user-friendly, communicative. Also a fine guitar solo, with counter-melody.

Clipper features the Lunn-Bendian rhythm section and Jesse Keneally on background vocals. There's a fine vocal melody, a radio broadcasting "splice", a C&W moment featuring banjo. After a "cut", there's a fine, "ambient", motive for guitar, then a vocal melody that's almost circus-like. Female vocals, then it's back to C&W. A lot of fine music in just 4' 36".

Forget About It - 46" - reminded me of Frank Zappa in his Uncle Meat period. Featuring great dynamics, the track also works as an "ear-cleaner". Mike Keneally on keyboards, Evan Francis on saxophones and flute, Marco Minnemann on drums.

Pretzels, featuring the Lunn-Bendian rhythm section, explores vocal and instrumental territories that are bound to remind one of Gentle Giant. This is one of the best episodes of the album's first part. Piano, keyboards, "marimba", lotsa voices. Great vocals background to the guitar solo, featuring a few Gary Green-inspired moments in what sounds like a Keneally solo anyway. Great work from the rhythm section. A "jazzy" moment on guitar ("Tal Farlow"?) takes us back to the theme.

Buzz features a knotty texture that's bound to remind one of Keneally in his "European" mode. Fine work by the Griffin-Myers rhythm section, angular density, changing sections, a guitar solo that's at first "throaty"-, then limpid-sounding. Is there a plug-in on the bass here? For a moment, a vintage "phasing" effect appears on the drums.

Race The Stars is the kind of track that once upon a time would have been a radio hit. Simply put, it's a great song. Strangely, Keneally has talked about a "Fogerty" feel - meaning: John Fogerty, from the group Creedence Clearwater Revival - to Kris Myers's vocals on this track. Which sounds absurd to me: with vocals like this, Fogerty would be still stuck in Lodi! Maybe Keneally gave us a red herring, hoping we chase the Fogerty angle, in order not to notice the Steely Dan feel appearing here and there on the track, from the guitar solo - which to me sounds like a mixture of (in alphabetical order) Walter Becker, Dennis Dias, and Dean Parks - to the closing vocal snippet, which reminded me of the vocal ensemble at the end of Gaucho.

0 is a brief "abstract" moment for piano, guitar, and keyboards, featuring Keneally solo.

Roll is the aforementioned Hendrix-influenced Metal track. On one hand, I liked it a lot, with its guitars sounding like a mixture of Are You Experienced? and Filthy Habits. But those grunts make the piece sound like a parody, and totally ruin the thingee.

Constructed is where the album really takes off. A C&W-flavoured ¾ featuring drums, double bass, guitar, piano, Jesse Keneally on background vocals, a fine vocal performance by Keneally (here singing the words Order, Recorder, and Borders with an American accent), and a fine guitar solo. The Griffin-Myers axis is not too bad (but - provided time travel is a possibility - I'd choose Tommy Cogbill-Roger Hawkins instead).

Freezer Burn is another excellent piece, with the Griffin-Myers rhythm section and Ben Thomas on trumpets and trombones. It starts with a fine guitar melody, then a "cut" introduces a lyrical-sounding mood quite related to the album Wooden Smoke, with piano and acoustic guitar walking side-by-side. The ending features a lap steel, in a way, Floyd-like.

Scores Of People has a first part that sounds like a campfire sing-along, and a second part - featuring piano, and Gregg Bendian on percussion and glockenspiel - which is another high point of the album.

Cold Hands Gnat is a version of Cold Hands as sung by... a gnat. Fine saxophones by Evan Francis, with Keneally on acoustic guitar and piano, it has a fine coda.

Proceed is another excellent track. The Beller-Travers rhythm section - listen to the way the wood sounds at the start of the piece - backing a simple, recurring, melody, also featuring a wood flute (echoes of Donovan?).

The deluxe edition of Scambot 2 adds Inkling, nineteen tracks for a vinyl album length. Three long, varied tracks featuring much solo guitar - Cram (which unfortunately forgets to list Rick Musallam's name - his Les Paul appears on the right channel far side), The Scorpions, and Tom - will fire great enthusiasm. But I found that I went back with increasing frequency to those brief tracks that offer many surprises, a good for instance being the piano-clarinet duo called Uncompressed Rag, which closes the album.

Beppe Colli


Beppe Colli 2017

CloudsandClocks.net | Jan. 30, 2017