Violinist Sana Nagano’s new album Smashing Humans – streaming at Bandcamp – is a feral, grimly picturesque suite inspired by Michael Ende’s 1973 dystopic sci-fi novel, Momo. Nagano’s narrative mashup is an incredibly timely parable. As she explains, “The Orange Monster and the Humans in Grey are taking over the Paradise Planet where Smashing Humans and Bunnies, Poops and Polyrhythmic Santa Clauses co-exist in a euphoric way.” This will resonate with fans of doom metal and the darkest side of art-rock as well as the jazz crowd.
The ringleader of this evil enterprise is the Orange Monster, a Bill Gates type who grew up in the wrong place at the wrong time. “His apple parents named him Orange for obvious reasons and told him he is ugly and they wished he was an apple. At school he was bullied for being the only orange in the entire planet. The universal criminal organization Timesaving Bank scouted him for his skillful negativity, which led him to sell his soul to the shadow side in return for a sense of belonging.”
Nagano gives him a whole track to himself toward the end of the record. She opens with a battle theme, Strings & Figures. The group – also including Peter Apfelbaum on sax, Keisuke Matsuno on guitar, Ken Filiano on bass and Joe Hertenstein on drums – march in cynical lockstep up to a searing, sirening guitar/sax/violin conflagration, Filiano maintaining a deadpan cartoon bounce. From there they coalesce with a jagged, vintage 70s King Crimson intensity. It’s amazing how tight this band remain despite the polyrhythmic complexity and relentlessly searing attack of so much of this music.
Track two, Loud Dinner Wanted pictures the Orange Monster about to enjoy his prey as an aspic. Insistent, hammering riffs and eerily dancing tritones give way to a horror interlude anchored by Filiano’s booming chords and Hertenstein’s minimalist stomp while the rest of the crew shrieks and struggles. Nagano glides uneasily as the dancing pulse returns; Apfelbaum flutters as Matsuno bends, clanks and wails.
Nagano loops a creepy chromatic riff while the rest of the band throw off dissociative shards and flickers to begin Dark Waw, a mini-suite depicting a shadow universe. Peevishly persistent skronk fades down into haggardly divergent, trilling voices and then some creepy math-metal.
Nagano and Apfelbaum introduce the Humans in Grey with a menacingly simple insectile theme: these cold figures immediately join in a macabre march. As a parable of consumerism – or as just an evil, loopy, noisy theme – it packs a wallop. The rhythm drops out; the group shiver around in an increasingly poltergeist-like atmosphere, Nagano leading them back up into an increasingly bellicose vortex.
She reflects on the concept of a shadow self in The Other Seven, the rhythm growing more lithe and then ceding to deep-space menace, Matsuno’s death star twinkling and then resonating morosely in the distance. Hertenstein’s terse, playful solo introduces Chance Music, which grows to a pulsing Butch Morris/AACM type massed theme. This is a pivotal moment in the narrative, so no spoilers.
The Orange Monster portrait is titled Heavenly Evil Devil. It seems he learns to jump through increasingly complicated, distantly Balkan-flavored hoops, but, be careful when you fight with monsters, etc. It would be a spoiler to give away the ending, which is fantastic: let’s just say that this might be the best album of 2021.