New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: ben syversen

Trippy Guitar Loopmusic from Xander Naylor

Xander Naylor played some of the most refreshingly unhinged guitar recorded in this century as a member of trumpeter Ben Syversen’s Cracked Vessel. Their lone album remains a high point in recent New York creative music, which is quite an achievement considering that Syversen is also a member of feral Balkan group Raya Brass Band.

Since the late zeros, Naylor has also pursued a solo career. His latest album, Arc, inspired by unnamed tragic losses, is completely different. It’s hypnotic, and loopy, and occasionally motorik, drawing on influences from mathrock to Zappa and Robert Fripp. Another theme is basically, “Look, ma, can you believe all the sounds I’ve got stashed away in my pedalboard?” It’s streaming at Bandcamp and available on limited edition cassette for just seven bucks; Naylor is playing the album release show tonight, Nov 3 at 8 PM at Greenpoint Gallery at 390 McGuinness Blvd. Take the G to Greenpoint Ave.

The opening traci, Pinball, is true to its tiltle: it’s a pinging guitar-and-bass instrumental with very subtle rhythmic shifts and a wryly funny ending. Bad For Glass is a tapping exercise that grows blippier as it goes along, then Naylor hits a pedal for an approximation of an acoustic piano.

The even shorter Hellespont also follows a trancey circle of loops, but it’s more spiky and vampy. Another miniature, Observing Silence layers deep-space atmospherics. By contrast, Appearances is another subtly shifting, loopy piece but sounds as if Naylor is playing a vintage resonator, at least before the remainder of his overdubs kick in.

Natural Born Relic comes across as a spoof of both EDM and early video game music. Glass House is Naylor messing around with belltones, while Ratchet is funny and squirrelly: why won’t this damn lid come off?

Elegy hints at gamelan music; then Naylor explores echo effects, skronky distortion and slow decays in How to Ward Off a Werewolf, the closest thing to Cracked Vessel’s ferocity here. He closes with the album’s most melodically interesting track, the atmospheric rainy-day tableau Dry Your Boots.

One of the Year’s Best Twinbills: Sandaraa and Raya Brass Band at Littlefield

This year good things come in twos. Granted, in a city with a population considerably beyond the official figure of eight million, it shouldn’t be hard to put a couple of good bands back to back, but the show back on May 23 at Littlefield was amazing even by this blog’s lofty standards. Sandaraa opened. They might be the most improbable and also the most original supergroup in town. Frontwoman Zebunnisa Bangash – a star in her native Pakistan – jumpstarted the band when she invited Michael Winograd – a klezmer luminary and one of the world’s most exhilarating clarinetists – to collaborate. The rest is history. They didn’t have to look far to fill out the rest of the lineup. This one included violinist Eylem Basaldi, accordionist Patrick Farrell, Yoshie Fruchter doubling on guitar and oud and longtime Klezmatic Richie Barshay on drums. And their sound – a mind-bending, sometimes hypnotic, sometimes propulsive mashup of Pakistani, Balkan and klezmer melodies – was like nothing else that’s been staged anywhere in town this year.

The band typically took their time launching into a groove, with pensive intros from Fruchter (on the oud – a rare treat), Basaldi and Winograd, the latter nonchalantly spiraling down in a shower of chromatic sparks. Farrell did much the same later in the set. Bangash varied her dynamics depending on the song, sometimes with a wounded resonance that brought to mind Eva Salina, other times with a meticulously modulated, melismatic approach. Polyrhythms and counterrythms were everywhere. One number had a tender lullaby quality; another teased the undulating crowd with the hint of a galloping qawwali rhythm, but never went there quite all the way. And although not everything was in minor keys, most of the songs had an apprehensive undercurrent, notably one number that the band spun along like an Irish reel before Basaldi led them into more moody territory with a stark violin solo. They closed with what sounded like a recent Punjabi hit, but with purist, acoustic production values.

Raya Brass Band headlined. For the last few years, they’ve been one of the most explosive party bands in town, sort of a punk Balkan brass jamband. Their metamorphosis into a sensationally tight, even elegant dancefloor group was stunning to witness. Almost imperceptibly, they followed a steady upward trajectory and took the crowd along with them, gathered on the floor around them, as the music led to a fiery peak with an Ethiopian-tinged groove. Don Godwin, the slinkiest tuba player in town, got to launch that one with a bristling minor-key riff – who would have guessed? And it worked like a charm.

This time out, the bandleaders took their time and put a lot of space between their solos, rather than duking it out in a bloody-knuckles match like they used to do. But it’s not like the band has tamed their sound – they’ve just introduced another level of dynamics and suspense. Nezih Antakli’s machinegunning standup drum riffs had the drive of a runaway train, but a steady one; accordionist Matthew “Max” Fass waited til the end before firing off one of the most adrenalizing, rapidfire solos of the night: getting to watch his fast fingers and also Farrell’s on the same stage on the same night was very cool.

As the set went on, the rhythms grew from a cumbia and reggae-tinged bounce to trickier Serbian and Macedonian-style metrics. After playing the voice of reason to the sax’s close-to-the-edge wail for most of the night, Syversen finally set off some fireworks of his own, going off on a searing, microtone-spiced tangent that left the crowd at a loss for words. And as much as the solos, and the chops, and the grooves is what draws the crowds, what might be most impressive is that most of Raya Brass Band’s songs are originals. It’s impossible to distinguish their own songs from the Balkan sounds that have influenced them so deeply. Somebody put these guys on a plane to Guca, Serbia for the trumpet festival next year and watch them give the locals a run for their money.

Avi Fox-Rosen and Raya Brass Band Slay at Rock Shop

“Love is a word you use so you don’t hurt the feelings of the ones who like to say it more than you,” Avi Fox-Rosen sang nonchalantly, without a hint of sarcasm, over a bouncy, singalong, pseudo-theatrical pop tune, early in his album release show Thursday night at Rock Shop. “Love is as suspect as me,” he added later on. That’s Fox-Rosen in a nutshell. He’s sort of akin to Elvis Costello with better guitar chops. Both are purist pop tunesmiths with an encyclopedic bag of licks and ideas. But where Costello goes for lyrical gymnastics and umpteen levels of meaning, Fox-Rosen tells sardonically and sometimes grimly funny, aphoristic stories, and slips you the shiv when you least expect it. For example, the organ soul song that opened the set, So Fucking Happy: the implication is that this may be the only time in the guy’s life that he’s not miserable.

That song is sort of the title track to Fox-Rosen’s December album, his final release in a year that saw him put out an album a month (all up at his Bandcamp page as name-your-price downloads). That he actually pulled off this feat is impressive in itself; that the material he released was so strong catapulted him to the top of the Best Albums of 2013 page here. He’d pulled an excellent band together for this show – a melodic, eclectic basssist, the similarly diverse and tasteful Chris Berry on drums and Dave Melton channeling 60s soul grooves on organ and electric piano: these guys really get Fox-Rosen’s incessant references to decades of rock history.

The night’s second song was Baby, a twinkling lullaby from February’s ep that poked fun at the lure of returning to the womb: Fox-Rosen drew plenty of laughs from its “Suck and shit and sleep” mantra. On album, Fox-Rosen’s apprehensive playground narrative Ugly Duckling begins as a cabaret tune – this time, the band made fluid new wave out of it until they took it doublespeed into creepy, snarling, guitar-fueled circus rock territory. “The other ducks didn’t give a fuck, Brother Duck cursed my rotten luck,” Fox-Rosen intoned, deadpan and cool. But this little duck turns out to have unexpected bite.

College had a similarly tongue-in-cheek sarcasm, Fox-Rosen bemoaning his “worthless degree in esoterica” and the fact that living at home with the ’rents doesn’t exactly compare with studying in Paris. He kept a low-key but corrosive political edge going – “Are you proud to be American?” he challenged over faux-celebratory Huey Lewis-style 80s anthemic radio rock, Melton taking an lush, swirly organ solo.

Then Fox-Rosen shifted gears, showing off some impressively creepy surf rock chops and took a searing, intense, noisy solo on Everybody Dies, the most macabre song of the evening, Melton adding the occaasional jarring slasher-flick riff. They lost the crowd on the song after that – sometimes Fox-Rose’s satire can be so subtle that it’s hard to tell when he’s being serious or not, or a mixture of both. But he got everybody’s attention with the savage God Who Lives in Your Head, who’s a real sourpuss, watching you like a spycam and digging up as much dirt as he can.  He closed with Where Is My Parade, underscoring the song’s twisted carnivalesque side, a snide spoof of rockstar (or wannabe rockstar) narcissism. Fox-Rosen is at Bar Chord, 1008 Corteyou Rd. (Stratford/Coney Island Ave.), in Ditmas Park on Feb 6 at 9.

Afterward, Raya Brass Band gathered on the floor in front of the stage rather than on it, drew the crowd in and then played their asses off. “Do you do originals as well as covers?” a woman in the crowd wanted to know.  Trumpeter Ben Syversen paused: “We’ve been playing mostly originals, although we also play a lot of the traditional repertoire,” he hastened to add. That’s this band’s appeal in a nutshell: you’d assume that they were from East Serbia if you didn’t know they were actually from Brooklyn. A nonstop gig schedule over the past couple of years has made this scorching Balkan five-piece group incredibly tight. Syversen and alto saxophonist Greg Squared use extended technique – microtones, slides and lickety-split doublestops – that would make most jazz players green with envy. Tuba player Don Godwin’s funky, surprisingly bright tuba pulse fueled the nonstop groove along with the ominously booming clip-clop clatter of the standup tapan bass drum. Ostensibly there were sound issues with Matthew “Max” Fass’ accordion, but out in the crowd his swirls and rapidfire riffage were cutting through just fine.

A lot of the traditional material from throughout the Balkans pulses along on menacingly chromatic vamps, and Raya Brass Band does that as well, although their songs are a lot more complex. They don’t rely on a simple verse/chorus format, they love tricky time signatures and they jam the hell out of the songs. By the time the first explosive minor-key number was over, Greg Squared had already shredded his first reed. By the end of the set, there was something in Syversen’s mouthpiece – a piece of him, maybe? Talk about giving 100% onstage. The staccato twin riffage between the two horns had an icepick intensity, the two sometimes doubling their lines, sometimes pairing off harmonically. Fass led the band through an unexpectedly lush, lingering ballad that took all kinds of wary twists and turns before they brought back the marauding minor-key assault. The high point of the many originals was a slinky number with an austere Ethiopian flavor. The most exhilarating of the traditional tunes was a lickety-split dash through Mom Bar, which does not have anything to do with your mother although drinking is definitely involved. Raya Brass Band are at Golden Festival Saturday night at 11 PM and then play a 2 AM set at Freddy’s afterward.

An Overlooked Lorca-Inspired Art-Rock Treasure from Rima Fand

Much as this blog’s raison d’etre is to keep an eye on what’s happening now, the past is littered with unfairly overlooked albums. One recent one, from 2011, is Rima Fand’s Sol, Caracol (Spanish for “Sun, Snail”). It comprises many of the songs from her theatrical project Don Cristobal: Billy-Club Man, which sets Federico Garcia Lorca poetry to frequently haunting, flamenco-tinged original music. This is the closest thing to an original soundtrack recording that exists, part dark flamenco rock, part noir cabaret, part chamber pop. Besides playing violin, the Luminescent Orchestrii co-founder distinguishes herself on mandolin and keyboards as well, accompanied by an all-star cast from many styles of south-of-the-border and Balkan music.

Although Don Cristobal and his sidekick Rosita are a Spanish version of Punch and Judy, there’s very little here that’s vaudevillian, consistent with Garcia Lorca’s full-fledged rather than one-dimensionally farcical depiction of the characters. The opening track, Midnight Hours, sets a dramatic lead vocal by David Fand over a spiky blend of the bandleader’s mandolin with Avi Fox-Rosen and Chris Rael’s guitars, a soaring choir behind them. You might call this art-flamenco. Lucia Pulido sings the dynamically charged Replica, Rima Fand doubling on mandolin and accordion. Cicada, a shivery, hypnotically suspenseful string piece, blends her violin with those of Sarah Alden and Not Waving But Drowning’s Pinky Weitzman and Matt Moran‘s vibraphone.

Justine Williams
sings the creepy, marching Rosita’s Song. The choir returns for Don Woodsman-Heart, a moody flamenco vamp lit up by Quince Marcum‘s alto horn, morphing into a dreaming, longing waltz. Pulido takes over the mic again on the terse, minimalistic Confusion over My Brightest Diamond cellist Maria Jeffers‘ bassline. David Fand returns to imploring lead vocals on the insistent Abre Tu Balcon (Open Up Your Balcony – that’s Don Cristobal imploring Rosita to have a word with him). They follow that with a cartoonish miniature, Te Mate and then Hat-Ache, another flamenco-tinged, angst-fueled, love-stricken ballad.

The album’s centerpiece is the macabre, carnivalesque Billy-Club Ballet, the bandleader on piano with guitar and percussion, Fox-Rosen’s jagged electric incisions adding menace up to a twinkling piano interlude and then back down. They follow a brief mandolin waltz with La Monja Gitana (The Country Nun), rising from another austere 3/4 rhythm, with a rich, bittersweet vocal from Rima Fand.

Eva Salina Primack and Aurelia Shrenker a.k.a. innovative Balkan/Appalachian duo AE sing the sweeping, tensely moonlit Lullaby for a Sleeping Mirror, building to a lush, anxious round. The album ends with the towering overture La Cogida y la Muerte, sung pensively in English and Spanish by Abigail Wright, the acidic close harmonies of the string section contrasting with Katie Down‘s anxiously dancing flute and the distantly circling trumpets of Ben Syversen, Sarah Ferholt, JR Hankins and Ben Holmes. Surreal, sad, eclectic and vivid, it more than does justice to Lorca’s equally surreal, sad, ironic poetry. The album comes with a useful lyric booklet including English translations.

Raya Brass Band Kicks Off 2012 With an Explosive New Album

Stars of the Brooklyn Balkan underground, Raya Brass Band have an exhilarating, eclectic new album, Dancing on Roses, Dancing on Cinders just out. They’re playing the album release show this Saturday night, January 7 at Drom on what might be the year’s best bill with No BS Brass, Malian griot Cheick Hamala Diabate, Smokey Hormel’s soulful western swing band, and Chicha Libre, the Peruvian-style surf band who might be the only act in town who rival Raya Brass Band for sheer fun factor. If you’re here, you should go to this, it’s only ten bucks (they’re also at Golden Fest for considerably more on the 13th and 14th).

The album transcends both the Balkan and brass labels: what they play is otherworldly jams for people who like to dance. The tracks are programmed much like a typical Raya concert: a big, blazing, funky chromatic two-chord vamp to get the dancers spinning, a bunch of even more intense numbers, a little comic relief and finally another long, only slightly less blistering, more spacious theme to send everybody home in a good mood. Typically saxophonist/clarinetist Greg Squared and trumpeter Ben Syversen will blast through a song’s hook in tandem before taking off on a long solo or two while accordionist Matthew Fass adds texture and ambience, Don Godwin’s tuba lays down a fat, pulsing groove (no cheesy “blat” sounds here) and drummer EJ Fry rattles and booms and clicks, making it seem like 10/4 or 21/8 are the most effortlessly natural dance rhythms ever invented.

As you would expect from a gypsy band, the tunes are bracing and biting, ominous and sometimes verging on the macabre with the sax or trumpet blasting through long chromatic runs over wary minor chord changes. But not all the album is that scary. There’s the Cellphone Song, which seems to be an Eastern European-style parody of the singsongey quality of your typical factory ringtone; a bouncy, circuslike, buffoonish number; Sufijski Cocek, a spot-on, tongue-in-cheek side trip to Bollywood; and a happy, upbeat Greek dance that morphs into a trippy one-chord vamp that they take their time building, hypnotically.

But the best tracks here are the minor-key scorchers. The big crowd-pleaser is Hasapikos, a somewhat defiantly blithe march that they eventually take doublespeed, and then even faster. A smoldering anthem, Arkabarka has the closest thing to a rock melody here, Syversen following an offhandedly chilling, microtonal sax solo by bringing it a little lower and then adding wry textures with a mute before sprinting back to the stratosphere. The album’s lone quiet number, Melochrino, begins with a brooding sax taqsim and works its way to a memorably bitter crescendo. Tavernitsa, a tricky Greek-flavored dance by Syversen, sets Greg Squared’s effortlessly fluid, lighting-fast volleys against the trumpeter’s more deliberate, then counterintuitively explosive firepower. And some of the album’s most intense moments come during the Middle Eastern-tinged Cucek Na Sudahan, tense sustained passages alternating with unhinged ferocity. Greg Squared is a disciple of Ivo Papasov and deserves mention alongside the Bulgarian icon: his speed and command are so strong that he makes his solos look easy. Syversen has speed to match, and an eclectic style that draws on his experience playing noiserock (in his own group Cracked Vessel) and jazz improvisation. Only a week into the new year, and we already have a great album: if the rest of this year is only half as good as this, 2012 will still be amazing.