Balkan brass music is a lot different than brass music from, say, New Orleans or Vienna – it’s dark, slashing, vicious stuff. It’s also a competitive sport. As recently documented in the film Brasslands – whose amazing soundtrack Raya Brass Band contributes to, mightily -many of the best bands from across Eastern Europe polish their sizzling chops by battling it out with their neighbors. And while Raya Brass Band are not from Serbia or Macedonia but from Brooklyn, their latest album This Train Is Now is battle-ready. It’s a lot different from their first two albums, which, looking back, sound a lot more feral, almost punk in places. Which is not to say that the new album is slicker, or any less ferocious, only that the band chooses their spots to get completely unhinged: the music is lot more dynamic. The other difference is that all but two of the cuts on the new album are originals rather than Balkan or Romany classics. As brilliant as their previous one, Dancing on Roses, Dancing on Cinders was (it ranked in the top three albums of 2012 here last year), this is better. And that’s saying a lot. Alto saxophonist Greg Squared, trumpeter Ben Syversen, slinky virtuoso tuba player Don Godwin, accordionist Matthew Fass and standup tupan drummer EJ Fry showed off some great chops last time out; this is world-class.
Here, both horn players typically use Balkan chromatic scales more than they rely on microtones, saving those otherworldly sonics for when they really want to go for the jugular. Greg Squared’s Locks and Latches opens the album with a series of rapidfire doublestops, its funky trip-hop pulse lit up by a long, sinuous Syversen solo. Syversen’s big anthemic title track makes its way up from a biting, funky sway, spiced with a tightly clustering accordion solo. They work a lot of funky, suspenseful syncopation on the aptly tilted Riff Cloud, Syversen picking up from a broodingly insistent sax solo and then wailing upward.
Let the Crickets Decide, another Greg Squared tune, is arguably the album’s best track: there’s a whole lot going on here. Syversen bubbles evilly over an ominous low sax note, followed by a mysterious sax solo that eventually goes screaming with the bent notes and microtones…and then they sprint to the finish line. Tsamika Tarragona, by Godwin, alternates between warmly soulful and biting, with a brief carnivalesque interlude. Bump, by Syversen, is the album’s catchiest track, emphatically anchored by the accordion alongside Godwin’s unexpectedly nimble, tiptoeing pulse, Syversen taking a turn to swoop and weave through a mist of microtones.
Bloody Knuckles, by Greg Squared, is a cage match of sorts between the horns, locked in combat or exchanging lively riffage: the fun these guys are having is irresistible, through all kinds of intricate time changes to yet another long, killer Syversen solo. For Mia, by Fass, makes quite a contrast with its lullaby intro, building to a gorgeously creepy accordion solo that the horns pick up from there. There are two traditional tunes here: a brisk, bristling take of the Macedonian tune Shapkarevo Kasapsko Oro, which manages to be just a little more polished than the tracks on the previous album; and the famous Roma Karsilama, with its animated call-and-response and aggressive trumpet solo. The album ends with Greg Squared’s Segan Sirto, which begins allusively and then hits its evil stride over Godwin’s slinky groove, the song’s writer taking the most exhilirating, dynamically-charged solo on the album: the way he weaves from smoky to crystalline will give you goosebumps. Is this the best album by a New York band in 2013? Maybe. Raya Brass Band’s next New York show is on Oct 12 at 9 PM at the Ukrainian National Home, 140 2nd Ave. off of 9th St.; cover is $15.