New York Music Daily

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Tag: symphonic rock

Torrential Rainy-Day Sounds From All-Acoustic Art-Rock Band the Arcane Insignia

If you’re going to write lushly orchestrated art-rock, you might as well go all the way and open your debut album with a seventeen-minute epic. That’s what the Arcane Insignia did. The first track on their first release A Flawed Design – up at Bandcamp as a name-your-price download – begins with a gently fingerpicked waltz that gives way to pulsing, trickily rhythmic bursts – from violin, cello and acoustic guitar rather than synth and Les Pauls played through Marshall stacks. From there the band make their way gracefully through ambience punctuated by alternately delicate and emphatic guitar as the strings – Noah Heau on cello and Tina Chang-Chien on viola – swirl, and hover, and burst. Rainy-day music has never sounded so stormy. Imagine ELO’s first album beefed up by an entire symphony orchestra, playing classic Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. There’s no other band on the planet who sound like this.

Now where are they playing this titanic, dynamically shifting stuff tonight? Madison Square Garden? Bowery Ballroom? That hideous basketball arena in Cobble Hill? Nope. They’re playing the Delancey – which actually has an excellent PA system. Cover is $10.

“Searching the playground for what we could obtain,” frontman Alejandro Saldarriaga Calle sings cryptically as the opening track rises and then recedes – the way his long scream gets picked up by the strings, and then how he picks it up again is one of the year’s most adrenalizing recorded moments. The gusts and eventual swoops from the strings keep it from being anticlimactic.

Architects of a Flawed Design begins with carefully tiptoeing staccato strings and guitar harmonics, “The windows are closed…how is anyone supposed to enter? Calle ponders as the music grows more kinetic, a titanic choir of wordless vocals – Martha Stella Calle, Allie Jessing and Jamel Lee, multitracked many times over – rising over chopping guitar chords and uneasily lingering strings.

Chapter 9 – Trail of Extinguished Suns (that’s the third track) is more darkly phantasmagorical, Calle’s voice rising higher, the song punctuated by momentary pauses amid the breakers crashing beneath the relentless overcast skies above. As in the other tracks, his dissociative lyrics echo the title’s grim implications. while the alternating long and leaping tones of his voice serves as one of the band’s instruments as much as they carry the lyrics. 

Ominous folk noir guitar riffs and swlring strings give way to a mighty pulse as Cardinal and Subliminal gets underway, then the music hits an uneasy dance fueled by the cello. They bring it full circle with a wistful variation at the end.

Obelisk, a diptych, begins with Fallen Shell, stark cello underpinning sparsely pensive guitar, rising to an emphatic waltz anchored by nimbly tumbling percussion and then back down, with a relentless angst and a final machinegunning drive that could be Iron Maiden…acoustic.

The dramatic vocals, suspenseful pauses, fierce strumming and gritty strings of part two, Liquid Skies, bring to mind 70s British cult favorites the Doctors of Madness at their most symphonic.

Gemini Cycle begins out of a wry segue. Bracingly soaring cello joins a balletesque guitar/cello duet (tons of overdubs here), then the band build the album’s most baroque, lush crescendos, balanced by moody, calm, overcast interludes and another gargantuan choral segment. There’s also a rather anguished, waltzing bonus track, Maleguena Salerosa, spiced with tango allusions and delicious chromatics. Although this storm is so pervasive and unrelenting that after awhile all the songs start to blend into each other, it’s a hell of a song! Count this as the best debut rock record of 2018 so far.

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Barclay James Harvest at Lincoln Center!?!

It was great to finally get to see Barclay James Harvest at Lincoln Center Out of Doors this past evening. Now THAT’S one for the bucket list.

Barclay James Harvest got their start in the 70s as an uptight, tunefully deficient jamband, sort of a prototype for My Morning Jacket. Then they morphed into a competent artsy pop band best known for recycling other peoples’ ideas. The music media at the time called them on it; their snarky response was the song Poor Man’s Moody Blues, whose title perfectly captures their appeal. Their cult classic is Suicide, an actually very poignant ballad with a surprise ending. The rest of their material was not up to that level. Random song title: Galadriel. Genuine hobbit-rock!

OK, it wasn’t Barclay James Harvest who headlined last night. It was Jonathan Wilson. He’s a superstar lead guitarist, the best player to hold down that chair in Roger Waters’ band since Jeff Beck’s brief tenure in the group. He also writes artsy pop songs that recycle other peoples’ ideas. His influences are unimpeachable. The Beatles, and John Lennon especially…Pink Floyd, of course…Elliott Smith, all over the place…the Grateful Dead…Hendrix…Crowded House! Big Star! The Move! The Jayhawks, Marty Willson-Piper and Matt Keating, maybe. And also Neil Young and the Allman Brothers.

Wilson is a competent, unpretentious singer, doubles on piano and writes the occasional withering, cynical turn of phrase. His latest album threatens to descend to the level of James Blunt but doesn’t sink quite that far. Onstage, Wilson was a completely different animal, even though he tantalized the crowd by treating them to a grand total of four guitar solos. Each was scintillating; his long, achingly intense, Gilmouresque interlude midway through the set, over the changes to Pink Floyd’s Breathe, was the high point of the night.

His Telecaster player was just as good when he got the chance to cut loose, with a slide or with some stinging Chicago blues (props to Wilson for having the confidence to include a guy with similarly sizzling, eclectic chops in his band). The bassist doubled strangely on synth bass (why not just use a volume pedal?). The keyboardist used seemingly every patch ever invented, from squiggly vintage 70s Moog sounds, to vast washes of string synth, majestic organ and austere electric piano.

They opened with the fuzztone Carnaby Street psych-pop tune Trafalgar Square, elevated above Oasis level with an unexpected, spacy interlude. Over the Midnight came across as the Verve played by good musicians. Likewise, There’s a Light was a more glam Elliott Smith (or Oasis with a better singer covering Elliott Smith). They ended the show auspiciously with a long, vamping art-rock epic featuring one of two cameos by special guest Laaraji on zither and backing vocals.

One song they didn’t play was a sneering waltz from the new album, with its most relevant lyric:

We’ll be sucking, we’ll be fucking
While the other ones are posting
These kids will never rock again
A sign of the times

The opening act drew a few gaggles of awkward New Jersey high school girls, a few of whom had brought along their similarly unsure-looking pretend boyfriends. Years ago, there was a big market for indifferent, vaguely melancholy upper middle class white women who set their diary entries to music. In the years since, the corporate record labels, by their own admission, have lost 90% of their influence. Back in the day, Natalie Merchant used to play Madison Square Garden. The best this girl can do is open a show at Bowery Ballroom. Is that more a function of the death of the record industry, or the decline of the middle class?

Lincoln Center Out of Doors continues out back in Damrosch Park on Aug 2 at 7:30 PM with a high-voltage set by the Nigerian “Queen of Afrobeat” Yemi Alade. Get there early if you want a seat.

The All-Female NYChillharmonic Raises the Bar For Epic Big Band Grandeur

Finding twenty-two musicians capable of doing justice to singer/keyboardist Sara McDonald’s kinetic, stormy, intricately epic compositions is an achievement all by itself. Finding a night when they’re all available for a show in Gowanus raises that challenge exponentially. Now imagine leading that band on a broken foot.

That’s what McDonald had to contend with fronting her ensemble the NYChillharmonic back in May at Littlefield. Visibly in pain and steaming that she had to be helped onstage, she rallied and transcended the situation, singing with greater purr and wail than ever as the music rose and fell and turned kaleidoscopically behind her. Adrenaline can do that to you. She’s presumably in better shape now, and will be leading the group at Brooklyn’s best-sounding venue, National Sawdust, on Aug 2 at 7 PM. Advance tix are $20.

Unlike typical big band jazz, this unit is not a vehicle for long solos. Throughout the night, those moments tended to be cameos, an instrumentalist backed by just the rhythm section – Madgalena Abrego’s incisive guitar, Danae Greenfield’s spare piano, Adi Meyerson’s spring-loaded bass and Mareike Weining’s tersely inventive drumming. While much of the rhythm followed a slinky, swaying 4/4, sudden flares would erupt when least expected, sending the tempo and often the melody every which way. Occasionally these would take the form of clever, false endings McDonald loves so much.

The Radiohead influence that was so pervasive in McDonald’s earlier work is still there, intricately voiced, looping phrases and permutations filtering through every section of the orchestra. Yet throughout the set, from the tight sunburst pulses of Surface Tension through the mighty, cinematic closing number, Easy Comes the Ghost, the harmonies remained vastly more translucent than opaque. McDonald reached back for extra power in the gusting, crescendoing Blumen, in contrast with the smoldering lustre that peppered To Covet a Quiet Mind. With jazz inventiveness and spontaneity but also rock drive and raw power, McDonald’s music is its own genre.

McDonald didn’t address the issue that this was an all-female edition of the band until late in the set. “They’re great musicians,” she said, nonchalant and succinct, and left it at that. The lineup was a mix of established artists – notably Jenny Hill on tenor sax, Rachel Therrien on trumpet and Kaila Vandever on trombone – and rising star talent. The rest of the group, clearly amped to be playing this material, included Alden Hellmuth and Erena Terakubo  on alto sax, Emily Pecoraro on tenor and Mercedes Beckman on baritone with Leah Garber, Rebecca Steinberg and Kathleen Doran on trumpets; Nicole Connelly and Erin Reifler on trombones; Gina Benalcazar on bass trombone; and a string quartet comprising violinists Audrey Hayes and Kiho Yutaka, violist Dora Kim and cellist Jillian Blythe.

And a big shout-out to the sound guy. The latest Littlefield space is nothing like the old one: it’s a barewalled rock club, about the same size as the Footlight. Miking so many instruments with highs bouncing all over the place was a daunting task to say the least. That the guy managed to give the group as much clarity as he did was impressive all by itself, let alone without all sorts of nasty feedback. In the pristine sonics at National Sawdust next Thursday that won’t be an issue.

A Shatteringly Relevant New Suite Casts a Cold Eye on Surveillance State Terror

“The last refuge of privacy,” is how the central object in The Secret Diary of Nora Plain was described by the song cycle’s lyricist, Lucky Fonz III at National Sawdust this past weekend. In their US debut, premiering this haunting, labyrinthine yet often shatteringly direct suite to a sold-out audience, Dutch ensemble the Ragazze Quartet were bolstered by the eclectic beats of percussionist Remco Menting.

In front of the ensemble, charismatic singer Nora Fischer channeled the increasing terror of being caught in the spycams’ deadly web, whether calm and stoic, shivering on the floor or twitching like a marionette, Ian Curtis-style.  “Let bygones be bygones,” she encouraged coolly during one of the early songs, hope against hope. At that point it wasn’t clear just what this story’s everywoman had done – if anything – to catch Big Brother’s merciless eye, a conclusion that the suite left hanging. That only raised the suspense, underscoring how anyone with an identifiable cellphone or a Facebook page  – or without one, conceivably – could be caught in the trap.

Fischer is force of nature. At her quietest, she brought a plaintive, sometimes prayerful quality to the narrative; at her loudest, she belted with a gale-force wail worthy of Aretha. Likewise, the quintet of musicians began with an atmospheric whisper and rose in a series of waves, through as many different styles as a string quartet augmented by a drummer with a full kit plus vibraphone could possibly play.

The stage direction was spare yet tightly focused on an ever-encroaching menace, pushing Nora further and further toward the edge. There were moments when the quartet drew ominously closer and closer to her; other times, they fell in line as good soldiers in a police state are required to. Menting took a couple of turns behind a small keyboard during quieter, more atmospheric interludes. Likewise, violinists Rosa Arnold and Jeanita Vriens shifted to Menting’s vibraphone and bowed icy, airy textures at a couple of the suite’s most whispery ebbs.

The songs, with music by Morris Kliphuis, rose and fell, akin to Elvis Costello’s Juliet Letters with music by Philip Glass and Caroline Shaw and played by Rasputina, perhaps. Cellist Rebecca Wise propelled those shifts with stark, raw washes along with elegantly incisive pizzicato; violist Annemijn Bergkotte was a spare, striking presence in both the low and higher registers as well. Stylistically, the segments ran the gamut from hypnotically circling, kinetic chamber rock – often spiced with allusively macabre, Glass-ine phrases – to an emphatic detour into funk, murky mood pieces, and a couple of rises to sheer terror, most grippingly in Rat in My Room. Whether that rat was the four-legged or two-legged kind was left to the audience to figure out.

Was Fischer’s final exit what it seemed on the surface, a coyly triumphant slip out the side door? Or was she going elsewhere? Readers of Lois Lowry‘s dystopic classic The Giver will get that reference. Anyone concerned with the perilous state of civil liberties should see this hauntingly enigmatic, rivetingly disturbing, potently relevant work. 

An Epic East Village Show by Haunting Turkish Rock Singer Mehmet Erdem

Friday night at Drom, intense crooner Mehmet Erdem led his four-piece band through an epic, towering, majestic set of elegant, darkly crescendoing Turkish art-rock. Wearing a wireless headset, he and the sound guy had an animated dialogue going during the first few numbers of a concert that went on for well over two hours into Saturday morning. Which makes sense – although Erdem is a talented multi-instrumentalist who plays several Turkish lutes, his first gig as a professional was not as a musician but as a sound engineer. After a few tweaks, he was content: Drom is one of New York’s most sonically pristine venues.

That calm, meticulous approach extended to his vocals as well. In a powerful, resonant baritone, he stood resolute and mostly motionless in the center of the stage, intoning a long series of brooding, slowly crescendoing ballads in his native vernacular. You could call him the Turkish Leonard Cohen – although Erdem has a lot more range beyond Cohen’s foggy low register.

As is often the case with Turkish rock, Erdem’s lyrics are enigmatic and allusive, with the occasional mythological reference. What appear to be brooding lost-love laments on the surface may have political overtones, thinly veiled nostalgia for freedom and basic human rights. As the night wore on, the crowd sang along: even for non-Turkish speakers, it was easy to get a sense of meaning from Erdem’s articulation and forcefulness, and from the audience as well. The ladies sang along lustily on the night’s most carefree ballad; other times, phones were raised defiantly. Let’s hope some of this footage makes it to youtube.

The band were fantastic. Interestingly, for all his fretboard talent, Erdem only played oud, and only on a handful of songs midway through the show. And he never cut loose, negotiating a couple of serpentine intros with a brooding terseness, choosing his spots and slowly building suspense. His acoustic guitarist added incisive melody that occasionally shifted toward flamenco or the Middle East, especially when the music’s minor modes grew darkest (Turkish rock can be gothic AF, an effect that really kicked in when he switched to keyboards on the night’s most majestic numbers). Meanwhile, the rhythm section lurked in the background, occasionally rising when the tempos picked up.

But the star of the show was the clarinetist. In the Balkans and eastward, clarinet is often the lead instrument, and this band’s lead guy is killer. Opening with a dazzling, microtonal flourish was a red herring, considering that he matched the bandleader’s moody resonance most of the way through. As the set picked up steam, he opened a couple of numbers with all-too-brief taqsims, parsing every haunting tonality he could get out of his reed.

By about one in the morning, Erdem had methodically worked up to a peak, through grooves that a couple of times snuck their way from cumbia to straight-up stadium rock, with a couple of lively detours into funk and even roots reggae. From there, the group hit the hardest, with a series of singalong anthems. They brought it down somewhat at the end, closing on a somewhat disquieting, unresolved note. At that point, there was no need for an encore.

Drom is one of only a handful of clubs in the US, and the only one in New York which regularly features Turkish rock. Extraordinary chanteuse Sertab Erener – whose music is somewhat quieter but just as lavish – is there on May 25 at 7 PM.

A Rapturous, Hauntingly Spare Solo Album From Enigmatic Cello Rock Songstress Serena Jost

The sheer hummability of cellist/multi-instrumentalist Serena Jost’s music contrasts with the opaqueness of her lyrics. In her music, nothing is ever as it seems despite all indications to the contrary. That enigmatic sensibility has served her well over the past fifteen years. The closest comparison is ELO’s Jeff Lynne, a similarly brilliant tunesmith whose signature sound blends classical ideas with rock, and has a similarly distinctively, elegant production style as well. Jost’s newest album, Up to the Sky – streaming at her music page – is her most ambitious to date. It’s a solo recording, just cello and vocals, recorded in the rich, reverberating sonics of St. Peter’s Church at 346 W 20th St. in Chelsea, where she’s playing the album release show on April 19 at 7:30 PM. Cover is $10; a reception will follow.

Window opens the album. Jost’s stark, ambered low chords, circling in a Philip Glass vein, anchor her clear, pensive vocals. A recurring shooting star reference adds to the nocturnal rapture and unease.

The influence of Jost’s frequent collaborator Amanda Thorpe shines through plaintively in The Cut, a canteringly hypnotic, Britfolk-tinged, plaintively imagistic lament. Likewise, the wave motion of Clement – just vocalese and cello – sets the stage for Great Conclusions. Playing this with her band, Jost cuts loose with a galloping, crescendoing intensity, but in this version, her pizzicato attack is muted, her vocals understated and clear, echoing Linda Thompson as the song’s gloomily allusive narrative winds out.

Hallway. another instrumental with vocalese, brings in a hazy late-afternoon sun, introducing the baroque-flavored vignette Happiness. “Happiness has come and gone without warning, just a lantern in the night.” Jost intones.

Lullaby is a melody much of the world knows from childhood; the cello adds a newly somber undercurrent. By contrast, It’s a Delight rises to an unexpectedly triumphant crescendo over the sparest, circling low-register riff. Jost works that dichotomy again in Silver Star, its images of escape and release over subtle variations on a mantra-like cello phrase. The album concludes, unresolved, with the fragmentary, echoing, mysterious Red Door. Fans of darkly individualistic songwriters from Carol Lipnik to Connie Converse will devour this. Indie classical people ought to check this out as well – for what it’s worth, Jost once arranged and led a fifty-cello performance of Terry Riley’s In C!

Two Thirds of a Potentially Magical Triplebill Revisited at the Met Tonight

More about that great triplebill staged by the World Music Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art tonight, March 24 at 7 PM: it’s a reprise of two thirds of what should have been the best concert of 2017 but wasn’t. The problem wasn’t the artists on the bill: it was the sound. But the Rogers Auditorium at the Met has superb sonics. Central Park Summerstage is an outdoor venue and can’t compare, and although the sound there last summer was usually pretty good, it was problematic that August evening when two charismatic singers with North African ancestry, Emel Mathlouthi and Alsarah led their respective bands, opening for the godfather of Ethio-jazz, Mulatu Astatke.

Mathlouthi and Alsarah & the Nubatones are both on tonight’s bill along with Jordanian chanteuse Farah Siraj, and as of this morning it wasn’t sold out, probably because of the price, $35. But if you have the cash, it’s worth it, especially if you figure that each artist is only about twelve bucks apiece.

On one hand, the Central Park gig was a chance for each woman to put their strengths front and center. Both draw on a long tradition of allusive, imagistic classical Arabic poetry for their lyrics and subject matter. Alsarah’s kinetic dancefloor anthems address themes of Nubian longing and displacement in Aswa Dam-era Egypt. Mathlouthi’s icy, cinematic art-rock opaquely references struggle and resistance: in her formative years, she was a heroine of the  Arab Spring in her native Tunisia.

Alsarah’s set kicked off the afternoon. Her not-so-secret weapon is oudist Brandon Terzic, whose rippling microtones drove the rise and fall of the songs. It wasn’t til the end that he got a chance to stretch out and solo; the time out, the band’s most wildly applauded solo spot was a boomy trip through a funhouse mirror of North African rhythms from master percussionist Rami El Asser. Given less time onstage than her epic album release show at Flushing Town Hall back in the spring of 2016, the bandleader didn’t talk to the audience as much but still found room to mention how the Nubians’ forced relocation to cities mirrors the ongoing refugee crisis in the Middle East as well as anti-immigrant violence here at home.

Mathlouthi was next on the bill. Her not-so-secret weapon is her voice, a powerful weapon that began looming and eventually took some dramatic flights upward. Backed only by keys and drums, she stood more or less motionless, drawing the crowd in. But while the stage monitors were probably working, the PA wasn’t. Midway through the show, the atmospheric keys that have been a major part of her sound lately disappeared from the mix and didn’t return until almost the end. Much as her voice was strong against the beats – a trippy, techy electroacoustic mix – the grandeur and angst of her songwriting never reached altitude. As with the opening act, she didn’t interact with the crowd as much as at her own epic show at the Global Beat Festival downtown back in 2015: “The world’s biggest terrorist is capitalism,” was her most acerbic comment.

Mulatu Astatke headlined. It was strange to see that the space wasn’t completely sold out for the guy who, if he didn’t invent Ethiopian jazz, has done more to bring it to a global audience than anyone else. Joined by an inspired, horn-spiced pickup group including but not limited to Jason Lindner on keys, Marcus Gilmore on drums and Roman Diaz on congas, Astatke delivered a haunting, gracefully rippling,  chromatic mix of mostly midtempo numbers punctuated by a very long percussion interlude. He took the lead on electric piano on most of the tunes, Lindner holding his own when taking over on the techier songs and taking them subtly toward P-Funk territory without ripping their austere fabric. It was great to finally get to see Astatke live, but a bad taste lingered. What an incredible show it would have been if the PA had been working for Mathlouthi.

A Lavish, Ambitiously Orchestrated Twinbill at Symphony Space Last Night

“How many of you have been to a classical concert before?” Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner asked the packed house at Symphony Space last night. From the response, it didn’t appear that many had. Which makes sense if you consider that the average age at the big Manhattan classical halls is 65. But what Wasner’s band were playing, bolstered by the Metropolis Ensemble and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, wasn’t the kind of classical you’d typically hear at those venues. It was a brand new kind of music: epic post-minimalist sweep matched to rock edge and attack.

Wasner spoke of being humbled in the presence of eighty other musicians of such a high caliber, but she has fearsome chops herself. She began the show on bass and proved herself more than competent, then moved to guitar and gave a clinic in shiny, emphatic, shimmery phrasing. Drummer Andy Stack pushed this mighty beast with a supple drive, shifting constantly between tricky meters. At one point, Wasner suddenly realized that her bass had gone out of tune, then didn’t miss a beat or a note, hitting her tuner pedal and then fixing everything even as the tempo and syncopation changed in a split second behind her. Tuning while playing is a rare art; it’s a whole other thing to tune and sing at the same time!

Throughout the show, whether singing her own material or William Brittelle’s restless new song cycle Spiritual America, there was considerable contrast between Wasner’s cool, concise, understated vocals and the orchestra’s leaps and bubbles. Guitarist Ben Cassorla added flaring cadenzas and carefully modulated sheets of sustain. frequently playing with an ebow. When Wasner was on bass, Metropolis Ensemble bassist Evan Runyon frequently teamed with her for a pulse that wasn’t thunderous, but close to it. Keyboardist Erika Dohi added warpy, new wave-flavored synth, wafting synthesized strings and on a couple of occasions during Brittelle’s suite, wryly blippy, EDM-tinged flutters.

In a context as orchestrated as this was, Wasner’s songs came across as very similar to Brittelle’s, Both songwriters’ lyrics are pensive, direct and don’t follow either a metric or rhyme scheme. Likewise, they both gravitate to simple, frequently circling phrases that went spiraling or bounding from one section of the ensemble to the next. Brittelle’s big crescendos tended to be more flamboyant, and more evocative of 70s art-rock like Genesis or Gentle Giant, with the occasional reference to coldly bacchanalian dancefloor electronics. Wasner’s tended to be more enigmitically reflective if no less kinetic, and more influenced by 80s new wave pop. Are both fans of Carl Nielsen’s playfully leapfrogging symphonic arrangements? It would seem so. 

The night’s coda, Wasner’s cynical I Know the Law, was a study in the utility of self-deception as well as its pitfalls. As with the rest of the material in the night’s second set, the chorus punctuated the music’s many splashes of color with steady, emphatic, massed polyrhythms and occasional moody ambience. Wasner joked that one of Brittelle’s more nostalgic numbers would be something that these kids would understand in about ten years, which could prove true. What they will remember is being on this stage with a hundred other musicians, and getting a huge standing ovation from an audience of their peers.

Metropolis Ensemble don’t have any upcoming New York concerts for awhile, but their violinist – and Mivos Quartet co-founder – Olivia DePrato is playing the album release show for her auspicious solo debut album, Streya, at 1 Rivington Street on March 13 at 7:30 PM. Tix are $20/$15 stud.

A String-Driven Treat and a Park Slope Gig by Irrepressible, Fearlessly Eclectic Violinist Tom Swafford

Violinist Tom Swafford’s String Power were one of the most lavishly entertaining, surrealistically psychedelic bands to emerge in New York in this decade. Blending classical focus, swirling mass improvisation, latin and Middle Eastern grooves and jazz flair, they played both originals as well as playful new arrangements of songs from across the years and around the world. With a semi-rotating cast of characters, this large ensemble usually included all of the brilliant Trio Tritticali – violinist Helen Yee, violist Leann Darling and cellist Loren Dempster – another of this city’s most energetically original string bands of recent years. Swafford put out one fantastic album, streaming at Bandcamp, with the full band in 2015 and has kept going full steam since with his own material, notably his Songs from the Inn, inspired by his time playing in Yellowstone State Park. 

Over the last couple of years, String Power have been more or less dormant, although Swafford has a characteristically eclectic show of his own coming up on Feb 2 at 7 PM the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, where he’s a faculty member. To start the show, he’ll be playing Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano with pianist Emile Blondel. After that, he’ll be leading a trio with guitarist/banjoist Benjamin “Baby Copperhead” Lee and bassist Zach Swanson for a set of oldtime country blues and then some bluesy originals of his own. Cover is $15/$10 stud/srs.

The String Power album has a formidable lineup of adventurous New York classical and indie classical talent. On violins, alongside Swafford and Yee, there’s a slightly shifting cast of Mark Chung, Patti Kilroy, Frederika Krier, Suzanne Davenport and Tonya Benham; Darling and Joanna Mattrey play viola; Dempster and Brian Sanders play cello, with Dan Loomis on bass. The album opens with Tango Izquierda, Swafford’s shout-out to the Democrats regaining control of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections. Maybe we’ll get lucky again, right? This elegantly lilting number rises and falls with intricate counterpoint and a handful of frenetic Mik Kaminski-ish cadenzas.

The group reinvents new wave band the Stranglers’ synth-pop Dave Brubeck ripoff Golden Brown – an ode to the joys of heroin – with a stately neo-baroque arrangement. The Velvets’ Venus in Furs is every bit as menacing, maybe more so than the original, with a big tip of the hat to John Cale, and a Swafford solo that’s just this side of savage.

Swafford’s version of Wildwood Flower draws more on its origins in 19th century shape-note singing than the song’s eventual transformation into a bluegrass standard, with a folksy bounce fueled by spiky  massed pizzicato. Darling’s arrangement of the Mohammed Abdel Wahab classic Azizah opens with her plaintive taqsim (improvisation) over a drone, pounces along with all sorts of delicious microtones up to a whiplash coda and an outro that’s way too funny to give away.

Likewise, the otherwise cloying theme from the gently satirical 70s soap opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman gets a trick ending. Charles Mingus’ anti-segregation jazz epic Fables of Faubus gets a fullscale nine-minute workout, heavy on the composer’s relentless sarcasm. In the age of Trump, this really hits the spot with its phony martial heroics and sardonially swiping swells, Chung, Krier, Swafford and finally Loomis getting a chance to chew the scenery.

The album winds up with Swafford’s own Violin Concerto. The triptych opens with Brutal Fanfare, a stark, dynamically rising and falling string metal stomp spiced with twisted Asian motive – it makes a good segue out of Mingus. The second part, High Lonesome explores the often fearsome blues roots of bluegrass, with some wickedly spiraling Swafford violin. The conclusion, simply titled Ballad, is the most atmospheric passage here: it sounds like an Anna Thorvaldsdottir vista raised an octave or two. 

An Epic, Nebulously Haunting Oceanic Art-Rock Suite Winds Up This Year’s Prototype Festival

The annual Prototype Festival began as a forum for avant garde opera but has grown to encompass lavish choral suites, dystopic Balkanic epics and noir cabaret. Last night at Here’s black-box theatre in SoHo, the performance was a dark, similarly eclectic rock show with projections for a backdrop.

Violinist Carla Kihlstedt’s career spans from classical, new music and the far expanses of jazz to the brooding rock of her Rabbit Rabbit Radio ensemble. This time out she led her seven-piece group – her husband Matthias Bossi on drums; Jeremy Flower and Michael Abraham on guitars (the former doubling on keys); Ariel Parkington of the Parkington Sisters on violin, Kristin Slipp on backing vocals and George Ban-Weiss on bass – through her new, distantly stormy, nebulously kinetic suite Black Inscription, which explores oceanic eco-catastrophe.

While the overall atmosphere remained on the somber side, tempos and meters shifted and varied considerably throughout the more-or-less contiguous suite. Bossi propelled the beast with remarkable restraint, taking into consideration the space’s intimate, rather dry sonics.

Likewise, Kihlstedt and Parkington’s violin lines were terse and purposeful, whether building angst-fueled, emphatic crescendos or more atmospheric harmonies. The polyrhythmic interweave between voices – pretty much everyone in the band sang – and the instruments added to the relentless unease.

The group opened with a twinkling, undulating, funk-tinged psychedelic soul instrumental that brought to mind early 70s Mies Davis, or a Roy Ayers Film score. From there the group worked spare, alternating voices over odd meters, with a 80s Peter Gabriel-style anthemic sensibility. Then they went more hypnotic and intense, bringing to mind early 80s Siouxsie & the Banshees without the microtonal vocals.

The suite’s centerpiece was the title number, a slow, towering, Pink Floyd-style theme referencing what appeared to be some sort of ominous seaside motif. That symphonic grandeur would recur later in the suite, as did that reference, in one of a handful of voiceovers by a veteran deep-sea diver.

Lingering, occasionally flaring minor-key guitar melodies rose and fell over a fat low end sometimes taken even further into the depths by the bass’s octave pedal or envelope-shifting effects. Meanwhile, the strings, swooshy keyboards and the womens’ voices built lushly kaleidoscopic astringencies that alluded to but never rose to fever pitch. This was more about shock and awe than sheer terror, although there were a couple of detours into David Lynch film score-style menace.

The visuals and voiceovers took a backseat to the music: glistening sea life in the depths and infrequent detritus quickly gave way to geometric overlays, while the narrator mused about the nuts and bolts – and thrills – of descending far beneath the waves. If we’re lucky, the Prototype Festival folks had the presence of mind to record one of these performances so that everyone who missed it can enjoy it. This show was definitely worth releasing as a live album – and will reprised today to conclude the festival, with performances at 4 and 9:30 PM. Tickets are pricy – $30 – but the show is worth it, and they’re still available as of this morning.