Bryan Beller
Thanks In Advance

(Onion Boy)

An electric bassist who as a young man already sported lotsa instrumental flexibility, not to mention highly developed playing skills, as a composer Bryan Beller was something of a late bloomer, his first (and, until recently, only) solo album, View, appearing in 2003, when Beller was already a thirty-something.

Given the nature of his main collaborations at the time of View's release - with group Z alongside Frank Zappa's sons Dweezil and Ahmet, with former Zappa virtuoso Steve Vai, with former Zappa contributor Mike Keneally - it was in a way surprising to notice how little Beller's music resembled Zappa's. On close inspection, View appeared as a specimen of a "composite-modern" mix of "rock, blues, jazz, with a pinch of fusion", to which one could add a touch of classical music. All played with uncommon warmth, stamina, and precision.

It was only a logical move that for his first solo album Beller decided to choose some decidedly familiar faces to act as his contributors: drummers Toss Panos and Joe Travers, guitarist Rick Musallam, Keneally himself doing double duty as guitarist and keyboard player. Another of his Keneallyan colleagues, drummer Nick D'Virgilio, recorded and mixed the album, Beller himself acting as producer. And while all the aforementioned musicians proved to be quite skilled, and rich in musical and timbral invention (would I have expected anything less?), the real revelation for me were Jeff Babko's organ, and the incredible guitarist Griff Peters (maybe because this was the first time I had listened to them?).

Once in a while, in the course of the last five years, I thought about Beller's Chapter Two: What real chances of it ever being released? Would Beller have the required interest, patience - and money! (these are not the times when being able to play extremely well will get one an audience anymore) to do it all over again? Would the new CD sound "just as warm, but with more definition" than View, like Beller (if memory serves) wished?

I have to confess I had already abandoned any hope of ever listening to a new Beller album, when suddenly there were news about the release of Thanks In Advance. An album that immediately (well, almost immediately: a lot of this music being of the "hidden complexity" variety) reveals itself to be a rich and mature work that shows (in many ways) Beller's artistic growth. Quite a bit more varied than its predecessor, with a more assured control on form, a much-to-be-admired timbral palette, and an incredible amount of attention and care about the recorded sound (which is warm, but more detailed), which is a wise choice (but an expensive one, I suspect) at a time when the sad "free downloading" phenomenon tips the scales in the general direction of "doing it cheaply".

While those musicians who so finely performed on the previous album are here again, there are also a few (nice) surprises. The first one was for me reading in the liner notes that so "live" a sound, where instruments appear as reacting to one another in a live atmosphere, is really the result of an accurate process of coupling stuff recorded at different times, and in different studios!

The first real surprise is the way the album starts (one is excused for thinking one put the wrong CD inside the CD player): here we have a slow, soulful track that smells of Muscle Shoals (one closes one's eyes to see "Aretha arriving"!), though here the guitars are much more "modern-sounding". Snooze Bar has a backing track that's full of "holes", with appropriate drums (Marcus Finnie), piano (Jody Nardone), Hammond organ (Clayton Ivey), and guitars by Bruce Dees (rhythm) and Chris Cottros (lead); nice pick dynamics and playing force by Cottros, with the amplifier producing musical, controlled distortion.

Just as surprising, and no less beautiful, is Casual Lie Day. What we have here, more or less, is the same "rhythm section" of the previous track. A nice pattern played on the ride cymbal, a "dry" bass "in synch" with the bass drum, nice theme played on the guitar, which has a fine solo (Cottros again) over a changing map. The whole mood of the piece - which starts as "swing", makes a passing reference to Steely Dan, and then blooms like a very large Big Band - reveals itself as a skilled arrangement work of vivacious colours: kudos to the overdubbed violins (also pizzicato: it's Ann Marie Calhoun), the excellent wind section (Jim Hoke, clarinets; Steve Herrman, trumpets; Doug Moffet, tenor and baritone saxes; Roy Agee, trombone and bass trombone), and - it goes without saying - the fine arrangement (by Tom Trapp and Bryan Beller).

Right at the time when one tries to imagine what'll come next, here it comes... the sound of a stylus hitting the grooves of a (noisy) vinyl record! (A nice production touch, it makes the transition to the third piece sound more believable.) A bit disconcerting at first, maybe, but in a nice way, this reminded me of... Santana! Greasy Wheel has Joe Travers on drums, Rick Musallam on guitar, and Jeff Babko on Hammond organ. Bells a go-go, distorted bass, multiple themes, a good solo by Musallam - which at times goes quite near the Variations On The Carlos Santana Secret Chord Progression by Zappa -, and an explosive Hammond solo that's pure... Gregg Rolie!

Cost Of Doing Business is a brief and frantic interlude for bass, drums, percussion, and keyboards. Blind Sideways sounds quite "fusion", and to me sounds like the only weak moment on the album. (Please notice: my antipathy towards Fusion is the stuff of legends.) Toss Panos is on drums, Musallam on guitar, Babko on Rhodes. Nice solos by Musallam, Babko, and Beller. Life Story is another brief interlude for overdubbed basses, quite melodic, nicely acting as a bridge towards the next piece.

At about 8', Cave Dweller is a track that just for brevity's sake I'll call "a slow blues/boogie" with surprising melodic vistas and turns. Toss Panos is on drums, Beller on bass, Griff Peters on (various) guitars. In a way, this is the track that I was really glad to find here, given the fact that in my opinion it shows the full spectrum of Peters playing capabilities (in terms of style, timbre, and sound architecture), given the fact that on the previous album he often impersonated a "luminous character", single-coil style, compared to your typical mahogany-dark, humbucker, Musallam. Cave Dweller is better left to listeners' free exploration. I'll just mention those moments (especially at 4' 27" - 4' 31", and again, a few seconds later) when one almost can see the speakers in Peters's enclosure just about to explode.

Quite strange, and the only vocal ("Just one more beer/And I won't have no fear") track, Play Hard has obviously a right to be here (besides the obvious structural reason to separate the longest tracks on the album).

At more than 10', Love Terror Adrenaline/Break Through is the album's "intellectual metal" masterpiece (also the first appearing of a trio): Beller (who here also plays piano and synth, besides the rhythm guitars he shares with Musallam), Keneally (all the lead guitars, plus "vibes"), and drummer Marco Minneman. There are quite a few visible traces here: a tension that's pure King Crimson, a dark majesty that reminded me of Univers Zero (or Steve Vai?), some "honking" Zappa guitar tones, Terry Bozzio-like wide rolls, and decidedly symphonic-sounding Floyd-isms. But it's a good track (my description doesn't do it justice), which I imagine to be terribly difficult to play well. There's a nice melodic closure acting as a resolution for bass and piano.

Thanks In Advance brings us towards the album's close: fine melody, excellent guitars, both rhythm (Musallam), and lead (Peters), fine Hammond by Babko (nice solo, too, with a nice two-handed counterpoint), Travers on drums, fine Rhodes touches by Kira Small. It's a track of many merits (and fine solos: by Peters, Beller, and Babko), beyond the fact of acting as a release after the preceding track.

The album has a surprise conclusion: From Nothing sounds as a "Free for All", with Scheila Gonzales playing an uninhibited tenor saxophone that reminded me of the late, great Gary Windo, and a fantastic performance by Beller.

(There's also a "special edition" featuring a CD just like the one I've just reviewed, and a three-hour long DVD-V acting as a documentary to the album that I have yet to see.)

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2008 | Sept. 23, 2008