Mike Keneally + Metropole Orkest
The Universe Will Provide

(Favored Nations)

I'm confident that Mike Keneally will not get upset if I say how much my attitude towards The Universe Will Provide had changed in the time elapsed between the announcement of the project, premiered at the Paradiso in Amsterdam (June 8, 2003), and my receiving the CD a few days ago. A period of time in which my mood had changed quite a bit, turning from one of joyous expectation to an almost fearful one. The reason? My response to Dog, Keneally's most recent CD. True, in the past I had not liked all Keneally's albums in quite the same way - which is only logical, given the prodigious diversity of Keneally's recorded output. But in the end I had liked them all. This wasn't true of Dog, for reasons about which I talked at length in my review. Hence, my doubts: had I put too many expectations on Keneally's shoulders - these expectations now being the source of my disappointment? Or maybe our tastes were now diverging - not to converge anymore? OK, let's start from the conclusion: The Universe Will Provide is an excellent album, one that I'd also recommend to listeners who are not his habitual fans.

The album was recorded and mixed in Holland in September 2003. The repertory has a lot in common with what was played in concert, but some tracks have been added. The recorded sound is very clear, with a "feel" quotient that's quite similar to a rock album, without that digital coldness that for this writer is peculiar to a lot of albums recorded on the Pro Tools platform - the system that was used to record The Universe Will Provide! My compliments. The second surprise is the Metropole Orkest, a line-up that - don't know why - I had imagined to sound similar to the Ensemble Modern. On The Universe Will Provide the Metropole sports a pulsating rhythm section (electric bass + drums) with a nice rock flavour that wouldn't sound out of place on one of Keneally's regular rock albums; there are also some nice-sounding wind instruments, with a tasty jazz flavour when playing in section, and with excellent saxophones, trumpets and trombones employed in the solo dimension.

The material is for the most part unreleased - but even the fan who knows hat. and Boil That Dust Speck from memory will find something new in Worrywart Spoonguy and Bullies. This is an album that's very easy to like - which is somewhat a minor prodigy, given its being extremely complex. But it's the kind of "hidden complexity" that is not an obstacle to an appreciation starting from the first time. I was a bit surprised to find some points to be quite reminiscent of the "orchestral" Zappa - let's say some full-sounding orchestral strings à la 200 Motels and some punching brass à la Grand Wazoo - maybe because this is Keneally's first venture into orchestral music, his rock albums having in time lost most traces of Zappa. But it's not a factor that needs to be stressed too much, this music being Keneally's own, where some passages could have been included verbatim on one of his rock albums. A track like Mwah2, with a delicate acoustic guitar in a dialogue with the piano could have easily been part of Wooden Smoke.

Keneally the guitar player is generously featured - just listen to the aforementioned Bullies, an appropriate closing track, and to Worrywart Spoonguy. Repeated listenings reveal a nice conversation going on between the guitar and the orchestra - listen to the solo in All Of Them Were Quiet, where swing winds appear. Nice winds are also to be found in Archaic Peace Strategies; together with a bluesy violin reminiscent of Sugar Cane Harris/Jean-Luc Ponty they animate the improvised section of one of the best pieces, Four Slices Of Toast (starting at 5'): a tenor sax, a trumpet and a trombone that I would never have imagined as being part of an orchestra.

Having praised the orchestra and its conductor, Jurjen Hempel, a special mention is due to old friend Chris Opperman, who wrote the imaginative and intricate orchestrations in collaboration with Keneally. The only weak point of the record is the cover, which is extremely banal and absolutely lacking in extensive information. But here comes the Web.

A brief P.S. about Parallel Universe, a pleasant and interesting project closely related to The Universe Will Provide. Available only through Keneally.com, Parallel Universe is an album that Keneally assembled using four main sources as its starting point: the files used to prepare the charts; the recording of the premiere concert which took place at the Amsterdam Paradiso; excerpts from the studio sessions; excerpts from the sound of video footage. Sounds from these sources have been assembled and sometimes layered, with original results that can also work independently from the main project. I thought the outcome to be conceptually (and sometimes literally: just listen to Roomius, from 6' to 6'45") not too far from Zappa's Lumpy Gravy. Absolutely indispensable for the aficionados, Parallel Universe is a stimulating window for the attentive listener who wants to investigate Keneally's modus operandi.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2004

CloudsandClocks.net | Sept. 25, 2004