The Aristocrats
Culture Clash
(CD + DVD-V)

"In closing, I have to confess that I root for this trio (but not, I hope, at the expense of my critical objectivity), a fine specimen of a group whose musicians - 'still young, but not too young' - try to do their best in a scenario where knowing how to play your instrument can actually be held against you, and who go on stage 'casually dressed'."

So read the closing paragraph of my review of The Aristocrats' DVD-V titled Boing, We'll Do It Live!, released about one year ago: a fine concert memento from a very successful tour, hot on the heels of the release of the group's much-lauded first album. Those who are not "in the know" are invited not to visualize a picture of a trio of paupers, given my sober characterization of the group. In fact, it's a trio of well-known musicians we are talking about.

The subjects of laudatory cover stories on such magazines as Bass Player, Guitar Player, and Modern Drummer, (in alphabetical order) Bryan Beller, Guthrie Govan, and Marco Minnemann all sport rich and varied CVs. Just to mention their most recent collaborations, there's the case of Govan and Minnemann being part of the highly acclaimed "neo-Prog" Steven Wilson album titled The Raven That Refused To Sing And Other Stories, and the tour that followed. Alongside guitarist and keyboardist Mike Keneally, both Beller and Minnemann are the backbone of the extended world tour by US guitarist Joe Satriani, whose US leg is in full blast as I write. (Of course, the professional rapport between Beller and Keneally goes back a long way, Beller having been Keneally's right-hand man for about twenty years now. And let's not forget their being part of the highly successful "comic-metal" project going under the name Dethklok.)

After such a well-received first album, the group had to prove themselves all over again. Having managed to coordinate their work schedules - something which I suppose wasn't too easy - the trio recorded the new album in the course of one week, last January. Released on July 16th, Culture Clash immediately entered the US charts, hitting the #8 spot on the Contemporary Jazz Chart, and #16 on the Jazz Albums Chart of Billboard magazine. I really don't know why what to me sounds undeniably like a rock album would be listed under jazz. Likewise, I don't know what those who bought the group's new album, having already enjoyed the first one, made of the drastic revisions in the group's sound (about which, in just a minute or two). Two things I know: That the members of The Aristocrats regard Culture Clash as a step forward. And that reviewers from all over the world have spoken in very favourable terms of the album's high degree of virtuosity.

I would have liked to add my opinion. Alas!, it took thirty-two days for the man who safely delivered the CD to my home to cross the Atlantic Ocean. The wait made my expectations swell, given the general acclaim I read about left and right. Which - admittedly - can have unpleasant, unintended consequences. So I have to say that I was quite surprised when I noticed that, after more than a few listening sessions, I didn't seem to like the album - at all. Here I have to thank my not being pressured to produce any copy presto! and pronto!, so being afforded the luxury to debate with myself all significant issues at length. I was not expecting such a drastic, and in a way, courageous, re-engineering of the group's sound - here the trio has definitely gone back to the drawing board. Funny thing, not one of the reviews I've read - about half a dozen, by the way, not two hundred - made any mention of this.

From the very start, it was immediately apparent to me that The Aristocrats play rock music. Better said, they could be defined as "a rock group playing complex instrumental music". It goes without saying that Fusion elements are part of the group's palette, alongside Prog and Metal. And let's not forget that from a European perspective the "rock" tag includes traits that are often absent from a US perspective - hoping to make things a bit clearer, let's remember groups such as Mahavishnu Orchestra, Soft Machine, King Crimson, Van Der Graaf Generator, and Henry Cow.

I really liked the sound of The Aristocrats (the first album): a wide canvas, a high ceiling, Govan's guitar panned to the left, Beller's bass on the right, the drums spread through the stereo panorama, with a slant to the right. The mix had the guitar come "forward", which was only logical, given the fact that Govan is the most brilliant soloist of the trio, possessing a rich right hand articulation which would be foolish not to highlight.

Culture Clash features a distinctively new sound: the guitar is for the most part panned to the right, especially the solo parts where the sound is more saturated, with most clean parts still panned to the left (it goes without saying that it's possible to list many counter-examples, but here we are looking at what can be considered as being typical of the new album). Bass and drums, heavy and loud, are panned to the left. Without going too deep into "psycho-acoustics", let's recall that - not considering left-handed people - it's quite common to place the most important elements to the right (also on screen), hence the custom of placing "rock" solos to the right. This type of placement, alongside our cultural disposition to follow melody and high-pitched sounds, makes it possible to have the guitar appearing to be loud even at a lower volume. But this new formulation of the group sound (here's an hyper-simplification: from Steely Dan to Led Zeppelin) is quite drastic, and something I'm sure not everybody will like. It has to be noticed that, while on the first album the sound had a strong upward extension, here the soundstage resembles those concert images where the group has a black area appearing both above and below.

This change highlights both the bass and the drums, a choice that's not entirely devoid of risks. Beller's bass is clear and, in a way, measured. But Minnemann - a drummer who, when given the proper direction (by Wilson, say, or Keneally) is perfectly able to play "just the right amount" - here often oscillates between exaggeration and caricature, Which is not really surprising if we take into consideration the fact that those skillful double bass drum figures played by Billy Cobham and Simon Phillips were first put on record about forty years ago. The problem for every "fusion" musician (those who are interested in investigating those matters are invited to read Bill Bruford's autobiography) is that s/he appears to wear an "advertisement for her/his self" in her/his own playing. Which makes lots of sense from a commercial point of view, given the fact that a lot of those who study an instrument give those "wanking" matters a lot of consideration. Which is also a perfect explanation of the "selective" appeal of a lot of groups playing this music.

I also seemed to detect a certain sameness to the sound of the different pieces, which in my opinion does not serve the various climates to their best. For instance, the "metal" piece by Beller, Living The Dream, doesn't sound too different from those other pieces that came before.

In their guise as composers, the members of the trio present compositions which are quite dense (also obviously quite difficult to execute). In my opinion, the first album offered higher highs, also lower lows, and I have to admit the reason I think of it as being "of perfect length" is that I always skip a few tracks. Culture Clash is more homogeneous when it comes to quality. This is also true of Minnemann's tracks, even if the way he assembles the various sections, which could never be defined as being "arbitrary", appears to lack the proper degree of "necessity" that will convince one that a certain piece could only be like that, and not otherwise. I have to add that most pieces sounded like they were outstaying their welcome by a couple of minutes, as if formal requirements in their construction made their composers less aware of the danger of monotony implicit in those repeated sections.

Readers are invited to judge for themselves. I have to say that watching the interview segments featured in the DVD-V which comes with the Deluxe Edition of the album, sometimes I thought that the trio appeared to be dangerously close to that moment when a group start believing their own publicity, which is especially dangerous for those who inhabit increasingly self-referential environments. Hence, my waving from the sidelines.

Let's have a quick look at those pieces.

The album opener, Dance Of The Aristocrats comes straight from the aforementioned live album. Here it sounds more similar to the demo by its composer, Minnemann: drums, percussion, wha-wha bass, theme. I prefer the more restrained version of the live album, here the piece is too long, and - not a plus for me - more similar to Joe Satriani than to Jeff Beck. Sounds a bit like plastic, too, especially during the second part of the guitar solo, quite "virtuoso".

Culture Clash, by Govan, starts quite rhythmic, with a guitar figure, plus bass. There's a fine melody, a "jazzy" bass figure, the whole composition sounding quite fragmented, but with logic. More melody from the bass, harmonics, a fine guitar solo. A drum "intermezzo" that's a bit too much, then a fine jazz interlude, with "walking" bass and measured drums. Cut, distorted guitar, bass, close.

Louisville Stomp, by Beller, is a fine piece. Hi-hat on the right, then it's the main theme of a piece that in the video Beller calls "Setzer on crack", with a Gretch semi-acoustic guitar and "walking" bass. Clean guitar solo, "walking" bass, a fine bass solo. Hidden somewhere, parts for a 40s-sounding brass section show that in those years at Berklee Beller did not skip his arranging classes. But I have to admit this is a piece I admire due to its intelligence, but that it leaves me a bit cold.

Ohhhh Noooo, by Minnemann, opens like some track by Led Zeppelin, with a riff, chords, and a "stuttering" theme, halfway between Jimmy Page and Tommy Bolin. A Fripp-like repeat, the guitar here sounding "tiny", with echo, it's a  "Prog" moment that also reminded me of The Mahavishnu Orchestra with Narada Michael Walden on drums. At about 3' 24" there's one of the best moments of the album, with a bass solo with wha, and a feedback (?) choir from the guitars, again too much drums. Then it's back to the "stuttering"-funky theme, then it's back to Led Zeppelin, there's a fine coda with a good solo in the John McLaughlin/Jimmy Page vein.

Gaping Head Wound is a theme by Govan, complex but fluid, which always swings. Fine unison by the trio. Govan gives Beller a fine, clean, fusion-sounding solo. Then Govan plays a solo that's quite reminiscing of Frank Zappa, Minnemann having fun pretending to be Vinnie Colaiuta. Then it's back to the theme.

Desert Tornado, by Minnemann, has a torrential opening for drums. Chords with the vibrato bar, and reverb, form a melody. Quite strange this, at about 1' 35" there's a guitar motif that reminded me a lot of the main theme from Beller's Love Terror Adrenaline, off his second solo album, Thanks In Advance. It's a fine "metal" moment that's too heavy for its own good. Fine coda with melody, then a "cut" surprise ending that one can see coming.

Cocktail Umbrellas, by Beller, has a "swinging" start, a fine chord sequence, and a theme " la John Scofield". Again, a "brass section" "hidden" in the composition. There's a joyful solo, a fine guitar solo over an appropriately measured snare drum, the bass impersonating a tuba, then it's a lot of "swing". Then it's back to the "Scofield" theme.

Living The Dream has a thunderous attack, metal and "doom", then it's a strange "country & western/cartoon" melody. There's a fine "blues-psychedelic" solo by Govan. A "psychedelic"-sounding phrase from the bass, a "sitar" (?) appearing on the right. Angry metal theme. Again, too much drums.

And Finally, by Govan, is quite joyful, the perfect close to open the windows in order to let fresh air in. "Open"-sounding guitars, fine use of the stereo soundstage, this track will remind listeners of the group's first album (checking the credits, I saw that the guitars were tracked in a different studio, in U. K.). Fine bass parts, appropriate drums, good instrumental balance. I seemed to perceive echoes of Steely Dan, especially in the "bridge" section, also (I think) an echo of Chuck Rainey's bass parts.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2013 | Sept. 7, 2013