The Aristocrats
The Aristocrats


I was quite curious to listen to The Aristocrats' new album (the group's name, I'm told, being that of a very famous joke, also of a movie, though I have to admit this is the first time I've heard of both). The Aristocrats are a trio of virtuosos, a kind of "supergroup", featuring (in alphabetical order) Bryan Beller on bass, Guthrie Govan on guitar, and Marco Minnemann on drums. It goes without saying that "prodigious technical skills" may sometimes give birth to a gigantic snooze-fest, and especially so when it comes to those genres where - in so differently from, say, techno - "monotony" (as in "lack of variety and interest; tedious repetition, routine") is not one of the necessary "building blocks", but an unintentional by-product. And if there is a genre that's especially in danger of producing monotony galore, this is Fusion (my opinion, of course, but I know I'm not alone in believing this).

So I'm quite happy I can say that - in spite of those aforementioned "prodigious technical skills" - the album is quite interesting and fun to listen to, with more than a few excellent moments. It's a bit uneven, but since three composers are involved, in a way this was to be expected. The album sounds quite clear and full of colours, and the recording, mixing, and mastering are all first class (something which doesn't come cheap, I suspect, and which has to be much lauded, especially in the current climate when - the times of chart hits such as Blow By Blow and Surfing With The Alien being long past - the chances of an instrumental album such as this entering the Top 40 are quite slim).

The first and last pieces are good for instances of the quality and variety of the music featured on this album.

First track, Boing!... I'm In The Back, penned by Minnemann, has a "rock" start, Beller's bass through his wha-wha pedal (a sound that has fast become one of his signature sounds), a theme that in a way reminded me of "Beat groups" from the 60s, and more than a hint towards the second (guitar) theme from El Becko; also, a few tasty surprises when it comes to the track's volume, a frantic aroma (almost Zappa-like), a fine guitar solo in a slow tempo, then it's the wha-wha bass again, flashy double bass drums hit, then it's the Beck-like theme again, close. Not too bad - in just 4'59"!

Last track, Beller's Flatlands performs the same function as View, on the album of the same name: a moment of piece after all the turmoil. It's a beautiful, melodic theme, slow and "circular", with a limpid chord sequence, restrained performances by Beller and Minnemann, and an excellent guitar solo by Govan, agile, with a clean tone and "naked" phrasing - this would be the perfect track for a movie end-credits.

But who are these people? Good question. Bryan Beller is the only member of the trio whose recorded output I'm reasonably familiar with, especially when it comes to those albums he has recorded with Mike Keneally, and his fine solo records; but I have to confess I'm not at all familiar with many albums in his discography, some of which - starting with those he recorded with Steve Vai - are maybe the main reason, I suspect, for his popularity as a bass player. The only thing under Minnemann's name I've listened to is his collaboration with Mike Keneally, though his CV is quite long and varied. And I'm more than a bit ashamed to admit this is the first time I've seen the name Guthrie Govan - who recently appeared on the cover of Guitar Player! Here I have to say that - provided I was already familiar with the palette of the players in the "rhythm section" - for me Govan was a revelation. His qualities are many - he's an excellent writer, and an instrumentalist of uncommon versatility who can sound believable in many contexts - but here I'd like to highlight his clear, transparent attack, which maintains this quality even in the more raucous "rock" moments.

The album showcases the fine instrumental exchange between the players, instrumental overdubs being kept at a minimum (this being the "idealized version" of a fine concert).

(During my listening sessions - two weeks, via loudspeakers and headphones - I often thought about the age-old topic: Who's a "slave to technique" - those who have a lot, or those who have a little? Discuss.)

Let's have a quick look at the remaining pieces.

Written by Beller, Sweaty Knockers nonchalantly mixes a riff that reminded me of Led Zeppelin and a "Fusion" melody. Excellent solos from guitar, bass (the wha-wha again), fireworks from the drums.

Bad Asteroid was penned by Govan. Fine swing, agile hi-hat, and a "Fusion"-sounding theme that my "selective competence" when it comes to such matters regards as resembling some tracks by... well, a pinch of Larry Carlton, a bit of Eric Gale - from the end of the 70s. The organization of the piece is interesting: the theme is played again, this time with tone and volume la Van Halen, pick-up "squeaks" included; there's a guitar interlude that almost sounds like a Mini-Moog arpeggio, then a "metal" solo, then a melodic, "swing", part with wha-wha, then a clean part ( la Joe Pass), then it's the wha-wha swing again, then it's the "Fusion" theme, then the Mini-Moog arpeggio, with the "Van Halen" part as the close. It has to be noticed that the piece sounds coherent, as a whole, the ingredients placed side-by-side don't sound forced.

Get It Like That is another Minnemann piece, with a "Fusion" theme played on the guitar and drums propulsion that reminded me of Narada Michael Walden. Beller in the background, here the guitar solo reminded me of George Benson, backed by (maybe I should say, overwhelmed by) Simon Phillips. Fireworks again from Minnemann, while the piece has a quite strange "metal" ending, which sounds as having been pasted just to give the piece an ending whatsoever.

Govan wrote Furtive Jack, which sports an elegant, Latin-flavoured theme (a tango?) which would sound just as good when played by a Big Band or a mariachi orchestra. The theme has a fine development, a nice fretless bass solo, with fine chords, and an appropriate "rim-shot" from the drums. There's a guitar solo - with a pinch of Jeff Beck? - then it's back to the elegant theme.

The last Govan composition here, I Want A Parrot alternates "rock" moments with melodic ones, with a very fine bass performance by Beller, an excellent guitar solo, and an excellent performance by Minnemann on drums.

Here things sag a bit. Though ably performed, Beller's See You Next Tuesday, off his album View, sounds a bit redundant here (it would be perfect as a concert encore). Starting with a Beefheartian riff, Minnemann's Blues Fuckers is without a doubt the weakest moment of the album, with a series of fragments forced to fit which - as a piece of music - don't amount to a coherent whole (others will argue differently; as we know so well, everybody is entitled to my own opinion).

Flatlands is the aforementioned fine close.

The album is available as a digital download, in CD format, with or without a T-shirt. For my review I (obviously) listened to the CD, but without the T-shirt.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2011 | Oct. 11, 2011