The Aristocrats
Tres Caballeros
(CD + DVD-V)

Let's start from the end for once, agreed? Well, I'm reasonably certain that Tres Caballeros - the third studio album by "elastic rock" trio The Aristocrats - is a truly great album. The kind of album that in the distant past I would have filed under "required listening" - which in my book also implies "required purchase", of course - calling my friends all over town, telling them all about it over the phone. "Why all the fuss?", I hear you say. Well, great quality going hand-in-hand with a high degree of "user-friendliness" when it comes to the act of listening; the kind of album that one likes immediately but is also a "grower", if you know what I mean; the kind of album that in some distant, more naive, times, would have been nominated in the prestigious "Rock Album of the Year" category - and won.

I have to add that though I immediately liked this album, I also worked really hard to arrive at my conclusion, for reasons that will become clear in a very short while.

Let's not forget that it appears I was the only one - I searched far and wide, but could not find a single negative review - who panned the group's second album, Culture Clash (2013), which I regarded as a big letdown. Two years earlier, the group's first album, The Aristocrats, had been for me a fantastic surprise, presenting a trio of musicians - already quite well-known, and universally regarded as being great players - working together in order to create a group identity that could successfully combine quality and accessibility. In a way, The Aristocrats appeared to me as an experiment about the maximum amount of quality that is possible for a group that also intends to be a viable commercial entity in today's panorama.

Acting as what could be classified as a "minority report", my review of the group's second album found these weak spots: a "caffeinated" mood that obscured nuances; a "congested", fatiguing, sound that showcased bass and "roaring" drums almost at the expense of the best, and more versatile, "melodic weapon" of the trio; a display of fireworks that stretched the compositions way beyond their plausible length.

In a way, this is far too easy to understand. Those days when groups like The Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report - not to mention Frank Zappa - filled stadiums being long gone, today's "difficult music" is played in front of "highly selected audiences", among which "those who play an instrument" are a significant, and quite vocal, portion. But also a type of audience that has its peculiar set of priorities and limitations, one of which is a strong appreciation for all things "technical"; unfortunately, the appreciation of "gymnastics" can also work as the kiss of death for a group, given the fact that having "mechanical skills" as the focal point of one's music is a big obstacle when it comes to increasing the number of one's listeners.

I'm sorry for this lengthy preamble, which I regard as necessary. I'll only add that my fear that Tres Caballeros could stink was so great that a whole month passed before I decided to click on the "buy" button. Then, the CD remained unopened for another month.

Today I can say that Tres Caballeros is really the "second album" I was waiting for two years ago, with a widening and a clarifying of the group's horizons that can only signify an enormous artistic growth. I could mention a recorded sound of a very high quality, a mixing work that suits the compositions to perfection, and the group's decision to "test" the new pieces in public before entering the recording studio, but what really counts here is the intention behind the result.

The album features mutable, varied music that's not afraid to take risks. This time it's Beller, not Minnemann, who writes the "funny, light" songs (though it's Beller who wrote the dramatic "magnum opus" which ends the album). Minnemann proves to be a more versatile composer than I expected him to be. The quality of Govan's writing is not a surprise, Govan being a versatile and profound writer, his pieces always being quite legible at the same time; but it's surprising, in a way, that it's one of his pieces that jumps out as the album's most accessible moment.

The version of the album I own - the one I advice readers to check out - is the "Deluxe Edition" featuring a CD and a DVD-V. I'll talk about the CD (which features about an hour of music) in a moment or two. The DVD-V features interviews with all band members talking about the album for about thirty minutes (there are also a few excerpts from the recording sessions and the "open rehearsals"); another interview with the group of about half the length; alternate versions of some tracks; some excerpts; and three demos, so listeners will be able to compare the initial idea and the final result. The "open rehearsals" were held at the Alvas Showroom, a place that's already familiar to those who have watched the concert video Boing, We'll Do It Live!

Produced by the group, the album was recorded at legendary Sunset Sound studios. Recorded by Erich Gobel and Geoff Neal. Mixed by Erich Gobel. Mastering - which is quite good, even more so when one takes into consideration today's "horrors in mastering" - by Dan Shike.

Listeners will immediately notice - maybe not consciously - the quality and good taste of the timbres, also their variety, which perfectly complement the wide stylistic palette of the featured compositions. The bass is never "bloated", snare drums are rich with nuances, toms are never "boomy", guitars are rich with colours. Overdubbing is also used, but sparingly and intelligently, in order to enrich climates and atmospheres.

Penned by Minnemann, opening track Stupid 7 combines a jerky, almost Beefheartian-flavoured, riff, and aggressive, almost rock-metal, moments. Two fine guitar solos - at 1' 26" and 1' 53" - sounding quite bizarre, with a microtonal movement that at times reminded me of the "pitch-bend" wheel on Jan Hammer's Minimoog, circa Birds Of Fire.

Penned by Govan, Jack's Back is bound to remind one of Furtive Jack, off the group's first album. Like on its predecessor, more than a pinch of Tango, cartoon  and film noir climates, and a great variety of timbres and moods. There's a melodic theme for bass, then pizzicato guitar, then a theme played on guitar, then it's the bass again. There are two Zappa-related moments, with great use of snare, at 2' 18" and 3' 18", a ferocious-sounding guitar solo at 2' 33", with great drums to follow. A very elegant composition.

Beller pushes the "fun" button for Texas Crazypants, with a flavour that combines Steve Ray Vaughan and the Dixie Dregs. Fine guitar-bass unisons, and a pinch of Sweaty Knockers at 2' 35". Some guitar passages reminded me of El Becko - does this title ring a bell? - at 44", 1' 43" and 3' 14".

ZZ Top is the strange title of a piece penned by Minnemann, here also on keyboards. The track alternates "Fripp-like" moments - think about the middle part of Breathless, featuring bass by Tony Levin and drums by Narada Michael Walden - and passages " la ZZ Top". Fine guitar solo, drums fireworks at the end.

Pig's Day Off is another composition by Govan, quite complex but accessible-sounding. There's a fine melodic theme played with chords, some "Bluesy" moments, echoes, and overdubbing, also fine-sounding drums. There's a symphonic-sounding "splice", quite dramatic, at 4' 12", then it's back to the "Blues", and the theme.

Being too long is the only criticism I have for Smuggler's Corridor, which Beller somewhat relates to Calexico and Ween. I was reminded of Ennio Morricone's Once Upon A Time In The West - also, funny this, of the famous sax "hook" featured on Gerry Rafferty's hit Baker Street. Fine bass solo, a "Tango-flavoured" guitar solo, and at the end a funny vocal moment that I suppose will be a great "audience participation time" moment.

I was greatly surprised by Minnemann's Pressure Relief, the author also sitting on piano. Of course, I was reminded of Frank Zappa's Blessed Relief - just the title - while the whole piece sounds very Zappa-related. Fine melodic theme, a guitar performance that reminded me of Pink Napkins, the version that appears on the album Shut Up 'n Play Your Guitar. One can also trace a parallel to the way Zappa's guitar and Vinnie Colaiuta's drums interact on that album on tracks such as The Deathless Horsie and Shut Up 'n Play Your Guitar. There's a fine instrumental coda, before the closing theme.

A fun track, Govan's The Kentucky Meat Shower starts with chicken-pickin' guitar and a theme played on bass. At 1' 30" two very fine bass harmonics signal the start of a series of harmonics and a fluid bass solo with fine counterpoint from piano, also played by Beller. Great guitar solo, theme, close.

Closing track Through The Flower is in many ways the album's climax. A multi-themed Beller composition that develops in a varied, perfectly controlled, manner, it reminded me of two previous Beller compositions: View - closing track of the solo album of same name - for those melodic moments that here appear at 1' 45", 3' 53", and 7' 55" and that in a way reminded me of Griff Peters's touch on guitar (especially the passage at 7' 55"); and Love Terror Adrenaline/Break Through - the most ambitious track on Beller's second solo album, Thanks In Advance - for the "scale" of its construction and for those "heavy", sinister-sounding, moments that here appear at 3' 03", 5' 10, and 8' 31".

The piece starts with a melodic theme played by solo guitar, "rubato". Then the rhythm section, then those delicate-sounding and "heavy"-sounding moments alternating. There's a great guitar solo by Govan, which fades-in at 5' 48". Fine use of phasing on drums and the whole group, especially between 9' 10" and 9' 20".

A spectacular ending: a "Fripp-like", tormented-sounding, guitar enters at 9' 49", then at 10' 21" a wha-wha guitar appears. Fantastic stereo panning.

The real surprise is that, instead of coming to a resolution - like it happened with Love Terror Adrenaline/Break Through - here the track slowly fades out, the listener now being confronted with a giant question mark that is still present long after the music has faded away.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2015 | Aug. 23, 2015