With a distinctively science fiction flavor, composer/bassist Ben Allison's latest The Stars Look Very Different Today follows a Star Trekian path to "... boldly go where no man has gone before." For Mr. Allison the path is the creation of modern, approachable improvisational music and here he is once again successful in blazing the way.
Continuing on the science fiction/outer space theme, the album title is taken from a line in David Bowie's Space Oddity which back in 1972 was itself a bold statement on a changing world and the disorienting effects of scientific progress. Over forty years later, Mr. Allison clearly influenced by Bowie among others of his generation, is not so much disoriented by space-aged technology as he is fascinated by the possibilities that it creates. The textures and sounds he now has at his disposal as a result of this technology is what seems to interest him and he sets forth to show us that he has learned how to use them tastefully.
The album offers a curious mix of deep space and terra firma. Songs like "The Ballad of Joe Buck," and "No Other Side," with their strange combination of twang and techno, seem clearly more down to earth, a view from the ground up as it were. These songs are curiously juxtaposed against his more spacey creations like "Neutron Star," " D.A.V.E." (Digital Awareness Vector Emulation) and "Improvisus" where there is no doubt that Mr. Allison has had his head in the stars as of late. All his compositions seem to offer a unifying cinematic quality where you can see yourself in the sound scape he creates no matter how alien those places may seem.
The band is made up of a pulsating rhythm section. Mr. Allison strumming his bass, creating a drone-like beat. Drummer Allison Miller producing military-like cadences on her traps keeping everyone in step. This is especially notable on the lead song "D.A.V.E. " The two guitar format is unusual but effective. Mr. Allison employs these two lead instrumental voices as perfect foils in both attack and tone. Mr. Cardenas is a sumptuously lyrical player with a warm, smooth tone and marvelous harmonic sensibilities as featured on the beautiful "Dr. Zaius." Mr. Seabrook is a wrecking ball of a player whose has an arsenal of sounds that range from penetratingly piercing to simply sublime. Seabrook's creative use of the banjo adds another dimension most interestingly on a song like the brooding and sauntering "The Ballad of Joe Buck." The deliberately slow, exaggerated pace of the melody belies the degree of skill it takes to do this kind of song effectively and reminds me of some of the progressive work in this style done by the seriously under appreciated group Slow Poke.
"Neutron Star" is a repeating, ascending guitar vamp by Mr. Cardenas that is punctuated by the rhythmic chording and electronics of Mr. Seabrook and Mr. Allison's booming bass lines over Ms. Miller's rolling toms and splashing cymbals. Cleverly employing the electronic and acoustic sounds of his band, Mr. Allison and his group manage to create a field of pulsing rhythmic energy, a musical neutron star.
"Kick it Man" is an ostinato based, crescendo building vamp that feels like you are in a situation room where the world outside is growing ever more dangerous, accentuated to frenzy by Ms. Miller's bombastic drum solo. Could this be Mr. Allison's statement on the invasion of tranquility that technology brings with it?
"Swiss Cheese D" is an electronic, riff-based shuffle that features Mr. Allison playing some facile bass lines. Mr. Seabrook interjects wild electronic sounds from both guitar and banjo while Mr. Cardenas offers staccato guitar lines and brash chords as Ms. Miller keeps the fractured time.
As a progressive composer Mr. Allison is looking to embrace aspects of popular contemporary music combining them with skilled improvisational techniques, including the creative use of electronics and codifying them into original works. He like others are blazing a musical path that has not yet been fully explored. Hopefully his efforts will spark interest in a new generation of listeners that are discontent with what the current popular music scene has to offer. Raising the plane of what we can expect from our musical artists.
With The Stars Look Very Different Today, Mr. Allison and friends have provided a musical journey to no particular destination. For those who wish to take the ride it offers some interesting sights and sounds along the way.
All music composed by Ben Allison.
Personnel: Ben Allison, Bass : Steve Cardenas, guitar; Brandon Seabrook, guitar, Banjo; Allison Miller, drums