To have grown up a hard rock/metal fan in the early eighties is, I think, to have a deep disdain for the saxophone. At least it is for me. Along with the pop-synth and the not-quite-ska riff, the saxophone represents everything plastic, cynical, and derived about that period of time. I can’t ever get into early Bruce Springsteen for this reason, to give you an indication of how deeply this has affected me.
It even kept me from being able to fully appreciate some Rolling Stones and classic rock and roll songs. To add weight to my feelings, The Beatles only ever used one saxophone solo in their music, so I must have been onto something.
Or not. It’s just a horn. Like so many things, it in and of itself is not really the issue. Context is everything. I have since relaxed about synths, helped a great deal by Faith No More and Nine Inch Nails. The not-quite-ska riff is still obnoxious, but is not used much anymore. But the saxophone remains a sound I just can’t seem to forgive. So it is tricky to critique a record where, instead of my beloved metal guitar, we have the metal sax.
Metal sax. Two words that I can’t reconcile. But, with Brain Tentacles, that is exactly what I am hearing. A distorted, massive, wailing instrument played for the most part in a way to make me challenge my bias. Where I expected some not nearly Zorn-ish enough chaos meets shitty night club sleaze, I am instead greeted with churning, chugging power… and a touch of night club sleaze. But just a touch.
The band is composed of Bruce Lamont (Yakuza) on the hate-o-phone, keys and vocals, Dave Witte (about a million bands) on drums and Aaron Dallison (Keelhaul) on bass, vocals and keys, and they are creating some very good metal – sometimes great, but now and then drudging as well. Still, you gotta’ break some eggs, and they get enough into the omelet to make this a compelling dish.
Opening with the ferocious “Kingda Ka” the band sets the tone of quick, percussive and chunky compositions perfectly. The sax winds and cavorts like the demons from Fantasia, while the rhythm section holds it all together. “Fruitcake” follows, with a slightly middle-eastern riff and layered saxes creating another headbanging, very metal commotion. Both these songs move quickly and are over in a hurry. A perfect introduction to the band, letting the listener know that this IS metal, this IS for the banging of the head, and making one look forward to what follows.
“Cosmic Warrior’s Girth Curse” opens with a drawn out bludgeoning herald, and introduces the sparsely used vocalizing contributed by either Dallison or Lamont. The song’s first half is a series of concussions intervening with large, empty spaces worthy of the Melvins. The second half is slow burning, groove-infused yet slightly more expected given the instruments. The whole is a nine-minute journey which, although mostly compelling, does wear out its welcome toward the two-thirds mark.
“Gassed” presents the band in a manner I would have predicted. I would call it, at least for me, the throw-away track; the slightly expected sleazy sounding sax song – despite Oxbow’s Eugene Robinson adding some lovely insane screaming to the mix.
And that may be the one down-side to the record. When the band keeps things concise and heavy, they are a force of nature. When they let things draw out or get cute, they wander into territory I worried I might hear when I saw the instrumental make-up. Not quite hack, but so close as to be distracting. The good news is that this phenomenon is the exception rather than the rule. The band obviously knew where they wanted to be when creating this music and was definitely on to something.
Take “Sleestack Lightning,” for example. Never mind the genius title, the song itself is a staccato trip to and from hell, generating plenty of cranium smashing moments, but also moving in strange ways; disturbing ways…sleestacking ways, once again harkening the best of Melvins, but also carving its own home.
The sound and production are such that the sax sounds like a sax, but also like a battery of distorted guitars, and is very interesting. The bass is distorted as well, and very much a part of the structure, adding a huge amount of texture as well as bottom. The drums are snappy, but still heavy. The overall sound of Sanford Parker’s production is heavy and weird and satisfying.
The bottom line here is that this record makes its avant-garde statements without becoming precious about it, and delivers some real metal value in the process. It takes chances, and it also falls into well-worn traps. But it predicts its own problems and solves them before it makes them for the most part. Is it bizarre? Yes, but not to the exclusion of catchiness. It is enjoyable, heavy, and worth a listen.
Does it cure me of my saxophobia? That remains to be seen.