Tiny dim sum tastes of improvisation
The spirit of improvisation allows that anything is possible, but in practice, players often play it too safe, meandering within the comfortable confines of blues and rock progressions or stultified jazz standards. Sure, there are experimental islands where the wild things are, but they’re often inhabited by self-absorbed madmen who flout convention like rebels without a cause. Mystical Weapons make a valiant effort and lay claim to a new utopian vision of instant composition. Even if they don’t fully distance themselves from self-indulgence, their new album features satisfying musical twists and fine playing.
The duo got their start in 2010 when Deerhoof opened for the Plastic Ono Band in Oakland. Sean Lennon had a show the next night in San Francisco and asked Deerhoof’s drummer, Greg Saunier, if he’d be interested in improvising a set. It went so well, they ended up in the studio trying to recapture the magic they found onstage. Mystical Weapons successfully conveys a sense of loose exploration and responsive playing as the pair riff from avant garde jazz to intense post-rock spectacle. Breaking the default jam band pattern, most of the tracks stick to pop song length or shorter, which either shows good judgment about audience patience or reflects a selective ear for editing. If anything, the shortest of these morsels seem too abbreviated, with promising ideas that don’t reach their potential. The two longer tracks maintain an interesting sense of direction, but they still keep it to the six minute range.
In a couple of brief interludes, the opening tracks ”Impossible Shapes” and “Mechanical Mammoth” provide a quick tour of the band’s wide ranging sonic map. Four simple measures of classic jazz piano on the first song offer no warning for progressive punch that follows; the soothing chords are buried under a quick roll and a snaking bass line takes over. Mystical Weapons channel an early period King Crimson intensity with bombastic drums and art rock chord changes. The spacy edges push the tune into a restrained psychedelic jam before the song beaches itself on a whining feedback tone crowned with shattered echo remnants. Those reverberations mutate and flow into the playful percussion of the second tune. Squeaks and tones punctuate a jazzy drumbeat like some of Frank Zappa’s experiments on Lumpy Gravy. The orchestration and odd rhythmic stutter conjure up a lumbering image of the title creature.
These initial gambits are like dim sum, sharing intriguing little tastes of improvised music. Mystical Weapons finally serves up a larger portion on “Whisper the Blue Tongue”. The trippy start balances Pink Floyd style psychedelia with a strong current of Miles Davis’ electric period jazz. The bass and drum backing evoke the groove behind Davis’ “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down”. Guitar and keys stand in for the horns, but the jam feels lively and open as Lennon and Saunier build on each others parts. An avant garde edge is there, but the flickers of sound are accents rather than a dominating presence. Like the best improv, the song evolves and adapts to its environment. It’s so satisfying to drift along with the piece, surrendering to its organic order and development. While I would have easily savored another 10 minutes of exploration, the band lets the song find closure far earlier.
That discipline gets heavy handed though. On “Goddess Curlers”, the band revisits the prog rock sound of King Crimson. The music swirls dark and heavy over the expressive drums. Then the roiling tension breaks, allowing a new melodic sense of purpose to seize control. Rather than follow this promising shift, they quickly abandon it and the song grinds to a halt. It’s an invigorating minute and a half, but the moment proves too ephemeral. The following snippets are similarly frustrating. What earlier seemed like judicious editing decisions begin to feel capricious. It’s one thing to avoid self-indulgence, but they could stand to indulge the audience more.
Still, a free form approach to music entails risk; paths can lead into circles or peter out. It requires a Zen mindset where the journey is the reward rather than perfection. The scattering of short tracks may be the band’s way of documenting their travels. On the other hand, they may just reflect a compromise, padding out the more developed pieces to reach a reasonable running time for the album. Either way, the richer worlds that are discovered make Mystical Weapons a treat even if it doesn’t satiate the audience’s full hunger. There’s magic in Saunier and Lennon’s mashup mix of jazz, quirky percussion jams and heady art rock.
(This review originally appeared on Spectrum Culture)