Dreadnaught: Musica en Flagrante

Science fixion

Dreadnaught space out, but find foundation

Dreadnaught are nothing if not ambitious. In a musical landscape where most bands are rewarded for playing it safe, that is to be commended. Until I heard their new Musica en Flagrante, however, I wondered if their ambition outstripped their talent [this originally ran in March of 2004].

They had this “progabilly” thing, their own personal marriage of progressive rock and Americana, with which they couldn’t stop describing themselves (they still do). I was skeptical. I thought 2001’s American Standard, though technically excellent, was more along the lines of the channel-surfing genre. Channel-surfing should be fun (so says me and Confusatron). American Standard was much too serious to succeed as such.

Musica, however — this is Art. This is the realization of a dream. This is intention and ambition married to execution and creativity. This can hang out in your CD player for a while. This is Dreadnaught.

It’s great to see because Dreadnaught have always been incredibly hardworking. Hardwork should be rewarded. The band have criss-crossed the country each of the past two years, not only pushing their music, but also the Seacoast scene, along the way. And they play a mean show, full of energy and meticulously performed. Nor do they have pretensions. They’ll play wherever, whenever, for however much. They deserve any success they achieve.

That success hasn’t been insubstantial. In the world of progressive rock, that universe populated by people with great stereos and all the Yes albums on vinyl, they’ve generated quite the buzz, and that should only continue with Musica. The production quality (paramount in prog-land) is excellent, the multi-song suites (a must on any prog album) deliver, and the references to intellectual sci-fi (why prog-rock bands don’t get gigs at more sci-fi conventions, I don’t know) are unsubtly in evidence.

“R. Daneel Olivaw,” for instance (it’s an Asimov reference — go read I, Robot). Damn, it’s cool. Opening with an industrial hip-hop backbeat, a delicate (crystalline?) piano run quickly enters, repeating like the prismatic shapes thrown off a spinning chandelier, the final part seeming to fall off some cliff of reason. Then the tune proceeds to mimic the robot of its title with spacey keyboard riffs before the bridge sounds like a very unstrung bass being plucked, all loose and resounding and weird.

Did I mention that the album is all-instrumental? You’ll hardly notice. Like any great such effort, the instruments truly sing.

“Kazak, the Hound of Space,” executed solely by Dreadnaught mastermind Bob Lord on keys and programming, offers a baroque piano, similar to what you might find when the Horror’s CD drops later this month, then goes to a simple note-by-note dalliance, before a pair of woodwinds start dueling, the last note extended and brushed out with faint rolling bass drums.

Lord doesn’t always do it all, though. Justin Walton is still kicking around from his days in Actual Size. His brief, funky guitar breaks highlight “Northern Pike,” a really fine slow jam with flitting strings popping in and out, overtop an ultra-smooth hip-hop beat. The bluesy harmonica break by Seacoast regular Ed Jurdi acts as coup de grace. I literally stopped what I was doing the first time I heard it. This is not background music. This is lights-off, lying on your bed, staring into the blackness stuff. Or something to have weird sex by. Your call.

New to the band is drummer Tim Haney, replacing Rick Habib. His playing, and possibly just the way the drum sound was captured in the recording process, reminds me often of Steely Dan, as on “One Trick Pony” or “The Boston Crab,” the latter possibly an homage to Steely’s “The Boston Rag.” Or not. Haney is more manic than the Dan’s lounge swagger, anyway, driving the band with hyper pacing.

“Pony” could be the opening theme song to the Krusty the Klown Show.

And if it’s intellectual Seacoast recording, you know Andy Happel is kicking around somewhere. I didn’t need to look at the liner notes to know that it was his violin absolutely ripping up “Back Through Newport, Rhode Island.” It’s classical, like a drunk Fiddler on the Roof, but paired with the pop synth lines, it sounds like it belongs on a Squeeze record. The tune is part of the “Sirens of Titan” four-song suite, where nylon strings enter “Caves of Mercury” and you feel very much lost in space.

But with the album’s finisher, Dreadnaught get back to their roots. “Royal Jelly” is the most classically prog-rock, Yes/Rush-styled piece here. It’s got a big full sound, with heavy electric guitar and a thrumming bass supported by active drumming. When that “Heart of the Sunshine” guitar sound, high up and piercing, comes in for the melody, you can’t help but remember fondly those days of eating mushrooms and watching the tie-dye on your wall start flickering at you. Not that you ever did that. I didn’t either.

I did, however, listen to plenty of Dream Theater and 2112 and King Crimson and Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. They were great not because they picked a genre and lived up to a description. They were (are) great because they had vision and purpose. That’s what Dreadnaught and Red Fez Records have delivered with Musica en Flagrante.

Photo credit: Nate Hastings

Tarpigh: Monsieur Monsoon

3 little pighs

Tarpigh like it weird and funny

As a consequence of their musical eclecticism, the trio Tarpigh leave folks grasping to describe them. They’ve been called art rockers, but “Do you hear any rock in there?” asks percussionist Eric LaPerna.

Well, no, not really.

Maybe they have more of a jazz sound? Tim Harbeson, who plays everything from trumpet to pump organ to recorder, sort of frowns, “Jazz?”

Tom Kovacevic, bassist/guitarist/oud-player etc., isn’t around due to a family emergency that has called him to Gary, Indiana, but I can almost feel him sort of scowling at the thought of categorization, too [this was all done in January of 2001].

So, if Tarpigh aren’t easily identifiable, suffice it to say that they like to dress up in funny costumes, use all sorts of puppets and props, even get linked with the performance crowd, but they know their shit: Middle Eastern rhythms, extensions of jazz fusion, and old-fashioned experimentation with anything they can get their hands on.

“I can imagine doing a show of just music,” says LaPerna, “but I can’t imagine doing a show of just theater.” So, tear yourself away from their puppets, gadgets, and masks, and try to focus on their prodigious ability with unusual instruments. And try to have fun right along with them.

“I think an important part of what we do is somewhat humorous,” says Harbeson. “Intrinsically, I wouldn’t want people to take it seriously.”

“We take the music seriously,” counters LaPerna for the reporter.

Harbeson is nonplussed. “Not to discredit the music,” he says, “but I like to laugh. I like to see ridiculous things.”

Much of this comes across on Tarpigh’s debut album, Monsieur Monsoon, released on Northeast Indie, and compiled over the past two years. It opens with “Chance,” a deep, monk-like chant followed by a growing conga beat, and then some of Harbeson’s recorder. The contrast with “Wayra,” which follows, is striking as soon as the lilting flute and charango enter. They move from haunting to heavenly at the drop of a hat. It is an introduction to a circus freak show of an album that will have you sticking your face through the bars of the cage for a better look.

A short list of instruments played on this album: dholak, djun, charango, talking drum, flute, quena, trumpet, bass, toy apple, toy crank, manjitas, keyboard. There are more, some of them you may have heard of; others will be a complete mystery. So much so that it’s often guess-work to even figure out who’s making what sound.

For instance, Harbeson’s trumpet on the back-to-back “Da-O-Rama” and “Monsieur Monsoon” is a pleasure. It begins in almost total freak-out, with squawks reminiscent of Miles Davis’s heroin years, then evolves into a pretty little melody over Kovacevic’s finger-picked guitar. But try to figure out “Toys,” a mèlange of squeezes, whirs, whistles, and beeps. In the liner notes we’re told all three of them are playing “lots and lots of toys.” In the hands of these musicians, every instrument becomes a toy, something to experiment with and use to make sure that everyone in earshot has a blast.

You’d think these kindred souls had spent their lives together, holed up even as toddlers banging Legos off Tonka trucks. Actually, the three didn’t come together until October of ’95, when Baraka, a local belly-dancing ensemble, asked Harbeson and Kovacevic to come and accompany them at a practice. LaPerna had just moved to town and had coincidentally called up Baraka’s Josie Conte to see if she needed a drummer.

“I remember that first night at the Swedenborghen Church,” says LaPerna. “We sounded good, and I moved up here to start a band. So we said, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”

“Right off the bat, we were practicing once a week, writing songs,” says Harbeson. “We had the name after a couple of months. We did our first show at the Free Street Taverna in June.”

In fact, much of what appears on Monsieur Monsoon was written at that time, but they got sidetracked a little bit. “Cerberus Shoal lost their keyboard player,” says Harbeson. “And we had mutual admiration for each other’s music,” continues LaPerna. “We saw them at the Free Street; Tim gave them a tape.” And soon the two bands were collaborating on the soundtracks to Tim Folland’s films Elements of Structure and Permanence. Immediately, Tarpigh went into Cerberus Shoal as full partners, writing “Homb” and “Umphalos” for 1998’s Homb recordings.

As quickly as it started, however, Tarpigh took leave of Cerberus by the middle of 1999. “We all left for different reasons,” says LaPerna without elaborating. “We didn’t leave and say, ‘We’re going to be a band again.’ ”

Luckily for lovers of originality and creativity, Tarpigh decided to give it another go, and they already report having enough material for a second album. They’re also collaborating with Amos Libby, a specialist in Indian percussion — who’ll be playing with them at their release party at the Skinny, Thursday the 25th — and exploring new forms of performance with the likes of Buffy Miller and Middle Eastern master Al Gardner.

But they’re not letting that distract them. “Everything else is a side project,” says LaPerna. “Tarpigh is the project.”