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

Confusatron: Ctrl Alt Dstry

Ctrl Alt Dstry

All your base are belong to Confusatron

Maybe the thing that will keep your mind working the longest is pondering the question: “It took Confusatron seven years to make Ctrl Alt Dstry EXACTLY like this?”

The album, a long-awaited follow-up to Chewbacalypse Now by a rival for the title of Portland’s most respected-by-other-musicians band, is unquestionably a work of art. A band like Dream Theater and other progressive metal might be a cultural touchpoint, but really there isn’t much like Confusatron. They are seriously silly, light-heartedly heavy, messily precise. Their songs can take such manic twists and turns that it’s difficult to understand how they keep it all straight, let alone make decisions like, “okay, the first clip from Surf Nazis Must Die comes in right at the 2:30 mark…”

There’s four-beat jazz measures, surf-rock, Italian opera, Gilbert and Sullivan love songs, clip-clop cow punk — their musical palette is impossibly large — but the recurring dark themes (why are demons always depicted with ultra-low voices? Because they’re underground?) and frequent use of breakneck speed and caustic noises makes them a bit of an acquired taste. Their title track has almost not cohesion whatsoever. There are times when they’d be hardcore, but you can never catch a riff you can headbang to. “No Ha Ochi,” with its strings and lilting bits moving into a rockabilly, Western opera sort of thing, and then the audible audience that makes the song like listening to people watching a Western opera, really makes you rethink what is classical music.

Why do we choose the instruments and means of making music that we do? What are the boundaries of the instruments that we play? Those are the questions raised by drummer Adam Cogswell, guitarist Doug Porter, bassist Jason LaFrance, and a laptop named Tickles. Their creativity is as awe-inspiring as their playing.