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

Twisted Roots: Volume 1

Pump up the Volume

A Twisted Roots retrospective (with five new songs)

Nowadays, it’s hard to remember that Twisted Roots ever broke up in the first place. Or that they’d been playing for a decade before the break-up even happened. With 2004’s self-released The Seed, last year’s Rat Pak record 12 Skies, Fire and the Black, and a steady stream of shows throughout the state, TFR (the “F” stands for “fucking,” but you knew that) have reestablished themselves at the head of Maine’s heavy music scene [this originally ran in fall of 2008].

You know, the scene that seems to produce more show attendees and record buyers than any other in the state?

But it bears remembering that just about now Twisted Roots are celebrating 20 years as a band, and their label commemorate the fact with Volume 1, a collection of 16 songs that are variously from their two Cherrydisc albums, Turn to Stone and Communication, and their last disc before the break-up, Body in the Trunk, Brick on the Gas, plus an unreleased live take, two brand-new songs recorded with Jon Wyman, some remixes, and three unreleased recordings from the somewhat distant past.

Don’t overthink it. Unless you’re a serious local-music collector, you have basically none of this material. Body in the Trunk is widely held, yes, so maybe you’ve got five of these songs, but both Communication and Stone have been out of print for more than a decade, and were available for sale before even an old man like me was out of college.

So, experience it all again for the first time. The mastering is such that you’d never know the difference from a tune recorded in 1992 and 2008, and the material holds up remarkably well. Twisted Roots’ brand of melodic heavy rock has never really lost its fanbase, moving from the grunge era to alternative rock radio to the sort of metal we hear today played by Dead Season, Loki, Civil Disturbance, and any number of other bands that combine driving, distorted guitars; an active, down-tuned bass; floor-tom- and cymbal-heavy drums; and soaring melodic vocals.

A note from Twisted Roots’ Adam Powers: “When Twisted Roots formed in 1989 there was only one venue in town that would play all-original hard rock or punk rock music: Geno’s … It took us over a year to convince Kris Clark to give us a show at Zootz on a Wednesday night. There was the Tree playing mostly early alt-country and national underground music, but pretty much everywhere else was covers.” [Editor’s note: This ran as part of the “Sibilance” notes column I used to write to accompany full reviews. The more things change, the more they stay the same, I guess.]

“Tracks” is one of the tunes that got the band noticed, with what became a trademarked vocal-oriented open, with just an acoustic-guitar backing: “She wept/ And the sound of seven guns drummed in her head.” Back when Stone came out, Neil Collins was playing bass, before he went on to play with Lincolnville and Eldemur Krimm. His playing drives this track, pushing forward what is a great radio-friendly singalong.

The brand-new “Counter on the Hill”—with the current line-up of frontman Pete Giordano, lead guitarist Adam Powers, drummer Sonny Robinson, and bassist Mark Lennon—is a two-minute “Tracks” homage. The opening vocals are a little more naked, and there’s a nod to a lower-fi aesthetic, but “I heard about the gun you held.”

But it doesn’t really matter which songs were recorded when, since much of the band’s new audience didn’t even have access to Twisted Roots when the songs were first released. As in: The Internet and the MP3 wasn’t invented yet (that’s an exaggeration, but you get my point). Nowadays, the appetite for American heavy rock in Germany, Russia, Scandinavia, etc., can’t be overstated. And Internet radio stations are happy to sate their appetites with heavy riffage from the Roots. 

The manic, huge sound of Trunk’s “Voices,” with a thunderous pounding following the first chorus, is every bit as attractive as the heart-racing drum push that drives 2008’s “Hollow Earth.” And the rock-ballad style of 1996’s “Seven Days,” with its pretty little guitar opening and its moody organ, never goes out of style.

Of course, local archivists will be pleased with a couple of gems here, too. “Waking Up,” a furious live recording with a cycling breakdown after the first chorus that leads into an epic guitar solo, seems to be an unreleased bit from the same State Theatre (it hurts just to type that) show that produced 1994’s live album, Bad Blood/Blown Motor. “Blackbirds” offers a relatively rare extended acoustic piece, with a spacey effect to accompany some psychedelic lyrics: “Apple pie filled with black birds/ What do they symbolize?”

What do they symbolize? I’m going to go with: The festering and continuing decay of the American dream. See, I told you some things never go out of style.