Loud Folk [Release date 22.09.15]
Minneapolis art rockers The Galactic Cowboy Orchestra take us back to the experimental and adventurous days of early 70’s prog rock and fusion, when bands like King Crimson, Jethro Tull and later the Mahavishnu Orchestra and their like ruled the world.
In truth both prog and fusion enjoyed only a short tenure before being subsumed by the mainstream. However, The Galactic Cowboy Orchestra combines the best elements of spontaneity and musical virtuosity in a contemporary art rock setting.
At times they are magnificent, especially when each band member is playing at full tilt and inspiring each other to the next level, as on the double-time rhythms of the angular ‘You Do That’, a composition that nearly creaks under its own weight.
They are equally good on the melodic ‘Fish of a Feather, which glides seamlessly like a fusion piece should, with Rush style inflections and Mahavishnu Orchestra meets Michael Urbaniak style electric violin. Half way through the piece John Wright’s bass takes centre stage as the band veers towards Gong style space rock!
They are less essential though on pieces like ‘Minion (Part 2)’, which for all its free- from pretensions sounds like the kind of drum and bass piece duet that led to many people abandoning jazz rock in the first place.
Happily the album as a whole overrides such blips with an array of intricate dynamics, adventurous arrangements and inspired playing.
Electric violinist and vocalist Lisi Wright is also a big Rush fan, which probably explains the shifting time signatures and John Wright’s effervescent bass playing.
That said, The Galactic’s carve out their own niche, which is straddled between prog, jazz rock and fusion.
The band is the sum of its parts on compositions that are flexible enough to constantly twist, turn and surprise us. And it’s those restless, adventurous moments that make this more than a jobbing fusion album.
Lisi Wright’s snaking electric violin lines and the band’s staccato rhythms populate the prog rock eclecticism of ‘Forward motion (Part 2)’ They also add some feverish double time percussion on the intricately woven ‘You Do That’. It’s a style they revisit on the album title track highlight ‘Earth Lift’, as John Wright’s muscular bass playing locks horns with Dan Neale’s spiky guitar to evoke Zappa’s jazz fusion era.
According to the band they arranged all the tracks with: “much discussion, contemplation and experimentation”. Piece after piece is push and pulled in different directions by a mix of spontaneous, adventurous interplay and shifting tempos. They happily pursue disparate musical pulses in the same song with a confidence and bravado that rides rough shot over our expectations.
Each band member appears interchangeable as they shift from their respective roles of accompanist to front line soloist, none more so than bass player John Wright whose bulldozer lines frequently push the band to another level.
It’s one thing to deliberately set out to play challenging music, but its quite another to be able to share your aspirations with potential listeners, let alone achieve the high standards of interplay that the band explores here.
They surprise us with a cover of ‘When The Levee Breaks’, which retains the core slide figure – given a rough edged reading by Dan Neale – while Lisi emotes the lyrics as the band leans into the piece with real abandon.
‘Swara Kakali’ is am East meets West delight, as the lighting fast lines and Dan Neale’s resolving guitar solo breaks through the self imposed musical tensions. Drummer Billy Thommes pushes the band to the limit and Lisi adds layers of wah-wah inflected sinuous lines.
Dan Neale’s ‘Picker Waddle’ is an exhilarating solo guitar piece on which we catch our breath, before the fractured intricacy of ‘The Demented Waltz’. ‘Poison’ is a change of direction featuring a Sandy Denny style vocal over a jangling guitar line in a musical sleight of hand that fuses folk sensibilities with proggy musical sweep and a climactic finish.
‘Honky Bumblebee’ provides the perfect jazz fusion finish. Billy Thommes’ crisp cymbal work underpins the front line tapestry of delight over which Lisi hovers with a final electric violin solo.
‘Earth Lift’ has 11 tracks, but it’s an album that relies less on structural depth than salient musical moments which connect with each other. By the time of the perfunctory ending, your mind is buzzing with licks, motifs and feverish solos that you will want to hear again. ****
Review by Pete Feenstra
Pete Feenstra presents his Rock & Blues Show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio every Tuesday at 19:00 GMT, and “The Pete Feenstra Feature” on Sundays at 19:00
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