Don’t Panic and “Stay Calm” with The Beat Freaks’ new album
Together with a four piece band containing no instruments outside the staples of typical jazz performance and an album titled Stay Calm,The Beat Freaks set the tone for at least some note of a reserved musical experience. However, the name of the quartet itself speaks far more appropriately to what pushesthis sophomore record forward: a nearly obsessive application of, and fluency in, rhythm and flow. Every track on this album hovers above or just below five minutes in length, save for “Neutral Bullsh–t” and “Chasing Oliver.” Nevertheless, despite their comparatively short lengths, the two still present just as much or possibly more, complex intricacy as the rest of the record, as far as timing, melody, and transitional awareness are concerned.
Stay Calm is held up by solid stylistic pillars of free jazz and swing, as well as a defined appreciation for the neatly frenetic foundations of math rock and electronica style writing. There are at some moments, even glimmers of experimental-minded character. (The flange effects on “Night Bus,” spoken radio samples that open “First Steps on a Lonely Planet,” and blatant sustained squeaking on “Baloon” are glimmers of such thinking.) Taking into account the Industrial era and steampunk culture as the two central elements of fascination and inspiration behind the music, this trajectory of genres makes a lot of sense, despite appearing somewhat disconnected from one another. Several tracks like “Beardless Spy,” “Steampunk,” and lead single, “Work at Heights,” that are propelled with odd time signatures (7/4, 5/4, and 9/8 respectively) and even more intricate changes between them in the individual pieces. The Beat Freaks then build upon this rhythmic foundation with what initially looks like overcrowded busyness but, upon closer listening, maintains a preciseness and careful balance that one could liken in real life to the crowded but efficiently moving streets of modern-day Tokyo.
Beyond effortlessly navigating the technical savvy modern jazz implores of its players, with the latter song especially, The Beat Freaks flash their enjoyment of math rock with immediate, and bright flair. Everything combined – the cyclical opening motif on guitar; the somewhat spasmodic but consistent push and pull of the 9/8 count; and even the clean, but wide, soft-edged tone of the guitar paired with thin and dry snare – all present as the core of a strong math rock composition. It’s only during the middle section, when Licak’s saxophone breaks away from the methodical, unified movement and notes, that the trance-like current is disrupted and the thought of jazz returns to the forefront.
That said, on that track The Beat Freaks haven’t even stretched themselves to the full extent of their abstract preferences. “A Train to Tromso” and finale “Baloon” both pull away from density via energy and really lean into the free, improvisational, and Slavic sides of their creativity. The tonal center and orbit of the former’s main melody sticks with minor and augmented intervals that create patterns of scales and phrases at home in traditional eastern and European folk music. It feels loose and less like a calculated and rigidly drawn schematic, though the feeling of looseness varies between the two ending tracks. The finale contains much more clear-cut free jazz thanks to its melodic disarray and its predecessor exudes a more open quality thanks to the very instrument and note minimal motif that fills the beginning and only very gradually and quietly, takes on more parts and a more defined sense of again, cyclical movement in the guitar part.
Given that math rock and modern jazz make heavy use of complex rhythmic structure and difficult to replicate melodies and solos, it’s not entirely surprising to hear the two style work so well together. The pairing leads to compositions that are simultaneously easy to grab onto due to intrigue but perhaps more difficult to grasp in all their close-up nuances. Stay Calm is so many contradictions at once: Neat and messy, planned and improvised, easy-to-follow and difficult to scrutinize. One could say that the best parts of jazz’s sonic character prevails here (Note the very classic jazz solo bass that opens “Beardless Spy”) but, the tricky and-or impulsive flight path of math rock tells the sounds where and when to go. The songs are incredibly written and a non-stop bout of excitement to experience from one end to the other. Much like walking into a room of vivid and complex abstract paintings that are full, complete, and easy to be impressed by in their own right. Yet upon one’s attention being grabbed so powerfully by any individual work in the room, examining the art up close and dissecting every little facet of it leads to an experience that can feel a lot like a strenuous exercise for the mind.
This isn’t to say The Beat Freaks deserve any negativity for their adventurous composing. If anything, the biggest takeaway is that how focused of a listen one gives to Stay Calm will definitively affect the end perception. Drummers and conductors might enjoy tracking every measure of changing meters. However, for others, doing so could result in an insightful but more mentally taxing experience. Still, it can be difficult to look away from, and be made curious by, all the moving parts, tiny gears, and hidden pathways that create the pathways of Stay Calm. Just know that once in a while, it might pay to indeed, stay calm, step back, and let The Beat Freaks take everyone for a ride. Spend too much time fixated on any one moment and the rest of a fabulously written album will pass right by.
Kira Grunenberg (Downbeat)
throwthediceandplaynice.com – 11.10.2019