There’s more than a hint of tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s jazz/rock/electronica within the machinery of ¡FIASCO!—and a hint of something more punk in the trudging drums and fuzz-toned bass of “Recidivism,” the opening track of their new album Arson. (Think Brooklyn-based Gutbucket, for example, or damn near anything Trevor Dunn has ever touched.)
The most punk thing about Arson, though, is that it doesn’t let the listener off the hook quite so easily. ¡FIASCO!, the experimental jazz quartet co-led by guitarist Nelson Dougherty and saxophonist Andrew Frankhouse, is farming its own terrain. Most obviously, it’s a textural terrain. McCaslin is indeed a touchstone, especially in the way Frankhouse’s tenor seems to waft more than weave under its own power into the soundscapes (like on “Setting in Motian”). Yet where McCaslin shares his front line with keyboardist-electro wiz Jason Lindner, Frankhouse shares his with Dougherty’s guitar; “electronics” comprise whatever pedal effects they try on. That, in fairness, can take on the sheen of more robust electronica: The strident “Cost of Lies” processes Dougherty to the point of sounding like a guitar synthesizer. Most of the time, though, they’re limited to sax chorus, as on the crunching closer “Ground Control,” and reverb, a metric ton of which suffuses the title track so that even Frankhouse’s sax shrieks become mere splashes of color.
If atmosphere is what first grabs the ear on Arson, unshakable grooves and strong melodies hold it. The thud that characterizes “Recidivism”—courtesy of bassist Steve Arnold and drummer Keith Butler Jr.—is not only infectious, it anchors a downright anthemic tune, followed by a hearty-toned Frankhouse solo that unspools one melodic idea after another. (Ditto Dougherty’s solo, awash though it is in echo.) “Shadow of the Colossus,” meanwhile, is hook central, from Frankhouse’s declarative theme statement to Arnold’s funky final turnaround. The synth-like line on “Cost of Lies” is perhaps less melodic, but it operates beautifully in conjunction with the jittery rhythm that Butler highlights with snaps on the ride cymbal.
The finest moments, naturally, are the ones in which sonic experiments and structural substance converge. Dougherty’s reverb on title track “Arson” means that as his solo progresses he finds himself in harmony with notes he played a bar ago, and he makes it sound sumptuous. Frankhouse does something of the same thing in an unaccompanied stretch of “Shadow of the Colossus,” though better still is the entry into his line of first Dougherty, then Butler and Arnold, as if beckoning for some beautifully and spontaneously choreographed dialogue. “Setting in Motian,” however, is probably Arson’s most transcendent moment. Guitar and saxophone turn a short, simple theme into a kind of moody melancholia that even Arnold’s throbbing bass and Butler’s insistent snare can’t dampen. It penetrates deep, with psychedelic streaks of backward guitar and quiet pitch bends making it weirder but also moving.
Where, then, is the fiasco? Granted, “Terrific Success” isn’t nearly as eye-catching a name; but unless they were actively trying to imitate the McCaslin sound, or something harder, the band’s current moniker is false advertising.
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