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Let’s imagine that around the turn of the 20th century, several Eastern European Jewish clans seeking a safe haven from the escalating struggles that would lead to World War I wound up emigrating to Jamaica. Finding hospitality in the country, they decided to stick around, eventually building a synagogue to pass on their traditions to ensuing generations. Let’s imagine that way down the line, those descendants picked up on the jubilant pulse of klezmer, and became subversively determined to meld it with reggae.
The three guys in experimental rock group Les Rhinocéros have basically done that—except to an even more batshit extent. On its sophomore album, Les Rhinocéros II, the D.C. ensemble marries klezmer’s sturdy, carnival-like melodies with reggae’s slow and offbeat structures in a way that seems so natural it’s easy to picture these guys cutting Hebrew school to browse reggae tapes at a market in Kingston. But there’s a lot more to Les Rhinocéros II than a naked combination of those two styles of music: It ropes in a heady blend of acid-streaked Middle Eastern guitar, knotty math-rock arrangements, stuttering electronics, melancholic free jazz, somber new classical strings, monotone spoken word, and resplendent noise.
Les Rhinocéros best utilizes those disparate ideas on the album’s second track, “Bea Spiders.” On that song, a hailstorm of heavy riffs serves as a bridge to lumbering prog rock, four-on-the-floor cowbell à la The Rapture’s “House of Jealous Lovers,” and the group’s inescapable and funky mix of skankin’ guitars and bouncy klezmer melodies played on what sounds like a ballpark organ. Compared to the rest of the largely restrained and nuanced record, “Bea Spiders” is the album’s Power Stroke.
But after “Bea Spiders”—and the snaky opening tune “Echidna,” which paints a gauzy image of a glimmering heat mirage in a sun-drenched desert—Les Rhinocéros pulls back and focuses on subtle, quiet, and detailed interplay. “Seepy Seepy” features rustling percussion and light guitar strumming that’s occasionally so inaudible it’s overwhelmed by a hand-shaker. But it’s an important step toward the album’s brassy, wavy climax that sounds all the more powerful in contrast.
Tracks like “What Do YOU Know About VELCRO,” with its hazy, shambolic riddim, and the electronic-infused North African folk at the heart of “Part Too,” lend the album a calm and slightly off-kilter atmosphere. But that’s set aside for the closer “Only Barbarians Use Forks…,” which thrives on the same manic energy, knotty and whimsical kick, and anything-goes vibe as “Bea Spiders.” The song’s heavy breakdowns and instrumental quirks (sharp guitars, a transitioning reggaeton beat, and, um, counting) bookend an otherwise serene album with klezmer-style jams—like a deranged DJ hijacking Shabbat dinner. Well, almost.