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Like their borough’s schedule-shredding public-transportation system, Brooklyn’s Black Dice are anything but reliable. Originally a hardcore quartet from Providence, R.I., the now-avant three-piece introduced itself during the second Clinton administration with a trio of satisfying yet interchangeable tempest-punk singles. What the band then lacked in finesse, it more than made up for in brute force: The indelible live image from that era remains the Dice’s—and the audience’s—tarmac-strength ear protection, necessitated by a bevy of amp stacks and Bonham-sized drums.
That kind of decibel abuse didn’t fade away, but the songs themselves soon evaporated. Come the turn of the millennium, Black Dice’s power-chords-and-muscle-beats catharsis transmogrified into fully improvised noise, a change documented on two difficult EPs, 2000’s No. 3 and 2001’s Cold Hands. The latter, especially, was an aesthetic dead end, all hipster sang-froid and zero substance. Perhaps the band had an inkling, because its debut full-length, 2002’s critically feted Beaches & Canyons, was a near-total reinvention.
Part hippie, part punk, the double album took bongtastic late-’60s psych and reimagined it as having emanated from somewhere deep within the Atlantic. Eric Copeland’s vocals, his brother Bjorn’s guitar, and Aaron Warren’s bass were all heavily effected and barely recognizable. And Hisham Bharoocha’s drumming, though tribal, was rarely mosh-worthy—only at the end of the disc did the band finally surface for a good ol’ fashioned hate-vibe meltdown.
The group’s live-in-the-studio latest, Creature Comforts, is similarly ill-fit for extreme dance activity. But whereas Beaches & Canyons was chock-full of rock beats, the new disc—Black Dice’s first since Bharoocha’s departure—is all rainbows in curved air, more akin to ambient electronica than anything else. In one online interview, Warren says the group listened to almost nothing but minimal techno while recording, and that influence is obvious from the get-go: Album-opener “Cloud Pleaser” and its follow-up, “Treetops,” pit high-lifey guitar chords against electronic clicks, robotic farts, and extralingual babble.
It’s the sound of laptop music as conceived by folks who don’t use laptops—three guys with a few real instruments and a whole buncha knobs to twiddle. Though the approach isn’t exactly unprecedented in Black Dice’s oeuvre—see the 2003 Cone Toaster 12-inch, which sported two mutant slices of four-on-the-floor club culture—Warren & Co. obviously still find it novel enough to be entranced. A-twiddlin’ they will go, and Creature Comforts gets more abstract as it progresses: “Island” and “Schwip Schwap” preserve the previous tracks’ techno percussion but jettison their regular rhythm. “Live Loop” is exactly that, intersecting rings of guitar noodle and amp hum recorded at a gig with the far more tuneful Animal Collective. And the disc-closing “Night Flight” could be the sound of Brian Eno’s hard
drive succumbing to a particularly nasty virus.
Only the nine-minute “Creature” maintains a strong link with Black Dice’s past—or seems likely to fascinate the listener as much as the musicians. The instrumental begins, like every other track on Creature Comforts, with a swirl of inorganic curlicues, but it culminates with more rhythmic than usual sound effects and, even better, some sturdy rock drumming that harks back to the percussive primitivism of early Swans and Sonic Youth. The best number the album has to offer, “Creature” is also the sole thing here that would have made sense on Beaches & Canyons.
That says a lot about how far Black Dice have traveled over the past few years. But ground covered doesn’t necessarily equal progress: Creature Comforts is a jam in the classic rock style, dependent to a great degree on happy accidents. Beaches & Canyons was plenty jammy, too, yet it was also carefully constructed, all of its parts fitting precisely into a steadily building whole. The new album could be rearranged in almost any order and its big picture would be basically the same. That doesn’t mean Creature Comforts isn’t worth looking at—it just isn’t worth looking at for very long. And that you can count on.
If the serious commingling of electronica and jazz holds half as much potential as the fusion of electronica and hard rock, most of it is as yet unrealized. It’s not as if no one’s trying, however: Just take a gander at the Acid Jazz and Related Styles section of AllMusic.com. Of late, Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series, curated by pianist Matthew Shipp, has been trying harder than most—albeit with mixed results. Two of the label’s most recent discs, New York hiphop producer El-P’s High Water and London drum ’n’ bass duo Spring Heel Jack’s The Sweetness of the Water, best exemplify the series’ toughest hurdle: Successful fusion of jazz and whatever tends to follow the imperatives of both genres in more or less equal measure.
The El-P disc, which employs sound sources from Shipp and a virtual Who’s Who of NYC improvisers, is good DJ Premier–esque hiphop, but it’s too rhythmically rigid to stand out in the jazz section. Conversely, the Spring Heel Jack disc, which features collaborations with British saxophonist Evan Parker, makes for decent electronics-tinged improv but abandons techno’s beatcentricity in the process. (Besides, Sweetness doesn’t compare with Parker’s own Electro-Acoustic Ensemble for sheer what-the-fug genre transcendence.)
New Yorker Craig Taborn also tackles the techno-jazz conundrum, on his third and latest disc as a leader, Junk Magic. But unlike his Blue Series peers, the keyboardist/programmer, now in his mid-30s, is completely self-sufficient: Not only has the James Carter vet got standards-worthy chops, he’s also already tested his electronics in jazz contexts—on, for example, trumpeter Dave Douglas’ Freak In and saxophonist Tim Berne’s The Sublime And—and recorded with, as he says, “the big Detroit techno dude,” producer Carl Craig.
All of that cross-training is evident in Junk Magic’s opening (and title) number, on which Taborn segues from gentle, introspective pianism into clicks ’n’ cuts beat science—a trick, it turns out, he pulls off throughout the seven-track album. Sure, Taborn’s programming may come across as a little chintzy at times, but it never sounds dilettantish. And his piano-playing is mostly tidy and rhythmic, qualities that are crucial in this context. No less important is on-loan Bad Plus drummer David King, who blurs genre and time signatures with aplomb: The snare-cracking percussionist continually shifts back and forth between sample-ready hiphop licks and cascading free rhythms. And, as “Mystero” and “Stalagmite” demonstrate, he can fit both within the space of a few metronome clicks.
Violinist Mat Maneri and tenor saxophonist Aaron Stewart’s gorgeous tandem lines, by contrast, make few moves to cross boundaries. But once they peel apart, the full depth of Taborn’s production becomes apparent: Maneri’s treated violin sounds both woody and synthlike, and Stewart’s distorted sax resembles an electric guitar chiming out harmonics. This effect creates some exciting ambiguities when Maneri and Stewart are both soloing around in Junk Magic’s various rhythm-free passages, making even the album’s most traditionally structured improvisations—“Shining Through,” say, or “Bodies at Rest and in Motion”—sound otherworldly.
Granted, jazz purists will likely have little use for even these moments (too weird), and their techno brethren might feel similarly ungratified by the rest of the disc (too unfunky). But Junk Magic is, without a doubt, the sine qua non of recent jazz fusion: Nothing else even comes close in terms of genre sensitivity, and, yes, beats aside, the thing really is a jazz record, improv and all. There’s still plenty of potential out there, of course, but Taborn has given his hybridized genre one of its biggest bursts of forward motion yet. CP