There’s been a whole slew of great new music that’s either come out in the last few months, or that will be coming out recently – more than I have time and energy to write about (especially since I’m trying to finish my dissertation). But, one of these new albums that I absolutely feel compelled to write about is Stellar Power, by the band CACAW. Led by Landon Knoblock on synths, it includes saxophonist Oscar Noriega and drummer Jeff Davis. For the last few weeks I’ve been listening to it a ton, and it’s been rocking and freaking me out every time I play it.
To put it mildly, CACAW will rock your shit.
There are three things I want to do after listening to Stellar Power:
- turn up the volume on my Harmon Kardon pre-amp, and play the record again;
- repeat step one;
- chill out, then put on a sci fi movie – lately the urge has been to rewatch Blade Runner. (I felt the Blade Runner thing long before checking out Knoblock’s website, on which he refers to the movie.)
Stellar Power, the group’s debut album, is loaded with many of my favorite things: crunchy, rumbling, piercing, fuzzy, and loud as hell synths; angular melodies; heavy drumming (lots of rock influences in Davis’ work here); fult tilt saxophone playing that’s both melodic, angular, and far out – far out in terms of approaches to harmony, time, timbre and rhythm.
There’s a futuristic, and sci fi vibe to the whole record. This is in part due to the song titles: “Space Robot Falls in Love,” “Electro-Darwinism,” and “Neutron Star, Eating Its Binary Neighbor.”
“Replicant Lover” is one of my favorite tracks. The liner note description of the track reads: “Lonely, awkward girl in a big city falls in love with a boy, who ends up being a robot. She loves him anyway.” Perhaps this is why I want to watch Blade Runner – the obvious Replicant reference, and then the track sounds like it could fit perfectly into the movie soundtrack.
The closest thing to a ballad, if you could call it that (I use the term very loosely, only because the tempo is slow and because there’s an implied romantic element), is “Space Robots Fall in Love.” It’s sparser, quieter, less intense, and is perhaps the album’s most melodic track. There are moments where it’s quite pretty, but there’s also some crunch courtesy of Knoblock bending pitches on his synth while accompanying Noriega’s dry and acerbic alto.
Stellar Power concludes with “Neutron Star, Eating its Binary Neighbor,” a dark and heavy tune, which somewhat programmatically depicts what the title describes. Knoblock sets the scene: timbres morph, notes and gestures flicker and fade, Noriega enters with slowly snaking lines. Then things get dark, heavy and gritty – the synth gets big, distorted and nasty, Davis drops some bombs and cymbal splashes, and then the binary neighbor is gone.
CACAW is one of those group’s that defies genre boundaries and common conventions. Purely “jazz” people probably won’t dig the album, as there’s little on it, that one could call jazz (swing, blues feeling, common forms, what have you). But there’s improvisation that’s coming out of the jazz tradition (especially the free jazz tradition, which is readily apparent on “Tabletop Glances Before Dawn”), and the band’s members all play in other “jazz” groups. (For example, Noriega is on Tim Berne’s superb new album, and I hear some Konitz and Ornette in his approach.) Knoblock describes how the band’s focus is on playing sounds, as opposed to focusing on keys, modes, harmonies, etc. And it’s this exploration of sounds, textures, grooves and atmospheres is where the group really kills it. The album is a kodachrome of colors, which CACAW presents via a variety of styles and influences, all distilled into a unique sound. I know of no other band that sounds like this, or that rocks in such an abstract and bent manner.
The people who might most get down with CACAW the most are those into rock and avant garde musics of all kinds. The group probably kills in a rock club, and it’s where I’d love to see them. I know the younger kids I work with in summer jazz camps, who don’t give two shits about whether or not something is jazz, would love this band, as it’s out of the jazz tradition, yet it’s current, forward looking, and relevant to today. There’s no looking back with CACAW, their music looks to the future.
One piece of advice: if you get the album, make sure you listen to it loud. That’s the only way to do it.
Note 1: CACAW will be touring this month in support of the album. Check the schedule here. (I’m bummed the band isn’t coming anywhere near Lawrence, KS, where I’m at, as I think they’d do really well at one of the rock clubs.)
Note 2: Stellar Power was pressed on yellow vinyl, limited to 250 copies, which can be purchased from the band’s website. Even though I got a free promo copy of the CD, I’m probably gonna buy the LP, because I have a sickness.