Dark Matter, from New York's Nathan Parker Smith and his large ensemble, is a big bang from the beginning of time; heavier than Ununoctium and Painkiller combined. Nathan Parker Smith's large ensemble is made up of a staggering 18 (!!!) musicians, that play a mixture of various shades of jazz, mixed with 20th Century Classical composition, and heavy metal. If you've ever wondered what it would sound like if Fantomas were to cover Sun Ra, Zeni Gava playing the theme from the Batman TV show, here's your chance to find out.
Jazz has been proclaimed dead more often than Jason Voorhees, but we are living in undead times. We are moving farther and farther away from the 20th Century idea of "musical progress", which meant for a new genre to flourish, the old must die. The history of jazz is littered with corpses of music styles - Big Band, Swing, even Bebop, eventually - until we arrived at the style known as free jazz, as practiced by John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, et al. - and we didn't know where to go. There were other styles, after, but similar to every other genre, in the twilight of the 1900s, it was mainly permutations and offshoots of pre-existing genres, like the amalgam of punk and metal with jazz in John Zorn's ouevre.
Separate from this notion of "progress", trying to keep up with the flavors and trends of the day, means that musicians are free to pick and choose to play what they want, like the mapies we are. This bodes well, as the championing of free music, the incorporation of chance and noise into the discipline of jazz invited a lack of chops. The elegant precision of Duke Ellington's Big Band seemed lost to time. But now, after decades of easy access to electronic equipment, where it is all easy to hide a lack of ideas or technical ability with software and fastiduous editing. Hearing a small army of insanely well-trained musicians is thrilling and inspiring.
The first thing that catches my ear, in a band recording, is the presence of unison riffs, which are here from the get go with album opener "Mega", all hipster blatting brass playing discordant Ligetti broken chords. Not only is this kind of thing hard to remember, it sounds weird and wrong when you're doing it, as is the case with complex harmonies, and you just know these blokes practiced their knuckles off.
Nathan Parker Smith and his ensemble have actually managed to combined metal with jazz without becoming prog, which is an achievement. I think fans of both traditional, class-act jazz and gnarly, headbanging metalheads alike could get into this, which makes it a useful rosetta stone for understanding a genre you might not know, otherwise.
I would also like to give NPS major props for what sounds like tubas, the heaviest brass instrument of all. It gives a mammoth low-end to Not Dark Yet, but still sounding distinctive from low-end metal. I also like the way the album was recorded, which has an airy roomsound, which makes you feel you are there in the wooden confines of the practice space with all 18 of them. Too many musicians and producers close mic or plug in everything directly, which sounds not only artificial, but also harsh as a brillo pad loofah. Dark Matter is heavy and raucous, while still sounding easy on the ears. Which means you can listen to it, again and again.
You're going to want to do that, as there's A LOT of ideas going on here. It's obvious that Nathan Parker Smith and his large ensemble put an intense amount of work, passion, and focus into this sprawling document, which will take you to the limits of space and time, press you down into a cube, take you back to visit the dinosaurs, and then drop you off at the dimension right next to the one where you left.
Electronic producers beware! It's no longer possible to just feel cooler and superior to people playing instruments because that's "old fashioned". Producers, you're going to have to up your game, to match this level of musicianship.
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