Percussionist Dan Weiss, whose funeral doom background includes a stint with Bloody Panda on their album Pheromones (2007), collected five experimental musicians, including himself, to produce a provocative and decidedly dark jazz album. He teamed up with bassist Trevor Dunn (Mr. Bungle, Fantomas) to create a formidable underpinning for the ensemble and recruited three revered jazz musicians to layer innovative melodies and textures, which range from ethereal to stomping, over the metal backbone. Matt Mitchell (piano, Prophet-6, modular synthesizers) is known for his percussive piano style, characterized by polyrhythms and classical minimalism, Craig Tabourn (piano, Fender Rhodes, synthesizers) composes suspenseful ambience and cerebral tension, and guitarist Ben Monders ventures away from his predilection for spacious forms to bring distorted texture and unusual voicings to the quintet.
Starebaby is populated by songs that are atmospheric enough to be used on movie soundtracks, as well as by others that are lively, dynamic, and inventive enough to be completely engaging. Active listeners who can often predict chord progressions, thematic development, and compositional shape will be constantly surprised by the direction these musicians take. Key signatures, scales, and chords commonly used in rock and blues music are completely shunned, distinguishing Starebaby from most melodic metal genres. Dan Weiss’ project could be designated as improvisational jazz, avant-garde rock, technical metal, or dark ambient, but it can definitely be described as complex, challenging, and weird.
The three-minute inception “A Puncher’s Chance” (3:10) begins with an awkward, halting melody that utilizes many dissonant interval choices, which is a theme throughout the album. The rhythmic baiting and retreating motif is layered with electronic noise and cymbal rolls as it lurches and slowly gains momentum, like rusty wheels breaking loose from their axles as they clunk unevenly into motion. The song ends unexpectedly, in the middle of the downhill slide. “Depredation” (05:32) meets us at the bottom of the hill, and in the second section the keys take on a percussive approach, becoming an artificial life force that beats robotically as electronics come into consciousness. Confused by their existence, the nodes learn how to communicate through their network, gathering and chattering among themselves. The low-fi keyboard effects sound as if they escaped from an Atari game, adding to the unnerving arcade or haunted toy factory aesthetic. At the conclusion of the song, organic, random life emerges in the strings as they fight and frizzle, alternately emerging from and sinking back into cacophonous entropy.
The title of the third song, “Annica” (09:05), is the Buddhist precept of impermanence. The quintet illustrates the transient nature of existence by introducing simple melodies on keys and guitar and immediately deconstructing them, resulting in a composition that has few horizontal themes. The syncopated rhythm is layered vertically, with curious chords that feel unsure of themselves, as if the music itself is disoriented. The out-of-tune music box melodies that populate sonic valleys are meandering lines that don’t seem to go anywhere, leaving the listener feeling lost. These aren’t motifs that you’ll ever have stuck in your head. They are delicate and unnatural, like pixelated lacework. In contrast, a heavy, monotonous bounding of chords is used as a diametric theme.
In the rhythm section, the bass is usually moving, often walking, though sometimes stuttering, and it accents notes unexpectedly, an effect of Weiss’ influence from Indian beat cycles, which makes the rhythms difficult to name. Dan Weiss’ drum beats are similarly unpredictable to Western ears. The snare predominately strikes upbeats, and breaks and tom rolls are applied generously but sporadically. To hear jazz without a groove is a little jarring. With the bizarre choice of keys and scales, every note sounds wrong, and therefore any note is right. Toward the end of “Badalamenti” keys introduce a circular, asymmetric layer which sounds so much like a level up screen from a video game that I actually paused the song to see if I had something running in the background on my computer. I didn’t.
Any of the songs on this album would be at home in one of David Lynch’s surreal worlds, particularly “Badalamenti,” which was named for the American composer known best for scoring the director’s films, as well as Twin Peaks, which was a major influence on the album. The skulking electronics lend the preternatural, foreboding character for which Lynch’s features are known. For instance, in “Cry Box” (06:20), strong and suspenseful chords hit over sustained electronics to create tension backed by barely-there bass and drums. Noisey segments of distorted fuzz provide a transition to heavy sections with pounded chord progressions over crashing beats and overdriven distortion. The speed and degree of oscillation between sustained suspense with brutal aggression has an effect of elongating the songs which seem to live multiple lifetimes in their brief adventures.
Like “Cry Box”, the ensuing “The Memory of My Memory” (10:18) begins as a quiet, melancholy song, but toward the middle, the voices ring out harmoniously and suddenly forfeit the melody. The song transitions from tempered reflection to thundering swells nefarious in nature, mirroring an idyllic scene in a quiet logging town intruded upon by lumbering evil incarnate, deeply-seated and never truly vanquished, but only lying dormant in an ineradicable cycle. As the theme resolves, it becomes darker, stepping down into the mire of the polluted waters, with gurgling sound effects and noisy texture. The keys’ modus operandi is to insist on making the tone more cumbersome by adding unexpected notes, and the guitar improvises around them in a condoning manner.
“Veiled” (04:23) opens with a laser gun fight, then a creepy, tingling, swarm of nano robots skitter in under the door, and piano walks through a chord progression distractedly, losing the rhythm. The song seems to slump out without ever finding its feet, winding the album down in a reflection of the awakening in earlier tracks. “Episode 8” begins with a highly mobile, lively drum beat and a discombobulated melodic statement, and then drops down to and atmospheric plateau. Ghostly, vulnerable electronic notes and melodic, though heavily distorted, legato guitar cycle, growing more raucous with each subsequent iteration. The electronics evolve to become more violent, eliciting images of 8-bit fight sequences. There is not a whole lot of ground explored in the concluding track, condensing again to favor vertical layers, but wearing a rut that leads toward the next meadow of atmospheric interlude. As we arrive at the end of the album, I imagine a fallow clearing under a strange and ethereal sky.
Starebaby is an experiment in uncanny and surreal landscapes where inorganic creations jitter to life and foreboding evil lurches unnaturally in pursuit. If there is a narrative present, it’s an unorthodox one, weaving a tale of consciousness manifesting in synthetic life and dreadful, glassy stares of plastic-molded doll heads. The project is the combination of a strong, distinctive compositional voice complemented with extensive contribution from each instrumentalist. As the composer, Weiss welcomed the creative input of his fellow musicians, “especially regarding timbre, and he provided many novel spaces in which to improvise or act as a sonic free agent,” said Matt Mitchell. As creative and interesting as it is unnerving and disconcerting, this album will appeal to listeners and musicians who seek to be jolted out of the mundane into a realm of mystery and confusion. If you are ambivalent about experimental jazz but a fan of Twin Peaks, make sure you explore this musical tribute to the eerie drama.