This music reviewing gig of mine is funny, sometimes. Not long ago I received via email a press release from a New York-based music publicist. The message covered a number of recent releases, most of which fell into a jazz and/or avant-garde category. I read through and was especially intrigued by one of the artists noted, a three-piece called E.Normus Trio. I requested a copy of Love and Barbiturates, with an eye toward reviewing it if I liked it.
As I discovered upon receiving the CD, E.Normus Trio (who describe themselves as avant-garde post-rock) are based right here in my hometown of little ol’ Asheville NC (population: 83,000). I am not – by any measure – the most heavily involved person in the local music scene, but one would have thought that I might have known about this fascinating trio, especially seeing as they don’t play bluegrass or Americana.
As the liner notes of Love and Barbiturates helpfully explain – and one really does need liner notes to help on the journey through such outside-the-box music as this – E.Normus Trio uses the classic horn/bass/drums jazz trio concept as a jumping-off point. Instead of picking and sticking to a brass instrument, Steve Alford has three clarinets: alto, bass and contrabass clarinet. As a result, he gains a six-octave sonic palette upon which to work. And instead of an upright or conventional bass guitar, Jay Sanders plays something called an N/S Stick, an eight-stringed instrument that spans the range of electric guitar and bass. Michael Davis plays plain ol’ drums, but he’s certainly in a league with his bandmates.
None of this information would matter if the songs weren’t interesting. And indeed they are. The opening “Manifesto” is one minute and forty-one seconds of manic, Zappaesque polka-weirdness, reminiscent of “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask” from The Mothers‘ Weasels Ripped My Flesh. And “Love” is a series of musical dialogues that serve as a primer into E.Normus Trio’s wonderfully warped world: what sounds like guitar-and-bass interchange is just Sanders. What sounds like the horn section going nuts is Alford on his various clarinets (which often don’t sound at all like clarinets, honking wildly as they do). And behind them, Davis flails away with formidable precision. As they all come together, it’s a thrilling, dizzying experience.
Another extremely brief track is “Barbiturates,” a softer affair, that’s sort of a skewed modern take on 50s cool jazz. “The Woodpecker” does indeed have a feel a bit like classic cartoon music, albeit of the very strange variety. Alford’s deft clarinet runs are counterpointed by some quick runs up and down the bass strings on Sanders’ stick. But then when Alford starts squawking his clarinet, listeners may think of Albert Ayler‘s saxophone.
On “Blood,” the trio comes as close as they ever do to rock; tremendous controlled distortion out of Sanders’ instrument contrasts with (relatively) conventionally melodic playing from Alford. Another mini-track, “Sandy Betty,” kicks off with the sound of a little girl counting in the band; what follows alternates between a jolly romp and some delightfully atonal skronk.
“Clara” is mood music for moderns: ambitious jazz-inflected music with a memorable melody and a snaky bass riff. “Side two” (there really is an extended bit of silence to mark the end of the first conceptual side) kicks off with another brief track, “Dear Diary.” It’s a rethinking of “Manifesto,” with a groovy drum solo.
At six and a half minutes, “The Long Boots of Age” is by far the longest track on Love and Barbiturates. With ominous riffage that recalls Black Sabbath, Sanders lays the groundwork for some more exploratory work from Alford. The track then moves into another musical dialogue between the two, with Davis adding deft punctuation. “Daguerrotype” showcases some gentle picking from Sanders. It’s perhaps the most conventional track on the album; it’s also among the loveliest. The track unfolds to showcase some nice clarinet work as well, and the whole affair gets heavier as it goes along.
“Maxwell’s Demon” is one of the few tracks on which any amount of effects are used (the album was also essentially cut live at Echo Mountain Studios in the band’s hometown). Sanders’ stick is treated with something a bit like an envelope follower or wah-wah pedal, and the gurgling result sounds almost like a synth line on a Moog synthesizer (aside: Moog Music is headquartered in Asheville too).
The dissonant, impressionistic “Acquiescence” is an under-a-minute, melancholy clarinet piece. It leads straight into the album closer, “Rain.” The album’s liner notes ruminate on the concept of loss, and one wonders if “Rain” might be the intended soundtrack to that brief essay.
Challenging yet warm and inviting, E.Normus Trio’s Love and Barbiturates brings together the best of jazz and rock sensibilities, creating something exciting in the process. Recommended; the adventurous and open-minded will be rewarded for giving this a listen.
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