Barnacled – Charles (2008)

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by Pico

The topic of this review is yet another ESP-Disk release, and I’ve often wondered if ESP is an acronym for “not for the faint of heart” in Esperanto.

I’m a lot more certain of this, though: Barnacled is a perfect fit for the label, which seems to relish challenging anyone who thinks they have an open mind when it comes to music. This seven-piece band from Providence, R.I. is probably too punk to be called jazz, but the whack element is off the charts. For starters, look at this configuration. You got a guy playing bass, baritone sax and a “modified Speak & Spell.” There’s another guy who plays alto sax, percussion and a shortwave radio. One gal plays a bassoon and her sister plays a horn in F. There’s a dude who squeezes the accordion and another one who handles drums and percussion. And lastly, a fella who plays keyboard and various electronics. His name, by the way, is Frank Difficult.

Their debut for the ESP-Disk label came out last month, and needless to say at this point, Charles is similar to most albums from this label, which is to say, like nothing you’ve heard before.

Each of these eight, original tunes are dauntless panty raids on styles so disparate, they make one strain his brain trying to reconcile them all. The liner notes brings up the word “prog” a lot, but it’s not your King Crimson/Yes kind of prog. We’re talking more like Can, Henry Cow and the Muffins. They’ve got that gypsy East European thing going when the mood strikes. Even classical music has a seat at the table. If John Zorn ever lost has backing band in a plane crash, he could annex Barnacled and continue on as before like nothing happened.

Barnacled likes to toss in odd time signatures, a squealing alto, a squawking baritone, a bassoon/horn in F/accordion line reciting a rootless klezmer line in an odd signature, while fuzzy electronics swirl around and a relentless tom-tom pounds away below. And that’s all just in the first cut, “Title.”

The next track “Rattles” provides no respite from this blessed insanity. It’s roughly what you’d get had Eric Dolphy attempted Russian folk music. That is, until the drummer Matt McClaren reels off rapid-fire shots at random intervals with horns and an organ emit a foreboding drone in the distant background. Craziness meets creepiness.

The humorously entitled “Losing Weight Through Prayer” throws together jungle rhythms, a heavily distorted organ and accordion that soon descends into a full-on freak-out as the saxes get in a word or two. After regrouping, the song continues right into “Jennifer Plastics,” in which a think haze of electronics chirp like sparrows in the morning with a shortwave radio transmitting in it’s midst.

“Three Rapid Fire Shell Divisions” is a random pissing match of sounds from different saxes, accordions, Radio Shack electronic kit (OK, I made that up but I’m sure it’s not far from the truth), liberally interspersed with group eruptions. “Language Barrier” is the oddball of the bunch because there’s a semblance of song structure in that it contains a couple of tonal themes and some tightly-constructed mini-charts with the horns and the squeezebox. But bear in mind, it’s only conventional in the relative sense; at a couple of points of the song the pulsing beat is provided by the horn/accordion section while the drummer goes off into free-form land.

There’s more surprises like these in store, but you get the idea. How they come up with these ideas Lord only knows.

Consider, too, that the entire record was recorded live in the studio in a single night, with hardly any editing done. It’s arty music fo’ sho, but they’d couldn’t have gotten that punk attitude as well from futzing around behind the boards too long.

Barnacled’s music is like taking the phrase “square is the new cool” one step further. They recycle some of the older, simpler or baroque kinds of music into something that’s miles ahead of everyone else. That’s not unlike the approach another ESP client Albert Ayler took while he made records for the label more than forty years ago.

So you think you have an open mind to music? Here’s a pretty good way to test how open your mind really is. There’s much to like about Charles if you pass the test.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on,, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at
S. Victor Aaron
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