Third International, featuring King Crimson's Ian McDonald – Beautiful Accident (2011)

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This is a different kind of blues record, one with a joltingly modern menace. The Third International’s Beautiful Accident brilliantly updates a time-weathered genre by focusing on texture as much as lyrical content. In fact, sometimes the words are simply enveloped by the rising rabble of crunchy R&B riffs, prog-rock influenced song structures and pounding rhythms.

That starts with the spooky shamble of “The Timekeeper’s Waltz.” With its echoing, loony-bin beat and a chorus of smeared instruments, the track sounds like Gregg Rolie playing a house gig on an outbound spaceship.

Altoist Ian McDonald, pictured below, finally soars out of the din — only to be overtaken by a volcanic series of guitar blurts from band leader Andrew Pearson. Meanwhile, drummer Nick DiFrisco (David Sanborn, Hiram Bullock) and bassist Bill Foster (Billy Cobham, Larry Coryell) sound so expansive, it’s like they are smashing their instruments against the wall.

Pearson perhaps wisely downshifts into “Amsterdam,” which opens with the dim atmosphere of a doob-rock fever-dream, highlighted by a whispery vocal and a paranoid lyric. He is singing like a caged animal, as if everything is coming out through clinched teeth. He breaks the tension, for a time, by clicking into a tough new rhythm on the chorus. McDonald, a founding member of King Crimson and then Foreigner, flutters out next with a twinkling turn on the flute — sounding every bit like the guy who co-wrote “In the Court of the Crimson King.” But the verse finds Pearson descending back down into a determined grind, like an old blues record slowing to a stop on a turntable after the lights go out.

That sets up well for “Criminal Cool,” which has the kind of insistent groove associated with north Mississippi roots legend Junior Kimbrough, something far away from the convoluted acoustic picking of the Delta. Recalling a rising summer storm, the tune begins as a far off flash of light, then builds into a thunderous assault. This direful, relentless vibe fits perfectly with the lyric, a scorching indictment of white-collar scoundrels and our society’s penchant for seeing them as something other than common crooks.

“The Son of Jacob Mallett,” if anything, pushes the pedal even further down. Perhaps the most propulsive track on Beautiful Accident, this track features Foster and DiFrisco working in a foundation-cracking synchronicity. They smash and wail like turning tires and pumping pistons, as Pearson works the edges of the tune on guitar. His vocal goes deeper and darker, until it’s almost lost in the mix. Soon, all that’s left is a frankly titanic groove.

“In the Garden of the Long Pig” holds a similar lyrical mystery, as it rises up like a morning fog. Pearson picks through a series of swampy excursions for more than a minute and a half before starting the lyric. This time, he steps closer to the mic, singing with a naked intensity. Exactly what he’s talking about, however, is another riddle. The white man’s lie of manifest destiny? Our curious insistence on “saving” native cultures from their own traditions? No matter. Pearson sells the song’s dingy portent through a memorably gruff delivery, conveying both a sense of narrative pathos and of looming despair.

A mechanistic progressive-rock flavor surrounds “Penitentiary,” made complete by Pearson’s ominous synthesized flourishes. He draws a devastating connection between those damaged by every-day life and those looking out from inside prison bars, before the tune moves even further outside of blues convention courtesy of a soaring duet between Pearson and McDonald. Working in brilliant tandem, with McDonald again on sax, their squalling, emotive asides underscore how enclosed, and enraged, the heartbroken can feel.

The Third International ends things with “The Reprise,” a lengthy excursion that again gives the rough-edged next-gen blues outfit a chance to musically explore this world’s sudden, and shattering twists of fate. The song, like the bulk of this terrific new release, musically mimics those surprises, conveying all of the hopelessness and also the radiant anger associated with such things. Until the very end, Pearson and Co. play with a fierceness and brutal honesty that could peel the paint off St. Peter’s gate, making Beautiful Accident sound like anything but.

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