Brilliantly off-kilter, completely unquantifiable, Xenat-Ra is, at any given moment, the best prog/free jazz/hip hop/metal band you’ve never heard of.
Based in Corvallis, Oregon, they begin the new Science for the Soundman project the only way they could: With a track called “Ape with a Synthesizer” that superimposes all of those musical impulses onto one of Frank Zappa’s unnameably cool metal concoctions.
Xenat-Ra starts with this serrated groove, powered along by JD Monroe’s feints and jabs at the drums, even as Monk Metz begins to free associate with a dizzying speed and facility. Just what this track – or, really, any of them – is about is difficult to say, but also largely beside the point, it seems. Metz’s words are simply another improvisational element in the band’s muscular mixture of sounds – and his words, which tumble out in bursts, has the same transfixing impact as a lengthy, narrative solo would.
There’s a math-rock intricacy to “555,” like latter-period King Crimson, as saxophonist Matt Calkins creates this serpentine maze for Metz to race through. Just like that though, this ever-challenging amalgam shifts gears again, settling into a more contemplative cadence – spooky and, in its way, even more dangerous. The interesting thing here is that Metz scarcely slows his lyrical pace at all, darting in and around these slow-motion riffs, splashing word pictures from baseboard to ceiling.
The core group of Xenat-Ra (which also includes Mark France on guitars, Joel Hirsch on percussion and Dave Trenkel on keyboards) is joined for “Swalo Meh Hole” by trombonist Joe Freuen and Otto Gygax on the shekere – a dried gourd that’s part of the West African musical tradition. The results, however, are anything but conventional. While “Swalo” includes an undulating counterpoint, as expected, Xenat-Ra continues building with a blinding ingenuity over this foundational polyrhythm. Trenkel’s tasty organ fills are answered with a series of boisterous retorts by Monroe, before Calkins steps forward with a soul-deep turn on the sax. Metz then adds a lyric that seems to connect with everyone’s occasional desire to simply be free of this world’s modern entrapments.
Both “Xenat-Ra Theme” and “Isis Travels” begin with these weirdly transfixing space-rock drones, before morphing into something else entirely. In both cases, a lengthy instrumental section finds Calkins in a ruminative, late-night mood. That more open-ended musical landscape allows Xenat to roam out to the outer edges of their imaginations: “This list of things I’m pissed about,” Metz growls in “Theme,” “is just about as long as it is profound.” In “Isis,” Calkins returns for a free-form solo, at times searching and then filled with an almost John Coltrane-ish religious fervor. In each case, there follows a thunderous finale.
Science for the Soundman continues on in this way, as neither fish nor fowl – neither hip hop nor rock, prog nor jazz – but never anything less than utterly transfixing.
“Kraken vs. the Manticore” is a spaceman’s freak out, while “Parahelion” is a smooth, street-smart griot’s rap. “I Burn with My Books,” which starts with a series of old-school video game sound effects, eventually opens up into a twilit cognitive dissonance – with Metz’s angry replies skittering over a smoky sax-led music bed. Then, all of a sudden, “Bezriel” simply bursts out in a swirl of scronks and tensile licks. Trenkel, France and Monroe tangle and untangle before Calkins pushes the song into another long-form musical passage – this time with Trenkel’s organ taking center stage. “Bezriel” then moves, with a stirring intelligence, across a wide-open landscape between progressive rock and free jazz.
Though titled like an album-closing metal meltdown, “A Call for All Demons,” is actually just another frisky Xenat-Ra experiment – with Metz’s hard-eyed declamations surrounded one more dizzying mixture of genre touchstones: A keyboard out of Deep Purple, a beat out of a garage-rock band’s practice room, and a seizure of wow-man effects to end things that would make Pink Floyd blush.
Science for the Soundman is that kind of record.