Landon Knoblock’s CACAW – Stellar Power (2013)

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For the longest time, jazz has had its hard-edged fringe and so has rock. Keyboardist Landon Knoblock started CACAW with the intent to combine the two outliers of their respective styles to create something even more otherworldly.

Partnering with only Oscar Noriega (sax) and Jeff Davis (drums), Knoblock’s idea of fringe rock doesn’t necessarily originate in the usual suspects of punk or experimental metal (though you could say elements of both are present); rather, it’s the groundbreaking turn-of-the-millennia electronica rock of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. He uses his array of bent circuitry to evoke the frosty, calculated textures of Radiohead and with the crucial help of Noriega and Davis, inject rampant humanism into it. That’s not too far off the template recently heard in other forward-looking fusion outfits like Brainkiller and Kneebody, but Knoblock’s band goes further out in its explorations and intensity, much as Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band did but with cruder electronic instruments.

That sort of hybrid of extremes can be found even in the title of songs, like “Electro-Darwinism,” which lives up to the moniker by Noriega’s alto sax moaning over the unemotional beeps of a synthesizer, but eventually, the humans win out when a stuttering, syncopated pattern emerges with an electric piano and drums. On that song — and on most of the other ones — a period of freedom erupts, before turning back to a pattern. It’s emblematic, I think, of Man’s violent bouts of pushback against technology as he increasingly embraces it.

CACAW “Eyes Heart Race” (music video) from Landon Knoblock on Vimeo.

That song structure is typical of CACAW, containing several composed components alongside several improvised components. “Eyes Heart Race” traverses between a thunderous slab of rock and a celestial, peaceful motif. In the middle of this back-and-forth, an explosive free-for-all that could scare off most jazz bands short of Little Women. “Double Dagger” doesn’t mess around throwing punches, the synth bass and drums that launches the song is very straightforward, but Knoblock’s electric piano and Noriega almost immediately counters with jazzy jabs. At some point, the two sides are reconciled when Knoblock deploys a dirty-sounding electric keyboard toward some rough-hewn improvisation, and the low sounds from it end up substituting the synth for the bass notes. As that wicked section receded, a spacey, trembling synth brings the song to a ghostly end.

Some songs lean harder on the textures made possible with the technology at Knoblock’s fingertips. “Replicant Lover” wrings plastic emotion from cosmic synth, but when Noriega’s sax replicates the same line it means something more organic. Eventually, the song moves away from structure and into a solemn passage to end the performance. “Neutron Star, Eating Its Binary Neighbor” sports a gurgling texture, upon which Noriega adds a pretty, fragile sax to it, in an emotional articulation similar to Tim Berne. A brutish side looms when Knoblock’s metal guitar-like keyboard growls on the background as Davis provide percussional colors. Davis constructs an interesting circular, funky drum pattern around a repeating synth wave that forms the riff of “Tabletop Glances Before Dawn.” Noriega’s unhinged sax runs later during the breakdown part of the tune are another highlight for him.

This first album by Landon Knoblock’s CACAW heralds a new chapter in the keyboardist’s career, one where he seeks to explore an area of jazz that hasn’t been fully explored yet. CACAW’s hard-edged ambition and cosmic surfaces make it a musical puzzle that’s an engaging listen.

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Stellar Power, by Skirl Records, is now on sale at major retailers. Visit Landon Knoblock’s website for more info.

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 jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, 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 https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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