Degenerate Art Ensemble The Bastress

[Tellous; 2005]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: art rock, jazz, alternative metal, klezmer
Others: Tzadik artists, Mr. Bungle, Tin Hat Trio, Sigh

Seattle residents Degenerate Art Ensemble deliver a schizophrenic, theatrical, and over-the-top variety of art-rock that fuses carnival-esque metal with avant-garde jazz and an Eastern European melodic sensibility. Needless to say, comparisons to the type of artist that would normally reside on the Tzadik and Ipecac labels are obvious. It's also extremely difficult not to compare The Bastress, Degenerate Art Ensemble's 2005 Tellous release, to the 1991 self-titled Warner Bros. full-length by Mr. Bungle””particularly with regard to the horn section, jazzy interludes, and unorthodox time signature changes. Additionally, saxophonist Sam Wambach's squawking, cartoonish tenor recalls Mr. Bungle's Theo Lengyel. But while the music of Mr. Bungle was propelled by the histrionic vocal theatrics of Mike Patton, Degenerate Art Ensemble feature affectedly melodramatic and suggestive vocals from the diminutive Japanese powerhouse of a chanteuse that is Haruko Nishimura. The "metal" element of the proceedings is also kept considerably more low-key than that of Patton's band. Given the stylistic similarities to the aforementioned artists, it's no surprise that Tzadik founder and freak-jazz guru John Zorn recently hosted Degenerate Art Ensemble at his newly opened New York club The Stone, where they performed a set of new material commissioned by the prestigious organization Meet the Composer.

Degenerate Art Ensemble have made their name more as a performance company than a musical group, as it were. The ensemble formed in 1993 and since that time have performed over 500 shows dealing predominately with the dance, theater and music media. The Bastress is admittedly this reviewer's first exposure to Degenerate Art Ensemble, and as such, it's difficult to approach the album in terms of its relationship to the group's performance art background. But the group's dramaturgical pedigree has left an indelible mark on the music that they create. It's of a highly energetic, visual, and theatrical nature, and Haruko Nishimura's vocal delivery (mostly unintelligible, but presumably in Japanese) calls to mind images of Kabuki theater on amphetamines. The junkyard percussion and odd time signatures of "Bastress" are reminiscent of the Island Records albums of Tom Waits. "Cod Liver River" could almost be an outtake from Waits' "Night on Earth" score. Indeed, Degenerate Art Ensemble's guitarist Sam Mickens seems to have gone to the Marc Ribot school of fretboard technique, throughout the entirety of the album. There's an edgy, calculated queasiness to his playing that is both compelling and quaintly endearing.

The Bastress is a judiciously sequenced album that features vocal pieces interspersed with noirish, jazzy compositions that frequently fall somewhere, musically, between Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman. The musicianship on The Bastress, by and large, is extraordinary, as are the compositional skill and meticulous arrangements of band leader/conductor Joshua Kohl (who, incidentally, is married to Nishimura). The rhythm section is impeccably lean and controlled, displaying an impressive tightness of discipline coupled with a well-grounded degree of restraint. The Bastress is an exhilarating and inventive recording that holds up well to repeated listens, and will hopefully expose Degenerate Art Ensemble to the wider audience it deserves.

1. Oni Gorshi
2. Beast with a Bellyful of Bedsprings
3. Bastress
4. Tits and Honey
5. Smoking Car
6. Dreams from Wounded Mouth
7. Bitchslap
8. Transmission
9. Lucky
10. Cod Liver River
11. Smoking Baby