Jerseyband: Outlandish Brass-Metal Orchestrations

Jerseyband: Beast WeddingJerseyband: Beast Wedding (6/11/09)

“The Glad Hand”

[audio:|titles=Jerseyband: “The Glad Hand”]

On stage, a costumed septet prepares to unleash a serious sonic force that belies its members’ festooned bodies. An all-male horned frontline of three saxophonists and a trumpeter is adorned in women’s clothing, a red cape, and a spiky foam wig, belting out furious riffs that weave back and forth atop a syncopated, polymetered math-metal foundation.

The trumpeter unleashes a harrowing scream, and the music darts to a quick brass motif reminiscent of The Green Hornet before the all-male rhythm section — a bassist in a dress, a guitarist in a lab coat, and a drummer in a tank top — pounds out down-tuned accompaniment as the saxophones create one giant, unwieldy power chord. After a rapid-fire call and response and a prolonged groove, the horns switch to a somber harmony, which transitions to one final math-rock breakdown.

On any given night, in any given song, this might be Jerseyband, the self-bestowed musical merchants of “lungcore.” Remarkably tight for men in costumes, this New York City outfit is unconcerned with musical demarcations, fusing its unconventional lineup into a browbeating dynamism. In another context, the group’s softer, fluttering, neo-classical moments might conjure thoughts of a jazz ensemble or pit orchestra. But with brutal metal influences such as Meshuggah and Pig Destroyer, Jerseyband won’t soon be mistaken for Benny Goodman.

“I think that it’s hard to say what the direction is with this band,” baritone saxophonist Alex Hamlin says. “I think that it still lies firmly in solid rhythm and groove, and unexpected changes within that construct. What fascinates me most about Meshuggah is how it maintains an element of solid groove backbeat, but then there are subtle layers of rhythm going on. There may be a couple phrases going on at the same time, rhythmically, which is really just fascinating.”

“When people leave the show, I want them to say, ‘The music was nonstop intensity, and the whole time their nipples were on fire, and during the third song, they built a machine that launched hot dogs into the audience.'”

This focus on recurrent and concurrent rhythms is as evident as ever on Beast Wedding, the group’s new album and first studio recording since 2005 that, at press time, was being shopped to a handful of labels. Much of the new material dates back to Jerseyband’s previous release, the excellently mixed 2007 live album Lung Punch Fantasy, but it has benefited from another few years of incubation and performance.

Entirely new songs, such as Beast Wedding opener “The Glad Hand,” churn with unrelenting force as bass-drum triplets, pitch harmonics, and layered horn vibratos accent massive head-banging breakdowns. “The Queen’s Laser” has a distinct black-metal element, and the disc’s penultimate track, “Private Parts,” is a subdued affair that includes one of Beast Wedding’s few moments of clean guitar.

Throughout the album, the band’s main structure — horned frontline versus metal rhythm section — becomes ever more blended, and any instrument can lead any song at any time. The horns are still the crux of the band, but the songwriting has taken a more egalitarian approach.

“Horns and rhythm section is a convenient way to abbreviate the structure of the band,” tenor saxophonist Ed RosenBerg says, “and that is certainly where our music began when we first formed. But now I think that the compositions have orchestrationally advanced in such a way that practically every song has its own unique sub-grouping of the seven voices. In fact, most songs are constantly changing in that regard. Like, for these two bars, I am doubling the guitar line, but then the trumpet takes over doing that while I shift to a line with the bass and bari sax. It’s always shifting and moving like that.”

Vocals also play a more prominent role on Beast Wedding, as trumpeter Brent Madsen bellows a sporadic mixture of black-metal screams and growls and Hamlin includes a bit of his “smoker’s voice.” Lung Punch Fantasy featured its share of screams, grunts, and spoken-word vocals, but Madsen’s voice is more focal than ever, capable of dominating a passage with raw power.

“People often associate [screaming] with anger, but I look at more as just a sound, a very intense and penetrating thing that a voice can do,” Rosenberg says.

Formed 10 years ago, Jerseyband has roots in the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester in New York. Hamlin, RosenBerg, and guitarist Ryan Ferreira each partook in the same improvisation workshop, where the three viewed recitals as “real performances,” performing brief, convulsive pieces — often in costumes — as a group called Bambe.

“The concept was to see how many songs we could come up with that were a minute or less in length,” Hamlin says. “That was sort of the antithesis of improv class — improvise over a form.” Laughing, he continues, “We kind of took it in a different direction. We wrote in sections like ‘improvise here,’ but it was sort of a blitz exercise in jingle writing. But the result was really fun; we came up with these spastic, schizophrenic jingles. In our eyes, it was a success.”

As a result of the class, Jerseyband was created around the concept of “music nuggets” and sections of improv, but shifting circumstances and personnel altered the trajectory of the group’s “anything goes” arrangements. Now the band’s material is almost entirely composed, with each song’s writer responsible for every instrument, including drums.

“Because of the circumstances, we’ve been required to compose more and more,” Hamlin says. “It turned into, ‘Well, we really like composing.’ This isn’t quite jazz; it’s more like some weird jazz-rock bastard project. This basically turned into a laboratory for us horn guys.”

But the band’s audio isn’t its only scripted element. In an effort to thank its audience and establish a visual boundary between listeners and performers, Jerseyband puts together those goofy, garish outfits for its onstage wardrobe. This notion has worked its way into the first photo session for Beast Wedding, featuring the band split into three grooms, three brides, and a monk. Only time will tell whether these newest band uniforms appear on stage, but crowds can be sure that they’ll see something unorthodox at a Jerseyband show.

“Unless everyone at the show has their eyes closed,” RosenBerg says, “their feelings about the show will be based on two primary sources of input: what is sounds like and what it looks like. We just want it to look a little bit like it sounds — invite the audience to go a little crazy with us. Costumes and abstract dance are frequent means to that end. When people leave the show, I want them to say, ‘The music was nonstop intensity, and the whole time their nipples were on fire, and during the third song, they built a machine that launched hot dogs into the audience.”

Hamlin adds, “[Wearing costumes] says that we took the time to think about what we were going to wear for you. In addition to this ridiculous music, you get some ridiculous garb. Awesome.”

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