What has Aram Bajakian been up to since the release of his remarkable debut, Kef, in 2011?
Not much. He’s been on the road with both Lou Reed (RIP) and Diana Krall. Let me repeat that: he has played guitar with both Lou Reed and Diana Krall. Quick, how many musicians do you know who are versatile enough to pull that off? It speaks volumes to hear Sweet Lou introduce Bajakian as “guitarist extraordinaire” in of the many, highly recommended clips available on YouTube.
Bajakian has also managed to write and record another set of original compositions, and the results are stunning. Considering the depth and originality on display in Kef (which is an Armenian type of dance music known for incorporating traditional and western instruments), it is at once remarkable and refreshing that Bajakian has recorded a cycle that manages to be more direct and accessible, yet expansive in terms of style and effect.
The year is young but there were flowers also in hell will be on my list come December; the only question is whether anyone else will take top billing.
For guitar nerds, this is an album that can—and should—be appreciated and savored for the multiple nuances that exist within practically each number. Bajakian indulges in his love of pedals and pyrotechnics, but the music is never indulgent. An obvious example is the tribute to his former employer, “LouTone”: it is a suitably fuzzed-out affair, ambling along with just the right attitude, but in the middle Bajakian breaks it down with some echoed distortion that is a tip of the cap and a passing of the torch. Moments like this will make music aficionados smile and nod the way a baseball fan can understand, without the announcer, the ways a pitcher paints the corner with his fastball.
And Bajakian brings the heat. He blasts out of the gate with the scorching “Texas Cannonball”, a tribute to the great Freddie King. In addition to being a suitably blistering opening salvo, it serves notice that this young man knows his history, and more, is capable of delivering convincing celebrations for the types of guitar heroes video game players have never heard about. And, as sensitive and subtle as his playing often is, he can absolutely kill when he wants to. Another tribute, “Orbisonian”, balances a punkish aggression with a winking rockabilly flair. This song should be featured in a video game.
In the liner notes Bajakian thanks his uncle for helping initiate a love affair with the blues that continues to this day. “Sweet Blue Eyes” is a worthy tribute to the idiom, taking Stevie Ray Vaughan on a late night cab ride to the East Village. “Rent Party”, which showcases the solid support offered by Shahzad Ismaily (bass) and Jerome Jennings (drums), is so full of glorious filth you"ll need fresh Q-tips after each listen. Yet, even on these hard-charging numbers, Bajakian can’t help enhancing things with multi-tracked embellishment: the middle section of “Rent Party” is an exercise in well-calibrated chaos. “Labor on 57th” lets the intensity build like an electrical storm, all menacingly gorgeous heat lightning, alternating between explosive release and retreat: it is a history of the hustle-bustle of our city that never sleeps.
The aforementioned “LouTone” and “The Kids Don’t Want to Sleep” are showcases for the huge, varied sounds Bajakian can conjure, unfiltered enough so they are fresh and raw, but shrewdly restrained enough to avoid noise-for-noise’s sake extravagance. Bajakian, in short, uses skill and instinct to assault your system, where so many other players simply turn up the volume.
It is, ultimately, the quieter numbers that fully reveal the mastery Bajakian is developing. Album closer “For Julia” is a soulful tone poem that uses a less-is-more understatement to concentrate feeling, where “Japanese Love Ballad” would not sound remotely out of place on one of John Zorn’s more exotic Filmworks studies.
Two tracks in particular elevate the proceedings and will stay with the listener for a long time. “Requiem for 5 Pointz” is a solemn shout-out to the “graffiti mecca” in Queens that was whitewashed this fall. In terms of subject matter and delivery, Bajakian is not simply cementing street cred for this city he loves; he is solidifying a distinctive imprint as a son of the cultural and musical capital of the world. “Medicaid Lullaby”, another political commentary that needs no words to make its case, offers majestic evidence of Bajakian’s uncorrupted heart. While he is often, and flatteringly, compared to Marc Ribot, this album in general, and this track in particular, conjures up the man who balances light and dark, heavy and soft, intellect and adrenaline better than just about anyone: Robert Fripp. One also thinks of Vernon Reid, another indefatigable explorer who distills his countless loves and influences into a vision that is brazen and uninterested in compromise.
None of this is to suggest there were flowers also in hell is a mere amalgamation of various, albeit disparate source materials; rather, it is a testament of Bajakian’s love affair with his instrument. The inspirations he has absorbed infuse practically every second of this recording, but the sum total is anything but reductive. This album contains multitudes, and they are original as they are exhilarating.
This is not jazz, nor is it necessarily rock or blues; it’s a reflection of the mind and soul of the man who made it, like all great art must be. As such, it is also a reflection of the frenzied times we live in: the turmoil, apathy and information overload, yet it prevails as an antidote for the very urgencies it addresses. The best instrumental albums are always soundtracks. They are soundtracks to the worlds they create, and his second album is the soundtrack of Aram Bajakian’s world, right now. We are witnessing the evolution of a significant talent, and we should anticipate important work from him for many years.