Brainkiller: Colourless Green Superheroes

[10 October 2013]

By John Garratt

PopMatters Associate Music Editor

If I were ask you to which musical genre a trio of keyboards, trombone and drums would belong, your first guess would probably be jazz, right? Brass and keys usually don’t go together unless its a jazz outfit or some super brainiacal band of some kind of post-you-name-it persuasion that wears earflaps in the summer and cites Phil Collins as an influence.

To be fair, I’m not exactly sure what the members of Brainkiller wear during warmer weather. But to say that they don’t belong to any particular genre is not telling the whole truth. This is a band that belongs to a number of different genres, weird jazz being just one skinny sliver of their sound pie. There’s also some post-rock, a small shading of classical piano, blue notes tucked away in the turn-arounds and a plethora of musical passages that sound like they were jammed into being. The truth is, keyboardist Jacob Koller, trombonist Brian Allen, and drummer Hernan Hecht don’t really work that way. Most of what you hear on their sophomore album Colourless Green Superheroes is allegedly composed. If I am to believe what I read in the press release about the music on this album being written in the literal sense, then Brainkiller’s rehearsal space must be littered with some terribly discombobulated looking sheet music. It just doesn’t sound that way. This music should be the result of improvisation, but it’s not.

The fact that I could only detect this from a press release speaks volumes of the trio’s musicianship. Musicianship is cool, musicianship is impressive, but does it make you want to return to the album again and again? That all depends on how the musicians harness their musicianship, and Koller and Allen write some pretty engaging stuff to use as that harness. It may not be the substance of stubborn brainworm infections or future standards, but it’s an excellent concoction readymade for everyday listening and gawking. And it’s kind of fun too.

Brainkiller is one of those little bands bound by chumminess. Koller and Allen met while attending a music camp in Canada. Their musical telepathy being too strong to ignore, the two spent years honing their approach, writing music to suit their newfound direction. Somewhere along the line, they met a very sympathetic drummer and skilled producer in Hernan Hecht. Their overall sound does not belong to any one member. No weak links, all of them are pulling their weight, including Allen doubling up on effects. Not bad for not having a bass player, huh?

The deceptively titled “Noodlin” begins with what sounds like Scott Joplin on valium, a mix of classical music with blues. Hecht steps in lightly. While Allen solos, you hear two guys talking with one another about how to do the wordless vocal harmonies. Then they do them. Then the song kicks into high gear—idiosyncratic solos on the electric piano and the trombone are in perfect unison. There is something underneath that sounds like a synth playing a ground bass. This is their definition of “Noodlin”? I can only hope that my noodlings can sound that tight some day. Koller’s right hand dictates the title for “Scribble” since Allen probably has a harder time mimicking any kind of scribble (I’ve played trombone too). Instead, he and Hecht are assigned to grove roles, making the song scrawl smoothly rather than scribble. The following track “Empty Words” is a new-agey way to shoehorn Japanese electronic baby-doll moaner Coppé into the mix. All told, it’s not the sore thumb it threatens to become, nestling instead into the album’s overall attitude of trying anything but keeping it under Brainkiller’s terms.

“The Vindicator Returns” is a nice way to clear the decks at the start. If the distorted electric piano and frequent cymbal crashes are enough to scare you off, then your musical hybrids of choice are probably of a tamer variety. If you make it to the 0:56 mark where almost all of the noise has dropped away and are wanting to know where this whole thing is headed, Colourless Green Superheroes is the crevice, nook and cranny trove for you. Maybe they didn’t start this whole genre-melting mess, but Brainkiller are carrying the torch adeptly, professionally.

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