Gutbucket: A Modest Proposal

[19 April 2009]

By Nils Jacobson

Gutbucket may have earned a niche in the jazz world after the quartet’s debut, InsomniacsDream, came out in 2001, but that location was mainly because of the group’s name (which refers to a visceral style of jazz), label (Knitting Factory), and instrumentation (saxophone, guitar, bass, drums).  As time passed, and as the group developed over the course of more performance and recording, it became defined by more than just its association with the New York “downtown” sound—and the young, progressive-minded fans who were its main audience.  The refreshing thing, at least for the like-minded, is that Gutbucket has not lost its tendency to let go, blow hard, and make some noise. 

Hints of the go-for-broke attitude, which marks the best of Gutbucket’s work on record and on stage, can be found all over A Modest Proposal. “Head Goes Thud” kicks in with thick, distorted guitar, plodding drums, and wailing alto saxophone.  Before that horn can reach a climax or approach any sort of resolution, though, the piece passes through several brief, focused interludes, instantly accelerating and decelerating upon each arrival and departure.  And that’s where the primary interest of this music lies: the rampant juxtaposition of styles, themes, moods, rhythms, and melodies, all very much chosen on purpose and carefully planned out along the way.  The rip-roaring energy and razor-tight micro-cuts work surprisingly well together in context.

This balance between cerebral complexity and visceral release can be tricky to manage for both musician and listener, and it inevitably results in plenty of noise along the way.  Let it be just be said that this is not background music.  Nor is it an assault on the ears—more an assault on the senses.  This is a rarity: a punk rock band with chops, whose members actually write out their music. 

The term the band uses on its web site is “through-composed”, and that’s exactly what’s going on here.  Through composition and funk make strange bedfellows, and likewise with skronk.  Math rock, prog rock, punk rock, Balkan rock, whatever, all these terms also apply, depending on the setting (there are ten very different tracks on this disc, each with its own trip).  One of the weirder trips, clocking in at under three minutes, is “Lucy Ferment?”, which rips back and forth between quick cuts like rabid math rock.  The paced, gentle overlay of lines that unfolds at the beginning of “Doppelganger’s Requiem” is elegant, even nostalgic, but somehow you can’t shake the inevitability of an ironic change of heart.  And yes, the piece does end up going into heavy electric overdrive.

To me, the changes in Gutbucket’s output have been related to the changes in label.  The 2001 debut was raw and skronky, more focused on energy and less on discipline per se.  The next two, on Cantaloupe/Enja, indulged the modern composition aspect more.  Now we’re on Cuneiform, a world headquarters of progressive rock (and its roots and offshoots), and that’s exactly the vibe of most of this record, the mentality behind much of this music.  If you’ve heard this record and the first one, you’ll definitely feel nostalgic for the outright ferality of InsomniacsDream.  But if you’re heavily tuned into classic King Crimson, for example, this music is on the same hyperintellectual, virtuosic level of insanity, and it’s made with a really good overall energy. In either case, let your own experience be your guide.  It’s really hard to predict how you’ll react when you hit play on this one.

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