MarchFourth Marching Band is a 30-member plus ensemble from Portland, Oregon that includes dancers, stilt-walkers, a unicyclist, and fire-jugglers. The members all have their own takes on marching band uniforms that they wear to shows, giving them the appearance of an outsider art collective more than a coherent band. Obviously there’s a lot more to the group than what you’re going to hear on an album. Instrumentally, the group is more like a jazz big band with a percussion section than a full marching band. There are trombones, trumpets, saxophones (alto, tenor, and baritone), and an electric bass player. They have almost a dozen percussionists, although they don’t do anything near as complex as what you would hear in a college marching band or drum and bugle corps.
Rise Up is the group’s second studio album, and it’s quite entertaining. With only two cover songs on the disc, the group is clearly proud of the original pieces its members have composed. Considering its configuration, the band is at its best musically when doing jazzy numbers or funky horn charts. The album starts off in this vein with “Ninth Ward Calling”, a trombone-driven New Orleans-style jazz tune that features a vocal refrain of the title recurring throughout the song. “Dynomite” coasts along on a percussion cadence and a funky little melody and, at six minutes, has plenty of space for individual solos. “Gospel” feels a bit like a Blood, Sweat, and Tears song, and switches off between bouncy ’70s funk and slow, thick chords where the band sings “Rise up / Rise up / Rise up / Rise up … to the sky” in an appropriately gospel-like fashion.
Songs like these are the band’s bread and butter. They work well for the size and instrumentation of the group, and they’re a lot of fun. It’s when the group attempts to work outside of these styles that they run into a bit of trouble. “Nightmarika”, for example, is a cool minor-key chart with some Spanish-style horn work, particularly in the trumpets. But when theatrical voices come in partway through, ominously screaming and later singing “Niiiiiiightmaaarikaaaaaa”, it causes the song to collapse in on itself. Suddenly it doesn’t sound anywhere near dark or creepy enough to live up to its title. It’s not a nightmare at all; it’s a song with a jaunty melody and upbeat drum work. “Yak Attack” runs into similar problems. Taken on its own, it’s a bit of a silly song with an effectively goofy wobbly melody. But the first third of the track features a persistent voice over that is highly descriptive of the setting and the titular yak attack. We get to hear about how we’re supposed to imagine ourselves in the desert in the middle of the night when we run across an angry yak. Then, as the yak charges, the voiceover ends. Aside from a late-song trumpet solo, very little in the tune evokes the desert, and the happy-sounding melody sounds nothing like a large, angry creature attacking. It’s too bad that the vocals on each of these tracks undermine the rest of the songs.
Eslewhere, other non-funk experiments work better. The brisk “Contada Ridiculata” runs through several polka-like styles in 2.5 minutes. The group’s cover of the traditional Balkan song “Simplon Cocek” is rousing with its heavy syncopation and unusual melodies. The band’s energetic cover of Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse” is recognizable even to those who may not know the title. It contains the classic “assembly line” music used in dozens of Looney Tunes cartoons starting way back in the 1940’s, and more recently in those annoying Visa check card commercials.
As an album, Rise Up sounds like a good document of what the MarchFourth Marching Band is up to, musically. What’s here is a solid effort that serves as a nice primer for the band. Watching YouTube videos, though, it’s clear that one needs to see the group perform live, with all the extra showmanship, to get the full effect.