With as many tracks as the group has members, Alto!'s LP3 is intellectual, challenging, and downright weird.
When Alto!'s third album, appropriately titled LP3 , opened on my computer with the genre tag “Avantgarde”, I should've known what I'd gotten myself into. The record consists of a trio of experimental romps, entitled “Piece Fourteen”, “Piece Twelve”, and “Piece Sixteen/Piece Fifteen” (yes, in that order). While the album's layout is initially a head-scratcher, the structural oddities of LP3 end up doing wonders for it. Clocking in at seven minutes, 15 minutes and 17 minutes, respectively, the tracks stand apart from one another in both length and character. The brevity of the track listing but monumental length of each piece allows the Portland-based trio to treat the tunes as separate entities without having to make any attempts at creating continuity; we can take each track at face value and be content to accept that this album will not flow like others that we've heard this year.
On that note, “Piece Fourteen” opens with persistent, intricate drumwork that characterizes the track. You'd expect nothing less than total control over the rhythmic energy from a band in which two-thirds of the members are drummers. While these bombastic rhythms will get drummers frothing at the mouth, it seems like all the creativity has been taken up by the drumwork, and we're left with guitarwork and synthesizers that are (at best) jaw-droppingly weird and (at worst) outright gimmicky. The gun and telephone-like sounds are the guilty parties in this latter category; they bring to mind that scene in Ferris Bueller's Day Off in which Ferris plays a song out of cough noises on his electric keyboard.
“Piece Twelve” begins with a guitar cadenza, which leaves a lot to the imagination. That's meant in the nicest way possible, as the skillful, ominous guitawork reminds us of open landscapes, dreamscapes, and our own air guitar solos in the shower. Exotic tonalities are thrown in for good measure, which is sure to impress music snobs. From here, the track descends into a gluggy guitarfest that more than makes up for the lack of similar creativity on “Piece Fourteen”. By the end, however, the sludge will become too much for some listeners, as the experimentation and avant-garde genre hit a wall. At this point, the band is unwilling and unable to treat us to anything new due to its impenetrable wall-of-sound.
As “Piece Sixteen/Piece Fifteen” opens, we're feeling that we haven't seen the last of Alto!'s penchant for curly percussion work, as the polyrhythms of the track are once again a reminder of the group's instrumental virtuosity and exotic influences. Mix in some cross-rhythmed guitar playing and extra-crunchy bass guitar, and there's a vaguely Latin jazz feeling about the track. Cleverly, the track goes on to reference earlier hooks from the first two pieces. On the whole, the track is subtle in its stylistic changes, and if you're not careful, you'll miss the twists and turns. This shifting works, and the soundscape is at least admirable, but the energy the track builds is an intellectual one, not necessarily an encapsulating one.
On paper, there's more than enough instrumental mastery and classic-style motif development to go around, but the moments when the record hooks us in are a bit too brief. Many will find the record inaccessible, but those who are willing to stick it out and go into the album without prejudices against its various oddities should at least be stimulated, if not enamored, by it. One thing is certain, however: Alto! makes it very difficult to overlook just how tight-knit its operation is and just how instrumentally virtuosic its members are.