What could that thing be on the cover of The Terror End of Beauty, the fifth album by the New York-based experimental trio Harriet Tubman? Is it a gaping chasm into which the band throws the listener over the course of ten intricate yet loose instrumentals? Is it a close-up on some futuristic bell of a trumpet? Does it mean anything at all, really?
Once one starts listening to the intimidatingly-named The Terror End of Beauty, the abstraction of the sleeve art starts to make a lot of sense. Harriet Tubman purveys in music which is similarly undiscernible yet intriguing. Throughout The Terror End of Beauty, the group comes across as never once thinking about genre, all the while managing to incorporate stylistic flourishes from seemingly dozens of genres. The instrumental style of Harriet Tubman anchors itself on the free interplay approach of jazz music, but at any given point of this record things could easily morph into a heavy metal riff storm, or a slinky funk groove, or, well, just about anything. Those who like the living-on-the-edge feeling of a live jam session will find The Terror End of Beauty a masterclass in controlled chaos. Like the strange curves of the cover art, this music bends off into unpredictable directions, and by the time you’ve reached the end of the album it’s hard to imagine how three people thought it could all hang together.
Harriet Tubman contains nary a slouch in the instrumental department. Drummer J.T. Lewis, bassist Melvin Gibbs, and guitarist Brandon Ross each have several chances to shine throughout The Terror End of Beauty. Gibbs’ bass proves to be a source of needed consistency as these ten tracks volley from one section to the next, particularly in the smooth basslines of “3000 Worlds” and “Unseen Advance of the Aquifarian”. As the other half of Harriet Tubman’s rhythm section Lewis proves especially adept at shifting between the lighter touch of jazz drumming and the heavy, rock-oriented style of playing which picks up in moments like the tense crescendo of the title cut, which taken out of context sounds something like an abstract take on hardcore. In that instance Ross’ guitar wails like it’s on an ’80s guitar shredder album – not to mention the Surfing with the Alien vibes coming from Gibbs’ bass tone. Ross evokes another notable guitar maestro, Steve Vai, on Harriet Tubman’s deconstructive take on Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” in which Gibbs and Lewis step back and let Ross’s soaring guitar take the forefront.
But while The Terror End of Beauty overfloweth with quality musicianship, like many jam sessions it often feels like it’s drifting ruderlessly. On a track as concise as “Prototaxite”, the trio tries to build music around a trick of distortion on Ross’ guitar, but the music never finds its center, a distinct contrast to “3000 Worlds” right before it, in which Gibbs lays out a solid rhythmic floor atop which the rest of the song compellingly unfolds. Additionally, the production by Scotty Hard muddies up the whole sound of the record in a strange way, as if the musicians had been recorded from all the way across the room by fuzzy mics. In certain cases this enhances what the trio is doing: on “Redemption Song”, Hard’s production deepens the dream-like quality of the music. But throughout much of The Terror End of Beauty, the production contributes to the sometimes aimless drift of the songwriting.
It’s the pratfall of the sonic explorer: when you let yourself perform unencumbered by the expectations of genre, school of thought, or tradition, you’re bound to come across something thrilling and new, and throughout The Terror End of Beauty Harriet Tubman does just that. But in searching for something to grab on to, one is bound to fumble for a bit. Never quite approaching terror, but occasionally discovering beauty, this record will be most rewarding for those willing to endure some aural ambling before arriving at instrumental brilliance, which this free-thinking trio certainly knows how to achieve.