The most brilliant multi-instrumentalist you’ve never heard of releases a stunning new album that sounds like a rock opera co-written by Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut.
Pinning Mike Keneally down to any specific genre is useless. After touring with Frank Zappa’s band in 1988 as a guitarist and keyboard player, Keneally eventually began releasing solo albums in 1992. These albums have run the gamut from lo-fi guitar crunch (Boil That Dust Speck) to dark, experimental instrumentals (Nonkertompf) to orchestral (The Universe Will Provide, recorded with Holland’s Metropole Orkest), to acoustic folk (Wooden Smoke), to low-key singer-songwriter power-pop (Wing Beat Fantastic, a collaboration with XTC’s Andy Partridge) and pretty much everything in between. The common thread has always been Keneally’s insistence on musical excellence, keeping things interesting by incorporating a healthy combination of genres and a general sense of comic absurdity.
Raised on an eclectic variety of ‘60s and ‘70s pop and progressive rock (The Beatles, Todd Rundgren, Zappa, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer were a few of his childhood touchstones), these influences constantly find their way into his music, yet the end result is always a combination so novel it can only be Keneally. Scambot 2, his latest album, is no different, and yet the compositions and performances are so strong that it has gelled into what is probably his most consistent, satisfying, and musically all-encompassing album to date.
The thing is, Scambot 2 isn’t designed to stand alone. As the title indicates, it’s actually a sequel to his 2009 album, Scambot. And true to his progressive rock roots, both Scambot and Scambot 2 make up a multi-part concept album. Oh, and a Scambot 3 is in the works.
With all this backstory and baggage, you’d think that Scambot 2 is a horribly misguided way to begin a Mike Keneally musical discovery. That’s actually not true. Yes, there’s a story, and it started seven years ago with the first album. But the story is also, well, a bit confusing and hard to grasp on a traditional level -- imagine a concept album co-written by Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut and you’ve got the general idea -- and if you were to simply concentrate on the album as its own separate entity and not try too hard to decipher the plot and characters, you’d still be in for a thrilling musical ride.
But if you insist, the plot of the first album goes something like this: an evil capitalist magnate experiments with manipulation and control of mass consciousness and uses a man named Ian (renamed Scambot) as his test subject. Along the way, there are gigantic pet cats, a rock band made of mutants called The Quiet Children, insects possessing strange powers, futuristic yachts, and healthy doses of nostalgia, regret, double-cross and redemption. Sort of a postmodern Tommy, perhaps.
Scambot 2 picks up right where the first album left off. In a bold move, the opening track, “In the Trees", is the album’s longest, most complex, and most musically jarring song. Not exactly a gentle landing: head-banging metal guitars (reminiscent of Keneally’s on/off gig as a guitarist for Brendon Small’s Dethklok, the real-life band that plays on Adult Swim’s Metalocalypse), lilting musical-theater melodies, lightning-fast notes and blustering boogie all get crammed into the song’s ten-minutes-and-change run time. It’s a hell of an overture.
But things soon get more down-to-earth: “Roots Twist” has a more traditional guitar-based rock sound, with brash-yet-melodic riffs and a kick drum so prominent in the mix it’ll make your chest vibrate. Lyrically, it’s another opportunity for Keneally to toss around more obscure pop culture references: “There’s Gene Simmons / Gobbling up the women / Spawning illegitimate children all day long / There’s Tommy Newsom / Happy to have a twosome / How do I get these hoodlums outta this song?” As is the case in many of the songs, a brilliant, deft guitar solo acts as the song’s musical centerpiece.
“Sam” provides even more compositional depth and further evidence that Keneally isn’t a cold, faceless shredder. The eloquent psych-folk of the verses leads beautifully into the guitar-heavy grunge of the choruses, which sound like a long-lost Neil Young & Crazy Horse outtake. But prog-rock fans will be satiated by the odd time signatures, unusual instrumentation and general experimental bent of songs like “Clipper” and “Pretzels", which manage to incorporate both the grandiose weirdness of bands like Gentle Giant and the contemporary off-kilter buzz of Radiohead. Vocals are often masked by effects and odd instruments like banjos and glockenspiels make their way into the sonic landscape. Keneally doesn’t like to sit still with conventional arrangements for very long.
There are also times when his power-pop influences are in full bloom, particularly on songs like “Race the Stars", a gleaming pop/rock confection that sounds like XTC crashing a Steely Dan recording session. It has the sheen of Becker and Fagen, but also the edgy urgency of Andy Partridge.
While equally adept and guitar and keyboards, Mike is best known as a stellar guitarist (he was, after all, hired by Zappa to fill the maestro’s “stunt guitarist” slot, formerly occupied by Steve Vai¬) and on Scambot 2, he doesn’t disappoint. The hook-stuffed metal swagger of “Roll” is bound to satisfy Keneally’s six-string fans as he pairs up with fellow guitarist and frequent collaborator Rick Musallam on some noisy, audacious riffs and blistering solos. This is followed immediately by the 180-degree turn into “Constructed", a piano-led waltz ballad that sounds like Elvis Costello in Burt Bacharach mode, bolstered by some of Mike’s strongest, most emotive singing on record. Pete Griffin’s upright bass and the backing vocals of Jesse Keneally (Mike’s daughter) add the necessary weight to this gorgeously arranged composition.
In addition to the aforementioned players, many of Keneally’s usual co-conspirators help add musical muscle to the recordings. Recorded over a long period of time in a variety of cities and studios, it took a village to make Scambot 2 happen: bass players Bryan Beller and Doug Lunn, drummers Joe Travers, Marco Minnemann and Gregg Bendian, and saxophonist/flutist Evan Francis have all logged time in Keneally’s band and are joined by newer recruits like Umphrey’s McGee drummer Kris Myers and multi-instrumentalist Ben Thomas (who adds the right amount of gravitas to the epic “Freezer Burn” with his majestic one-man horn section). It’s Mike’s album, but it would be hard to envision it coming to fruition without the aid of all the talent assembled.
Scambot 2 closes with the relatively low-key “Proceed", another composition that initially sounds wildly anachronistic in the Keneally catalog but is the kind of song that is becoming more commonplace as Keneally continues to widen his musical scope. The simple, mid-tempo ‘70s AM radio sound-alike is an appropriate cool-down before the album closes, but ends a bit tentatively, allowing for the inevitable Scambot 3. There’s been no announced release date for this final installment, but if the first two parts are any indication, fans may be waiting a while. In the meantime, subsequent non-Scambot Keneally albums will likely come along in the interim.
Scambot 2 is an unusual, chaotic, and uncompromising work. It’s also a perfect musical introduction to the music of Mike Keneally, not to mention one of the most cohesive, brilliantly conceived and expertly performed releases of 2016. Album of the year? So far, absolutely.
Note: like most of Keneally’s albums, Scambot 2 is also available as a two-disc special edition, available exclusively on www.keneally.com. The special edition includes a bonus disc called Inkling, which contains 19 additional tracks.