Music

Mike Keneally: Scambot 2

Photo: Frank Wesp

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.


Mike Keneally

Scambot 2

Label: Exowax
US Release Date: 2016-09-09
Amazon
iTunes

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.

9

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
5
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image