Revolutionary Snake Ensemble: Forked Tongue

Boston snake charmers steal a march on Mardi Gras.

Revolutionary Snake Ensemble

Forked Tongue

Label: Cuneiform
US Release Date: 2008-05-13
UK Release Date: 2008-05-19

There aren’t many jazz ensembles whose interpretive reach extends to Ornette Coleman and Billy Idol; then again, there just aren’t many jazz ensembles whose reach extends to Billy Idol, period. Warpainted like a motley cross between Arthur Brown, Sun Ra, and the Magic Band, Ken Field’s Revolutionary Snake Ensemble are one such aggregate. They aren’t all that revolutionary, truth be told, at least not in the sense that Coleman was revolutionary, but they can play, they know their music, and they don’t take themselves too seriously. And as missionaries for the super-kinetic shuffle and second line fever of New Orleans, they take the gospel to places it probably never wanted to go; it kicks and drags its heels but they good humouredly escort it along anyway, snares thrumming and horns raised to the heavens.

If the Meters played funk as a natural extension of New Orleans, Field and company -- hailing from Boston, but surely hailing from the Crescent City in another life -- do New Orleans as a natural extension of funk and jazz, bringing it back down South with its cool climate edge intact. As a man with a sterling list of avant-garde and screen compositional credits behind him, and having originally founded the band around Boston’s improv scene, Field is obviously au fait with the benefits of tearing up the script, or simply not having one. So it was that his band spontaneously mutated into a roving, Mardi-Gras medusa of an ensemble, operating a revolving door policy for assorted alumni of the Boston scene and taking his concept of a post-modern marching band to the streets.

Once hailed as one of the best unsigned acts in the U.S., they’re now onto their second album, and apart from the surprisingly easy going accommodation of improv and organisation, what’s striking is this record’s duality, echoing the funeral-dirge/second line hedonism of an original New Orleans parade, but turning it on its head. For all their fun loving, tribal-ecstatic chic and neat line in cover versions, these serpentine guerillas are at their most lacerating when they’re re-imagining baptismal celebration as minor key lament: if the wailing vigil of "Down By the Riverside" doesn’t rake your spine, chances are you don’t have one. Not only is this version far enough removed in time from the Civil Rights era to grapple with a contemporary definition of what it means to be anti-war, but it also functions as a de facto elegy for a post-Katrina city. It’s quite possibly the most convincing treatment of New Orleans by a non-native since Hugh Masakela’s "Goin’ Back to New Orleans", and as the only track with vocals -- credited to Gabrielle Agachiko, a lady with a larynx to, yes, die and have your own funeral for -- maybe its weight will convince Field to employ a singer full-time.

There are as many other trad re-inventions as you’d expect (opener "Just a Closer Walk", "Give Me Jesus", and a burbling "Little Liza Jane" among them), but -- mesh of improvisatory curlicues aside -- they don’t deviate too much from their historical intent. Not so the legacy of William Broad. For all its novelty value, the exercise of covering "White Wedding" -- forked tongue planted firmly in cheek, and bequeathing '80s rock the kind of aggro-lounge treatment it escaped first time round -- actually has an extended ripple effect on Field’s writing: with its long, low brass sustain and ruthless syncopation, "Minor Vee" sounds like a mutant reprise. And if he’s not re-arranging some holy chestnut, he’s dreaming up freaky, wind-jamming floor monsters like "The Large S"; think an abstract, instrumental edit of Dr John’s "Big Chief", cast at the most awkwardly appealing angles yet cranked out in perfect symmetry, popping and hissing like a disembodied chunk of scrap mechanics from a Monty Python animation.

And if closer "Under the Skin" comes on like a Coleman loft date transplanted to New Orleans, Coleman’s own "Chippie" breaks in like a samba gone to the wrong carnival on the wrong continent, but sounding like it’s having a ball anyway. Even "Que Sera Sera" gives itself up to the Delta and the kind of percussive itch its composers just couldn’t have scratched. The revolution likely never will be televised, but it might just go better with a blast of thinking man’s marching music.





On Point and Click Adventure Games with Creator Joel Staaf Hästö

Point and click adventure games, says Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine creator Joel Staaf Hästö, hit a "sweet spot" between puzzles that exercise logical thinking and stories that stimulate emotions.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 1, Gang of Four to the Birthday Party

If we must #quarantine, at least give us some post-punk. This week we are revisiting the best post-punk albums of all-time and we kick things off with Gang of Four, Public Image Ltd., Throbbing Gristle, and more.


Alison Chesley Toils in Human and Musical Connectivity on Helen Money's 'Atomic'

Chicago-based cellist, Alison Chesley (a.k.a. Helen Money) creates an utterly riveting listen from beginning to end on Atomic.


That Kid's 'Crush' Is a Glittering Crossroads for E-Boy Music

That Kid's Crush stands out for its immediacy as a collection of light-hearted party music, but the project struggles with facelessness.


Percival Everett's ​​​'Telephone​​​' Offers a Timely Lesson

Telephone provides a case study of a family dynamic shaken by illness, what can be controlled, and what must be accepted.


Dream Pop's Ellis Wants to be 'Born Again'

Ellis' unhappiness serves as armor to protect her from despair on Born Again. It's better to be dejected than psychotic.


Counterbalance No. 10: 'Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols'

The Spirit of ’77 abounds as Sex Pistols round out the Top Ten on the Big List. Counterbalance take a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. Right. Now.


'Thor: Ragnorak' Destroys and Discards the Thor Mythos

Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok takes a refreshingly iconoclastic approach to Thor, throwing out the old, bringing in the new, and packaging the story in a colourful, gorgeously trashy aesthetic that perfectly captures the spirit of the comics.


Alps 2 and Harry No Release Eclectic Single "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" (premiere)

Alps 2 and Harry NoSong's "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" is a dizzying mix of mangled 2-step rhythms and woozy tranquil electronics.


Kathleen Grace and Larry Goldings Team for Wonderfully Sparse "Where Or When" (premiere)

Kathleen Grace and Larry Goldings' "Where Or When" is a wonderfully understated performance that walks the line between pop and jazz.


Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.


New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.


Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.


Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.


New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.


'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.


Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.


Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.


M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.


Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.