Bryan and the Aardvarks: Crepuscular Magic
Bryan and the Aardvarks’ debut album Heroes of Make Believe is a suite of nocturnes. Their music has been characterized as noir, and that definitely is a part of the picture. Bassist/composer Bryan Copeland’s glimmering, gently surreal modal themes are fleshed out with a lush, hypnotic gleam by vibraphonist Chris Dingman, multi-keyboardist Fabian Almazan and subtle drummer Joe Nero. They’re playing tonight, Feb 22 at Joe’s Pub at 9:30, joined by Jesse Lewis on guitar: if rapturous beauty with a dark undercurrent is your thing, this is a show not to miss.
Without even considering how captivatingly the band maintains a shimmery, mysterious mood throughout their album Heroes of Make Believe, what’s most impressive is that several of the tracks are free improvisations. The group’s commitment to theme and emotional content is absolutely unwavering: there are points here where individual instrumentaion seemingly becomes irrelevant because they’re all playing as a single voice. The tracks alternate between long, often mesmerizing, slow-to-midtempo themes interspersed with brief dreamy interludes. Nero’s sotto vocce brushwork, suspenseful shuffle beats and meticulous cymbals stir this crepuscular magic as Copeland anchors it with a deftly minimalist touch. The whole thing is streaming at their Bandcamp page, with the Beatles homage Marmalade Sky – the longest track here, clocking in at just under ten minutes – available as a free download.
The opening number, These Little Hours may be the most unforgettable track here. It starts with a simple, tiptoeing, Lynchian lullaby theme and sends it sailing with a slow ultraviolet swing, part Milt Jackson ballad, part Jeff Lynne anthem as it rises and falls, Almazan’s swirling string synthesizer orchestration mingling with Dingman’s ripples and runs Nero does a neat falling-acorn bounce off his rims to kick off the epic Where the Wind Blows, building to an animated, cinematic waltz that makes a launching pad for a long, crescendoing Almazan solo that moves toward apprehension, Dingman returning it to otherworldly bittersweetness.
Lingering vibraphone contrasts with austere bowed bass to open Sunshine Through the Clouds, which morphs from there into a lushly atmospheric country ballad and from there into a hypnotically rising soul-flavored vamp that seems more of a celebration than the requiem that it is. When Night Falls, a trippy, enveloping improvisation, shuffles along steadily over a moody modal piano riff as textures flit through the mist, dub-style.
After the psychedelically-tinged, gently bustling Beatles tribute, there’s Soft Starry Night with its tiptoeing soul waltz of an intro and crescendoing gospel allusions, then the brief, tangential improvisation Mysteria. The pillowy, slinky Still I Dream bubbles along on the pulse of Almazan’s echoey Rhodes piano lines mingling with Dingman’s vibraphone to the point where it’s impossible to figure out who’s playing what.
After a menacing loop-driven miniature, the band picks up the pace with the most amthemic track here, Today Means Everything. A triumphant piano workout for Almazan, it has the feel of a title theme from a wry, literate buddy movie. The album ends with the brief interlude Just Before Dawn and then I’d Be Lost and its warm, laid-back wee-hours New Orleans groove. Whatever you want to call this: jazz, third stream, soundtrack music, noir music, it’s one of the most enticingly enjoyable albums of recent months. Shame on us for not having picked up on it sooner.