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Published: 2001/06/21
by Jesse Jarnow

self-titled- Project Z

self-titled – Project
Terminus Records 0008-2
The original Aquarium Rescue Unit was one of the most powerful forces in the
early jamband scene. This was, in part, due to the influence of Col. Bruce
Hampton, but it was also due to the powerful musicianship exhibited by the
members of the Unit. Their mark of brilliance came in combination: they were
virtuoustic, but – as Glenn Phillips once described the Hampton Grease Band – it was a dichtomy between music (the band) and anti-music (Col. Bruce). As
a bandleader, Bruce managed to force the band members to transcend their
wanky roots and excel into something that was quite channeled — a
productive use of schooling.
Though the band continued on after Hampton’s departure in 1994, they did so
at limited capacity. They were again the sum of their parts once more.
Though the core members of the ARU (Jimmy Herring, Jeff "Apt Q-258" Sipe,
and Oteil Burbridge) never went away, it’s only recently that they’ve
seemingly been elevated to the status of elders within the scene, especially
as the ARU family moves closer and closer to both the Allmans and the Dead.
A new record on the Terminus label documents the work of some of the former
members of the band.
Project Z’s self-titled debut highlights a core band featuring both
guitarist Jimmy Herring and drummer Jeff Sipe, alongside Ricky Keller and
the Rev. Oliver Wells, two longtime residents of Zambiland. Even Col. Bruce
makes some limited appearences on the disc, credited with "Z Phone",
patented Hampton nonsense relegated to between song interludes. The music on
the disc is almost entirely improvised. On one hand, that’s impressive. It’s
extremely intelligent improvisastion. On the other hand, that’s only
interesting in a limited capacity. Intelligent improvisation doesn’t always
make for enjoyable listening. On record, effect is always more important
than skill.
The music on the Project Z disc is just what one would expect from Herring
and Sipe: a complex arrangement of rhythms and hyperactive melodies, quite
fusiony. Herring is in fine mettle throughout, sounding very much like,
well, himself. His notes somehow seem like non-sequiturs. His tone is
synthetic for sure, though that lies as much in his fingerwork as it does in
the effects he uses. At any rate, he sounds schooled (which he is) and every
note he plays comes off with a meticulousness of method.
Within the ARU, Herring often seemed hemmed in by the band’s gospel and
bluegrass leanings. Here, he has full reign. It’s almost too much, in
places. It’s not so much the dementia of it all than the sterility of it.
Sterile dementia. That’s what this is. Sipe is like that too: one of the
most weirdly precise drummers out there. It’s to be admired. While Keller
doesn’t hold up to Burbridge, that’s probably a good thing. He keeps the
music grounded. Herring’s soaring runs – on the opening Raging
Torrent are almost too much in places — creative, but bordering on
The ARU represented what happened if one pushed rhythmic and melodic
weirdness to an end: going out within the context of traditional western
theory: odd rhythms and phrasings, abrupt progresisons, and jumpy playing.
Project Z continues that mission, albeit without the direction and youthful
vitality of the ARU. At times though it feels kinda lifeless. Many of
the best moments of the disc are weird atonal pieces, each less than a minute, that
appear between songs and highlight some moment of out playing, occasionally
punctuated by some truth-babbling courtesy of Hampton.
A metaphor: the universe is curved at the edge, supposedly. When one gets to
the edge, weird stuff is supposed to start happening time-wise. No one can
really quite explain it. Science, in theory, will break down. "Reason and
logic were a wonderful thing for a long time," Col. Bruce said in "Outside
Out". "Neither of them work anymore." Project Z takes standard blues and
southern rock forms – reason and logic – and pushes on them in an almost
mechanical way: trying to destroy reason with itself. These brief atonal
moments are what happens when the band goes over the edge, past the edge.
Things begin to get twisted and bent and burnt and singed.
In that regard, Genetic Drift is easily the best track on the album.
At under two minutes, it’s succinct and could be longer — though brevity is
often a plus in a genre of wanky excursions. The ideas are signifigantly out
and weird, but they are also developed and realized. I’d be more interested
in a disc of outward realizations and reactions from these guys, completely
Mostly, though, I’d like them to slow down. If they can slow down without
losing their balls, it’d be great. The Flecktones-like Rainbow is
compelling, precisely because it slows down and studies the impact of some
of the hyperactive playing — the effect on more melodic things. Maybe it’s
my own aesthetic coming through a little too strongly in my judgement of the
album, but minimalism can be quite effective. If they can slow down without
being lite jazzy, it’d be great.

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