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Published: 2002/02/20
by Jesse Jarnow

Elements – Brothers Past


The best and worst of the Brothers Past’s Elements is obvious within
the first minute of the disc. The best: the band has a real ear for good,
solid sounds, the basis of any beautiful music. The album begins with
the swirling of wind and a beautiful chime-like piano from Tom McKee. Within
seconds, though, a spoken voice cuts in: "first there was nothing, then
there was everything else." Sigh. Oh, BPer: didn’t we dispense with
all this shit after Spinal Tap released Rock and Roll Creation? Thus,
the worst: the band has a real bent towards pomposity and prog-rock
pretension that might be downright laughable if it weren’t for the fact
that, the music behind it is sometimes so pretty.
A friend once defined "prog" as "rock and roll for people who think they are
too good for rock and roll". It is certainly rock and roll with classical
pretensions. If "classical" sounds too stuffy, try this: it introduces a new
level of melodic and rhythmic composition into rock, something beyond the
usual 4/4 grooves and primal energy. What is being introduced, on some
level, is a trick. It is not obvious music, not something that somebody
would just pick up a guitar and start strumming. Because it is not
instinctual, the simple energy of rock disappears. With that, the groove
begins to disappear, too. Or it can.
The Brothers Past, after all, do spend a fair deal of time concentrating on
things besides groove. Especially in a band with an emphasis on
improvisation, that’s where the trap lays. It’s all well and fine to want to
play something more consciously artful and complex than punk rock, but the
problem is when that alone is the mission: to create complex music in spite
of simple music. "Nothing and Everything Else" – as an overture, as a
keynote – sets a pretty highfalutin tone.
Perhaps in paradox, it is when the band seems to release themselves form
these aspirations that they seem to create their most beautiful music. It is
not, however, contradictory. The precise way in which they release, the way
in which they open their valves, grows mightily out of the way they carry
themselves. Near the end of "Who Really Runs The Planet", guitarist Tom
Hamilton lets loose with a wall of sound, screeching and calculated to be
sure (and certainly kind of annoying when he repeats it elsewhere on the
disc). Ultimately, though, the sound is effective and original and – golly – even functional, as it bleeds into the beginning of "Elements".
Lyrically, the band is at their most powerful when they aren’t dealing with
the cosmos. Like many, they work better on a micro (or, at least, personal)
level; a good rule of thumb for most art. The lyrics to Hamilton’s "Squeeze"
are quite good by any standards – prog, jamband, or otherwise – though the
song’s structure (verse and choruses, jam, acceleration, accelerated chorus
to big ending) has gotten a little hackneyed by this point. Bands can and
should be more inventive about such things. Why not have the courage to end
the jam mid-stroke at a graceful moment?
Brothers Past certainly listen to each well enough, and uniquely enough. It
is amply demonstrated throughout their improv (most tracks hover around the
13-minute mark). Instead of reacting with changes in tempo or melody (which
they do sometimes), the band mostly counters with variations in timbre. A
third of the way through "Elements", drummer Rick Lowenberg drops out
completely, leaving a rich wall of sound. The problem comes a few seconds
later, when he feels compelled to begin adding beats on the kick drum.
All of the band members have moments like this: they simply play too many
notes too fast sometimes. That’s okay. They’re a young band. Perfection
(and, indeed, the entire world) wasn’t made in a moment, or even in a few.
Sometimes, the playing feels almost apologetic: the band plays high-status
by playing prog-rock, but then apologizes by talking a mile minute in trying
to justify it.

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