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Published: 2006/02/17
by Jesse Jarnow

The Hidden Land – Bela Fleck and the Flecktones

Columbia Records

For a band with a member literally named Future Man, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones sound an awful lot like 1993. Or maybe it's 1996. Whichever year the fretless bass last sounded remotely edgy. Either way. These are not criticisms, just observations. On The Hidden Land, the Flecktones so-called comeback album (they took 2005 "off," though somehow recorded an album), the quartet is as audacious as ever, straddling the self-identified line between ultra-complex banjo-prog and concert jazz for weenies. They sound like nobody but themselves. Without attempting to update or make any adjustments to their sound (save mercifully trimming the vocals) they have made possibly the sharpest Flecktones record yet.

It is virtuoso music, through and through. Hell, the damn thing begins with a track labeled "Fugue from Prelude and Fugue No. 20 in A Minor, BWV," which one assumes has something to do with somebody fancy. Being the Flecktones, though, it's — y'know — fun (at least, if your idea of fun is fast banjo, fast bass, fast synth drums, and fast saxophone). Songs like the James Barry-colored distorto-banjo slink "Subterfuge (Bond)," filled with syncopated bass harmonics from Victor Wooten and lite-noir sax from Jeff Coffin, are nothing but needlessly complex. That is, they exist to be unnecessary, or maybe they exist only for themselves.

The tastefulness of the Flecktones' palette aside, The Hidden Land is the sound of four real musicians playing real music, and the pleasures are many. The album’s beginning drops from the aforementioned Bach right into the fugue-like be-bop of "P’lod in the House," where Fleck, Wooten, and Coffin’s unison lines fan out and shift cleverly into counterpoint (before Future Man drops the tempo to a mild swing). On "Weed Whacker," a subtly high-stepping Wooten groove sets up a torrential banjo flurry (laced, in turn, by Coffin) that feeds into a seven-and-a-half minute tour de force performance by the ensemble. Almost every minute of the album is characterized by the Flecktones’ instinctual dialogue.

There's beef to be had, sure. One could say that Fleck's warm electric banjo neuters the instrument's metallic bite, Wooten's bass is wanky and unemotional, and Coffin's sax is too smooth for school. One could even argue that fake drums have never sounded good. But if these are arguments you feel like having, you shouldn’t be listening to the Flecktones to begin with, ‘cause that’s what they’ve got. They never promised anything else, either. In fact, taken together, these elements somehow make total sense, though this is probably a result of the Flecktones’ utter ease with one another as musicians.

None of this changes the fact that they've got somebody in the band named Future Man, and the Flecktones have got nothing but time. They should get some circuit benders up in their piece. Forget MIDI, Futch, it’s time to start fucking with Gameboys. For now, though, The Hidden Land is the place the Flecktones have always pointed towards, and — for those who’ve stuck along for the ride — their arrival there is every bit as satisfying as it should be. Wherever the Flecktones are, they’ve found it. Now the question is whether they will stick around and graze or keep exploring.

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