Birdsongs of the Mesozoic
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PetrophonicsPetrophonics liner notes by Chuck Vrtacek
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Most bands suck. No matter how good their music is, they generally suck at being a band. Some bands aren't bands at all, but extensions of one person's vision, as is the case with Duke Ellington and his orchestras or Frank Zappa and his various ensembles. However, most bands attempt to function as bands, i.e.,as small, self-contained units where people work together for the greater good of the music, as with the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin. As anyone who keeps up with rock n' roll gossip knows most bands die an early death and the quality of their music is, at best, erratic. This is due to the fact that most bands are plagued by in-fighting, ego clashes, poor communication, lack of vision, petty squabbling, drugs, artistic differences and other problems too numerous and boring to mention.

Which brings us to Birdsongs of the Mesozoic. I've known these guys individually and collectively since around 1986. I've shared meals and stages with them. I've gotten to know them as people as well as a band. They are one of the few bands whose music is always good and always improving. Moreover, they're not prone to self-destruction. There's a tremendous amount of equity, mutual respect and cooperation within Birdsongs, and the result is a catalog that is both interesting and consistent. They don't make albums where all the songs are variations on one chord change. Nor do they make albums that contain two or three great tracks and a lot of self-indulgent slurm. And this, I can tell you for a fact is because these guys are a real band.

So here's their latest album, which is full of surprises. I could have said it represents a "step forward" or, even more hackneyed, "a quantum leap forward" but what's happening here is more like an opening up in all directions at once than continuing in the same direction. Think of a blooming rose, not a racecar. What's different this time around is the maturation of their compositions and their sense of arrangement. They haven't scrapped their regular instrumentation for accordions, a cittern and some Malaysian percussion instruments. There is still plenty here that refers back to the best of past albums. But along with that, there's ever so much more. Extensive use of mid and late 20th century classical techniques such as dissonance and texture nudges some of the music away from rock and closer to "new contemporary music" or whatever non-Mozart, chamber type stuff is being called this month. Percussion and acoustic bass pop up here and there and their appearance is a treat. Odd pairings of instruments keep you guessing.

Some things aren't apparent from listening to the music. Ken and Erik have released some great solo albums since the last Birdsongs CD, and their musical personalities have really grown outside the band, yet they've managed to incorporate that into the new Birdsongs music. Erik is one of the few people I know who is both meticulously aware of music theory and loves to rock out. Ken has cultivated an original voice that draws as much from Debussy as it does from samba rhythms and jazz. Rick is not a loud, pushy aggressive guy. You don't appreciate the depth of his contributions until you really listen and realize that he is providing the aural equivalent of stage lighting and camera angles; his work doesn't jump right out at you but you'd sure miss it if it wasn't there. Rick's composition on this album is a standout, not because it is "better" than the other tracks, but because it dives headlong into the waters of avant-garde soundscapes and comes up smelling like prize winning roses, which ain't easy. Michael, meanwhile, has survived and flourished despite having taken on the difficult job of having to fit into an established band and follow a guitarist (Martin Swope) who defined a distinctive style within the band. His guitar work is often subtle and blends in so well I keep forgetting this is the same guy who picked up one of my archtop jazz guitars and played "Tico Tico" at the speed of light while keeping up his end of a conversation.

Once, during a conversation, Ken described Birdsongs to me as "a composers forum" where each member is free to bring in his work and subject it to the group process. That's never been more true, and on this album the group has been hard at work to create something that is the same but different. About half this album makes me say "Oh yeah, this is Birdsongs," while the other half keeps making me say "This is Birdsongs??? Realy? Wow!" See how great life can be when you're in a band that doesn't suck?

Birdsongs Of The Mesozoic

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