It’s been a while since we’ve written one of these columns, and that’s not because we dislike them. Past a certain point it starts to become more difficult to find important bands representing or making waves in a certain genre or sub-genre and finding a group of similar or tangentially-related bands to recommend. Up to this point though we haven’t really written one of these posts as essentially a response or plea to listeners. Sometimes bands who execute a certain style or sound garner a lot of critical and popular praise to the point of being credited with some sort of innovation or something radically different from anything else out there when the reality is far from that. It’s rarely the fault of the bands themselves though as they don’t give themselves that kind of credit, but once in a while it’s important for someone to politely correct consensus thinking and offer a little more context, and that is exactly what we’re going to do here and now with the debut album from metal/jazz fusion band Nova Collective.
Some of you may have noticed that we haven’t put out a formal review of The Further Side, and at this point it’s unlikely that we will. This is not due to some glaring flaw or unlistenability factor with the album. The Further Side is an incredibly enjoyable and pleasant example of technically-demanding jazz fusion, one that we definitely recommend to jazz and prog fans alike. The difficulty with reviewing an album like this is that, well, it’s kind of all been done before. For anyone with a cursory knowledge of the history of jazz fusion, The Further Side sounds less like a brilliantly fresh and innovative take on modern metal than a tribute album to classic 70s fusion groups like Return to Forever and Mahavishnu Orchestra. The problem, of course, is that when a band like Nova Collective – which combines members of already well-known bands in the progressive metal/fusion sphere including Between the Buried and Me, Haken, Trioscapes, and Cynic – brings in a wide swath of metal fans, most of whom it’s probably fair to say have not done a ton of digging into jazz fusion’s past, it’s easy for a narrative to form based on breathless hyperbole like claiming that the album is a perfect summation of modern progressive metal. The Further Side is many things, many good things, but what it is not outside of perhaps production techniques is modern. Musically-speaking, there is next to nothing present in the six tracks here that wouldn’t have sounded appropriate decades ago.
This also isn’t to say that modern progressive jazz/rock/metal fusion cannot be innovative. In fact, just in the past few years we’ve highlighted many bands who have managed to do just that. These are groups who are taking the conventions and tropes that bands like Nova Collective sit comfortably in and execute immaculately, and instead manage to twist and bend them differently, place them in entirely different contexts, and employ them as a means to serve a greater end than as an end in themselves. So here we present to you just a few of them combined with a small sampling of some of those classic fusion albums (seriously, there are so many more we could have mentioned here from bands like Yes, Brand X, and beyond) that paved the way for the rest of these bands. Jazz/metal fusion, when done right, can be more innovative and mind-bending than just about any other music out there, and our hope is that a band like Nova Collective can at least blow the door wide open for a new generation of fans to keep it alive and thriving.
Mahavishnu Orchestra: The Inner Mounting Flame (1971)
When it comes to metal fans diving into classic jazz fusion, there’s arguably no better starting point than Mahavishnu Orchestra, formed by pioneering fusion guitarist John McLaughlin. When he first gathered Mahavishnu’s original ensemble—Rick Laird (bass), Billy Cobham (drums/percussion), Jan Hammer (keyboards/organ) and Jerry Goodman (violin)—McLaughlin already had an impressive fusion resume courtesy of his work with legendary trumpeter and bandleader Miles Davis, bearing such fusion and avant-garde jazz classics as In a Silent Way (1969), Bitches Brew (1970), A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971) and Live-Evil (1971). But the material McLaughlin wrote for Mahavishnu’s debut The Inner Mounting Flame firmly distanced itself from his background with Miles while also capitalizing on all of fusion’s strengths they’d worked to establish. Instead of blending jazz, rock and (later) funk like Miles did, McLaughlin blended seventies prog rock with his brand of fusion, often times sounding more like Yes than anything fusion had produced thus far. This is partially achieved by the group’s fulfillment of the “Orchestra” part of their name, despite there only being five players on the record. Several tracks here feel expansive, complete and explosive at points, even when each instrument is performing on its own. It’s this extra emphasis on progressive song structure and adventurous composition that helped elevate The Inner Mounting Flame to classic status, and it’s also why prog rock/metal fans might want to explore Mahavishnu first before venturing further into what fusion has to offer. (Editor’s Note: We dissected fusion and The Inner Mounting Flame in one of our installments of Jazz Club).
Gentle Giant: In a Glass House (1973)
Gentle Giant were a weird group in a weird movement. Part of the flourishing of progressive rock in the 1970’s, the ensemble experienced a decade long career dotted with many ups and downs. However, when they were “up” (a period which consensus places between their album Octopus and The Power and the Glory) they were some of the most cutting edge pioneers in the genre. Where others merely flirted with jazz, avant garde and other influences, Gentle Giant dove all the way in to bring a freshness and verve to prog rock which it was sorely missing.
While The Power and the Glory is considered by many as their magnum opus, I have a certain preference to In a Glass House. It’s at once one of their weirder albums but also one of the more endearing. Among the other weird tools used, like broken up vocals, irregular time signatures and a lot more, the jazz influences can be clearly heard, as on standout track “Way of Life”. Like the aforementioned Return to Forever however, it is clearly spliced with renaissance, folk and even medieval sounds to take some of the edge off. That edge is still very much there, as instruments dive into and out of complex rhythm structures, trade offs and whole segments which feel improvised. The use of synths in non traditional places, the relationship between bass and guitar, the overall “free” approach to composition however, all speak clearly of the jazz influences, even when other themes are very much in force.
All in all, this album best captures the complex relationship which progressive music has always had with jazz and the power of well executed fusion. The jazz parts of In a Glass House enables Gentle Giant to innovate on progressive rock, a genre which, even as it was flowering, suffered from many a debilitating and seemingly ubiquitous cliche. All in all, they serve to set the band apart from many of their contemporaries by creating a truly “fused’ sound, instead of just the odd splice or two into the stock prog rock formula.
Return To Forever: Romantic Warrior (1976)
If you want to know where the foundation for pretty much everything Nova Collective manages to do on their album comes from, you need to go back 40 years to the work of Return To Forever, easily one of the most influential and accomplished fusion bands of the 70s. Led by the legendary pianist Chick Corea and featuring guitarist Al Di Meola, bassist Stanley Clarke, and drummer Lenny White, the quartet managed to fuse jazz grooves and incredible technicality with everything from latin dance music to new-age ambience and, perhaps most notably, cosmic sci-fi futurism – not coincidentally this album was dedicated by Corea to L. Ron Hubbard of Scientology fame. Romantic Warrior, the last album recorded with this “classic” iteration of the group, is commonly regarded as their best album with good reason as it finds the group at the height of their respective abilities as well as best grasp of the kind of multi-genre fusion that bands like Nova Collective excel in. In my mind it will be difficult to ever top the title track in terms of sheer beauty and brilliance, especially as it somehow manages to sound nearly as fresh today as it did then. Listening to this album however, more than just about anything else, will essentially give you a blueprint into many of the riffs, sounds, and other tricks employed throughout The Further Side. I dare you to listen to “Duel of the Jester and the Tyrant” and not hear “Ripped Apart and Reassembled” all over it.
T.R.A.M.: Lingua Franca (2012)
With the entire metal blogosphere praising Nova Collective as a star-studded quartet revolutionizing jazz fusion with prog metal tendencies, it seems as though metal critics and fans alike have forgotten that this exact same situation happened back in 2012 with T.R.A.M.’s phenomenal debut Lingua Franca. But instead of just pumping non-metal BTBAM-isms through a jazz fusion filter, T.R.A.M. truly did bring a fresh perspective to the genres they explored, thanks in no small part to the virtuosity and compositional chops of the band’s lineup. More importantly, the ensemble balanced itself out—whereas Nova Collective’s members all come from the same circles, there’s virtually no overlap in the musical backgrounds of guitarists Tosin Abasi and Javier Reyes (Animals as Leaders), drummer/percussionist Eric Moore (Suicidal Tendencies) and clarinetist/flutist/saxophonist Adrián Terrazas-González (The Mars Volta). This disparate grouping of players may seem like a mess on paper, but their chemistry becomes apparent and electrifying as soon as “Seven Ways Till Sunday” kicks off the album. Lingua Franca’s impeccably modern approach to jazz fusion is successful because of how seamlessly T.R.A.M. flows between smooth, gorgeous soundscapes and cacophonous free jazz that somehow balances avant-garde tendencies with Tosin & Javier’s neatly-comported take on prog metal.
Blue-Eyed Hawk: Under the Moon (2014)
This album, from the British band Blue-Eyed Hawk takes modern jazz and progressive rock and puts them in the blender. What results is the fantastic album Under the Moon, which is at times very jazzy, and other times very rocky. Lauren’s melodic and emotional voice guides the album through it all, supported by the other amazing musicians behind her. ‘Oyster Trails’ starts off the album smoothly, but things escalate rather quickly with the second track, ‘Somewhere’, with its heavy riffs, fuzzy and with a strong polyrhythmic flavour. The song even has a sort of solo vocal scat part, which is pretty much perfect in the context of this song! I’m pretty sure that if The Mars Volta had been jazz scholars, this is what their music would’ve sounded like: it’s eccentric, energetic, and plenty of fun to jam!
Stimpy Lockjaw: Stimpy Lockjaw (2014)
There’s been more than enough great jazz-rock fusion over the years that’s gone in pretty much every direction imaginable, but there have been fewer successful attempts at innovative fusion that takes more of its cues from metal, not just in guitar tone but in creating a heavy weight and atmosphere throughout. Stimpy Lockjaw, led by Ever Forthright guitarist Nicholas Llerandi, carries over some of the technical jazz flourishes of Ever Forthright and in a way inverts them to create a mammoth slab of groovy jazz fusion that also knows how to go hard as fuck. Of course Llerandi’s incredible chops are front and center throughout, but the album as a whole is a true ensemble showcase, featuring head-spinning time signatures, rhythms, instrumental interplay, all the while never losing sight of making it accessible enough to enjoy without focusing solely on the more cerebral aspects of it. Album centerpiece “Asteroids” is the perfect example of this as the band blend gorgeously moody textures over tricky grooves and riffs that slowly grow into an unstoppable force. Those of us who have followed the band since this album came out hope that this doesn’t turn out to be a one-off for the group, but if it is they picked a hell of a way to do so.
Monobody: Monobody (2015)
Maybe one of these days I’ll shut up about this band and this album, but today is not the day. If you want to hear where the future of innovative fusion blended with math-rock and other unexpected places is, Chicago’s Monobody is the band to turn to. Taking the foundation of classic Chicago eclectic and boundary-breaking groups like Tortoise and pushing them in unpredictable and intoxicating directions, their self-titled debut album (and recent split EP with Pyramid Scheme) is an absolute tour-de-force of blinding technicality, dense composition, and straight-up fun as hell jams. I cannot stress how difficult it is to create this kind of complex music and still have it be accessible and thoroughly enjoyable in every way. The band are also notable for their use of two basses, which only adds to the rhythmic density underneath Conor Mackey’s breakneck guitar riffs. I’m going to cheat a little here and embed part of their recent live session with Audiotree because seeing them in action really helps cement just how impossibly tight this group is. Get on these guys now because they’re bound for true greatness.
Pomegranate Tiger: Boundless (2015)
Pomegranate Tiger are probably the heaviest band on this list, which isn’t saying too much. Their blend of jazz and progressive metal definitely leans more towards the metal part, drawing influences there from djent and other genres common to the instrumental metal scene. However, as in many of the albums on the list, jazz is what allows them to transcend the limitations of their genre. By taking a firmer grasp on what it means to be carefree with their composition, PomTig (as they are fondly known) are able to eschew the pointless elaboration and lack of direction which often infects their genre.
Jazz does that by making you understand that what seems like chaos or error must only seem that way, and that underlying order and sense must by force inform even the most elaborate of musical experimentation. This is also where Boundless far outstrips the band’s previous releases. Where their earlier album were good but lacked a sense of cohesion, Boundless uses the jazz-y touches, rooted firmly in the metal infrastructure, to make an album that goes places but that also knows how to come back, how to make internal sense. If that’s not jazz, then what is?
Niechęć: Niechęć (2016)
In terms of modern jazz fusion, no country’s excelled as much as Poland in recent years. Merkabah is blending noise rock and avant-garde jazz with a level of ease that seems illogical; clarinetist/composer Wacław Zimpel is collaborating with an Indian orchestra to perform as Saagara, making transcendental jazz fusion with a world music edge; and Niechęć perfectly jazz up their dark, spacious take on rock that sometimes verges on the cusp of heavier genres. While Merkabah and Saagara might not be quite what fans of Nova Collective are looking for, Niechęć’s latest, self-titled offering—and their excellent debut Śmierć w miękkim futerku—should exceed expectations for fans of jazz fusion with a modern, experimental twist. The quintet blend moments of aggressive rock with cosmic atmospheres and bleak orchestration, all while maintaining a jazzy undertone courtesy of the band’s tight-knit cohesion and particularly Maciej Zwierzchowski’s great work on sax. While Niechęć’s music may not have that ultra-sanitized, prog metal overcoat, the group’s music excels as a result; their loose, experimental nature makes for more tangible compositions rife with detail and an eagerness to push themselves and jazz fusion farther.
Pitts Minnemann Project: The Psychic Planetarium (2016)
If you’re looking for the cutting edge of progressive jazz, this supergroup bringing together Jimmy Pitts (The Fractured Dimension), Tom “Fountainhead” Geldschlager (Fountainhead, ex-Osbcura, both of which are in my band NYN, for the sake of full disclosure) and the legendary Macro Minnemann, and Jerry Twyford. Through their sophomore release The Psychic Planetarium, Pitts Minnemann Project cover a wide variety of retro, futuristic and straight up bizarre textures. This is the perfect fusion of jazzy elements with progressive metal, combining old-school Dream Theater-esque rock and psychedelia with instrumental explorations that are unheard of. The real kicker is that there is so much in this album, something for everyone. It’s easy to fall into the fever dream of getting lost within the complexities of time signatures and flurries of notes, but PMP do not fall into that trap. They pull it back when necessary, coming in with a catchy keyboard line. When you get comfortable, Tom throws an unconventional lead in there, throwing things off. The drumming is constantly changing and challenging, keeping both the listener and the musicians on their feet. Jerry Twyford’s bass lines are the glue that brings it all together. The variety in both length and style across each track is also astounding, making the album appealing even for those who aren’t interested in instrumental music. This constantly challenging, creative yet familiar approach towards fusion is a unique gem that any fan of creative jazz should give time to.