Jazz and fusion are no strangers to the world of metal. From Dream Theater to Cynic to Animals as Leaders and well beyond, jazz music’s emphasis on technicality, compositional depth, and an ongoing exploration of sound and form have meshed easily with many parts of the metal spectrum. What is less common to see are bands that start from a place that is truly entrenched in the world of classic jazz fusion and filtered through the lens of heavier acts and influences. This is the place in which Stimpy Lockjaw exist. Forged from members of another jazzy prog metal entity, Ever Forthright (specifically guitarist Nicholas Llerandi and keyboardist Kevin Theodore), Stimpy Lockjaw seek to double down on the genre-bending, turn-on-a-dime-style technicality and composition and turn it into a massive, earth-destroying fusion juggernaut. And boy what a juggernaut it is.
This self-titled debut only features 5 tracks, but the band more than makes up for it in sprawling composition. The band’s greatest strengths lie in their ability to write almost impossibly dense and complex riffs and patterns that weave and grow in such a way that feels utterly organic and improvisational, and this is present throughout the album. Over the course of 11 minutes on opener ‘Robo,’ jackhammered guitar and synth patterns blend into fluttering piano, nimble bass lines, and ethereal vocals (from guest singer Cara Minichiello), then just as easily transform into a monstrous variation on the original theme before fading into a jagged, spacey guitar solo reminiscent of vintage John Scofield. It all finally comes to a head in a sludgy vamp recalling the opening pattern before dissipating into foreboding piano. It’s a composition packed to the gills with ideas, but it never feels forced or illogical.
On the spastic ‘Shrimpy,’ the band wastes no time establishing its main theme, a twisting 14/8 line shared in unison with keys, guitar, and sax (from another guest Colin Gordon) that rapidly tumbles onto itself almost impossibly before a humongous payoff about midway through in the form of another massive sax/guitar unison melody over a beautiful chord progression from the keys. In the middle of all of it there’s another skillfully taut guitar solo, followed later by a sax solo that’s a nice treat for the jazz nerds among us, though it’s how it weaves itself into the rollicking, textured climax that the band really sells the horn’s overall utility. This track is about as jagged as the group gets, but the interlocking pieces are in such a deeply-grooved pocket (much credit goes to Zachary Marks behind the kit and Steve Jenkins on bass for maintaining a titanium-strength foundation) that it creates the sense of witnessing a centrifuge in action, with the pieces held firmly together by their own momentum but the relentless feeling that it could all fall apart at any moment.
It’s in the third track, the previously released ‘Asteroids,’ though, that the band’s compositional talents are at their apex. The opening of this 11-minute epic sets up the richly dark mood prominent throughout the album perfectly with an assist once again from Cara Minichiello’s fluttering vocals. This contrast of mysterious light energy and dark sludginess is constantly at play in the band’s work here, and ‘Asteroids’ is the absolute embodiment of that, showcasing their diverse influences and successfully threading the experimental needle they’re attempting throughout. Once again the sharp-edged thematic riff they repeat throughout in almost constant ostinato creates a free-falling tumbling effect for the listener, perpetually setting into motion whatever comes next. By the time the track builds to its ultimate climax during another tremendous guitar solo from Llerandi, one can only marvel at its hugeness and feel that it’s been absolutely earned. The beautiful piano vamping on the way out is an almost necessary palate cleanser.
The two remaining tracks of Stimpy Lockjaw suffer slightly by virtue of the fact that they follow such a brilliant (and complete) piece of work. ‘Soop-Soo-Bop’ provides a great and heavier contrast to ‘Asteroids’ with a theme and guitar lead reminiscent of some of Animals as Leaders’ more recent work, but its relative brevity at a shade under 3 and a half minutes makes it feel more like an incomplete sketch than a fully-formed song. And closer ‘Third Eye,’ while following a similar compositional and tonal route as ‘Robo’ and ‘Asteroids,’ ends up being the track probably most easily categorized as “avant-garde” of the set, which makes it a bit awkward as an album sendoff. That said, on its own the track features yet another fantastic unison riff reminiscent of some of fusion legends Return To Forever’s best work, and it showcases much of the same push-pull tension in composition that makes the final climatic buildup and abrupt ending all the more effective. To borrow from a previous metaphor, it’s seeing the centrifuge stop as suddenly as it started, with its disparate elements floating into space and vanishing into thin air.
If that analysis seems a bit long-winded and dense, that’s mostly because the material itself is so rich and complex. There is a heck of a lot to unpack in the 42 minutes that make up Stimpy Lockjaw, and like most worthwhile jazz, it demands repeated listens. Do not mistake complexity and depth for opacity and over-indulgence though. The music presented here is immediately gripping and oftentimes gorgeous, and the writing is such that few things feel unessential or purely “wanky.” The only thing holding this debut back from being an unmitigated classic is that it is an album of a band who, while clearly having a firm grasp of who they are and who they want to be, is still in the process of flexing and stretching out its creative muscles. In some ways it feels more like a long-running EP than a fully polished and cohesive LP: heavy on ideas but missing the big-picture connective tissue that ties it all together into an essential package. As an opening salvo though Stimpy Lockjaw have accomplished something really great, and fans of jazz, math rock, prog, and tech metal alike should find a whole lot to rejoice over and wholeheartedly embrace.
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