Originally published in The Brooklyn Rail May 2011
Ron Anderson is the best kind of madman. There’s just no other way to say it.
With Secret Curve, the Brooklyn musician’s third outing with the avant-jazz-rock trio PAK, Anderson has willed into being something so mind-bending, frenetic, and complex—but tight and composed—that it mocks attempts to fit it into genre boundaries or even find points of reference to map its trajectories. This is a record that even normally cautious aficionados might use the word “masterpiece” to describe.
Anderson defines his group’s modus operandi from the very first track, an “Overture” that runs 68 seconds but seems to contain a different time signature for every exhalation. There’s more than a nod to the masterful John Zorn and Naked City in the way the group races through measures at full speed and then stops at a micro-moment’s notice. But there’s more to the disc than that. Anderson’s color palette borrows from the sonic pastiche of Mr. Bungle and the punk-inspired angularity of the Minutemen, while contemporaries like Elliott Sharp and jazz staples like Ornette Coleman also find a place in the mix. Let’s avoid “blender” analogies altogether and just say it sounds like an unnatural tryst between swing and math rock. But a friend of mine might have put it best: “This is the music Thelonious Monk would be making if he were alive today.”
Unlike their earlier Motel CD, Secret Curve is not an adventure primarily for rock instruments or rock phrasings. While the rhythmic precision of Anderson, who plays bass, and drummer Keith Abrams surely grab for the spotlight, this is a fully realized record and one with many moving parts—including often-brilliant contributions on trumpet, piano, French horn, violin, electronics, and tenor and bass saxophones. Yes, there is no guitar. And yet, often, Secret Curve can make big rock records with big rock sounds seem flaccid by comparison.
Take the opening of “Caffeine Static Rendezvous,” in which bass, drums, piano, and keyboard pound out furious staccato notes before breaking into extended prog-rock musings that would make the members of King Crimson or Cheer-Accident blush. Anderson and crew follow these bridges with boozy late-night jazz, horns blaring their innuendos as Anthony Coleman slurs out piano measures over densely orchestrated rhythms.
But Anderson is best when he has speed and precision on his side. The horns at the beginning of the 10-minute-long “Caro-Kann” bleat in ecstasy over percussion that’s so ridiculously precise it’s impossible to tap your feet to it. Near the two-minute mark, the group boils things down and the proceedings border on some mutant form of ska. Five minutes in, we’re back into PAK’s frenetic serenade, Anderson’s fingers sprinting across the fretboard as Abrams jolts from snare rolls to pounding toms to ride cymbals to off-time kick drums and then right back around.
The disc’s title track, a jaw-dropping journey planted near the record’s center, is PAK at its most frenetic. Though the opening moments briefly suggest a sense of melancholy, that doesn’t last long. Within seconds, we’re back into the fray as PAK lurches from hyper-pressurized jazz-rock to intricate post-prog/punk, each rejiggered time signature as much a thrill as the one that came before it. Three quarters of the way through the tune, there’s a breakdown of electronics and bass that might challenge many listeners’ notions of just how precise a band can sound in the studio without some serious computer editing. But they pull it off without fail and simply move on to the next exploration.
This record is so good you could fill pages just trying to describe the passages of its eleven instrumentals. Listen to “E4 Or D4?,” where PAK’s conventional band sound is sliced and scissored and taped back together in the mix, and the punky introduction to “Trebuchet,” which would be great for moshing if not for the odd juxtaposition of punk elements with sax and piano. Consider the fluid bass measures of “Let Me Tell You Something” and the way they act as glue as the horns wail and the drums skitter and scatter across the landscape. Or there’s the punchy bass of “No Future.” Or “Mama’s Little Anarchist,” which is worth the price of admission for the title alone. There’s just not a dud on the disc.
The “industry” that feeds on popular music can make a big stink about profanity to protect innocent ears. But Anderson’s new record is the opposite of profane, bordering on a kind of sonic transcendence, though it’s not a record for everyone.. This is challenging music and, maybe even more so, the kind of music that either inspires other musicians or convinces them they’re not worth their salt. In any case, I suggest PAK start labeling their work, if only to keep away the faint of heart. This is passionate music played passionately, and someone needs to prepare the world for what’s inside.