Thursday, November 4, 2010

Instagon "Sleepwalking"

I've toyed around with the idea of doing live show reviews here on The Informed Conformist for a bit, but it's just not realistic at this point for a couple, other than the occasional contribution from Adam or Willwave, I maintain this blog by myself, and there's just no way I can get out to see and review enough shows by myself, and two...I'm not entirely certain live music is the most reviewable thing anyway. Sure, a supposedly 'well rehearsed' band could go out on stage, forget all their songs, break all the strings on their instruments and that would be a 'bad' show. But what about improvised music? What about all the bands that don't rehearse at all? How does one discuss the sort of free-flowing, formless music that seemingly comes from nowhere, has no inherent musical genre, and thus cannot be distinguished from right or wrong, good or bad, correct and not? And what happens when these types of bands record an album?

Luckily for most music critics, not many bands like this exist to be reviewed. Surely this fact must make the days between paychecks easier to bear. But here in Sacramento, we have Instagon. Instagon is a band whose name I see everywhere...whether thanks to the tireless self promoting of head Instagonian/bassist LOB, the fact that he's been up to this for more than 17 years now, or (more than likely) both. But what is an Instagon? And why should you care anyway?

Essentially, Instagon means "instantly gone", a reference to the band's spontaneous and improvisational nature. This nature extends well beyond the music, however, and into the very core of the band's identity. Plenty of bands can go out and "jam"...what makes Instagon so unique is they are never the same ensemble twice. In over 551 shows since 1993, Instagon has never once had the same group of musicians onstage. And Instagon isn't the sort of band you audition for...when the time is right, LOB will recruit YOU. Naturally, some nights are an unorganized mess of people turning up their amps and stepping on each others' toes. Other nights, everything will fall into place in such a way, you'd swear the music was tightly rehearsed or manipulated into being via a series of complicated hand signals or some secret language known only by the band onstage.

This chaotic, unpredictable nature makes Instagon an absolute blast to experience live...but what about on record? I've been given an advance copy of Instagon's new studio album Sleepwalking to enjoy and review, but before that, there are a few things I'd like to note. First, this album features a static group of musicians. Right away, a large part of what makes Instagon so unique is thrown out the window. However, this isn't much different than your typical single Instagon show, and this isn't a trait you can really appreciate until you've seen them play several times anyway. Secondly, the music, or rather, the fact that it's recorded to CD sort of goes against the whole "instantly gone" concept. I've listened to the same Instagon track 3 times now, and it hasn't changed once. The universe SHOULD begin to implode any second now.

All kidding aside, LOB has recruited a stellar group to record Sleepwalking, so none of my petty gripes actually matter. As far as I can tell, Sleepwalking was recorded live in the studio, so I feel I'm being fair when I say that this may be the best hour of live music I've heard yet from these guys. There's a lot of ambient space on this album, as opposed to the busy, noodly playing that bogs down a lot of "jam" rock music. There's room to breathe here, which makes it easy for the music to drift in and out of your consciousness, as the album title seems to imply/encourage.

Tracks like "Freeborn" build slowly and steadily, though instead of coming to a noisy crescendo like one might expect, the music becomes farther away and more reverb-drenched, chugging along like some phantom train disappearing into the night. Others like "Cosmic" and "Brainwashed Love Pt. 2" feature the melodic sax work of Jaroba, who brings a very distinct flavor to the album's sonic palette. Jaroba's sax playing is well utilized here, lingering in the balance of things and never "saying" any more than it needs to. He's not just a "saxophonist", he's a member of the band. He knows not to play out of turn, lest he be sucked into the undertow of the psychedelic abyss.

The most adventurous track here is the 12-minute "Dripfall", which begins as a modest, rhythmically synchronized experiment in non-melodic minimalism, and eventually morphs into this musical Hydra of sorts...each head thinking and moving independently while still sharing the same heartbeat. This sort of music could almost be described as "sentient". It seems to have a mind of it's hundreds of microorganisms that are individually insignificant, until the pieces form together and create this pulsating, living organic alien abomination unto God, and a miracle of Science (er, Music).

Sleepwalking is a nicely-produced-albeit-no-frills album that both embraces the chaos as well as spits in its face. This music is HERE, damn it. Rather than surrendering itself as a cosmic offering to the powers that be, Sleepwalking is instead an offering to the curious ears of anyone bold enough to take the journey. The music opens doors in your brain that are similar to those open when daydreaming or sleepwalking. It seems created specifically for the subconscious mind. This is patient, aimless music for everyone and no one.

Sometime, I'd really like to see Instagon experiment in the studio, perhaps bringing in a new group of musicians to record each track. So many people have played with Instagon over the years, I can see how that would be a challenging, yet extremely rewarding project. However, the musicians present on Sleepwalking don't leave much to be desired, and help create the strongest recording Instagon has put out yet. Instagon ARE a live band, though, and there is no substitution for seeing a show. Be sure to catch them whenever you can, and enjoy the experience for what it'll NEVER see that band again. - Matt

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