Sound — 9
The Aristocrats are an instrumental jazz fusion trio from California who released their first album in 2011. The band features Guthrie Govan (Steven Wilson) on guitar, Bryan Beller (Dethklok, Joe Satriani) on bass, and Marco Minnemann (Steven Wilson, Joe Satriani) on drums, all three of whom are virtuosos on their instruments. This album, like the band's previous two albums, has nine songs with each member writing three. However, unlike their other albums, the songs on this album are ordered according to songwriter, with Minnemann going first, Govan second, and Beller third in a thrice repeated cycle.
I've often heard jazz referred to as the art of making mistakes and consequently much jazz sounds to me like a musical mess, albeit a pleasant one. Moreover, many jazz fusion artists I have heard seem to be excellent musicians who are so obsessed with stretching their musical limits that it harms the music they produce. It is with such skepticism with which I initially approached this album. Yet, this album is the furthest thing from a mess.
The crazy thing is that it succeeds with me on so many levels, deflecting any criticism I might have had about it being a pompous, aristocratic jazz album. First, the general musicianship. This album makes clear that each member of the band is not overstretching himself and that each refuses to play grandiosely just to highlight the fact. Despite the band members' individual accomplishments, what is truly remarkable here is their synergy. While one solos, the others' rhythm playing creates a scintillating groove that is worth listening to all on its own. It also helps immensely that the album is mixed in such a way so that all of the instruments are easily audible, yet said instruments are cohesive enough that they do not sound disparate.
Another noteworthy aspect of this album is its variety. Each of the songs is a completely different journey through the "sonicsphere" (so to speak). The Aristocrats do a tremendous job with dynamics, differentiating between loud and soft sections, all the while building them up and slowing them down so that the transition does not become an immediate shock. This makes the peaceful sections much more peaceful and the dramatic sections more dramatic.
Each song is a true experience; you can close your eyes, sit back, and become engulfed in the theme of the song, its emotions, and its ingratiating transitions. For a jazz album, well really for any album but especially for a jazz album, there is extraordinary focus; the band works to create complete compositions, not merely showcases for their instrumental skills.
Also particular to this album is the band's ability to connect to concrete emotions. Oftentimes, I will be confronted with a tone that is very distinctive, yet I cannot connect it to a phenomenon in life. With much of this album, I can pinpoint the emotional tone that the song is trying to set. And this album is breathtaking in the different number of emotions it covers.
One area where The Aristocrats could have gone further is with layering, especially with the rhythm guitar. The album never sounds thin, but some sections have layered guitars, and these are almost always the best parts of the songs. The sound is fuller and the "experience" is that much more absorbing. Again, you won't find yourself ever specifically asking for more guitars, but it slowly becomes clear that more is better on this album. I guess I just wish I could see if the album could reach new heights if the guitars were layered more often.
Lyrics — 9
This album is mostly instrumental, as is much of The Aristocrats' other work. The only vocals are a confusing voice counting to seven on "ZZ Top" and some deeply voiced, well placed humming on "Smuggler's Corridor."
An often-dismissed element of instrumental albums, probably the only lyrical one, is song titles. Many people say, "I'll remember the song title if the song is good. The title itself is meaningless." Personally, I expect the song titles of instrumental songs to describe the theme of the song, to put me in the mood, so to say. The Aristocrats did a great job in this respect, the best of any instrumental band that I have come across. For example, "Smuggler's Corridor" perfectly fits the Mexican, desert theme its title (and not to mention, the album art) implies. I could imagine using it as tango music, or even using it as the opening theme to a movie (think Tarantino's "From Dusk Till Dawn"). The same can be said of most of the songs on the album like "Kentucky Meat Shower" (blues, twang, Stevie Ray Vaughn) and "Pig's Day Off" (a day of fun basking in the mud). In addition, it is fitting that a band that plays complicated, hard to master jazz fusion/progressive rock is named The Aristocrats.
Overall Impression — 10
In conclusion, this album completely blew away my expectations. It can sound serious, goofy, crazy, or fun. It can be a collection of nine improvised jams or a conceptual chronicle of nine well thought out compositions. The music can appear insanely complex or impossibly simple (mostly the former). I guess you could say, for an instrumental album, it has a lot of voice. Moreover, the album's variety, as well as its complexity give it immense replay value because there will always be something new to find by listening to it again.
Surely one of the best albums of the year, "Tres Caballeros" represents a tour de force of musicianship, poignant storytelling, and artistic control. My favorite song, by a good deal, is "Smuggler's Corridor." "Pig's Day Off" and "Pressure Relief" are my other go-to tracks, though I bet these two will change the more I listen to the album.
BTBAM, watch out. Three knights are riding up behind you. One wields sticks, the others swing axes. What are you going to do about it?