The Blame Game, Honey and Salt

The Blame Game, Honey and Salt

Don Caballero is the 800-pound gorilla in any room where a post-rock prog band is playing. A critic can seat them anywhere he wants, to outmuscle the comparatively awkward drumming of a Sweep the Leg Johnny or a Maserati or to tower over the rhythmic insignificance of a Turing Machine or an Explosions in the Sky. In the areas of instrumental capability and sheer inventiveness, the standards for post-rock bands have been set so high that it takes an artist of the extremely rare caliber of Hella to be worth bothering about. A mind that’s already been blown — more than once — is difficult to blow again.

Which makes it all the more gratifying when it happens anyway. On earlier releases, including an enigmatic split LP with Germans Zann, Atlanta’s Blame Game combined shambling, jazzy indie rock with loose miscellaneous-core, but the result was often less a fusion than a juxtaposition or an alternation, and though thrilling and vital (especially in comparison to the urbane detachment of, say, Storm and Stress), their records could also be jarring. For Honey and Salt, their first full-length, the quartet has been stripped down to a trio, with guitarist George Asimakos replacing both Ian Denton and Matt McCalvin. The band’s sound, meanwhile, has been stripped of many of its more abrasive tendencies and is now a real synthesis of the elements of hardcore, indie rock, and jazz that previously appeared side-by-side in earlier work.

What’s more, it has become a powerful study of rhythm, harmony, intensity and volume. This exploration sometimes reflects calculated tactics, as on the conclusion of “On Waiting,” which poses Asimakos and bassist Chris Ware in a static phrase against drummer Alex Lambert’s gradual build from relaxed noodling into a naked and barely controlled blastbeat. The tension points up the convention of post-rock — really, most popular music — that almost requires changes in intensity to be in unison. Yet it does not leave the listener stranded in that moment of uncertainty, but draws back into unison without jarring any of the musicians out of their ostinato. More often, however, Honey and Salt‘s ideas are the result of a spontaneity that is not unlike the trance of legitimate jazz improvisation, although it is not improvisatory.

This state of mind is recognizable on a number of tracks. Take the title track, which is marked by a musician’s joyous yell, a moment that reflects not only being-in-the-moment but the confidence necessary to risk a take. Another example is the album’s epic conclusion, “Subtle Parts,” which runs with nimble feet through any number of musical idioms but never leaves the listener behind, before concluding with a pounding unison apotheosis. The only weakness of “Honey and Salt” is Asimakos’s vocals, which sound uncomfortably like an afterthought. They are clearly a leftover element from the band’s earlier work, to which Denton and Ware brought a visceral emo-core howl that has fallen away. It seems probable that they will eventually be discarded altogether.

The Blame Game repeatedly achieves a wonderful mental immersion that rivals that of any of Hella’s most frenetic moments, and I dare say may even surpass those of Don Caballero, who for all their improvisatory power were more rigid stylistically — the necessity of playing louder, harder music. The band’s secret weapon is Lambert, a virtuosic, original, and almost unbelievably expressive drummer; when Asimakos and Ware drop away for four measures in “Basilar Membrane,” one hardly notices that it’s a drum solo, so in tune is Lambert with the feel of the song and so musical is his playing. Ultimately, it may be Lambert’s leadership of the band’s rhythmic mastery that gains the Blame Game a place in the canon of post-rock, and Asimakos’s fluid, graceful harmonies that define it: if Hella are post-rock’s raving prophet, the Blame Game is its courtly bard.

(Stickfigure Records -- P.O. Box 55462, Atlanta, GA. 30308;; The Blame Game --
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Review by . Review posted Thursday, May 4th, 2006. Filed under Reviews.

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