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Artist of the Month
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August 2015
HMPH!
"Headrush
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Simply stated, the music of HMPH! could be described with a term like math rock or experimental jazz fusion. But these terms, while accurate, don’t paint a complete picture of the sounds created by guitarist Ryan Lee Toms and drummer Jonathan Thatch. “Just when you think you got the groove, we switch it up, add a few beats, or throw in a chord from another key,” says Thatch, whose mastery over the drum kit is jaw-dropping. And while rhythmically complex, progressive compositions have become a cornerstone of the math rock genre, HMPH! additionally incorporates elements of jazz, ambient rock, alternative, and metal.
 
On Friday, the duo will be releasing its debut album Headrush (Haymaker Records), a 36-minute instrumental effort that showcases HMPH!’s dedication to push the envelope while keeping its music interesting. Nine of the 10 songs clock in under 5 minutes, keeping a fresh, brisk momentum for the entirety of the album. The listener has a chance to delve in to each song, but is pulled out before it becomes indulgent or formulaic.
 
Many of the songs start with a basic guitar riff that is bent and twisted in multiple directions, meandering from its original shape but always returning to it. From a polite jazz lick to a climactic rising arpeggio, Toms designs unpredictable, jagged noises with his guitar. “The harder it is for us to wrap our head around a riff, the more fun it is to write and the more enjoyable it is to dissect as a listener.” His combination of intriguing guitar sounds with Thatch’s intricate drum work shows that they’re very much up to the challenge. “Sometimes it starts with a complicated polyrhythmic drum part from Jonathan and I’ll create a progression to that. Other times, I’ll zone out and write arpeggios while thinking of decrepit medieval castles that kind of remind me of all the video games I played as a kid. Then I bring them to Jonathan.”
 

At the same time, Thatch is creating his own variegated sounds with just a five-piece drum kit. He often provides a countermelody to Toms’ guitar, building upon dynamic layers with odd meters, polyrhythms, subtle dynamic shifts, and rhythmic intensity. “One quality we strive for is to keep people guessing,” he says. This even includes retooling songs on the spot. “Our songs tend to keep evolving over time. We might be playing a song live and try something new, and we like the new sound so we keep playing it that way. Sometimes we don't even talk about it; we just both know how it goes now.” 


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3 Steps From La La

Album review: Ernest James Zydeco - 3 Steps From La La

(Photo by Bill McKelvey)

The sounds of zydeco are catchy, instantly danceable, and tell stories of a culture that long ago adopted southern Louisiana as its American foothold. For a great many of the music-loving populace of the Kansas City area, the most consistent exposure to the music of New Orleans can be found Friday and Saturday nights on KCUR’s The Fish Fry. The diverse musical tablet of KC doesn’t include very many practitioners of the Cajun soundtrack; Louisiana Grammy-Award winner Chubby Carrier plays at Knucklehead’s so frequently, he may have been given honorary citizenship status here. There is one gentleman, however, who strives to share the sounds of the Crescent City with his fellow Kansas Citians: Ernest James, leader of Ernest James Zydeco, who is releasing the band’s third CD, 3 Steps from La La.

The Ernest James Zydeco version of Cajun music relies less on the flamboyant showmanship of such legends of the form as Clifton Chenier and Buckwheat Zydeco, and more on the roots-and-folk-music influence of the hill country. This approach seems better suited for a Midwesterner’s touch, as James and his band incorporate jazz and blues in this festive mix. The result may be a little more contemporary than one would expect to hear on Bourbon Street, but it’s no less faithful to the genre.
 
3 Steps From La La kicks off with “Shake It Sugaree,” the kind of song one would expect to hear walking into the door of a jumpin’ and jivin’ fais do-do; no dance floor would be left unattended with the sounds of Ernest James Zydeco pouring through the speakers. The traditional jump-shuffle of the accordion leads a band with a solid rhythm and brass section (featuring über-musician Mike Stover on bass, banjo, and slide guitar), as James beseeches the listener to get their dancing shoes on (“all that I want / all that I need / shake it right now, sugaree”), and anyone with a pulse would have no choice but to comply. “Lookin” and “Whoa Sally” will keep the party movin’ and groovin’, and when it’s time to put a slowdown on things, James follows with “Supposed To Do,” a grimy blues burner that tells of one’s decision to put their needs ahead of another’s (“I know what you want from me / but this ol’ boy’s gotta be free”). The rest of the album spotlights the diversity and variety of music that James and his band are capable of: a straight-up Howlin’ Wolf-inspired blues (“Zydeco Mother’s Day”), music of lament and longing (“Man Across the Street”), zydeco-meets-The-Wilders (“Pearlie Pearl”, with the fiddle and vocal stylings of the indomitable and inimitable Betse Ellis), and the closer, the gospel standard “Glory Glory,” which James retooled a bit to reflect his own views. “I had to rearrange the lyrics to be comfortable singing them,” he said. “I’m not a Bible thumper; they’re kind of a ‘I don’t know where I’m going ... if there’s a God, have some mercy!’ kind of message.”
 
Whether there’s a message contained within the music of 3 Steps from La La is up to the listener. If so, it’s being delivered by a tight, authentic, fervent group of musicians led by a man who has been sharing the joyful noise of the Big Easy for years. Ernest James Zydeco delivers on their new CD, and they have a history of bringing it home during their live performances as well, whether they be in a quiet bookstore or a raucous club. Lovers of well-crafted and no-pretense music of any style or genre would do well to add this to their audio libraries.
 
As Ernest James might reply, “Yeah, you right!”
 
Ernest James and his band will be releasing 3 Steps From La La tomorrow, November 30, with a show at B.B.'s Lawnside BBQ. Join them for a fun evening; they will be performing the album in its entirety.
 
 
--Michael Byars
 
After much soul-searching and contemplation, Michael Byars has decided not to run for office in 2016. If there had been any money left from his SuperPAC, he would have given it all to the Midwest Music Foundation—but there was only enough to buy a candy bar, so there you go.

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