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Pushing the boundaries
of rock and jazz

Algernon - Familiar Espionage
(Ears & Eyes Records)
3 1/2 stars (out of 5 stars)
Reviewed: April 7, 2008

Review by Brad Walseth

Algernon is one of those bands on the Ears & Eyes label that is pushing the boundaries of rock and jazz (and more) to the perimeters. They obviously don't care if it can be pegged to a genre, they only care if it's good, and it is!

Comprised of two guitarists, Dave Miller and Nick Fryer who work their interlocking lines like they've been listening to as much Gang of Four as Grant Green. The powerful "Deactivate the Motion Sensor" opens up their latest release - Familiar Espionage and you can immediately sense that the music is mature and interesting with clever changes and performed by talented well-rehearsed players with an original vision. Driven by a rocking rhythm section of bassist Tom Perona and drummer Cory Healey, the music is given an ethereal shine by shimmering guitar electronics and the presence of Katie Wiegman's heavenly vibes and glockenspiel. Her playing, along with the sudden shifts and turns reminds one a bit of the late Frank Zappa.

In the hands of lesser musicians, this could become a mish-mash, but to Algernon's credit, they have crafted a unique and highly entertaining sound. No 3 chord six-stringers, the guitarists utilize an advanced palette of chords, which adds to the jazzy feel. Strange noises merge into beauty and then the rhythm section kicks in with one of their patented riffs and all bets are off. At times (as on "Beneath the Ailing Flesh") it almost sounds as if avant garde composer Messaein were playing Delta blues, but the spacey free form outbursts contain enough substance to entertain and the more composed elements like "(Don't Press the) Red Button" are actually quite lovely and dare I say, "catchy."

I'm quite impressed by way the guitars and vibes dance and float over the hard charging rhythm section. Perona pushes the band along with Healey, while his bass lines comprise another important harmonic element that intertwines with and sometimes takes the lead on the melodic structure, as on the gnarly "Scene=Change" and the powerhouse "Eraserhead" - a hit song, if only on Mars, but nonetheless a greatly enjoyable mixture of rock, jazz and time-shifting experimental styles.

Obviously, the nasty distortion of effects-laden guitars, as on the ending track "Mission Protocol," aren't going to be for everyone, but they will satisfy those looking something new and different. Algernon are to be commended, as are Ears & Eyes Records, for doing their part to ensure Chicago remains the center of the experimental jazz/ music universe.

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