The Monks, "Demo Tapes: 1965" (Play Loud)
The Monks were arguably the greatest rock band ever formed in the U.S. military definitely the weirdest. Stationed in Germany in the early to mid-'60s, the five guys started out playing Chuck Berry and British Invasion music but quickly found their own original style, marked by a driving, percussion-based rhythm (no cymbals) and frenetic, chanted vocals. They also shaved the tops of their heads to look like tonsures a nice touch. Their tribal, "überbeat" sound is still unique today, which may be why the group has maintained a cult following since it disbanded in 1967. (They've played occasional reunion shows and were recently featured in a documentary and a two-CD tribute album featuring The Fall, the 18.104.22.168's, and Mouse on Mars, among others.)
The early demos on this album were recorded seven months before the quintessential release "Black Monk Time" (1965). Some of the same songs are featured, and though fully formed, they are rawer than the later versions. The songs typically begin with church-organ-like intros before surging into full-on electric stomps. Silly dadaist lyrics often seethe with political undercurrents ("Why do you kill all those kids in Vietnam? Mad Vietcong! My brother died in Vietnam.").
Singer Gary Burger shouts like a revivalist in heat, while his feedback-laden guitar and wah-wah pedal influenced a young Jimi Hendrix. Toss in some Gregorian background chanting and crazy power chords by way of a six-string banjo, and you have a true forerunner of punk, one of the first bands to make people want to pogo. These stripped-down demos provide another, much-needed testament to the power of Monk time, a band all about the rhythm. Brent Baldwin
Battles, "Mirrored" (Warp)
The mostly instrumental outfit Battles has some serious chops. Its lineup includes the drummer from cerebral metal-band Helmet, the guitarist from tricky math-rockers Don Caballero and a multi-instrumentalist who happens to be the son of avant-garde jazz musician Anthony Braxton. So yes, these guys can play.
But lessons learned from progressive rock's heyday make us wary of this much instrumental ability: Will they overdose on wank and play to impress other musicians? Happily, the answer here on their debut full-length, which follows and far exceeds a series of EPs, is no. The members of Battles like to tinker with structure, and they're not above showcasing their technique, but they also have pop instincts.
Lead single "Atlas" sums up their aesthetic nicely, with a shuffling glam-rock beat cribbed from Gary Glitter, warped and incomprehensible vocals that sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks chewing mushrooms instead of walnuts, and a crunchy guitar riff perfectly designed to inspire movement. The eight-minute "Rainbow," with its intricate stop/start guitar and suitelike construction, sounds closer to jazz fusion, but bits of slide guitar lighten the mood with a Tex Avery feel for musical humor. "Mirrored" is strange, adventurous and ultimately tremendous fun. Mark Richardson
Battles plays at the Satellite Ballroom in Charlottesville Wednesday, June 13. Tickets are $10-$12.
John Abercrombie, "The Third Quartet" (ECM)
It's always a pleasure to see a band whose recorded work you admire fulfill and transcend expectations onstage. Modern improvised music seldom equals and virtually never surpasses the standard set by the Abercrombie Quartet at Georgetown's Blues Alley in mid-April.
The studio restraint of the "The Third Quartet" (the somewhat misleading title means it is the third CD from this lineup) does a pretty good job of capturing the band's melodic beauty and astonishingly sympathetic interplay, but not so much the band's fire and humor. That John Abercrombie never achieved the fame of his slightly younger counterparts John Scofield, Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell is just another example of the essential unfairness of life. Throughout his three-plus-decade career, he's been one of the most consistent and consistently interesting guitarists around, his playing full of burnished, detailed improvisations delivered with intelligence and restraint.
But all of the members of the band are leaders in their own right, and each alone could hold an audience's attention. The sound favored by the ECM label is closer to mesmerizing embers than an open flame, and although "The Third Quartet" delivers only about 75 percent of the band's sound, it renders it with admirable clarity and sophistication. It's a beautiful shadow of a brilliantly creative band. Peter McElhinney
Yael Weiss, "Piano Works by Robert Schumann" (Koch)
At a recent recital, the Washington Post portrayed Yael Weiss as "a pianist who delves deeply and tellingly into that cloudy area where fantasy morphs into improvisation, inventiveness being common to both." Her performance on this CD, which includes both well-known (Humoreske, Op. 20) and rarely heard works (Theme and Variations "Geistervariations," WoO 24) by Robert Schumann, confirms this sentiment.
Schumann (1810-1856) was both intellectual and introspective; Weiss' interpretation of his works is academic and perceptive. Because of Schumann's mental state during his final years, Clara Schumann and her heirs actively suppressed many of his late works from publication. Weiss unveils Schumann's neglected later works, including the Ghost Variations (not published until 1941).
The Ghost Variations, completed on the day of the composer's suicide attempt and recorded for the first time on this CD, are interpreted beautifully by Weiss embodying the vulnerable, passionate side of Schumann while also capturing his complex, introspective emotions. The CD also includes pieces that demonstrate the complexity of Robert and Clara Schumann's relationship, both personally and musically. The Impromptus on a Theme by Clara Wieck, Op. 5, is one such piece, as the theme appears in one of the composer's earlier sketchbook, but Clara also quotes the theme in one of her own works. Recorded on a 1910 Hamburg Steinway D at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City, this CD is both an academic and musical triumph. Chantal Panozzo