Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Niacin - Krush / Back and Better Than Ever

Niacin, the organ based power trio made up of Billy Sheehan, Dennis Chambers, and John Novello, has returned with their eighth album, Krush, on Prosthetic Records, and it may be their best yet. It sounds like they've been downright hungry to get to this one, and their return is a very welcome one.

They've been gone for the better part of a decade, and while they have been on hiatus, it is obvious that they've not stopped working for a moment - chops are razor sharp, and on this outing it sounds like they've not only brought their virtuosity as players, but they've also been in the woodshed working on their composition skills. These tunes come off as songs, memorable and fresh.

Krush kicks it off and I wish ELP had lived long enough to sound this good in 2013 - it's a great chase with Sheehan furiously digging in and dueling with John Novello in a way that I've not heard him dig in since the unforgettable fire created by Billy and Steve Vai on David Lee Roth's Eat 'Em and Smile solo debut way back in '86. Dennis Chambers is as amazing as ever - he's kind of a ringleader on this cut, and his syncopated groove keeps the sparring melody men between the lines. Best rock/fusion I've heard since last year's spectacular debut by Spectrum Road.

There may still be three people left on the planet who don't know that niacin is vitamin B-3, and the appropriately titled Tone Wheels features Novello taking us on an awe inspiring tour of just what a Hammond organ can do. The production is crystal clear, and you can hear every nuance - something missed by many a producer when faced with recording the sonorities of the Hammond's moving parts. Sheehan and Chambers point, pluck, and punctuate in a manner that brings back memories of Simon Phillips and Anthony Jackson's amazing jousts in years past. I don't know what's better, Sheehan's chops, or his tone - let's call it a draw and walk away smiling. Novello is at the top of the heap, this is certain.

Stormy Sunday isn't exactly a blues, but it certainly contains shades thereof, but these guys are not to be constrained by labels, or genres - this is great music, simple as that. If you don't get jazz, you'll still get this, if you're anti-metal, this will still rock you. This is orchestral beauty. It's impossible for me not to sway as I'm listening and typing. You hear Jamerson clashing with Mussorgsky as Chambers conducts from his throne - majestic.

Krush is as musical in its way as an XTC album is in its. That's a genre stretch of about half a solar system, but when you hear the atmospheric Low Art, you may catch my drift. Novello's abundant supply of chord voicings create myriad harmonic suggestions, and directions - his palette is as wide as an ocean, and just as deep. His staccato riffing approaches a very cool pianistic timbre at times, and this is as fascinating as it is visceral.

Car Crash Red sounds like it would fit perfectly on a new David Lee Roth solo disc, if DLR was still this hip. This is a high rolling riff rocker that dances high on the wire with no net, and when Sheehan and Novello start squaring off, I'm reminded that heavy metal has been painfully pale for edges. This is more dangerous than any collection of death rockers on the planet - the unison runs are as good as any I have ever heard, and all I can do is smile and laugh out loud.

Electricity has Novello showing off his piano chops, and this is the disc's jazziest moment thus far. Sheehan has an amazing set of ears - he spins right alongside some dizzying runs, and riffs. Chambers sounds like he's soloing when in fact he's running the show from behind his kit, and we're reminded why much of the world considers him its greatest drummer. Subjective for sure, but he's in there on any list.

Funk rears its ugly head, and it's time to dance with the dinosaurs on Cold Fusion. These guys swing like nobody's business, and it's easy to get lost in the groove and almost miss the mind-blowing chops, and skills on display. Novello breaks out on some stratospheric synth, plucky piano, and his chops are matched by his skill as a composer - the twists and turns are always above all musical, and when they throw down some bolero styled segues, it makes nothing but great sense.

I love that every tune here is a song - they could all easily be converted to vocal numbers, and Majestic Dance is a great bit of hard rock that makes me long for the days that music like this could be heard in large arenas. This is big and majestic music, and deserves to be given the big stage treatment. This could wake the kids up, fer crissakes.

Prog rock finally pops up at the introduction of Prelude & Funky Opus. Novello's piano is huge - underpinned by Sheehan's solid tone, it's then supplanted by some hyperkinetic shuffling that will have you toe tapping. The tightness and cohesion is phenomenal, and it's even more stunning when you realize that these guys don't have the luxury of playing together very often. They just happen to operate like a three headed entity that always know where each head is turning.

The Gnarly Shuffle? Oh hell yeah it is. This cooks. Flat out cooks. Again, I am incredibly pleased that Billy's bass, and John Novello's organ don't crash, clash, or ever muddy up - when they go on their flights of fancy, they are both very distinct and pure. Then it's Sheehan and Chambers going head to head, and of course, guess who joins in? They come out of the insane unisons swinging like Count Basie's Orchestra, and it's a beautiful thing.

After wearing me down with such thunderous energy, the trio back it down in tempo, but not necessarily intensity for Drifting.This has a not quite dirge slow swagger that starts climbing up the mountain of majesty just as you think it may not - these guys are masters at timing and knowing when to make the big change. This would be the best show in any city on any night that it was played. Exciting, invigorating, and intellectually challenging - what more can one ask for?

More funk is in store with Sheehan's clavinesque intro to Sly Voltage, and I'm dreaming off how good this would sound at a summer festival. This is a straight up dance number, and it gets really nasty when Sheehan starts soloing and Novello takes some lascivious stabs at his keyboard. This sounds like the band has been missing in some sort of time loop for a few decades and walked out to some new fun technology. Billy Sheehan hasn't lost a step, and when he solos, it is clear he is still the most accomplished bassist in rock. He gets the rhythm, he's got the sound, and he never plays less than right for the tune. This one goes all Herby Hancock at the end, and you are going to love it.

That's The One is on the one, that's for sure. The synchronicity between this bunch is a work of wonder. Chambers marches them through a minefield of funkified goo, and they don't even get their feet muddy. This is a timekeeper's tour de force - maybe more fun for the players than the listener, but not by much.

All good things must come to an end, and it's the same with Krush - they go out on a talk show theme soundscape, but talk shows were never quite this hip. Triple Strength, indeed. As Chambers gives his cymbals an sound thrashing, Novello and Sheehan set it on cruise, and send us sailing down the river of musical bliss. From beginning to end, they do not for a moment let up - they are on it, and this wraps up a rock/fusion masterwork.

I can't pick a winner, or even a frontrunner - this trio is perfectly matched, and they operate as a single mind in so many ways. I hope they get to take this one out for some shows - it might be the most musically exciting event of the year.

Thanks to Niacin and Kelly Walsh at Prosthetic Records

Krush is out April 2nd.

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