Combinator – Vice & Passion

The debut, 4-track EP from Seattle-trio Combinator is composed entirely of fun-loving, colorful, and expertly performed funk-rock staples.  The bass is played with loving precision; it’s tone painstakingly crafted to achieve a meaty, slippery texture that rolls right through each phrase and passage like it owns the place.  The drums are passionate and vibrant, driving songs with consistency and clarity.  The guitar isn’t too showy, but despite bowing to each arrangement, they establish a unique personality within the world of the record.  The guitar style leans on Latin rock just as much as it does funk or rock, showcasing both a hunger and talent for variety.

The arrangements are just this side of homage to the funk-rock of the past.  Easy comparisons include Red Hot Chili Peppers, Santana, The Police, and even a little Zappa – but Combinator has rendered a very pure and traditional interpretation of the genre that might fool you into thinking you’ve discovered a great little gem of a record from the early 70’s or mid-90’s.  The pervasive, gentle distortion on the vocals help to reinforce the idea of a velvety, smoky anachronistic sound.  It’s an aesthetic I can identify with.

Despite this, “Bleeding In Full” is full of modern drive, as though the comparisons I listed before adopted a more punk-like attitude (without sacrificing musicianship.)  The trio performs impressively together, firmly in the pocket and always ready for each progression to arrive.  The timing of ideas, and not just the performance, is another crucial aspect of what helps this collection of songs succeed, and “Bleeding in Full” demonstrates this as well as any of the songs.  It also fairly catchy, and poses a dual threat in that regard: for all it’s nuance and complexity, you can still recall the melody and feeling from memory.

“Keep Us Cool” turns the knob up on the funk, breaking out the staggering funk bass and wah-pedal guitar.  The addition of a backing vocal harmony in the chorus brings a new dimension to the band, nailing that particular bit of referential musical nostalgia.  The band knows, implicitly, how things ought to sound.  They didn’t leave anything out for the sake of expediency – they reach for those moments that end up solidifying the listener’s experience.

“Tight Ropin’,” on the other hand, progresses a little further into the future, and it also feels a little more personal than the other songs.  Rather than starting off with the band in full-swing, the song establishes a new, solemn mood that manages to retain the colorful vitality inhabiting the other tracks.  While the band may be, at present, incapable of invoking “darkness,” the combination of the downbeat reggae feeling and floating backing vocals paints a convincing portrait of desperation and uncertainty – at least as it translates from the raw, tropical quality of Combinator’s sound.  The lead vocals drop more passion here than the first two tracks, effectively touching on the emotion at the crux of the song.

“Bigger, Better, Faster, More” is the closing track on the EP – dirtier and harder, it represents the inverse ratio of funk-to-rock established in “Keep Us Cool.”  The guitar solo on this track stands out, given more room to spread it’s wings and soar over the slow and deliberate chugging rhythm.  While the drums don’t have near as much opportunity to show off, they steadfastly support the other two-thirds of the band, commanding tempo and pushing dynamics across the band.  This song has attitude – genuine attitude, coming from the timeless world of Combinator.

While the appeal of this record rests with your love or hatred of the funk-rock genre, there’s no denying that Combinator nailed the sound and soul of it with Vice & Passion.  With an emphasis on musicianship and arrangement, the band succeeds in broadcasting their special blend of influences and original ideas even when the recording itself sounds time-stamped.  The production and mix are competent, but they partially obscure the full sonic potential of the band (in particular, with regards to vocals.)  Still, Vice & Passion showcases a band’s love and attention to detail for their instruments and their genre with conviction and imagination.