Jason Rubenstein – New Metal From Old Boxes

Why isn’t progressive rock – full of the things we love like guitar or story-telling or actual virtuoso performances – more popular?  It’s not exactly clear why, at least not to me, but it could have something to do with the average person’s threshold for the level of rhythmic and melodic variation present in most prog-rock.  Some people need the simple comfort of straight four-to-the-floor beats, 120 beats per minute, guitar-bass-drums, done in under 5 minutes.  Oh, and no vocals?  No hit song for you.  Sometimes I need that too, frankly, but not all the time – not exclusively.

Other times I want dynamic music – I want some theatricality, or mathematical brilliance, or spiritual elucidation.  Modern rock and most metal out there can be compared with the tea-cup ride at Disney Land – you stay on a fairly even plane, rising and lowering but a little.  Prog-rock, on the other hand, has the capacity to grow into the biggest and meanest roller coaster it wants to be.  Progressive rock is, quite often, free from convention; less restrained by the wants and needs of disc jockeys and car commercials.

The logical conclusion here is that prog-rock can easily incorporate the rage of metal without bowing to metal’s clownish ham-fistedness or unrewardingly abrasive tack or tough-guy image.  Prog-rock can be angry and sometimes even violent.  Even without vocals!  France’s legendary prog-rock group Magma provided such a stark contrast to other feel-good hippy progressive rock of the time with its bite and militant propulsion that filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky selected them to write music for the bad guy Harkonnens against Pink Floyd’s heroic House Atreides in his unrealized adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune.  It can also be said, with healthy certainty, that King Crimson’s song “Level Five” is still one of the most hardcore, screaming, dark, and ass-kicking-est pieces of Western music to have been conceived of in the last thirty years.

Now what?  Now, Jason Rubenstein.  He may have his own storied history of making music over the years, but “New Metal From Old Boxes” is a break-through – to my ears, anyway.  As I have described it elsewhere, this album is replete with an articulate viciousness.  This is not an over-the-top mad-dash for the loudest, most obnoxious noise – but rather a calculated aural assault with something to say (clearly, with perfect annunciation) before it bashes your head in.

How do you accomplish something like that without appearing silly or contrived?  Well, you have to truly shock the listener – and if you can’t do that with your image, like Marilyn Manson (for a time) or Alice Cooper before him, you have to do it with your sound.  The next issue, then, is how does one achieve that?  With strange, alien noises made from unidentifiable instruments?  It’s been done to death (thanks alot, Mr. Fripp, Mr. Belew.)  To be fair, we all (myself included) love to believe it’s all been done before.  So why did I find this album so shocking?

First, the piano is very prominent.  That, in and of itself, is no innovation – but its application here is really quite striking as it pounds out heavy, simple phrases before splintering off into a million wild, little tangents.  Take, for example, “The Contemplation Of The Cosmologer.”  As an opening track, it establishes some of the ground rules for this new and expansive universe we’ve stepped into.  Hit ‘play’ and right off the bat the drums, guitar, and piano blast a winding, marching pattern that begins to transform slightly over time until an insane segue-way at one minute-three seconds, which launches us into a new space altogether: one with a distant, piercing synth pad hovering like a strange light in the sky.  The song shakes up again, revisiting the earlier groove but expanding it through added unison layers that give it a fiery texture.

The magic is that the backbone of the record is rooted in the use of clean, traditional instruments.  The guitars are not made to sound like deranged space orchestras, the organ and piano inhabiting a mostly “realistic space.”  And, with due respect to King Crimson – there’s no leaning on vocoder for seven minutes.  This is not to say that there are no unconventional sounds on this record, as evidenced by the reverse-bell intro to “Calculation and Walkaway.”  It is to say that the core of each song – the meat of each song – is raw and straightforward.  I would amend that by saying it has a raw clarity, rather than a lack of finesse.  “I know that’s a guitar, that’s a rock organ, that’s a piano, etc.”  There’s no head-pounding overboard compression to make things sound huge – that’s what the arrangement and its dynamics are for.

The musicianship is first-rate, precisely delivering the arrangements with expert confidence.  On this second track, we divide the first minute and forty-seconds between (seemingly) simplistic, vociferous, heavy (almost “metal”) phrase and a separate, compellingly discordant phrase at a quicker pace.  It’s easy to follow along, but challenging in its own way as I try to fill my head with imagery from the song.  It all leads into an extended breakdown gliding on ride cymbals and a low string synth pad following the bass.  The drums pick up pace, and a descending guitar line appears to the right… then a piano follows it to the left.  The song continues to build, smashing through each repetition of the phrase over a double-kick that really gives the song a dizzying, careening – yet oddly controlled – feeling; one that is palpable.

“The Set Up” surprises with it’s jazz piano interruption – keeping you on your toes and refreshing the rising action of the upward melody plodded out by overdriven organ, piano, and guitar.  The repetition in this song is particularly interesting to me, when at one minute and forty-eight there’s an elaborate, extended guitar solo.  Everything else begins to loop, as though trapping this free and wild thing inside of a cage.  This song continues with a pattern I’ve noticed regarding structure: these songs often come full circle and take you back to the beginning.

By track four, I’m wondering if the record is starting to lose steam.  However, midway through “The Blow Off” I realize things were only getting started.  The break at one minute-eighteen and subsequent hand percussion and low piano key has an amazing effect juxtaposed with the start of the song, paving the way for wailing, wounded guitars to weep counter melodies at each other.  We push through into another accelerating, ascending passage that spills out into a different time signature, wailing guitars returned, and a low, dark piano banging out jittery line before exploding into a fantastic, frantic, and utterly impeccable arpeggio.  This is the magic of progress music in general – the amazing and sometimes gorgeous stuff hidden deep within.  This is not low-hanging fruit, but it is the sweetest.

Now, while I’d love to talk about “Unspeakable Highways,” and how it has some of my favorite guitars on the record, awesome jazz piano where you least expect it, and exquisite retro synth solo that absolutely kills – I have to talk about my favorite song on the record, “A Burden Of Secrets.”  This is the longest cut off the album, and it’s fantastic.  It has a cascading, downward opening that resets itself and spills down through an intermingled trickling of guitar and piano, then the filter on an analog synth peaks up above the unison phrase right before a truly unusual, other-worldly sound cuts-in.   It gives the song a breath just prior to diving into a heavy, head-banging episode with a ghostly guitar solo looming overhead.

We track through one section after another, building momentum with each shift.  Then, at two minutes-forty seven, the storms clears and open jazz piano rings gently for a few measures… but it’s not long before the momentum resumes.  The abrupt transition at three minutes-forty six lets loose a dizzying burst of energetic piano that pleasantly reminds me of Mike Garson – and this leads us to my favorite room, elevated by a faint pad that gently lifts the pounding piano alongside the guitar as it takes off.  The song is full of confounding interruptions and bizarre tangents – but it’s all delivered with amazing clarity and timing.  This “montage” approach to musical progression is disjointed and a bit jarring, but also rife with brilliant moments that tie it all together and set this song apart in a big way.  This is a stunning musical experience; full of shock and awe and audible conviction.

“The Snowflake Defines The Weather” starts out with a fairly straight-forward rock beat – and you might mistakenly think this song won’t be near as mind-bending as the last.  In fact, it might be even crazier.  While less fragmented, the progression moves and gestates radically just the same.  The arpeggio at twenty-seven seconds is absolutely insane – individual notes in the sequence fluidly filled-in by – alternately – piano, organ and guitar.  Just… woah.  I had to play it back a few times to absorb the dense, rich sonic information contained in that moment.  Chills up the spine and everything.

“Frankenstein On The Red Line” is a delivery device for some righteous organs – nice and crunchy – but more importantly it serves up a killer minute and twenty-second analog synth solo that is so brilliantly out-of-control that it grinds the song to a halt and explodes into squelchy noise.  I wanted to dislike this song because of the title (for reasons unknown to even me) but that desire was untenable.  This song is truly awesome.

And while I enjoyed “The Steppes of Sighs” parts one and two and “The Barbarian,” it’s a span of the album I’d rather you discover yourself without preconceptions, lest I wring-out every bit of magic through my analysis or heap more redundant praise onto this review.  That being said, “New Metal From Old Boxes” deserves to be mentioned.  It is, I think, my second-favorite track on the album.  Since it is the title track, I look at it as somehow being representative as a statement of the album as a whole: perhaps this is the culmination or the logical extreme of the jagged, angular, dark, textural world we’ve encountered various corners of thus far.

In a way, it’s very different from the other songs – and for all of their similarities, each individual song does manage to bring a new dimension to the record…which is obviously what keeps it interesting.  And yet this song in particular begins with a metallic phase that immediately establishes a new tone, and the dark, low striking of a piano emerges from underneath a low-pass filter, bubbling up to the surface.

The song proceeds to rock, as you might expect it too, but considering it’s the second-longest track on the album this all feels a little more monotone and reserved than “A Burden of Secrets” did.  And I like that, because the record has demonstrated it’s boundless energy and capacity for doom and destruction and even elation – every high and low you could conceive of – it hasn’t quite hit on a balance the way the title track does.  For me, it’s partially assisted by the atmospheric bits and pieces at the beginning, middle, and end of the song – threaded through the fray like evanescent moments of reflection.  Beyond that, it’s this ability to conjure up specific moods using the same basic tools (and few effects or oddities) from song to song that truly surprises – how vastly different this song feels from the others, despite sharing a similar genetic code.

Maybe prog-rock is dead, maybe it isn’t.  Maybe it lives on in the people who seek it out, and those who continue to explore its infinite reaches.  One thing I know for sure is that “New Metal From Old Boxes” stakes-out at new territory despite what it may owe to the past and the pilgrimage made by bands like King Crimson – it is definitely a new beast altogether, with different values and an undeniable vitality.

As a Millennial, I know instinctively that this is music shaped by an earlier generation, owing to a pre-existing (and perhaps fading) mind-set – one that requires the audience to engage the sound and engage it for longer than three and a half minutes.  This isn’t background music (unless you live alone or your co-habitants are as badass as you are) and it isn’t particularly relaxing… or all-that uplifting… but it is incredible nonetheless.  Majestic, really.  Even with the assistance of modern technology, this was a massive and convoluted undertaking that showcases, above all, a hyper-literate musical imagination with soul.  For all of it’s cruel, shadowy math – this album is also incredibly human.  We, as a species, should be proud.