An incredibly talented multi-instrumentalist whose style knows no boundaries, Mike Keneally first gained notoriety as a member of Frank Zappa's last touring band from '87 onwards, contributing guitar, keyboards and vocals. Also a fine percussionist, Keneally has since gone on to record a number of solo albums that demonstrated a similar penchant for the absurd, even playing simultaneous guitar and keyboard solos with his group Beer for Dolphins. For his first effort with Favored Nations, Keneally hooked up with Holland's "busiest working orchestra," the Metropole Orkest, through the efforts of Dutch radio producer Co de Kloet. The Universe Will Provide is a tour-de-force that asserts, as did Zappa, that humour does indeed belong in music.
Orchestral collaborations are usually risky propositions, the end results often being far less than the sum of their parts, but Keneally, in conjunction with orchestrator Chris Opperman, has a clear understanding of how to blend instruments in a way that is completely unforced. While there is certainly a degree of bombast in parts of Keneally's score, it is intentional rather than being an unfortunate byproduct, with Keneally using the orchestra to full effect on pieces like "All of Them Were Quiet," which has elements of Varese, Webern and Stravinsky. With sound collages that sometimes blend a more traditional fusion rhythm section with full orchestra and draw as their influences everything from Stanley Kubrick and Wendy Carlos to Looney Tunes, Keneally's compositions traverse a variety of feels and textures, often within the space of a few short minutes. The three-minute "Archaic Peace Strategies," for example, starts with an orchestral grin before the rhythm section enters in support of short trombone solos and wildly distorted guitar solos.
And, while there is unquestionably detailed structure involved in all the compositions, there is also significant room for solos, although it is sometimes difficult to tell what is improvised and what is written on the page. Halfway through the complex twists and turns of "Four Slices of Toast," for example, the piece shifts into a section where Keneally's more outrageous guitar is heard soloing in tandem with saxophone, trombone and muted trumpet. Most remarkable about the Metropole Orkest is its ability to match wits with Keneally's stylistically unfettered disposition, playing solid fusion and rock rhythms alongside with, and sometimes at the same time as, the more expected classical and new music passages. That at least some of the members of the Orkest are also fine improvisers is something of an anomaly as well.
Truly the sum of Keneally's vast experiences, The Universe Will Provide is a gripping work that proves it is possible to blend orchestral timbres with fusion in a way that is completely natural and uncontrived. All too often such experiments sound like two disparate worlds trying to coexist, but in Keneally's hands the result is a totally integrated effort that blends instruments in surprising ways that always manage to work.
Personnel: Mike Keneally (electric and acoustic guitars, electric piano), with the Metropole Orkest, conducted by Jurjen Hempel. Orchestrations by Mike Keneally and Chris Opperman