From the first listening of this album, it is clear that Darcy James Argue intends to make a strong statement about the boundaries of musical genresof jazz and new musicas well as about musical aesthetics and technology. This album consists of Argue's compositions for "big band" (or "large ensemble," depending on whom you ask) with a dark, modernistic edge; most numbers contain pulsating drumbeats and wildly spiraling minor and diminished harmonies. An electric guitar, often distorted, also pops up here and there, as do overt nods to early American minimalism, lyrical Charles Mingus-esque reed melodies and other identifiable appropriations. Argue argues: "My music for Secret Society essentially comes out of me imagining an alternate reality where big bands were still wildly popular and where jazz was still on speaking terms with other musical genres."
Musically, this is fine; but politically, this argument seems odd. Why brand this music "big band" music when ensembles of similar size exist in all of the genres from which Argue culls? Despite his obvious reference to the standard "big band" instrumentation, calling these compositions "big band music" is perhaps just icing on the cake. The music stands on its own: on compositions like "Habeas Corpus" pulsating brass lines straight from early Steve Reich meld very successfully with more lyrical, muted trumpet and wind melodies; the album's opening piece, "Phobos," features a relentless drum rhythm against big brass buildups and a nuanced tenor solo by Mark Small (as well as a Robert Fripp-tinged guitar accompaniment). Though Argue's musical references might be a bit heavy handed, his masterful montage of these styles makes the listener realize the aesthetic similarities they've shared all along.
Interestingly, Argue has chosen the "steampunk" genreused typically to describe a subset of fantasy literaturefor compositions that otherwise would benefit from confusing genre borders, slightly undercutting the initial shock of the new and unexpected that comes with listening to this album. Steampunk or not, however, Darcy James Argue's Secret Society has proven to be a gadfly in both the jazz and the new music communities and for good reason. Infernal Machines is a solid first album from this band and one can be sure that their next release will be just as important.
Darcy James Argue: composer, conductor, ringleader; Erica vonKleist: flute, alto flute, soprano and alto saxophones; Rob Wilkerson: flute, clarinet, soprano and alto saxophones; Sam Sadigursky: clarinet, soprano and tenor saxophones; Mark Small: clarinet, bass clarinet, tenor saxophone; Josh Sinton: clarinet, bass clarinet, baritone saxophone; Seneca Black: lead trumpet; Ingrid Jensen: trumpet; Laurie Frink: trumpet; Nadje Noordhuis: trumpet; Tom Goehring: trumpet; Ryan Keberle: trombone; Mike Fahie: trombone; James Hirschfeld: trombone; Jennifer Wharton: bass trombone; Sebastian Noelle: acoustic and electric guitars; Mike Holober: piano, electric piano; Matt Clohesy: contrabass, electric bass; Jon Wikan: drum set, cajon, pandeiro, miscellaneous percussion.