Big Farm Album Art

Big Farm’s Self-Titled Debut on New Amsterdam Records

New Amsterdam RecordsThe temptation to over-intellectualize Big Farm’s self-titled debut is hard to resist.—which isn’t to say that it’s not an intellectual record. They clearly want you to think, and the album ranges far and wide over some esoteric musical landscapes. But while you’d expect a dense, nigh-impenetrable album from four luminaries of new music, the glory of Big Farm is the sheer exuberance that permeates every complex passage or heady lyrical idea. You’re welcome to dig in, searching for the compositional complexity and hidden meanings, but you’re also welcome to sit back and rock out.

Big Farm

Big Farm

Big Farm could be called prog rock, but that term comes with all kinds of baggage. “Progressive” rock became “prog” when the pretense of progressiveness fell by the wayside. For every King Crimson or Henry Cow attempting to fuse rock with modernist forms of classical and jazz in a genuine effort to create original music, you can find ten Dream Theaters playing in 17/16 just because it’s flashy. (Dream Theater may, in fact, be the only band in the world whose entire fanbase consists of members of Dream Theater sound-alike bands). Prog, really, is about reconciling the intellectual stimulus of classical and avant-garde music with the undeniably primal power of the riff. Whether it starts with a classical musician hearing Sabbath for the first time, or a metalhead hearing Stravinsky, the result is the same: music that yearns to stimulate the mind while melting the face with awesomeness (in technical terms, at least).

Of course, it’s 2013, and all this is an old hat by now. Punk rock realized long ago that John Cage was the punkest motherfucker of the 20th century, Meshuggah is basically Penderecki with screaming, and Bryce Dessner sits at the previously unfathomable nexus of indie rock, modern classical, and fantasy television. Musical boundaries only really exist as tags on YouTube, and most modern composers interact with rock music in some way or another. Big Farm are emblematic of the modern wave of rock-influenced new music that, while technically a sort of fusion, doesn’t sound like a fusion. Instead of self-consciously contrasting seemingly incongruous elements, the music is an organic outgrowth of eclecticism, something that can’t really be called a fusion or a blend because the disparate elements are too tightly interwoven, too deeply connected, to be separately identifiable.

Upon first listen, there does seem to be some self-conscious subgenre allusions. “She Steps” and “My Ship” are outright Zeppelinesque, “Lost in Splendor” ends in a punkish inferno, “Break Time” sails on Radiohead/Sigur Ros slow-groove clouds and includes a clever reference to “Revolution #9”. The destructive angles in “Like and Animal” and “Ghosts” step foot into jagged, off-kilter noise rock territory, although no matter how abstract the music gets, Big Farm maintain a sense of clarity and control even in the most chaotic moments. Every note feels deliberate. And this is what saves them from a gimmicky “this is our punk song, and this is our blues, and this is the angular one, etc.” kind of vibe: each piece maintains a logical, organic flow in which every style touched upon feels natural instead of clever for cleverness’ sake.

Big Farm Album ArtVocalist/lyricist Rinde Eckert’s background in opera and new music make for a unique interpretation of the high-pitched frontman archetype. A Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalist, as well as an Obie winner, Eckert eschews vague poetry for short narratives with an emphasis on death and the passage of time. His opera cred is evident in the way he juggles recitative and pointilist melodies with aplomb, but when the music calls for him to slip into the guise of a rock singer, he does so with grace. He never imitates the style; even on “My Ship”, the most direct reference to straight-ahead blues-rock on the record, he inhabits a theatrical character, half soul-man pentatonic and half experimental-theater operatic. Jason Treuting has a similar approach as a percussionist, as likely to bang on a bike tire as he is to sit at a drumkit. He stays in a mostly traditional mode throughout the album, anchoring the music with familiar grooves, which makes the occasional arrhythmic flurry or spacey cymbal wash that much more jarring. Electric bassist Mark Haanstra locks in with Treuting to create a fantastically satisfying rhythm section, but he is no more bound to his role than his cohorts. Guitarist Steven Mackey flits about stylistically more than the rest of the band, moving from soundscapes to crunching riffs to airy chordal textures in a span of seconds, always unexpected but never disruptive. Which is also a good way to sum up Big Farm’s sound in general.

That…didn’t really sound like “not overthinking” the album, did it? Like I said, the temptation is too great. There’s too much going on for me to not be drawn in, but I’m also the kind of listener that goes hunting for obscure details. What’s important about this record is that it’s not gratuitously inscrutable. Big Farm is as willing to wear their hearts on their sleeves as they are happy to obscure their intentions, often over the course of a single song. The intellectual depth of their debut should be recognized, but it’s nice to have a work of challenging, thought-provoking music that’s also a great rock record, with even a few catchy hooks amidst the drama and dischord.

Big Farm, Big Farm (New Amsterdam Records, 2013) | Buy it on | |