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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Death Blues Returns with a Cryptic, Blown-Out Manifesto

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High concepts are a dime a dozen in modern music, but it’s rare that you come across anything where those often-lofty ideas actually inform and guide the sound you’re hearing in a way that’s not purely superficial. It’s easy to throw around jargon, but it’s far harder to break down your preconceived musical notions and reconstruct them according to a completely new framework. Led by accomplished local percussionist Jon Mueller, known for his work with Volcano Choir and Collections of Colonies of Bees, Death Blues definitely comes with an overarching concept attached, one Mueller’s elaborated on in a sprawling manifesto among other publications, but it’s clear from their recordings, particularly the hypnotic new Non-Fiction, that those ideas are more than mere window dressing.

“Death Blues, if you want to put more of a slogan behind it, is about being present in the moment, as opposed to making big plans or worrying about things,” explains Mueller. “That’s the main idea, but from there it spirals out in many other directions.” The questions hiding behind that seemingly simple but endlessly elusive idea led Mueller to a wider view than on Death Blues’ self-titled debut. “At the outset, I talked a lot about the idea, wrote the manifesto, came up with the concepts, and Non-Fiction is a way to step back from it all,” he says. “I initially painted this picture of a moral/ethical statement about how to live your life, and now I’m saying, ‘Well, it’s not so easy.’”

The result is that, on Non-Fiction, the pared-down sound of their earlier effort explodes into kaleidoscopic complexity. “The first record was very straightforward, and my intent was to keep it very stripped down and simple but, on this record, everything is blown out. There’s processing on the guitars, the vocals are treated, even the style of vocals is totally different,” says Mueller, referring to the stream-of-consciousness nonsense sung throughout. “It hints at speech and at language, but it’s not understood, so it’s a metaphor for asking, ‘How do I make sense of this?’ And I think each person can, in their own way. It’s a personal thing and that’s sort of the point, that each of us is making it up as we go.”

With the record’s dense layers, you could be forgiven for thinking this is a studio project, but you’d be wrong. “The material is stuff that we can and will be playing live but, in the studio, you want to mess with things a little more,” explains Mueller. “And with the direction of this record, we wanted to do as much as we could with it.” In fact, according to Mueller, the performances go beyond recreation, responding to the moment. “It’s not really, ‘Play a song, stop, play another song, stop,’” he says. “It’s more of a collage of different movements, some of which are from the Death Blues record, some from Non-Fiction and others are things that we’ve worked out specifically for this set.”

Seeing Mueller and collaborators Jim Warchol and Ken Palme (both playing “hammered acoustic guitar”) do their thing in a live setting is actually ideal according to the larger Death Blues concept but, as it stands, Non-Fiction’s heady mix of styles is arresting enough. “There’s definitely a folk sensibility to it. I listen to a lot of very old music, and combining it with modern heaviness and high energy makes sense, because when you talk about celebrating the moment, you don’t sit back and doze off; your blood should be pumping,” says Mueller. “This music can reach a certain intensity, yet it’s not something familiar; it’s got experimentalism, rock, metal, it’s got world music and folk music elements. It’s sort of a conglomeration of everything.”

Death Blues’ Non-Fiction was released this week on Sige Records.