The land where jazz and rock meet is a contentious place to be sure. To some jazz fans, Gary Burton and Larry Coryell’s, and Miles Davis’s early steps toward adding rock rhythms and instrumentation, respectively, were unfortunate, even blasphemous. Some rock fans found improv-fueled jams produced by the likes of Cream and the Grateful Dead dull, even laborious. To this day, artists who attempt to straddle the border between the two camps find themselves falling one way or another, most often pushed by the other side for not standing up to the expectations of the genre. Thankfully, some bands, like Many Arms, forge an individual identity without being bullied by genre. The strength of the music in this case isn’t the most important thing, it’s the idea of simply doing what one wants that matters.
Palabras Malas, or Bad Words, is the proper debut LP from guitarist Nick Millevoi (also of Circles and Make A Rising), bassist John DeBlase (of Zevious), and drummer Ricardo Lagomasino (formerly of Capillary Action, collaborator with Fugazi’s Joe Lally). While everything I could find written about the group mentioned influences like Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis, the introduction “It Begins” sounded like a straightforward bit of noisy rock. “Snakes in the Grass” followed, heavily reminiscent of art-jazz-skronk group Gutbucket (minus the impressive sax work of Ken Thomson), with heavy, distorted guitars syncopated in rhythm with cymbal-heavy drums. The song is quickly counter pointed by a stuttered, rapid melody before moving into a rock groove. Rinse and repeat.
The punk-like introduction to “Purple Better One” shows off Deblase’s lightning quick bass work, perfectly mirroring Millevoi’s overdriven lead guitar. The track falls screeching apart after two minutes, the guitar sounding like a feedback switch is being flipped rapidly rather than any sort of note. This segues perfectly into “The Year 500 Billion”, where Lagomasino’s drums melt between a heavy thunder and a sharp Latin swing. While this piece also has a jammy feel to it, plus an extremely spastic and technical melody, it’s really more akin to Les Claypool or Frank Zappa than to Ornette Coleman.
Italian jazz-metal group Zu might be another good comparison for Many Arms, though with a thinner sound due to the more traditionally rock instrumentation. “Jungle Cat (Zilla)” puts Lagomasino’s intense drumming, consisting of machine gun rolls, thunderous toms, and clattering cymbal hits on display. There is definitely a lot more metal and rock influence than jazz, but the improvising throughout is strong. It’s clear that all three musicians have some sort of jazz training or practice, though they’re not showing it off much.
There’s enough jazz on this record to put some people off, but those people probably wouldn’t be seeking out a band like Many Arms or an album like Palabras Malas to begin with. However, if you choose to ignore the genre debate, there’s plenty to listen to. The three musicians are all masterful and work in tight, concentric circles to create intense sounds. Someone looking for a good example of jazz-rock fusion might need to look elsewhere, but this debut is certainly nothing to scoff at.