The music of The Sway Machinery boasts incredible personal and communal depths, intertwined like a double helix. Every shiver and yowl of band leader Jeremiah Lockwood’s voice reveals his own passion, but also resonates with something deeper and older. His band, meanwhile, darts between Western rock sounds and roots in traditional Jewish liturgical music. Those disparate eras and worlds don’t always blend easily, but when they do, the intersection is thrilling.
The Sway Machinery’s latest, Purity and Danger, features more of the former than the latter. Lockwood’s band has featured present and former side players for the likes of Antibalas, Arcade Fire, and Iron and Wine, and the group took a notable trip to Mali a few years ago, working with legendary African musicians. These are seasoned, studied professionals, and the music shows all of that polish.
Songs like the desert blues-indebted “My Dead Lover’s Wedding” radiate heat like the Saharan sun. “Magein Avos” finds the historical overlap of northern African traditions with Jewish melodies, the polyrhythms rippling underneath the arcing lead. More than just mellow bait for the NPR set looking for “world music” to soundtrack a dinner party, Lockwood’s songwriting focuses on life and death and the massive implications of spirituality on that intersection, material demanding deep, active listening and movement.
“Longa”, on the other hand, recalls a klezmer band trying on a surf rock sound that comes off more gimmicky than sincere — though delivered with the same sincerity as every other track. That, of course, is the risk of fusing sounds based in religious and cultural tradition with modern rock sounds: Get it exactly right and the ability to leap centuries is an uncanny power, but get it even a little wrong and the distance becomes magnified. Luckily, Purity and Danger gets more right than it does wrong. Its entrancing grooves and emotionally charged vocals carry an incredible history without sounding stale.
Essential Tracks: “My Dead Lover’s Wedding”, “Magein Avos”