Just what sort of ensemble is Alarm Will Sound? Their repertoire zigs and zags: Steve Reich, Aphex Twin, John Cale, Louis Andriessen, and somewhere along the line, a tasting menu of rhythmically baffling music from the 15th century to the present. It seems impossible to follow these bread crumbs back to any coherent explanation of who, exactly, this chamber orchestra is trying to be. Add their high-concept live shows to the mix (their 1969 program married Stockhausen and the Beatles), and the question only gets more complicated.
But however vainly one might sum them up, their latest release — "Canzonas Americanas," a program of music by Derek Bermel — somehow sounds like an Alarm Will Sound album.
Maybe it's because Bermel's music demands the same rhythmic vigor as a Reich score, and the same screwed-up pop sensibility as Brittelle or Aphex Twin, or the fact that Bermel's musical language is nearly as eclectic as everything Alarm Will Sound has played up to now. The well-traveled Bermel's compositions are all over the map, literally: he refuses to confine himself to the musical language of a single continent per piece.
Once in a while, the record gets surprisingly starchy — isn't that drumbeat a little overwritten, or this trumpet tone a little too pure? — it occasionally sounds, in other words, like classical music. But it's like the old joke about the weather: don't like this piece? Just wait a minute, and it'll turn into something completely different. Bermel delights in transforming homespun pentatonic materials into passages of gleefully ham-fisted dissonance, and pens both with equal authority.
The performances here are equally assured — Alarm Will Sound, of course, but also smart, compelling vocal soloists Kiera Duffy and Timothy Jones. Brilliant Brazilian chanteuse Luciana Souza makes her guest appearance with a sound pure and delicate as gold leaf, in one of the album's meditative moments.
Such moments come and go. Like an only slightly lower-strung version of Carl Stalling's Looney Toons scores, Bermel's music often changes its mind halfway through a phrase, doubles back and becomes something completely different. Alarm Will Sound, fortunately, is just the band to keep up with it.
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