1. …The Launch (0:19)
2. Spyplane (6:19)
3. Waste Management (6:20)
4. Me & My TV (5:52)
5. Dance of the Wild Koba (7:26)
6. The Curse (7:38)
7. Interlude (0:40)
8. Redemption (5:55)
9. Everything (5:52)
10. Zero Hour (6:22)
11. Escape from Rome (8:05)
Joe Scatassa – guitar
Dan Asher – bass
Jason Isaac – drums
Seth Moutal – percussion
Matt Iselin – organ, clavinet, el. piano, vocals (3)
Ronnie Cuber – baritone saxophone, bass clarinet
Justin Flynn – tenor saxophone
Rafi Malkiel – trombone
Jeff Pierce – trumpets
Rick Trolsen – trombone solo (6)
Mark Teofilo – orchestral percussion (11)
Michael Taylor – vocals (9)
Before I start my review in earnest, a word of warning is needed for the hardcore proggers among my readers: To Obscurity and Beyond is quite a different beast from what might be conventionally seen as prog. Described by its creators – the New York-by way of-New Orleans outfit Afroskull – as a ‘sonic gumbo’ with ingredients such as Black Sabbath, Funkadelic, Zappa and a generous pinch of jazz influences, this is an album that is exciting, exhilarating and musically impeccable as any canonical progressive rock offering.
To Obscurity and Beyond, released about one year ago after a number of line-up changes and a brief hiatus, follows Afroskull’s 2000 excellent recording debut, Monster for the Masses. A mostly instrumental effort, with only two out of 11 tracks featuring vocals, it possesses enough energy and swing to make you want to dance to it, coupled with the kind of musicianship that makes you want to listen. It is, in some ways, an old-school album, where the accessibility quotient does not come across as contrived in many modern releases, and the technical skill is not used to bludgeon the listener on the head, but rather to convey the musical message in the clearest terms available. The band’s inspiration is rooted in the past – albeit with a thoroughly modern flavour – with influences such as Chicago Transit Authority, Blood Sweat and Tears, Colosseum, and, of course Funkadelic and Zappa’s more fusion-oriented output. This is the kind of disc that a band like the Red Hot Chili Peppers might have produced if they had not turned to more lucrative pursuits.
A quintet augmented by a horn section (brilliantly dubbed “The Horns of Doom”), plus a number of guest musicians, Afroskull sound like a mini-orchestra, their music well-rounded and multi-dimensional. Going very much against the grain of this age where programmed drums and all kinds of digital equipment seem to hold sway, the band employ real instruments, in the finest rock tradition, which results in a genuinely warm, expressive sound. Next to the chilly though formally impeccable mood evidenced by so many current releases, listening to To Obscurity and Beyond might be compared to the sheer comfort offered by an old-fashioned, home-cooked meal.
Muscular and compelling, Afroskull’s music is also capable of subtlety. Though, at a superficial glance, it may sound like a good-time, shake-your-butt album, there is a lot of variation on To Obscurity and Beyond, as a careful listen of individual tracks will reveal. While the album opens with the funky pyrotechnics of “Spyplane”, the band show their more restrained side in tracks like the aptly-titled, slow-burning “Redemption”, with the pace slowing down to an almost Sabbathian plod in the ominous “The Curse”. Gritty guitar riffs and scintillating solos, courtesy of mainman Joe Scatassa, spar with the powerful blaring of the horns and the smooth yet understated presence of the keyboards, powered by Jason Isaac’s and Seth Moutal’s stellar percussive work and Dan Asher’s relentless bass lines. “Waste Management” and “Everything”, the only two vocal tracks, blend bluesy, soulful vocal performances – respectively by keyboardist Matt Iselin (somewhat reminiscent of a less histrionic Chris Farlowe) and guest singer Michael Taylor – with irresistible funky rhythms, fiery guitar licks and triumphant horns. The album ends with a bang, with the highly cinematic “Escape from Rome” – an 8-minute tour-de-force veering from the almost free-jazz opening to the intense, martial pace of the main body of the track, in which all the instruments take their turn in creating a hypnotic, powerful texture.
A stunning collection of flawlessly penned tunes, supported by incredible musicianship and a sense of genuine enjoyment, To Obscurity and Beyond definitely deserves to be tagged as one of the outstanding releases of the past year, and possibly of the whole decade. This is an album the likes of which is all too rarely seen in the current music world, and one that will appeal to most self-respecting fans of great rock music – especially those who do not believe that great grooves and interesting musical structures are mutually exclusive. Even if prog purists may find the album a bit too funky for comfort, many discerning listeners are bound to appreciate the marriage of boundless energy and disciplined musicianship featured on To Obscurity and Beyond – as well as its ebullient, unabashedly crossover appeal. Hopefully Afroskull will not make its many fans wait another nine years for their next release, even if this one was definitely worth the wait.