Rob Jacobs and Wei Zhongle

The last in this little series of DIY artists is Rob Jacobs, whose work was a welcome surprise for me a couple of months ago. Rob's many solo albums and his Wei Zhongle project have become some of my most regular audio companions in a short while. Finding out about largely unknown artists whose body of work is already so rich and varied totally renews my faith in humanity, and hopefully drawing a little attention to this music will lead to some physical releases--the Wei Zhongle album in particular is practically begging to live on vinyl.

Jacobs is a young multi-instrumentalist and composer working in Southern Illinois. Aside from classical violin lessons, he's a self-taught fellow, which comes as quite a surprise when you hear his expressive playing and writing on a variety of woodwind and string instruments. After a childhood of violin playing, he began writing and recording his own albums at the age of 16 (a mere 7 years ago), and I'm floored by both the quantity and quality of his work in a wide range of styles. He's stacking up jazz and new music-inflected pop tunes under his own name, becoming a vocal drone improv maniac with percussionist Sam Klickner as Suffering Bastard, and playing in his own Wei Zhongle ensemble, whose music almost requires a new genre category to describe. For the purposes of this review, I'm only going to dig into a couple of his recordings in more detail, but I'd highly recommend spending some time on these BandCamp sites exploring his whole back catalog:

Wei Zhongle
Rob Jacobs
Suffering Bastard

Wei Zhongle - Wei Zhongle
As mentioned above, it's hard to describe the music of Wei Zhongle in terms of genre. There are many nods toward Chinese music, likely inspired by the ensemble's namesake, who was a multi-instrumentalist on a variety of Chinese traditional instruments and founder of the Traditional Instruments department at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. The somewhat Chinese attributes of the music speak through melodic approaches, unison passages, a non-"drum riff" approach to percussion, and some simple modifications to instruments: for example, Jacobs reports that the tight, short articulations one hears in the Wei Zhongle guitar parts are made possible in part by weaving a bit of plastic through the strings near the bridge. Compositionally, these pieces incorporate all kinds of creative tricks like hocketing, brief moments of rounds/canonic motion, and surprising rhythmic twists, while fostering a sense of lightness and space. Generally, the music is gentle and approachable, a vibe I really appreciate in "weird music," which taken as a whole nowadays frequently tends toward darkness and oppression.

Though this music speaks through a largely Asian-inspired vocabulary, it's not a truly faux-Chinese record in the sense that composers like Lou Harrison achieved. Instead, its language and syntax work to create some of the most creative freak folk and pop music ever made--there are moments redolent of "Uncle Meat"-era Zappa, the last few Cerberus Shoal albums, even the more pensive and quiet moments in Extra Life albums. The dual male/female vocal approach of Jacobs and Carly Lappin creates a gender-neutral atmposphere, and the lyrics point toward a kind of spiritual awakening and celebration happening throughout the album. It's one of those rare records that will inspire many folks to simply dance around, while also satisfying those who crave rich, complex music and careful, intelligent composition.

Jacobs mentions that the lyrical content is inspired by Ouspensky, and not having read much of Ouspensky or Gurdjieff before, I dug into "A New Model of the Universe" to get into the conceptual vibe of the album more deeply. Somehow I'd skipped over those folks in years of reading a variety of mystical/esoteric literature, but I'm glad I got the chance to check him out. Ouspensky attempts to show universal threads of transcendence found in many religions including the Judeo-Christian tradition, such as a Buddhist influence on the parables of Jesus. More generally, the book aspires toward an esoteric interpretation of the writings of traditions most folks in the West would generally think of as "conventional," and asserts that the ability to recognize and integrate the more esoteric teachings hidden within these traditions requires a level of discipline and attention that is likely to be found in only "the few." Fair enough, and it's a fascinating filter through which to hear Wei Zhongle--it's generally pleasant and easily approachable music on the surface, but it's also full of its own secrets and methods which are only discovered on repeated listening. It's rare to find music that can be simultaneously friendly and uncompromising, and Wei Zhongle makes it happen.

Rob Jacobs - No Beach to Walk On
Jacobs also sent along a copy of his "No Beach To Walk On," one of his solo albums from a couple of years ago. His solo work is closer to "conventional" pop music, mostly lacking the Chinese-ish vibes of Wei Zhongle, but this is also very complex and innovative work. Overall, this is a laid-back pop/world project with r&b roots (you can tell Jacobs has absorbed a lot of Dave Longstreth/Dirty Projectors), but the proceedings are interrupted by a series of surprises.  There are unexpected moments of sampled voices ("Lady in Pink"), noiser moments like the end of "A New Song," weirdly effect-laden vocal sections like the opening section of "West Wind Beckons the Tri-Self" that briefly summon the Residents, and many times I'm reminded of Canterbury/prog ensemble writing like one would expect on Henry Cow albums. The music incorporates lots of pauses and time changes punctuated by instrumental countermelodies, great sectional writing for clarinets and saxes, and melismatic vocals.

As the sole vocalist on this recording, Jacobs really steps up, with great melismatic delivery on many tracks like "The Summoning Forth," a strong held-out line toward the end of "Lady in Pink," and great harmonized layers found in tracks like "Dancing the Sigulrlya." Though his voice is gentle, he builds texture and contrast through overdubs, and he has a great falsetto that is frequently employed in background sections. For a fellow who came to music through the violin, he can totally hold his own as a frontman on vocals. Lyrically, it's worth mentioning that three tracks are settings of poetry--one track works with Rumi, and two come from Lorca. He's also a thoroughly competent guitar player, inflecting these arrangements with lots of rich jazz voicings and well-placed rhythmic stabs.

The drum programming sounds great--Jacobs obviously took the time to make sure the drum parts made sense of the myriad twists in these arrangements. Real drums would be a nice addition to many of these songs, though. As "solo demos," these are incredible, and these songs would definitely shine in a live band context. Jacobs also did a fantastic job mixing these sprawling tracks, leaving room to hear many layers of compositional detail. Props must also be given to John McCowen, for his sax, flute, and bass clarinet work on this record.

My favorite track is album closer "Gaceia of the Terrible Presence," a challenging setting of a Lorca poem of the same name. The longest track on the album, "Gaceia" splits the stylistic difference between the rest of this solo album and the later compositional tendencies on exhibit in Wei Zhongle. The first section is made of propulsive rhythms and mostly pentatonic motion, which gets contrasted with several interesting variations in the last half of the piece. But the whole album is a lot of creative fun, and I'm looking forward to many more unique albums from the Rob Jacobs camp.

--also published at Killed in Cars

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