Killer BOB - Fear May Be a Builder

"Fear May Be a Builder" is a seriously fine debut album from Brooklyn's Killer BOB, an instrumental quartet whose compositions defy every pigeonhole. I've been digging into this music for the last few months, and though I dug this record after one spin, it continues to grow on me even more. Killer BOB is, at their essence, an avant-rock band, but they also draw heavily from minimalist classical structures and a funky, asymmetrical melodic approach from the early days of free jazz.

Though I listen to a lot of improvisation-oriented music, my heart really lies closest to heavily-composed forms of music, and Killer BOB's thoughtful and meticulous writing fills the staves of my heart with all of the right notes. Fans of Zs, especially their earlier sextet period, will really dig this music--but that's not to say it's derivative. Though both acts incorporate forms of phrase repetition and an emphasis on cycles of insistent rhythmic activity, there is a certain old-school grit to Killer BOB that reminds me of 60s mavericks like Captain Beefheart and Ornette Coleman, leaving space for moments of reckless abandon and fun.

I caught Killer BOB drummer Max Jaffe on tour with Normal Love last fall, where he was covering intricate-yet-brutal parts tracked in the studio by Eli Litwin (Intensus, Inzinzac, etc). Jaffe's ferocious and precise take on the "Survival Tricks" music led me to suspect that he was a very heavy-handed player, but his playing with Killer BOB shows his delicate side at times. Despite their name, much of Killer BOB's record is downright gentle, such as the aptly-titled triptych "Music She Can Sleep Through," and even pieces that crescendo into dense walls of sound tend to be made of many interlocking sections that include moments of ambient calm.

As a whole, this music breathes within a wide dynamic range, and almost any kind of musical contrast you can imagine is is fully and thoughtfully exploited: tempo shifts, stop/start sections, consonance and dissonance, pop/art genre references, repetition and through-composition. Structurally, the rhythm section frequently acts as musical anchor, creating steady (and relatively subdued) pulses over which guitar and saxophone work together as one pointillistic instrument, lurching between melodic fragments, quickly repeated phrases, and rhythmically dense clusters of shifting dissonance. But there are many exceptions to any generality a person can make about this album--every approach is subject to change as the music itself demands.

It's difficult for me to pick favorite tracks on this record, as it really works best as a full record, but a few highlights are tracks like "Undercoat" and "Overcoat,"in which the gentle 4-measure figure of overdubbed reeds in the former morphs into a "tough exterior" with brash-yet-plaintive guitar work in the latter. I love the simple, dirty riff that gets explored throughout "Dirt Tits," with an unusual solo drum workout of the riff for its final minute. And my overall favorite is "Sirens," which is probably the most complex composition of the whole record, raging through a series of shifting approaches between a beautiful opening/closing made of gentle, harplike guitars.

Though this is essentially an instrumental album, there is a literary undercurrent to Killer BOB: four spoken word tracks, alternately collaged and dream-journal-like, are sprinkled roughly evenly into the track sequence of "Fear May Be a Builder," presumably each representing one member of the band. And the layout of track titles on the back of the CD digipak is vertical, using a strange top/bottom justification that initially caused me to try to read the track titles horizontally: quite a Burroughsian cutup! I definitely get some Surrealist vibes from both these elements and the collage/montage approaches of this music, which are enforced by the band's press info that describes this as a record "which explores their collective subconscious dream worlds." As a huge enthusiast of Surrealist Games and other techniques for bringing subconscious and chance elements to the surface, I think this record succeeds as both a map of the dream/waking hinterlands and a fascinating bit of the territory itself. Highly recommended.

Perhaps more of the extramusical elements of this band's work will become even clearer on tour, both in live performance and through exploring a tour-only tape and a chapbook of writing/imagery made by the band. And the band is on tour right now, heading into the midwest and back to the east coast. For Lincoln folks, they'll be visiting us on Feb 18th at the Bourbon (save a tape and a book for me, guys), with King Thumper and Multidimensional Cowboy. For folks living elsewhere, this Facebook page has their full tour itinerary. And if you miss them on tour, you can (and should) get their album from Primary Records.

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