Radiolarians: Third Time’s Charm

The implication of three, staggered releases in Medeski, Martin and Wood’s title-and-concept-sharing Radiolarians series is that the second will be an improvement on the first and that the third will be best of all. Of course, this assumption is false; no such claim is made or warranted. And the Radiolarians process–developing material first in performance and then taking it into the studio–guarantees a certain amount of familiarity and polish when the music is recorded. But will there be some kind of artistic progress?

To these furry ears, the answer seems to be yes. Radiolarians III is the most sophisticated, the most inventive and the most satisfying of the three recordings. As much as we loved Radiolarians IIIII offers more of the off-beat, more melding of influences, more sonic satisfaction. Sure, we have our favorite cuts from I and II. But III is consistently pleasing, without undo reliance on any one direction.

The disc opens in familiar, groove territory. But then, across a layered chorus, Medeski offers constrasting backdrop and melody before taking to acoustic piano and improvising in a style that recalls Gene Harris, Ahmad Jamal and finally Cecil Taylor. The second tune, “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” is a traditional number that seems, in this incarnation, directed towards metal heads, a blend of hand-clapping piano and fuzzy, electric bass that at times seems to shout “hallelujah!” “Kota” is from the acoustic, new-music school, moving to exotic rhythms and Medeski’s oud-like electronics (we’re guessing here, maybe Chris Wood is overdubbing actual oud?).  “Undone” grooves with bass and drums out front and “Wonton” is a frantic, organ trio dance.

So it goes. Nothing here is completely new; MM&W are well known for combining an eclectic array of keyboard, bass and percussion sounds through a variety of styles and rhythmic influences. It’s that they’re doing more of it here and in more successful ways. Take “Broken Mirror,” a moody piece that seems designed as a soundtrack to a noir movie. It’s the intruding harpsichord chords, the synthesized electric guitar wash and the sultry bass that make the tune something not easily categorized.

There’s no doubt that the Radiolarians concept of developing music in performance before recording has brought something fresh to the trio which seemed to be stuck in, uh, a groove of late. There’s also no doubt that the threesome’s music would have continued to evolve without this concept. Or was it just a marketing ploy? One has to wonder who outside die-hard fans with coin ($89.99) will purchase the extravagant  Radiolarians: The Evolutionary Set with its bonus tracks, bonus discs, remixes, live recording and two-lp set…plus DVD! It might be the only way to say that it was worth all the trouble, but then again. Only die-hard fans with the coin –I wish I were one!–will go the distance.-Cabbage Rabbit

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