It’s been intriguing to watch The Aristocrats (Guthrie Govan, Bryan Beller and Marco Minnemann) grow. I was lucky enough to be at their very first performance, before they even had a band name or Aristocrats-specific material. And since then they’ve played countless gigs (actually Bryan Beller could probably name them all – he seems great at stuff like that) and inspired musicians all over the world to push their abilities to new levels. And I guess that’s the big caveat for The Aristocrats: it’s pretty much ‘musician music.’ I know of one or two non-musicians who listen to them but for the most part this is a band that seems best appreciated by those who are trained to take in the nuances of what The Aristocrats are putting out there. This year there have been two new Aristocrats releases, the live album Culture Clash Live! and the new studio record, Tres Caballeros.
Culture Clash Live!
If you’ve ever seen The Aristocrats live you’ll know how thrilling it is to watch them musically turn on a dime, shifting from one dynamic intensity to another. That’s definitely in effect on this album when taken in in its CD form, but obviously much more so in the accompanying DVD. Recorded at six different venues in six countries during the band’s 2014 world tour (supporting the Culture Clash album, duh), only three performances are doubled up between the CD and DVD, and it’s great fun to compare and contrast how the songs take on a different life during the course of a tour.
As much fun as it is to geek out over the sheer instrumental virtuosity on show (and I defy any guitarist to sit through a Guthrie Govan performance without gnawing on their own fist in equal measures of envy and aspiration), what really stands out from Culture Clash Live! is how much fun the band and the audience are having. This is technically demanding music but when it’s being performed by such skilled musicians, the inner sense of fun is really allowed out. And beyond being a great listening and viewing experience for its own sake, it’s a great lesson to those of us who have played (or wish to play) instrumental music in front of a crowd: keep it loose and fun but never let the playing slip.
The Aristocrats’ third studio album, Tres Caballeros was recored over ten days at the legendary Sunset Sound Recorders in California, and it has a more intense, driven vibe in general than Culture Clash Live!. Check out opener “Stupid 7” for a great example of what happens when these guys push ahead of the groove instead of playing around it. Or “Jack’s Back,” which starts out in almost deconstructed form before its various elements fall into place and lock in. By the time the really out-there intricate melody lines float in, you’ve been set up for an ‘anything could happen’ experience.
Okay, so at no point does Tres Caballeros present an easy, passive listening experience. It rarely sustains a mood for more than a minute before switching to something else (sometimes ingeniously linked, sometimes hilariously different to what came before it). There’s an invitingly comfortable Western vibe to “Smuggler’s Corridor” and a Danny Gatton-eqsue sense of madcap country virtuosity to “The Kentucky Meat Shower,” while the 11-minute “Through The Flower,” well… you just have to hear that one for yourself. It covers so many different moods and before finally fading out in a hail of crashing chords and thundering notes. Oh by the way, Bryan Beller’s face should be on money because of the killer grindy bass tone on “Texas Crazypants.”
Really, if you’re any kind of fan of instrumental music at all, you’re going to find something to latch onto in both of these releases and all their predecessors. The Aristocrats is a band that seems genetically predisposed to endless inventiveness. These albums are both great examples of that in different contexts.