Death Blues: Ensemble

If ever a work could lay legitimate claim to being a multi-sensory experience, it's Death Blues' Ensemble, the premiere release on Jon Mueller's Rhythmplex imprint. It's a remarkable accomplishment that brings together an instrumental set performed by William Ryan Fritch and Mueller, mask sculptures by the late artist Lillian Rammel, and essays by Stacy Blint, Faith Coloccia, Brent Gohde, Sally Haldorson, Chris Koelle, Tom Lecky, and David Ravel, all of it assembled into a striking, large-format design by Jon Minor. The package itself is presented in a book-like format, with the vinyl LP housed within an inner sleeve and essays and mask images displayed on sixteen pages within its hardback covers.

Recorded throughout 2012 and 2013, the album features nine pieces, though its forty-one minutes are supplemented by two exclusive downloads not available as part of the standard digital version. Mueller is the brainchild behind Death Blues, but Fritch is no mere add-on, as the immensely gifted multi-instrumentalist is credited with composing, arranging, and performing the music with Mueller. On this project, his hammered acoustic guitar, drums, and percussion are joined by Fritch's wordless vocals, keyboards, strings, horns, woodwinds, and percussion as well as numerous woodwinds contributions by Drew Ceccato.

It's well nigh impossible to experience the project as separate parts, given how linked each one is to the others. The first thing one encounters is, of course, the masks on the album cover, symbolic of the lies and obfuscations we adopt as adaptative strategies in our daily lives. Complemented by mask images, the texts follow, beginning with an intro by Mueller that describes Ensemble as an examination of “layers within perception” and characterizes it as an attempt at understanding how we use masks to both reveal and conceal emotional, spiritual, and physical states. Subsequent to that, Ravel's essay not only offers a powerful and intimate account of his own experiences dealing with the deaths of his father and wife but a restatement of the Death Blues concept that Mueller earlier articulated in a detailed manifesto: “that we are finite, that our time and life will end, and that an embrace of this intangible yet ineluctable truth revivifies our present and our presence.” Koelle's contribution returns to the album's core theme as he discusses the idea of “(t)earing off these layered decades of masks [he's] worked so hard to keep intact.” Filled with memories, reflections, and impressions, the writers ruminate upon identity and relationships, about how we survived and developed into the beings that we are.

Musically, the material, so proudly acoustic in spirit (at the risk of being overly reductive, one might describe the style as psychedelic blues-folk), will assuredly appeal to devotees of Fritch's work given its orchestral richness and density; Mueller obviously recognized the incredible talent that Fritch would bring to the project, and the results clearly argue that the move paid off handsomely. As sophisticated as it is, there's an appealingly ramshackle and sometimes raw quality to the playing that emphasizes that human hands were responsible for its creation as opposed to machines and programming. “Consonance” opens the proceedings with a thunderous scene-setter that reaches near-ecstatic heights, after which “Participant” introduces a world music character in threading Asian sonorities into Death Blues' soundworld. An understandably mournful character infuses “Loss,” whose woozy rhythms sway in a manner suggesting someone reeling from tragedy, whereas the music's bluesy side receives a strong workout in the download track “Uncaptured.” And while the honk of Ceccato's baritone sax adds an ear-catching dimension to the hazy dreamscape that is “Unseen,” his flute contributions to “Reentry” are almost wholly obscured when the music's phantasmagoric swirl of strings, percussion, and vocals rises. Like a dam bursting, tracks such as “Obtain” and “Entrainment” overflow with intensity and passion, their emotional pitch calibrated to match the tenor of the essays and the overall spirit of the project.

There's much to celebrate and little to criticize about Ensemble, though I would have liked to see mini-bios included after the essays concerning those who contributed the writings to the project. But that's a minor complaint for what's on the whole a stunningly well-realized project, one that, to his great credit, Mueller spared no expense in bringing to fruition. It's inspiring to witness such dedication, especially during a time when such a display of personal commitment is riskier than ever.

August-September 2014