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Afroskull - To Obscurity And Beyond CD (album) cover



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RIO/Avant/Zeuhl Team
5 stars Before I start my review in earnest, a word of warning is needed: "To Obscurity and Beyond" is quite a different beast from what might be conventionally seen as prog. Described by its creators - the New York-by way of-New Orleans outfit Afroskull - as a 'sonic gumbo' with ingredients such as Black Sabbath, Funkadelic, Zappa and a generous pinch of jazz influences, this is an album that is exciting, exhilarating and musically impeccable as any canonical progressive rock offering.

"To Obscurity and Beyond", released at the end of 2009 after a number of line-up changes and a brief hiatus, follows Afroskull's 2000 recording debut, "Monster for the Masses". A mostly instrumental effort, with only two out of 11 tracks featuring vocals, "it possesses enough energy and swing to make you want to dance to it, coupled with the kind of musicianship that makes you want to listen. It is, in some ways, an old-school album, where the accessibility quotient does not come across as contrived in many modern releases, and the technical skill is not used to bludgeon the listener on the head, but rather to convey the musical message in the clearest terms available. The band's inspiration is rooted in the past - albeit with a thoroughly modern flavour - with influences such as Chicago Transit Authority, Blood Sweat and Tears, Colosseum, and, of course Funkadelic and Zappa's more fusion-oriented output. This is the kind of disc that a band like the Red Hot Chili Peppers might have produced if they had not turned to more lucrative pursuits.

A quintet augmented by a horn section (brilliantly dubbed "The Horns of Doom"), plus a number of guest musicians, Afroskull sound like a mini-orchestra, their music well-rounded and multi-dimensional. Going very much against the grain of this age where programmed drums and all kinds of digital equipment seem to hold sway, the band employ real instruments, in the finest rock tradition, which results in a genuinely warm, expressive sound. Next to the chilly though formally impeccable mood evidenced by so many current releases, listening to "To Obscurity and Beyond" might be compared to the sheer comfort offered by an old-fashioned, home-cooked meal.

Muscular and compelling, Afroskull's music is also capable of subtlety. Though, at a superficial glance, it may sound like a good-time, shake-your-butt album, there is a lot of variation on "To Obscurity and Beyond", as a careful listen of individual tracks will reveal. While the album opens with the funky pyrotechnics of "Spyplane", the band show their more restrained side in tracks like the aptly-titled, slow-burning "Redemption", with the pace slowing down to an almost Sabbathian plod in the ominous "The Curse". Gritty guitar riffs and scintillating solos, courtesy of mainman Joe Scatassa, spar with the powerful blaring of the horns and the smooth yet understated presence of the keyboards, powered by Jason Isaac's and Seth Moutal's stellar percussive work and Dan Asher's relentless bass lines. "Waste Management" and "Everything", the only two vocal tracks, blend bluesy, soulful vocal performances - respectively by keyboardist Matt Iselin (somewhat reminiscent of a less histrionic Chris Farlowe) and guest singer Michael Taylor - with irresistible funky rhythms, fiery guitar licks and triumphant horns. The album ends with a bang, with the highly cinematic "Escape from Rome", an 8-minute tour-de-force veering from the almost free-jazz opening to the intense, martial pace of the main body of the track, in which all the instruments take their turn in creating a hypnotic, powerful texture.

A stunning collection of flawlessly penned tunes, supported by incredible musicianship and a sense of genuine enjoyment, "To Obscurity and Beyond" definitely deserves to be tagged as one of the outstanding releases of the past year, and possibly of the whole decade. This is an album the likes of which is all too rarely seen in the current music world, and one that will appeal to most self-respecting fans of great rock music - especially those who do not believe that great grooves and interesting musical structures are mutually exclusive. Even if prog purists may find the album a bit too funky for comfort, many discerning listeners are bound to appreciate the marriage of boundless energy and disciplined musicianship featured on "To Obscurity and Beyond" - as well as its ebullient, unabashedly crossover appeal. Hopefully Afroskull will not make its many fans wait another nine years for their next release, even if this one was definitely worth the wait.

Report this review (#303905)
Posted Thursday, October 14, 2010 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars US band AFROSKULL was formed sometime in the late 90's, based out of New Orleans if I manage to understand their biography section correctly. They recorded and released a critically acclaimed but commercially not so sound initial effort back in 2000, was an active live unit for the next few years and built themselves a cult following. When some of the vital band members moved to New York Afroskull went into a brief hiatus, before said members decided to form Afroskull anew in their current location. And in 2009 they hit the recording studio anew, the end result released in November 2009 as "To Obscurity & Beyond".

Those who love groovy sounds, sophisticated rhythms and elaborate horn arrangements should find this second chapter in the musical history of Afroskull to be a most intriguing effort. Some might find their use of heavy guitar riffs to add darker textures to their excursions to be somewhat alien for such a musical venture. But those who do approve will most likely treat this production as a rare and treasured item in their collection, as Afroskull to my knowledge is just about the only band exploring this particular corner of the progressive rock universe.

Report this review (#306608)
Posted Monday, October 25, 2010 | Review Permalink
4 stars Afroskull describe themselves as 'drop dead funk' and it's a pretty good description.

On To Obscurity And Beyond the 9-year follow up to their first album, the band present a confident set of fairly heavy rock, even metal, hard funk and jazz. They are led by guitarist Joe Scatassa and supported by bass, drums, clavinet and the 'Horns of Doom,' along with Zappa-alumni Ronnie Cuber on bass clarinet and baritone saxophone. Afroskull create a pretty cool mix of New Orleans jazz and (at times) Sabbath-influenced hard rock. In fact, Scatassa's guitar is probably the element that holds the two genres together, switching from a clean funk sound to the thicker distortion when required.

The songs average around six minutes, allowing for solos from lead instruments like guitar, sax or trumpet, along with riffing and the funkier interplay of rhythm tracks. The fantastic surprise of the band, if you're new to Afroskull as I was some months ago, is how well they mesh rock (even groove metal at times) and horns. Occasionally reminiscent of Mr Bungle, Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Black Sabbath or even a cleaner Gwar, it would be easy to keep listing 'sound-a-likes' but I don't really want to burden the review with too much of that. Suffice to say that they incorporate elements from a variety of sources, and do it well.

Instead, have a listen to the magnificent 'Zero-Hour,' 'Me and My TV' or 'Waste Management' (one of two vocal tracks) and see for yourself. And add closer 'Escape from Rome' to the list, which provides some of the more cinematic moments on the album. In fact, 'To Obscurity and Beyond' has a kind of fascinating 'hero-meets-supervillain' feel to some of the tracks. Its served very well by a big sound, coming in no small measure from the thick guitar tone and the warmth and punch of the horns. I half expect to see Godzilla come crashing through a wall.

Expect more rock than jazz on the record, and across the whole album there probably isn't enough compositional variety for a five-star rating, but it's certainly four stars if you're into rock. If you prefer jazz, however, and are adverse to distorted guitars and an almost aggressive horn section, then you'll probably be more comfortable with three stars - 'Good, but non-essential.'

Report this review (#613548)
Posted Friday, January 20, 2012 | Review Permalink

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