Leave it to the experimental-sounding band to record an experimental album, right? With their fifth album, groundUP, the eccentric funk-jazz fusion band Snarky Puppy built a “studio” in an art gallery in Brooklyn, stuffed it full of musicians and spectators, and recorded a live/studio album. No overdubs, no re-tracking certain elements, just pure live Snarky Puppy energy. This isn’t unfamiliar territory for this ‘family’ of musicians. Their previous album, Tell Your Friends, was also a studio album that was recorded in a live format in front of spectators and a bunch of cameras for a companion concert DVD too. But with groundUP, they took the concept of the concert DVD and expanded it to include footage from on the road, interviews, stories, and various shenanigans, as well an entire narrative of Snarky Puppy’s recording of the album. The behind the scenes footage and live performance intersperse each other nicely, completing a production that goes above and beyond what you normally find in a music DVD.
But don’t be fooled by the fancy DVD production because although it’s an excellent bonus, this album stands itself as an absolute force of music. It begins with “Thing of Gold,” a very warm, tropical presence to open the record. Gentle chimey guitar picking sidles up next to a blossoming horn section, marked by a soothing trumpet solo that breaks free from its brass counterparts and forges its own strength. The horns pave the way for a soft synthesizer section that brings the song to the crest of its wave. It’s not a tune with any strong peaks but it’s a brilliant, feelgood way to start this ambitious album. But then comes “Binky,” the cornerstone, the masterpiece upon which this entire album rests. It begins with some inviting percussion, like asking you into the funk. It builds powerfully, guided by various horn and keyboard elements, and reaches a glorious swirling brass apex. And you think the song is finished. It feels finished. But, no. Then the magic happens. It plunges abruptly into a completely different capsule of funk–gangster funk–that’s unlike anything else they’ve ever done. It’s the dankest Snarky, a sinister groove with a broken, half-step rhythm, dastardly synth bass, and this regal, tinkling piano. It’s like if Death Row Records circa 1993 went on a jazz tangent for 2.5 minutes. Dirty dirty dirty. And seriously addictive.
One of the songs that really seems to leap off the album is “Mr. Montauk,” a prog rock/jazz fusion piece with a decidedly Mahuvishnu Orchestra feel thanks to the violin of Zach Brock. His distorted strings sound like the shearing, metallic slices of Jerry Goodman’s violin. The song reaches an extremely heavy intensity, a real feeling of psychedelia, due to this. But your mind gets yanked out of the hole by a rapidly rising horn and guitar storm that comes to a fantastic peak. This song really ups the weirdness ante. But a dose of pure fun gets saved for last, as “Quarter Master” brings the album to a giant smile of a finale. It has a massive horn sound and an uptempo shuffle that brings this whole New Orleans funk energy into the fold. This is a direction that feels new for Snarky Puppy, almost entering into the land of Galactic with this kind of swampy-go-lucky sauce. Just like so many of the others, it winds up exploding to a massive zenith, in an almost marching band-esque composition reaches the highest point of the entire album. It’s a bold wall of jazz-orchestral sound that could knock a man over with the right set of speakers.
The makeup of songs on groundUP is so varied, comes from so many different angles, that it’s easy to skip around when you have different cravings for different flavors of Snark. But it’s created in such a way that it’s also amazing as one start-to-finish musical meal. It’s a true rollercoaster of an album and it’s easy to throw it on and get completely lost in the world inside your headphones. There have been some fantastic albums already released in 2012 and this one is among the cream of the crop.