Friday 19 May 2023

Dave Lombardo - Rites of Percussion (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Rock/Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 5 May 2023
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The name of Dave Lombardo needs no introduction because he's arguably the best drummer that extreme metal of any description has ever seen. It isn't just his work for Slayer, which is enough all on its own; he's built a career that's seen him play in a variety of different styles for diverse bands as different as Philm, the Misfits and Suicidal Tendencies, not to forget his work with Mike Patton, less in Dead Cross and more in Fantômas and Mr. Bungle. One of the few things we have to thank a global pandemic for is confining him to a home studio so that he could write and record a first solo album after forty years of influencing everyone.

As an aside, of course, if anyone's seen that recording of him playing Battery with Metallica at the Download Festival in 2004 after Lars Ulrich had an anxiety attack and went to hospital instead, you know the future we deserved but never had. James Hetfield's cry of sheer joy when Lombardo hits the double bass and absolutely nails it in the way that Lars never did is one of my favourite seconds of recording on YouTube, right up there with Terry Lin's unbelieving reaction to Dimash.

But back to Dave Lombardo. He brings a little of each of those styles to this album but in ways that make them sound completely different. This is a progressive, experimental drummer's album with no vocals at all and very possibly no instruments either beyond his drumkit and a versatile array of percussion instruments, many of which sound Latin. There are some sort of synths in there too, but it's possible that they may be triggered by the sort of digital pads that Neil Peart uses in his solos.

That Latin sound comes from Lombardo looking back at his musical heritage. He was born in Cuba, though his family moved to California when he was young so he grew up there, but I've read that it was Mike Patton who introduced him to Tito Puente's 1958 album Top Percussion. I'm a fan of those old percussion albums and I checked it out; it's easy to hear some of what Puente and others, like Mongo Santamaria—yes, that's who that line in Blazing Saddles references—did then, especially on its instrumental second side, in what Lombardo builds here.

However, he brings a lot newer influences to play too. This feels modern from the very outset, with sections in Initiatory Madness dark in outlook and incorporating industrial textures. That happens all the more on Separation from the Sacred, which often reminds of Coil. Also, there's a Halloween flavour to that track and Inner Sanctum after it, as if this could be used as the ambient backdrop to a haunted house or on the soundtrack to a horror flick. It's wild to hear something that reminds of both Tito Puente and Coil, but they're both there. Also, like Coil, many pieces are short and feel as if they were improvised fragments that could be developed into more substantial pieces later.

I'd love to know what the instrument line-up is here, how much the background atmosphere relies on keyboard layers and whether there are guitars on Inner Sanctum or Maunder in Liminality. The vast majority of the sounds are percussive though, even if we don't recognise what instrument he happens to playing at the time. I recognise a bunch of them—maracas, gongs, congas, wood blocks, cymbals, djembes, etc.—but there's a lot more going on than just those. Looking up details, I see a variety of others: timbales, as Puente used, but also batás, ibos, darbukas, octobans and cajóns.

The result is a rhythmically dense sound that often becomes strikingly visual, if not always in ways that conjure up horror imagery. On Despojo, for instance, it felt like I was hacking my way through a jungle with twin machetes, not because something was chasing me but because it just felt right, as an ebullient expenditure of energy. Blood Let feels like I'm in a samurai film but I can't see the swords because they're hiding elsewhere in an ocean of wheat above me. The ritual nature of the music, as suggested by the title, manifests most obviously on Omiero, which could be a ceremony.

However, the majority of the textures play with horror imagery. Despojo later shifts into a horror vibe and Interfearium after it never pretends to be anything else, what I presume is a slow piano under atmospheric swirls and a diabolically playful beat that's part Tom Waits, part John Zorn and part György Ligeti. Wherever we are in the album, especially early on either side, we're never far from something that reminds of the horror genre. Even there, though, it's telling that some of it's threatening, as if whatever's happening is being done to us, and some of it isn't, as if we're merely watching from the safety of a cinema seat.

All of it is evocative, with Lombardo playing with texture throughout. That puts this apart from the sort of percussion albums I tend to listen to, which are centred on rhythm, whether they're created with taiko drums, middle eastern percussion or a gamelan orchestra. Even that Tito Puente album is fundamentally about rhythm, in yet another different way. However, this takes rhythms as just a starting point to build some sort of atmosphere around, to impart a mood and tell a story.

Clearly, this isn't going to be for everyone and it helps to not come into it expecting Slayer or Philm or Fantômas. This is something different, obviously experimental in nature but fascinating in how versatile and, quite frankly, how inquisitive it is. There's a lot here to take in but, if you can bring a certain openness to it, it's massively rewarding.

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