“This Is A Tree” is what Kabob-O-Taj named their most recent eight-song set. Well, it’s more than that. A lot more, actually. Between Jason Altomare’s thundering, shape-shifting bass, Ryan Buell’s Trey Anastasio-ish tasteful guitar noodling, Wesley Meyer’s essential synths and occasional off-kilter vocals and Rob Wolk’s busier-than-Broadway stick mastery, yes: The quartet’s most recent recordings go far beyond forests or leaves or any type of physical landscape you might be able to actually see.
Why? Because what these guys have going on here is far more organic than some MOM’s superstore. None of it is meant to be dissected; only ingested, only felt. There’s too much going on too often to really focus on one single performance, one single flavor in this all-too-rich recipe. It might be hard to digest if you’re a bubble-gum lover, but that’s the point. If your taste-buds are predisposed to desire a Big Mac, why even sit down with a filet mignon in the first place?
Not that these guys are a five-star restaurant. But they are sure as hell better than Ruby Tuesday.
Just sink your teeth into the back-to-back ferocity of “Dead Hands” and “Fig.” The album’s best 10 minutes, the combination is a whirlwind tour of Kabob-O-Taj at their most fully realized. It begins with Meyer’s Ian Watkins-esque croon asserting, “Got me thinking about her every single night this week” on top of spacey cymbals and a sparse organ. The track never quite boils over in the way you expect it to, but if its purpose is to set up the tenacity of its follow-up, then it serves as much perfectly.
That’s because “Fig” opens as the best song Oysterhead will never write before giving way to some serious Tony Banks synths courtesy of Meyer. You can call it post-rock or prog-rock or fusion or even free jazz (if you want to really turn some heads), but at the end of the day, it all just amounts to one big ball of awesome. Buell, the group’s secret weapon, makes the track stand above the rest with his willingness to fade both forth and back to play leader and follower seamlessly. It’s a testament not only to his playing, but also his taste.
Moments like these are why a song like “How Much Is Too Much?” seems just a bit out of place. The closest thing to structure “This Is A Tree” gets, it initially relies too heavily on Meyer’s vocals, which prove to be best heard in doses. It’s not until about the 1:20 mark that as much is realized, the singer forcing himself to reach for notes that aren’t there and provide an extra element of feeling to his performance. Sadly, the attempt falls short, creating the opposite of what appears to be a soulful goal.
Not all is lost, however, with a song like “Nowadays,” which gives Buell a chance to step into the spotlight, both with his guitar and singing voice. Building with ease for the first couple minutes, it’s a great illustration of how versatile the band can be. Even when the groove finds its footing, and a funk guitar leads the way, there’s still a level of intricacy that can be had through only the level of top-notch playing each band member possesses. Every note is so layered and every stroke is so subversive that you can’t help but be in awe of what you’re hearing.
That plays true for the rest of the set. Consider “Vultures,” which to most might sound like a series of off-beat sounds that never quite find the level of synchronization for which they are looking. But, that’s the point. When you know your instruments as well as these guys do, it gives you the freedom to play what you want, when you want, and still somehow be on the same page. That’s the difference between good and great. Some artists do everything they can to stay away from pick-up notes or 9/8 time signatures. These guys thrive in that space.
Which, all told, is why Kabob-O-Taj is a band worth paying attention to, and why “This Is A Tree” is … well … so much more than a tree. It’s the roots, the branches, the bark, the leaves, the seeds and whatever else you can think of coming together to create one massive force of nature that refuses to be silent. And for good reason, too. Because even if you don’t particularly like the songcraft, the weirdness or the abstraction found within the wood of these eight tracks, you absolutely have to respect it.
And, don’t forget: Respect is far more essential to the growth of anything worthwhile than a mere favorable preference. So while this tree hasn’t yet reached its tallest height, there’s no reason to think its rings have stopped formulating.
** 2 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 **