Right at the beginning of the newest CD by Consider the Source, something very strange occurs. First, a Balkan melody and rhythm emerges, sounding like an entire Romanian brass band marching through the room, Suddenly, the New York power trio kicks into a furious, metallic funk jam with a ripping Mahavishnu-esque solo by guitarist Gabriel Marin. Then the two sides are engulfed in a space-rock exploration with Marin's axe resembling a klezmer clarinet before everything resolves back into the original Balkan theme.
And that's only the first song. Dozens of mental shifts are in store for the listener on the "Are You Watching Closely?" CD -- the group's fourth after 2007's "Esperanto," an EP recorded live at Big Apple venue Piano's, and a self-titled demo. The next song, "Good Point Wondering Bear," is an exercise in both Primus funk and guitar histrionics second only to Trans-Siberian Orchestra, mostly executed in odd-tempo 9/4. The following track is a shimmering prog-rock opus that could be on a newer King Crimson release, but with a break in the middle evoking a Persian ney flute. The group then offers a short clinic in the Arabic Hejaz mode, all while spinning around in a 7/8 rhythm.
- With: Groove Shifter.
- Where: Your Inner Vagabond, 4130 Butler St., Lawrenceville.
- When: 7 p.m. Wednesday (all ages).
- Tickets: $5. 412-683-1623.
How are these three gentlemen -- the group also contains bassist John Ferrara and drummer Justin Ahiyon -- able to absorb all these disparate influences and still maintain their mission of totally rocking out?
Academic discipline seems to help. "We all went to college for music," explains Ahiyon. "I've known the bassist since junior high school. I did a lot of world percussion, while Gabriel studied classical music, but we were listening to and playing a lot of different stuff at the time, from Indian classical music to jazz and the avant-garde downtown scene. A common interest in Eastern European and klezmer was actually what brought us together at first."
Indeed, Consider the Source served its duty in the white-hot Balkan music scene percolating in the city, doing a residence at the Bulgarian Mehanata bar, also home of bands such as Gogol Bordello and Slavic Soul Party. Consider the Source also played throughout the East Village with klezmer clarinet legend Andy Statman. "But we're more rocking and progressive than most of those bands, so we have other venues that we've played to more of a rock and roll crowd," adds Ahiyon.
So even though the group as a whole are huge fans of avant-garde jazz icon John Zorn ("There was one show when we saw Electric Masada that was an earth-shattering experience"), Consider the Source eventually was sucked into the jam-band scene. The band even has been reviewed in Grateful Dead bible Relix Magazine.
"It comes out of the improvisation, from the jazz we listen to," says Ahiyon, who's a big fan of late '60s free jazz from Archie Shepp to Albert Ayler. "It's funny, but when we started to get labeled as a jam band, we got into bands like Umphrey's McGee, who are a little more progressive. [Prog-rock fans] tend to be our most enthusiastic crowd because we do odd-time signatures and changing parts. That approach really came from our world music background, because a lot of folk music from other countries is naturally in odd times."
Not the least of which would be India, where the band traveled recently.
"A lot of Indian masters live in New York during the summer. They make American dollars and spread their influence in the States, then return to India for the music season. January to February is the time in India where there's a concert pretty much every day," explains Ahiyon, whose musical guru is famed tabla player Samir Chatterjee, while Marin learns from Indian slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya.
"It was wonderful in North India," he recalls. "What we got out of it was the sensitivity and discipline of how they learn and approach music.
"John and I also studied with a South Indian percussionist, and that's the most sophisticated rhythm on the planet. We got inspired by the rhythmic aspect, while Gabe incorporated the North Indian melodies, and we fused that with the rock and jazz that we've grown up with."
That unique melange produced a band that feels at home as much at festivals that feature jam bands, jazz, or prog-rock ("We have the technical aspects of progressive rock without the cheesy pretention") as it does in a dive bar or ethnic hall. The only problem then becomes where the band members draw the line without spreading themselves too thin stylistically.
"It's a tricky question," Ahiyon agrees, "and I'm always eager to find our niche. People are into our music for different reasons. Older folks say it reminds them of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, while the most common response from younger people is that they've never seen anything like it."
While not having a political bent, Consider the Source does have a message emphasizing the importance (and hopefully re-emergence) of instrumental music. "Are You Watching" (dedicated to Ahiyon's father Amnon, who played the Sephardic style of Moroccan and Spanish guitar) is free of any singing. "It's a statement for us," says Ahiyon.
"Instrumental music used to be big on the radio, and as a popular medium equal to vocal music. We think that people are willing to accept that kind of music again, but major labels are unwilling to take a risk. In a way, it's our young, rebellious nature, but we realize that people are ready for this and enthusiastic about it -- they just don't get exposed to it as much."
While the new album is imbued with the iconography of the Orient -- the band's logo incorporates the "Om" symbol, while the CD title is written in an Arabic-looking font -- the spirituality of Consider the Source lies not in Eastern religions, but in the intense emotion the music generates. "Being instrumental, we can touch a lot of people regardless of language, and inject a lot of influence that may be more subconscious," adds Marin.
"For us, it's not about being showmen or making cool faces, it's about putting as much emotion into it, so that it becomes something that's not just a spectacle. That's how we can move a crowd."
Manny Theiner is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.