Rock bands with a jones for classical music are nothing new to us; ever since the Beatles set aside their guitars to make room for the string octets on “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby,” popular music has flirted with – and in some cases, gone head over heels for – the sounds of Mozart and Beethoven. Yet whether your point of reference is Jimmy Page sawing through the strings of his Gibson Les Paul with a cello bow during a Led Zeppelin concert, the symphonic orchestrations of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, or even the baroque pop stylings of the Arcade Fire (complete with glockenspiel, French horn, and harp), it is an irrefutable fact that all these acts are firmly ensconced within the parameters of rock and roll.
Indeed, few artists of the past fifty years have been able to split themselves equally between the realms classical and popular music. Michael Kamen was the rare example of a musician who was at home in both camps; dude could play an oboe or conduct an orchestra like nobody’s business, but he made a name for himself writing and arranging tunes for groups like Metallica, Tom Petty, and Rush. Brian Eno, whose pioneering ambient music was largely inspired by classical minimalists Steve Reich and Terry Riley, is another standout. Yet how many bands in existence today can lay claim to being genuine crossover artists – those rare performers whose musical prowess with guitars and violins is delivered with such aplomb that you can’t justifiably pigeonhole it by categorizing it as one genre or the other? Are you listening to a guitar solo, or is it a cadenza? Are these songwriters, or composers? Curiosities like these would clearly be out of context in most popular music circles, but they’d be part of an apt line of questioning for New York’s Slow Six, a five-piece collective whose mesmerizing experimental music is a true classical/rock mashup.
With software engineer/violinist/composer Christopher Tignor leading the pack, Slow Six’s third album – and the first for the Western Vinyl label – finds the group flirting more openly with the pop/rock side of their sound. Though they are wont to rock out in shimmering bits of euphoria, make no mistake: Tomorrow Becomes You demands the same attention to detail and patience that classical music aficionados know so well when taking in a symphony. A fetching mixture of intense atmosphere, crisscrossing rhythms, and swooning melodic fragments, it’s like splicing Danny Carey’s drum work on your favorite Tool record with the most sublime moments from the compositions of Debussy, Satie, and Reich.
Opening cut “The Night You Left New York” is a multi-faceted collection of timbres that incorporates electronic pings, raucous percussion, and hushed drones. A wistful, nostalgic opening of understated guitar harmonics and frosty string harmonies gives way to a more urgent groove propelled by Theo Metz’s bombastic drumming and the cyclical violin rhythms of Tignor and Ben Lively. “Cloud Cover” is a two-part epic that begins with the violins seesawing back and forth on an incessant sequence of four pitches that is contrasted by the slow moving harmonies of Rob Collins (Fender Rhodes) and Stephen Griesgraber (guitar); it takes nearly three minutes to sense any sort of harmonic motion. The track’s later half is a more subdued affair, noticeably absent of pulse and any discordant flourishes. In their place are occasional radio transmission samples that recall A Silver Mt. Zion and layers of overlapping violin harmonies. Not unlike the early ambient projects of Brian Eno, the song suggests a spacious and pastoral setting, where the descending string tones and dense voicings of the Rhodes have freedom to roam.
The album’s biggest curveball comes in the form of “Sympathetic Response System.” Another doubleheader, the track’s bent toward dark electronica is a welcome shock after so many songs that highlight acoustic textures. With seething synths and one of the finest odd meter drum grooves you’re likely to hear this year, the tune would work just as well as an old b-side by Aphex Twin or Nine Inch Nails. The epic’s second half feels like the come down after a night of heavy partying as slowly chiming guitar chords and the lonely moan of two violins playing in harmony drudge along.
Tomorrow Becomes You may not have the immediate appeal of more mainstream indie fare, but then again, that’s often what has kept classical music sidelined as a music for aesthetes, academics, and snobs. This record may seem like a daunting listen, but you need not be versed in mixed meter time signatures and melodic counterpoint to get the drift. Closing track “These Rivers Between Us” will be an exhilarating experience regardless, as will the rest of Slow Six’s songs – pardon me – compositions.