Muskox – 5 Pieces

Muskox - 5 Pieces

Toronto’s Muskox is a wily musical beast using acoustic instrumentation to explore overlapping jazzy and minimalist structures. With instrumentation provided mainly by banjo, harmonium, saxophone, double bass, cello, vibes, and other mallet instruments, the band eschews drums altogether, though that doesn’t mean they’re lacking in rhythm. In fact, the rhythms shift deliberately and frequently enough to fall out of jazz territory into something more akin to progressive fusion. If Muskox wasn’t so earthy sounding, it would be easy to say they sound slippery, but I’ll settle instead for adventurous. Their debut album 5 Pieces ranges all over the map, and delights in its scope, with audacious combinations which look strange on paper but sound natural coming out of the speakers.

5 Pieces is great music for active listening. It’s unpredictable, and would be difficult to memorize on a song-by-song basis. The payoff is more in anticipating the next surprise than in listening in order to make it your own by supplying a stable meaning. Pushing the limits of pattern recognition and playing around with subtly strange juxtapositions while downplaying any traditionally emotional signifiers is the name of the game here, although at times an undeniably human element isolates itself, like in the dirge-like opening to “Humphries’ Tide” or the 2-minute breakdown of “Slinger” where the harmonium, cello, and vibes bring things down to a pensive calm. I read someone refer to this as post-folk, but the only resemblance this has to folk is in the acoustic instrumentation. In any track you’ll probably find jazz, prog, American minimalism, and ethnic folk musics comingling in polyrhythmic arrangements. It’s easy to convert this to electronic music in your mind, especially if you’ve spent any time absorbing Toroise’s TNT and Standards, of which 5 Pieces is reminiscent in approach, if not in sound.

Much of the uniqueness of Muskox comes from the coupling of Rileyan and Reichian minimalist structures with more free-form sounding jazz and modern classical themes. The vibes and especially the banjo hold down the fast-paced repetitive phrasing on the minimalist side of things, all the while conjuring Jazz and Americana melodic traditions. Over these fast sounds the sax and cello usually, though not always, couple and counter with longer, more drawn out phrasings. The harmonium, perhaps the only instrument a little overused here, gets a workout in both modes, acting as a vessel both for solo digressions and droning moodsetting. But these are just the main contours. Muskox is dynamic enough to switch around these roles as much as composer Mike Smith feels, and the vibes are likely to sound like Philip Glass one minute and Lionel Hampton the next.

Overall, this is a fairly enthralling musical trip, though it only hangs loosely together more like the title 5 Pieces suggests than in the rockist notion of an album which, thanks to sequencing and songwriting effort, flows meaningfully from front to back. It even seems like it’s probably even more fun to play this than to listen to it. Its technical proficiency is tangible, so much so that the music almost has a modular feel, with each part asserting its own worth independently of the others, even while they combine with each other for a stronger effect. In a way, it would have been more fitting if they would have included one more song and called this 6 Pieces instead of 5 Pieces. It would have been a fine allusion to the 6 band members, and to the way the music feels like the playful piecing together of the distinct pieces of a puzzle. But like a puzzle, just seeing it finished doesn’t seem as enjoyable as putting it together, so instead of simply appreciating this music, I feel like I want to jump in and start conducting it myself. That would be a fun exercise until I realized how difficult it is to mesh things together with the meticulous effervescence Smith has nailed on 5 Pieces.


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