Black Baptista – Thread the Needle

Black Baptista - Thread the Needle

Anyone entrenched in the prog-rock leanings of anomalous guitar player Omar Rodriguez Lopez is also aware that the man is as antsy as he is ingenious.  For more than a decade now, the Mars Volta guitarist has been spinning out album after album of flabbergasting rock and roll, sometimes at a rate so expeditious that the releases themselves become as difficult to distinguish as their creator’s feverish solos.  Los Angeles’ Bryan Baker hasn’t quite yet amassed the sort of prodigious output that would put him on par with Rodriguez Lopez, but with four records to his name in only 18 months, he’s certainly on a comparable path.

2010 found Baker – a Berklee-schooled guitarist of exceptional prowess – issuing three recordings that, though unorthodox by most standards, were robust examples of what could take place when industrial-grade electronic textures and jazz chops were fused together.  A slew of collaborators popped up throughout the proceedings, but it all still felt very much like a Baker solo effort.  Presumably, this all changes now with Black Baptista, a bona fide power trio in which Baker, drummer Andy Sanesi, and bassist Peter Boskovich unload some of the most searing and primal rock music this side of Led Zeppelin.

If you’re the type who joneses for the unrelenting rock assault afforded by groups like Them Crooked Vultures or the Dead Weather, then Black Baptista is bound to have allure.  This is 70-plus minutes of sinewy catharsis, visceral in its nod to the heavy blues rock of the 70s but also nonplussing when you factor in Baker’s penchant for Mars Volta-esque odd meter shredding.

The album’s monochromatic packaging is reflective of its contents – any studio embellishments and instrumental enhancements have been eschewed in favor of a minimal yet formidable lineup of guitar, bass, and drums.  Only Baker’s vocals, which have always been laced with a tinge of Broadway pomp, occasionally suggest a more dynamic emotional range.  There is no reverb to generate assuaging ambience, no tenderized ballads to quell the onslaught of amplifier feedback.  Yet whatever Thread the Needle lacks in beatific expansion, it makes up for with its headstrong mission to pummel you eardrums into putty.  Want to hear what “Amazing Grace” sounds like when the 18th century hymn’s elegiac aesthetic is swapped for that of harrowing despair?  Here’s your chance.

From a technical standpoint, there’s not a bum track on Thread the Needle.  While Baker’s bellowing vocals and virtuosic guitar playing remain at the forefront of most songs, it’s a marvel to hear him interact with the ace rhythm section he has in Boskovich and Sanesi.  On opening cut “Doing the Best,” come hither lyrics like “You’re so sweet / and so kind / but I wanna / make you evil” and “I’m hungry like a lion / you’re sweet like a lamb” largely take a backseat to hairpin volume swells, adroit drumming, and alt-metal jams that recall the early funkiness of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.  “Chip Away” features Boskovich copping Baker’s leads in a Zappa-fied demonstration of jazz- rock fusion.  “Get Up” is unabashed mosh pit material, with Sanesi channeling John Bonham as he bashes his drums into oblivion.

If there’s a sticking point to be found here, it’s the same aforementioned restlessness visible in the frequency of Baker’s releases.  Killer grooves and commanding melodies abound on Thread the Needle, but for an album whose shortest track is still more than 5 minutes long, it’s a shock that the band rarely sticks to one motif for more than 2 minutes before diverting in a different direction.  One such example is “I Got You,” which has a manic ADD-like quality as it veers between myriad tempos and volume alterations over its 8-minute length.  In most cases, the ghosts of Zappa, RHCP, or the Mars Volta are present regardless; “The Ghost Inside” is a perfect example of this, as guitar freakouts, swing grooves, and irreverent lyrics coalesce.

As the record nears its close, the songs begin to show off an experimental twitch – the power chords of “Patiently I Wait” recall radio-friendly 1990’s pop-punk, while the schizophrenic “Covar Rubias” brings the spectral comfort of an acoustic guitar to the fore before unleashing one last aural assault of rock band cacophony.

In a musical landscape where many acts tend to spread themselves too thin due to mounting stylistic whims, it’s absolutely refreshing to hear a band like Black Baptista surge forward with such an uncompromising vision.  The band gets the Led out and then some on Thread the Needle, but it also suffers from what at times feels like a one-track mind. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Baker and his new colleagues allow this new project to gestate further – Black Baptista could be a completely transcendent experience if they apply the patience necessary for their vision to become fully realized.