Los Angeles virtuoso rock trio challenges the populist assumption of rock as three chords and the truth
Rock virtuosity makes for a very limited niche market, marginalized if not downright quarantined. One reason for this: There’s a difference between the notes and the tune, and virtuoso rock is often rich in the former and bereft of the latter. Still, as with any genre, if you keep your ears open and your reflexive judgments in check, you’ll find the good stuff, the genuinely inspired stuff motivated by higher callings than ego and pristine chops. You’ll develop genre-specific discrimination and taste, a new way to be moved. You probably don’t want this.
Virtuoso rock triggers a defensive reaction in musicians and many music fans. It challenges the one core myth of rock music that you really don’t want to challenge: the populist assumption of rock as three chords and the truth, as something naïve and honest that emerges from garages and basements and from marginalized populations. Accredited virtuosity is required and assumed in classical and jazz players, but deeply distrusted in rock. This conservatism has served rock’s sociopolitical narrative quite well.
Virtuoso rock had its heyday to be sure, before the cultural earhole all but closed on it. There was the confluence of prog and fusion in the ’70s, when prog upped the technical dimension of rock and fusion upped the compositional energy of jazz, and the people seemed to dig it. This paved the way for the instrumental rock-godistry of the ’80s and early ’90s and the brief commercial apex of Satriani, Vai, Morse and the rest, most of whom ultimately had to take refuge in the subgenres of metal: the only commercially viable genre for speed-demons, but one that utilizes only one small part of the full virtuoso skill set. Virtuosi with clipped wings are the only kind of virtuoso in rock anymore.
The Los Angeles band the Aristocrats are simply a kickass virtuoso rock trio of known commodities in their marginalized genre. Their compositions are equal parts prog, metal and fusion. But they come with a built-in apology of sorts: It’s a style-hopping, postmodern ruse that betrays an understanding that they needed to be something more than just virtuosi. They needed a wink, a ruse, a joke, a human weakness. In their press material, it is emphasized that this is a band that doesn’t take itself too seriously. More often than not, this playfulness comes in the form of a Morricone-inspired spaghetti-Western tunefulness and a taste for noir, tango, dark boogie and a cheeky mariachi, like Los Straitjackets played by superpowered Martians.
This keeps the Aristocrats grounded in something that you might recognize as song, at least some of the time; but they wear their real influences proudly as well: the hyped-up chops-roots of the Dixie Dregs, the sneakers-in-a-dryer grind mechanics of Dream Theater, the outrageously fluid legato guitar-playing of Allan Holdsworth and Steve Vai, the razor-precise art metal of Candiria. In fact, many of the most beautiful moments on their new disc Tres Caballeros, as on Culture Clash before it, come when they are at their most abstract and least referential and accommodating. The Aristocrats, you see, are one of those bands that developed their ears and imaginations every bit as much as their fingers. Let loose, their Muse won’t take the markets by storm, but she will produce singular music of real vision and substance.
No one can sell you on this genre. It’s there if you want it, and the Aristocrats are one of the best I’ve heard in years, and they keep it light. They perform at the Bearsville Theater (a venue to be commended for its stubborn commitment to this genre) on Wednesday, August 5 at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $20 in advance, $25 on the day of the show. The Travis Larson Band opens.
Aristocrats/Travis Larson Band, Wednesday, August 5, 8 p.m., $25/$20, Bearsville Theater, 291 Tinker Street, Woodstock; www.bearsvilletheater.com.