In Brief: One of the year’s best albums for sure. If you thought jazzy rock music was only good as chilled-out background noise, then you haven’t heard The Reign of Kindo.
Four years after discovering the jazz/rock combo The Reign of Kindo, I still have no idea who (or what) Kindo is, how he ascended to the throne, or what his so-called reign was like. All I know is that in a world where musical talent meant more to the general public than a sexy image, bands like this one would reign supreme. The fivesome was already a force to be reckoned with on their debut album Rhythm, Chord & Melody, and then they proceeded to blow away even my high expectations of them on the follow-up, This Is What Happens. That was my favorite record of 2010, and it may well be my favorite of the decade so far. So I knew when it came time for them to release a third album, it might be a bit ridiculous to expect them to top it. After all, the group has not only increased their musical complexity on Happens; they’d also shored up most of the weaknesses in their songwriting, which was always heartfelt but which could sometimes be a bit cliche. Where was there left to go from here?
Play with Fire attempts to answer that question by sprawling out in several different directions at once. With furiously complex songs that seek to fuse the improvisational nature of jazz with the tricky time signatures of progressive rock and one hell of a tight rhythm section, the album seems poised to lay waste to anything that the group has done before. Yet at other times, they peel back the layers and perform with admirable restraint, reminding us that their music is something organic, something that has to be felt deep down, not something that is conjured up just for the sake of showing off. So while there are the dizzying heights where I might get all mixed up by the rhythm of a song, or sit slack-jawed in appreciation of how different members of the band can all seem to be doing different things at once while also sounding amazing as a unified whole, there are also these lush, reflective moments that relish the buildup rather than packing a huge punch right away. It isn’t the kind of music that would be seen as trendy nowadays – many would hear the spirited horn solos and the jazzy overtones and think this is the sort of thing you’d be more likely to hear on a late night talk show or in some smoky club attended by middle-aged patrons, rather than on the radio. But I say it’s the radio’s loss. These guys have plenty of youthful spirit; it’s just seasoned by years of hard labor, perfecting each of their instruments and their synergy as an ensemble. They could play circles around the cardboard backing bands assembled to give a lot of sexy voices something to sing along to these days – I’ve said several times that these guys are the band Maroon 5 wish they could be. It’s just that TROK chooses to give everyone their time in the limelight, rather than making the other players second fiddle to a singer embarking on a glorified solo career.
But that’s not to say that they’re covering for a bad singer, or even an average one. Joey Secchiaroli has one of those smooth crooner voices that make it easy to imagine how he could have given way to temptation, and gone the Adam Levine route, where sophistication is secondary to seduction. But this guy’s just plain more interested in baring his soul than his chest. And when he sings of such things as religious hypocrisy, mortality, relationships that were doomed from the get-go, the sad state of the music industry today, or just the sheer joy of making music for its own sake, it’s every bit as interesting as when he sings of romance. The band has some amazing love songs in their discography, but it truly surprised me how well some of the more intense and angry songs worked alongside the happier ones on Playing with Fire. And it helps that he plays an active instrumental role in the band, also being one of their guitarists. It means the difference between just coming up with nice, straight pop song lines for the band to color within, and truly understanding how to write words and music with room for the band to scribble in the margins, to make each song a true collaboration.
There might be one or two times on this album – notably on one of its so-called “singles” – where the band is a little too easygoing for their own good, which might put the album a notch below This Is What Happens for me. But there’s plenty of room to do worse than that album and still win that coveted five-star rating. So if for some strange reason, your first exposure to the band is a little song called “Sunshine”, don’t judge the book by that cover. Start fresh at track 1 and be amazed instead. While this isn’t a record that will excite most of the hipster bloggers, or uncover some brilliant new sound just waiting to be trumpeted (see what I did there?) as the next big thing, I can say with confidence that it’s one of the year’s finest, simply because the band does a bang-up job at making the kind of music they love, while making sure to throw us plenty of curveballs along the way.
1. The Hero, the Saint, the Tyrant & the Terrorist
With such a high level of quality, it can be tough for me to choose a favorite track on any of Kindo’s albums. I settled on the opener, “Thrill of the Fall”, on their previous album, and this time around, I’m inclined to do it again for similar reasons – an unusual time signature, strong interplay between the instruments that borders on the chaotic, and intense subject matter that whips everyone involved into a frenzy. Joey’s lyrics hit us hard right out of the gate with a philosophy that a lot of us were probably taught growing up or else had presented to us through some form of forceful proselytizing: “I’ve been told I’m evil, born into this world of sin/From the day I left my mother’s womb/And I’ve been told that I’ve fallen, that my nature is untrue/They said, you need our God’s forgiveness, son/Or you’ll burn in hell with everyone.” The unhealthy focus that certain religious subcultures put on an “us vs. them” mentality is dragged out into the light here, as he notes that one groups heroes and saints are another group’s tyrants and terrorists, and when you pose tough questions to one group about how they look in the eyes of the other, the answer is more often a well-rehearsed dodge than a heartfelt consideration of the difficult implications. The band absolutely smokes their way through this one, culminating in a killer trumpet/sax duet during the bridge. Horns play a stronger role on this album than they did previously, and I say it’s a welcome change.
2. Help It
The dying gasps of the first track fade beautifully into this song, which opens with such an elegant since of lightness on the piano, that you probably wouldn’t expect it to evolve into such a complex piece with so many moving parts. It is, quit simply, an ode to the magical feeling that a genuinely good song puts into the listener, to the point where they’re physically incapable of resisting singing along or moving to its rhythm. Plenty of corny songs about “feeling the music” have been written, so this one would be nothing special if it wasn’t such an amazing example of the performers practicing what they preach. As Jeffery Jarvis begins to work in a viscous, writhing bass line and Steven Padin deliberately forces a 6/8 rhythm into a 4/4 mold, it eventually gets to the point where every member of the band appears to be on a different rhythmic cycle, which is tough to follow at first, but glorious when your brain figures out how it all syncs up. The result is undeniably classy, demonstrating how well the group’s easygoing musical mood works together with the sophisticated amount of musical prowess underneath it. The group’s got nothing less than a perfect mission statement in this song – it sums up their very reason for existing.
3. Sing When No One’s Around
Somewhat paradoxically, this song on a publicly released album by the band is all about the thoughts Joey writes down for himself that he wonders if it’s wise to share with others. It’s aboutt he songs you sing only in your own presence, I guess. Not that it’s a particularly revealing song on that subject – it’s just saying that these thoughts and songs exist, and that what we hear goes through one heck of a filtering process before he can get it just right for the rest of us. Fittingly, it starts as a lone man with his electric guitar, but by now you probably know the band’s shtick well enough to figure that everyone else is going to join the fray one way or another. When they do, it turns the whole song on its ear, moving it from somber singer/songwriter territory into the album’s most frenzied and hard-edged jam track, with plenty of rhythmic experimentation at the expense of an already rattling rhythm. Listen closely during the bridge, and it turns out that the guitar solo is quoting a melody from the group’s first album – the peaceful song “Morning Cloud”. It sounds considerably more mean and troubled in this context, with its notes and chords bent to fit this lumbering beast of a song. This one’s amazing, but on a musical level, it ain’t for the faint of heart.
The group waxes ecclesiastic here, on a track that manages to be tame enough to keep its even pace and common time signature all the way through – such a move might seem like slumming it for such a talented band, but they pull it off with such a sweeping, cinematic scope that the tragic image of kingdoms rising and falling like meaningless sandcastles on a beach getting pounded by the wave really sticks in my brain. The horns and the flute add layers of beautiful texture as this song reaches its crescendo, but it’s the melody of this song that really makes it stick – these guys are experts at putting dramatic key changes in at the best possible moments, and milking the jazzy chord progressions for all the drama that they’re worth. “The greatest men in history are now just names of what they used to be”, Joey reminds us. “After all, from dust we came and to dust we shall return.” This isn’t new wisdom by a long shot, but it’s artfully conveyed in a way that respects the antiquity of its original author.
5. Impossible World
One aspect of TROK’s music that I’ve always appreciated is how they can go into full-on party mode when it’s called for. “Hold Out”, the finale on their first album, demonstrates how a bit of Latin jazz influence creeps in when the group gets really excited, and that happens again here, to great effect. Hurtling forward like a well-oiled machine, the group marvels at the improbability of a planet existing that supports life and has given birth to the millenia of human history that we now have to look back and marvel at. The more science learns about this world, the more unique and unlikely of a place it seems to be, and that intellectual fascination is matched with a spiritual fervor here, hinting that it took a mind greater than that of a human to dream it all up. This one isn’t quite as stunning as the tracks that came before it – at times I wish the chorus had a little more oomph to it, to match the propulsive nature of the verse that leads into it. But that’s a minor quibble. It’s still lots of fun, and easily as melodically rich as the rest of their stuff.
6. Don’t Haze Me
“Don’t haze me, bro!” I’m sorry, I just had to do that. I get that “haze” and “taze” don’t mean the same thing at all, but the title of this one still distracts me a bit, because it is not, in fact, a plea for a fraternity or a military boot camp to forego their abusive initiation rituals. And that’s what I thought “haze” meant. The way that the word is used in this song, as Joey tells us “All my doubts, all my worry, all my hope/They don’t haze me anymore”, makes me think that perhaps “faze” was the word he was looking for. But maybe he means his mind is less clouded, i.e. hazy because he’s let all of these things go? I’ll grant some artistic license here, I guess. Structurally, this song is a very unusual one for the band, definitely putting the jazz influence up front as they usually do, but the way it develops, comes to a climax, and then backs off, is much like a storm. Notes from the piano come in these dense clusters, like raindrops pounding on the roof of a building, and the group sort of builds around that, avoiding obvious hooks or song structure as they do their best to bring the level of intensity up slowly, rather than suddenly. It fades away at a similar pace, leading me to not realize at first that the song is coming to an end, because it’s defied the typical structure where the chorus announces itself with some huge fanfare. As a result, it isn’t one of the “catchier” songs on the album, but it’s a worthwhile experiment, finding yet another way to demonstrate that they don’t merely operate in “classy jazzy jam band” mode all of the time.
7. Feeling in the Night
Now, it’s worth noting that a song can be catchy without being simple. The first few tracks on this album have already done a bang-up job of demonstrating it, but this track – which has the gall to call itself a single – takes it to a whole other level. It has the kind of hook that will stick in your head for days, as well it should – it’s about capturing the romantic mood that an irresistible partner puts the songwriter in, and such songs should come across as feeling nothing less than totally gobsmacked. But it’s a tricky hook indeed – the song nominally follows a rhythm of 5/8, which is complex already by “radio single” standards, but then they go and tamper with it by faking that it’s an extended 4/4, or adding a couple beats to it to make it 7/4, or… look, I don’t even know. There are so many change-ups in this one that I get lost trying to keep count. I’m pretty good with rhythm, but I would be absolutely hopeless if this track were a level in Rock Band or something. And unlike a lot of songs where too many changes in time signature can make them feel overwrought and needlessly convoluted, somehow it never interrupts the irresistible flow of the whole thing. Through several different solos and vamps and the million and one things that seem to be going on, the transitions between different segments of the song never feel awkward or contrived. The result is like looking at a building that’s constructed at all sorts of odd angles by a slightly deranged architect, but when you go inside, you realize it’s a magnificent concert hall with amazing acoustics and you’ve got the best seat in the house. While few radio stations would bother playing this one (in addition to the aforementioned deviations from the pop hit rulebook, it’s well over five minutes long), it’s easily the kind of song you could use to get someone who respects good old-fashioned musical talent into the band. (Also? There’s a reference to this song’s hook in “Help It” that you probably won’t notice until at least your second time through the album. Love it!)
8. Make a Sound
Pretty basic song here, at least lyrically. Having cast off a lot of the fear and tension a few songs back, Joey’s now in the position of having to explain to someone why he doesn’t shed tears or get angry as easily as other people do. His response is basically to play the stoic, saying he’ll do these things when there’s a big enough reason to do so, but until then, quite content with his own personal zen. It’s a nice thought – it slips into cliches here and there, but the breezy melody of the song and the triple-within-triple rhythm of it leaves plenty of room for neat little guitar licks and a memorable sax solo.
This was the aforementioned “single” that I told you not to judge the band by earlier. You know what? it’s not a bad song. With its bouncy rhythm and its unabashedly bright mood and melody, there are plenty of things on modern radio that I could find reasons to dislike sooner than this. But something about it feels awfully generic by Kindo standards. The jazzy guitar and piano licks are presented and accounted for, and the song has an agreeable enough groove to it. There’s just this sense of “pandering” to it that I can’t seem to shake, like there’s some imaginary middle-of-the-road audience that they hoped to appease by writing a not-terribly-challenging song about losing your sorrows and finding your happiness by, well, being happy. The message of it comes across as shallow even though I know there’s some personal dpeth to it from Joey’s perspective. The song opens and closes with some quotes by a speech from a respected mentor of his; unfortunately, that has the side effect of making it sound a little too New Agey for its own good. It’s just far too easy to mistake Kindo for a completely different kind of band here, one whose only purpose is to chill you out and not startle you or make you think in any way, and even in terms of pure instrumental talent, “good” by a lot of other band’s standards is “slumming it” by their own standards, so I honestly don’t understand how this one even made the cut. They’re not on the kind of label that (I would assume, at least) pushes for a big, mainstream breakthrough hit, so what reason did this band have to dumb it down?
10. Romancing a Stranger
We jump quite suddenly from contented happiness to pathetic sadness in this little mini-suite of a song that describes a pretty messed-up relationship, one in which the woman holds all the cards, the man knows she’s way out of his league, and he shamelessly sacrifices every aspect of his own personality and opinions in order to keep her around. Parts of this song are humorous; parts of it are tragic, and which parts are which will probably depend on your own experience, whether you’ve grimaced and put up with someone’s awful jokes or overbearing worldviews that snuff out your own, just because you were convinced you were in love with them. The music here ranges from “melancholy piano ballad” to “sadistically upbeat Latin dance” and then back again – the stylistic change-ups might sacrifice some of the song’s hook value, but it’s still unexpected in interesting ways. One thing I’d change if I could would be to not have the realization “She doesn’t love me” come so early in the song. It needs to go through its different phases and let this awful truth slowly dawn on the guy – then the final segment of the song would really pack some punch.
11. I Hate Music
This song has more audacity than anything the band’s ever put out. It’s quite funny, and also incredibly blunt. And it’s amazing. They saved one of their strongest grooves for a no-nonsense rant against the prefabricated nature of most of today’s popular music. This is dangerous territory for such a band to step into – if you’re going to criticize other musicians for faking it, then you’d better be able to bring it to back up your own words. They do that here by adding a slight bit of funk edge to their already strong sound, giving the drums bass, and piano a good workout, while also leaving space for the dual precision attack of keyboard and trumpet solos. To some, this is going to sound like bitter small-time musicians using an outdated sound to declare what’s wrong with kids today, but I think that’s part of the problem – the fame machine cares more about what’s trendy than about what takes talent to make. And Joey makes a point of indicating at the beginning of the song that there’s plenty of music that moves him, and some that he can forget easily enough, but that he’s truly baffled at how the worst of it seems to end up dominating the airwaves. He pulls no punches in pointing out that money, not good taste, is what drives it, getting in a good swipe at the glut of reality singing competitions that exist these days along the way: “I turn my television on to pass me through the night/I’m watching fools try to sing an awful song they didn’t even write/I know some tool’s just sitting at a desk pulling the strings/They shove their garbage acts down every dial the towers reach.” If that wasn’t a scathing enough indictment for you, the song contains the band’s lone instance of profanity in a lyric thus far: “Who approves the sh!t they pass for music on these shows?” As amused as I am here, and as much as I want to add a hearty “Amen”, I do have to point out that there’s a slight chink in their armor, and it’s called “Sunshine”. That’s not a garbage song at all. Certainly nothing on the level of what they’re holding their noses at here. But it does strike me as mildly hypocritical to write a song like this right after you’ve made your own concessions for the possibility of airplay. Just sayin’. It doesn’t make this song kick any less butt, though.
12. The Man, the Wood & the Stone
Ending the album on a mellow folk tale that turns out to be a thinly veiled Jesus analogy might seem jarring as well, though they mitigated that issue slightly by putting an instrumental interlude in between the two tracks, and by opening this pristine little number with a fair amount of delicate piano and strings before the vocals join in. This one’s a restrained, but elegant number about a man who discovered fire and brought it to the masses, and who was secretly executed for his apparent crimes, at the hands of religious officials who wanted to keep the power for themselves. They don’t win a whole lot of points for creative evangelism here, but there’s an important connection in the final lyrics of this song that goes back to the opening lines of the album’s very first track: “And they were taught, man is evil, he must do as the law requires/And he must never, but never play with fire.” The implication here is that, just as the religious elite of his day didn’t get what Jesus was up to, this is a problem that we still have today, even with many institutions that proclaim his name. This is all subtext – it might not pack as much of a punch without that first song to give it context. But they must have felt it was a pretty strong stinger to end on, because the album gracefully bows out after that line, surprisingly foregoing the kind of big finish we might have expected after “Hold Out” and “Psalm” on their previous albums.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Hero, the Saint, the Tyrant & the Terrorist $2
Help It $2
Sing When No One’s Around $1.75
Dust $1.50Impossible World $1.25
Don’t Haze Me $1
Feeling in the Night $2
Make a Sound $1
Romancing a Stranger $1.25
I Hate Music $1.75
The Man, the Wood & the Stone $1
Joseph Secchiaroli: Lead vocals, guitar
Steven Padin: Drums, percussion, backing vocals
Danny Pizarro: Piano, synths, pads
Michael Carroll: Guitar, percussion, super sizes (seriously, that’s what the liner notes say)
Jeffery Jarvis: Bass, backing vocals
Originally published on Epinions.com.