Graded on a Curve: Ceramic Dog,
Your Turn

Marc Ribot may well be the best guitarist on the planet. He certainly gets my vote. A dissonance-slinger who never forgets that rock’n’roll oughta rock, he plays up a tsunami, and in so doing makes Ceramic Dog—a Ribot side project—one of the most downright savage bands you’ll ever hear.

But they don’t limit themselves to rock. Standbys on the New York avant garde jazz/no wave scene, they also incorporate elements like rap, twisted folk, and even marching music into their sound. They also toss some Middle Eastern tones into the mix. About the only thing missing is the Cuban music Ribot loves to play. In short, they’re not just great musicians, they’re versatile and unique, in so far as I dare you to find another song quite as weird from beginning to end as “Masters of the Internet” off 2013’s excellent Your Turn. Rap, badass percussion, snaky horns, and a monumental beat that will keep your head throbbing for hours; it’s like the Beastie Boys meeting Sun Ra, with Sonny Sharrock on guitar. And it has a great counterpart in “We Are the Professionals,” another rap-rock throwback sporting a Native American feel that is all boasting, blaring horns, snarling guitar, and weird electronic blips. As for Ribot’s solo it’s a wonder of distortion, and a joy to behold.

The band’s core includes Ribot—chiefly a sessions man who has made his mark on LPs by John Zorn and the Lounge Lizards, amongst others—on guitar, horns, etc.; Shahzad Ismaily on bass and an assortment of other instruments; and Ches Smith on drums, percussion, electronics, and keyboards. Additional musicians on the LP include the great Arto Lindsay on guitar. Ceramic Dog’s versatility can be discombobulating; it’s hard to believe the band responsible for the harrowing guitar slash and burn (Ribot rocks!) that is the instrumental “Your Turn” is also responsible for the mid-tempo and traditional folk tune that is “Ain’t Gonna Let Them Turn Us Round.” Or that this very same band is responsible for the friendly retro-blues/jazz turn that is “The Kid Is Back,” on which Eszter Balint joins Ribot—who throws in some trumpet just for kicks—on vocals. Or the funky version of Dave Brubeck’s classic “Take 5,” on which Ribot demonstrates that he can stray from (relatively) straightforward jazz into madcap squawk and skronk with ease. He sashays from the melody to frazzle you with feedback, while Smith’s drumming is a tour de force. Ribot does the same on “Ritual Slaughter,” another instrumental that will take your breath away thanks to its fiery tempo and Ribot’s virtuoso axe-slinging.

The instrumental “Mr. Pants Goes to Hollywood” opens with some funky percussion and bass, then introduces handclaps and some weird electronic noise, and in general is as odd as tune as you’re likely to have pass by your ears anytime soon. No guitar pyrotechnics on this one; the band keeps it low-key, and as herky-jerky weird as Captain Beefheart at his weirdest, which can’t be said of “Special Snowflake,” which is a minute and change of grain-alcohol strength dissonant no wave insanity. Or the anthemic “Bread and Roses,” on which the band chants, “If we go marching marching/Through the beauty of the day” while Ribot slowly heats things up with a tough guitar riff. The tune finally explodes into one apocalyptic no wave meltdown, during which Ribot plays some snarling guitar that crackles like a downed power line. They then return to Earth, only to freak out in a Moonage Daydream as the song approaches its chaotic close.

“Prayer” is a scalding instrumental, and a tour de force that slowly builds to discordant madness, only to calm down momentarily before going bonkers again. Ribot plays some of the most searing guitar I’ve ever heard, especially as the song nears its close; this isn’t a song, it’s an electric chair, and you’re sitting in it. Which leaves us with the great “Lies My Body Told Me,” the highlight in an LP full of highlights. A dark and foreboding tune that features Ribot and minimal guitar to start, it soon builds to a heavy-duty guitar showcase, with Ribot making his guitar snarl in a manner that those poseurs in Sonic Youth can only imagine. He wrings his six-string for sounds it’s not designed to make, while the band lays down a pounding beat that is filled with menace and his vocals grow more agitated by the nonce. If you do not love this tune you are lacking a chromosome, or wearing your hat too tight, Mr. Hipster. Because it’s both avant garde enough to satisfy the Brooklyn crowd but wild and wooly enough to make even a Ted Nugent fan wet his pants. Or loincloth.

Your Turn is a great album, and its only downside may be its versatility. I’d have preferred even more chaos than the band already serves up, and sacrificed both “Ain’t Gonna Let Them Turn Us Around” and “The Kid Is Back” and replaced them with more ecstatic skronk and roll. But I’m nitpicking. Ribot obviously likes straying from the path of ear-splitting noise, and who am I to second-guess him? Both songs are excellent in their own right, and so what if they don’t adhere to the musical riots I prefer? Ribot is a great artist and a superb guitarist and he can do what he wants. Because at the end of the day, he could have included a straight-up version of Barry Manilow’s “Mandy” on this baby and it would still rock balls, vociferously.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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