Graded on a Curve: People of the North,
Era of Manifestations

When Rock and improvisation are spoken of in the same breath it’s frequently in the context of some sweaty creature in the throes of an uninhibited onstage solo, but on occasion it can refer to sensibilities of a deeper nature. One such example is People of the North, an outfit shaped-up by Bobby Matador and Kid Millions, both noted as part of the veteran Brooklyn unit Oneida. With key assistance from band mates, they’ve managed a handful of worthwhile platters over the last half decade; their latest LP and second for Thrill Jockey is Era of Manifestations.

Since 1997 Oneida has issued a dozen full-lengths and a serious mess of singles and EPs, the contents of which detail the combination of psychedelia, Krautrock, and assorted elements of experimentation. Theirs is a decidedly expansive proposition, and its prolificacy leaves most of the band’s contemporaries looking like comparative underachievers.

And yet for certain members Oneida’s level of activity is apparently inadequate. That’s particularly the case with Kid Millions aka John Colpitts, his drumstick plying digits jabbed into all sorts of aural pies, e.g. Scarcity of Tanks, White Hills, Man Forever, and a recent collaboration with the tenor saxophonist Jim Sauter (of NYC jazz-noise titans Borbetomagus); their Fountain, released late last year on Family Vineyard is a wonderfully ass-flaying ride.

The handiwork of Kid and his Oneida cohort Bobby Matador aka Fat Bobby on organ, People of the North first emerged on wax in 2010 with the murky, keyboardy-Krauty repetition of Deep Tissue via Jagjaguwar subsidiary Brah Records. The 2LP Steep Formations arrived two years later; also on Brah, it offers a surplus of kit rumble and soundscapes spanning from minimalist to early industrial in texture.

2013’s Sub Contra, their debut for Thrill Jockey, wields more digestible durations (Steep Formations held two pieces spread across four sides) and it largely expounds upon a heavier conception, these facets also at play on the ’14 EP “Judge a Man by His Fruits,” a two-track cassette issued by Lightning Records. It’s sold out in physical form, but like all of their output is currently available digitally.

Less of a side project than an extension of sensibilities, Oneida’s Barry London and Shahin Motia have figured at length in People of the North’s evolution, the former on Steep Formations and Sub Contra and the latter on all the full-lengths including Era of Manifestations, where his guitar is joined by the “significant low-end contributions” of Sightings’ Richard Hoffman’s bass.

The record places its longest section up front, the 13 minute “Grain Diagrams” opening with distorted keys and the rough-edges of Motia’s amp tones as Hoffman’s input is discernible. Naturally, the fluidity of drums enters into the equation, initially low in the mix; brooding freeform psychedelia takes flight, the scenario’s intensity understandably growing in consort with Kid’s rhythmic assertiveness.

At roughly the mid-way point a brief drum showcase spills forth, and its presence can be considered an overt nod to the impact of jazz on People of the North’s heady brew, though Era of Manifestations eschews any traditionalist notions. In the absence of swing-like gestures Millions and Matador manifest an interest in improvisational abstraction, forward motion and power.

To elaborate, the title of the album and certain of its songs reference a mid-19th century period in the history of the religious sect the Shakers, the so-called Era of Manifestations known for its spiritual reawakening, the church’s members spontaneously overtaken by bursts of creative ecstatic energy. People of the North’s latest stems from a five-hour session in Brooklyn’s Seizure’s Palace studio, and it’s appropriately informed by the juncture of avant-improvisation sometimes labeled as Ecstatic Jazz.

Or Fire Music, and People of the North’s relationship to the heyday of this style is mildly reminiscent of the bands led by NYC guitarist Rudolph Grey (it’s an idea perhaps triggered by Millions’ duo with Sauter, the saxophonist having appeared on Grey’s Mask of Light), though the manner in which the noodling, grinding, and floating organ/guitar envelops Millions’ drumming is fairly distinct.

The same goes for the thunderous near groove kicking off the title track. Once established, the rock-tangible atmosphere quickly gives way to an organ pattern accentuated by touches of distant percussion and wrapped in a haze of gauzy distortion. As the drums again climb to the forefront they get surrounded by progressions of sonic residue at moments spacious and at others densely packed.

For some listeners the crucial ingredient in People of the North’s recipe will be the drums, in short because rhythmic-based abstraction is generally favored over similar excursions on other instruments. But as Millions’ sinuous muscularity is in full effect during “The Whirling Gift,” the cut simultaneously highlights the potent expressiveness of Matador, his organ gnawing exquisitely throughout.

“Vise” serves as the first in Era of Manifestations’ combo-punch of brief selections, and its two minutes are amongst the LP’s most effective, oozing an aura of cinematic foreboding enhanced by an aspect suggesting the propeller of a helicopter. As it plays it’s difficult not to conjure images harkening back to late-70s Coppola as he temporarily lost his shit in the jungle.

It moves nicely into “Religion in their Work.” Nearly as concise, it’s a heated passage of burly drum rolls and needling stabs of keyboard. And though the material on Era of Manifestations is obviously meant to flow together (a side at a time, anyway), hearing these bite-sized chunks in isolation is enlightening and enjoyable. As the vinyl comes with the digital download, they’re easily cued up.

While the disc may only fleetingly emit vibes straightforwardly rock-graspable the genre is assuredly present, Millions’ attack seemingly owing as much to the boldness of Ginger Baker as it does Rashied Ali, as the closer “A Leaky Boat of One’s Own” could satisfy folks into the more aggressive instances of jazz-rock fusion; think Lifetime, early Mahavishnu Orchestra, ‘70s Miles, and Last Exit.

At 38 minutes, it all unwinds in rock album mode rather than one of those potentially grueling hour-plus improv-fests from the CD era. Furthermore, I for one prefer the shorter track lengths as partially derived from post-session editing processes over the vérité approach of Steep Formations (which admittedly does have its own appeal). But importantly for music originating from the locus of spontaneity, Era of Manifestations reveals People of the North’s firm grasp on inspiration, and it connects as a vibrant, necessary acquisition.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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