Nitkowski - Chauffeurs [Function Records - 2009]I heard this album without any prior knowledge of the band or its members. It immediately intrigued me with its inexplicably ghoulish album packaging and the delicious imagery of track titles like "The Taste and Stink of Old Coins". They seemed to suggest darkness of an intelligent and unnerving creative variety - the kind that can actually get under my skin.
I put it on and I'm greeted by warm, fuzzed out guitar tones from 2 guitars, percolating in a dissonant mathematical pattern. A seasick but masterfully tight rhythm comes into compliment the nearly impossible short guitar notes, playing off each other so seamlessly as to create one riff with multiple instruments. "Ah, math... rock?" I think to myself. The rather soft distortion is certainly more like Radiohead or Sonic Youth than Dillinger Escape Plan or Meshuggah, but the complex-as-hell rhythms and phrasings are certainly drawn from those math metal greats. Ultimately, the band presents a blend of elements not terribly far from the groovy yet angular and dischordant sound of Botch. Nitkowski, however, seems less concerned with blasting you into submission and more focused on diversity and song progressions dripping with uneasy atmosphere.
The low budget production initially suggested to me a gritty punk aesthetic, with the vocals mixed extremely quiet and in the background, as if being recorded only by bleed from mics on other musicians. Repeated listening of "Chauffeurs" quickly reveals that while Nitkowski may still be incredibly pissed off and possess strong punk roots, they've got a certain sinister, cool headed class and precision ferocity to realize their deeper-than-meets-the-eye vision. Only the vocals remain unrefined, and they are certainly not the point. They make the album all the more human, but "Chauffeurs" is a primarily instrumental experience. "Chauffeurs" is ferocious, yet impressively there are no real harsh sounds of any kind on the album.
The press release for this record compares it to bands I admittedly have not listened to. Regardless of how many bands have attempted this sort of music in the past, Nitkowski is so absolutely solid in the songwriting department that I could not discredit them. As technical as their tight, syncopated riffing gets, its obvious that musicality is at the forefront. They don't seem to intentionally create chaos as many modern technical bands, rather they use rhythmic complexity to find a new, more crushing groove, and dissonance to find a new variety of pained melody. To risk mentioning a quality it is difficult to analyze, the songs on this album are simply memorable.
The first track very nearly lives up to its amazing title with a powerful display of building dread that drifts off into melancholy excursions before finally settling into an angular groove and blasting into a hailstorm of a post rock finish, brimming with dramatic fills from the drummer. It's a powerful track but it's not until the second track, "Gurkurahundi" that Nitkowski really proves their meddle. Beginning with a dynamic progression similar to the opener, it soon becomes less predictable with some very proggy and actually quite beautiful harmonizing and a jazzy breakdown that, while very quiet, seems to brood with a chronic hopelessness and aching nostaliga. Indeed, the record IS as dark as its packaging, but the energy of the band is so infectious that the record never fails to put a smile on my face.
The beginning of third track, "Needs" probably best exemplifies the way the riffs seem to 'percolate' in a watery manner, reminding me of tiny spots of light blinking out of the dark in beautiful patterns. I would actually compare this playing style to that of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, both in tone and out-of-the-box, hallucinatory sophistication. Before you know what's hit you, the track's transformed into a truly Meshuggah-esque dissonant one-chord revolving polymeter and become the heaviest track of the album. It crushes, forming a brilliant one-two combo with "Gurkurahundi" that may just be the highlight of the album This is what Nitkowski is best at.
After this point, the album takes a far more experimental turn. "Mutha Terracist" is a surprisingly subtle exercise in dark ambient soundscape. The sounds of unidentifiable metal percussion reverberate sporadically through an eerie ritual calm. The guitar slowly and smoothly re-enters, and soon the entire band is again playing. Math rock may be the dominant style on "Chauffeurs", but tracks such as "Mutha Terracist" and the unearthly electronic jam "Scrubbers" (which actually recalls some kind of understated combination of the funky minimalist house of Richie Hawtin and the tribal ambience of O Yuki Conjugate) set this album distinctly apart.
Rest assured, however, even when none of the typical instrumentation is present, the same emotions and themes are perfectly expressed, and the transitions between genres are tasteful and seem perfectly natural. Nitkowski is that rare rock band that is as skilled with electronics as they are playing their instruments. It helps as well that the album has impeccable track sequencing, and before you know it, you've listened to the whole thing. There is nothing remotely weak on the album. Each math rock track brings more beautifully sad melodic guitar work, dozens of angular, oddly timed riffs and dissonant grooves. There are forays into slower, doom-influenced passages and cinematic grandeur. The band keeps you guessing.
Overall, this is an incredibly solid and exciting debut from Nitkowski, one of the best albums I've heard in quite some time. It's technical, yet perfectly substantial. The notes are truly meaningful. This is an album that will not fail to make you bang your head, to refresh you with its unpretentious creativity, to provoke a smile at each clever rhythm, or to transport to its bleak worldJosh Landry