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A review of “Palabras Malas” by Many Arms

Many Arms: Palabras MalasWild, loud and at times verging on chaos, this is not music for everyone; but I loved this record. No one else sounds like Many Arms, who follow their own path and clearly make this music because they love it – it is certainly not designed for radio formats.

The band names the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Ornette Coleman, Black Flag, Bernard Purdie, Slayer, coffee, candy bars and cats among their influences. I am reminded of Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society, Last Exit, Helmet, Sonic Youth, King Crimson, Mudhoney, Albert Ayler and Sonny Sharrock.

I had never heard of Many Arms when I received the CD, and for some reason I believed the band was called “Palabras Malas” and searched in vain for information. The name of the band is Many Arms and they are a guitar-bass-drums power trio from Philadelphia, PA – the emphasis being on the word ‘power’. Their music is a blast of fresh noise, a sonic immersion, a liberating, cathartic listening experience if you have a taste for music on the edge of chaos.

There is a slight hint of prog here in the time changes and odd time signatures, but there is as much of the influence of free jazz, punk, metal, harmolodics and jazz-rock. Most of the tunes start out at the highest intensity level,lurching out of nowhere with energetic crunching riffs and wild interplay that often threatens to dissolve into glorious anarchy. Many of the tunes end very abruptly, often leading me to check I hadn’t accidentally pressed something.

It’s not music to listen to when you have a headache or need to chill out, but when something loud and wild is requires it fits the bill perfectly. I always loved those few seconds at the end of a live tune by a band when the musicians played freely and atonally before resolving everything with a crunching unison chord. Many Arms music sometimes sounds like an extended version of those few seconds of chaos. In that way I am often taken back to how I enthused over the debut record of Last Exit – the avant noise axis of Sonny Sharrock, Shannon Jackson, Peter Brotzmann and Bill Laswell; or the way my friends and I laughed out loud at the audacity of a far-out solo at a Decoding Society gig.

The music:

1. It Begins – A fade in of a freeform section from a live show: this makes a brief, effective call to arms

2. Snakes in the Grass – A hammering riff leads to a convoluted head. The tracks verges towards entropy. A brief punkish bass anti-solo emerges. As quickly as it’s begun the tune ends. The clangy bass tone is not one I’ve ever favoured – that said John DeBlase‘s bass sound also has the necessary bottom end and perfectly fits the trio’s sound and approach.

3. Purple Better One – Another short tune. Another hammering rhythmic monster of a riff leads into a brief head after which Millevoi on guitar takes off, summoning the spirit of Sonny Sharrock and leading the trio into what becomes a glorious band improviation. So far, so great.

4. The Year 500 Billion – This snarls and roars like a caged beast. There are brutal (but deft) rhythms, wildly spinning odd meter Crimson-like riffs and then a beautiful section where the guitar loops a behind the beat chordal phrase over the driving bass and wild drums. The drums are a delight here: full-on, incredibly intense but always fluid and ever evolving.

Ten and a half minutes gone and four songs in! Phew! This is exhausting.

5. Transfiguration of Man into Beast – At 4:40, the longest tune so far. Like all the tunes, it explodes into action with thundering odd-meter riffs and convoluted unison lines and as always it is played with joy. Unexpectedly the tune then develops into a lovely Ornette influenced post-bop jazz groove. The bass walks and the drums are restrained and inventive. At times the bass snarls and threatens to turn the tune into something else but then turns back to walking like a dangerous dog on a leash. Millevoi plays a splendid solo which is an abstract joy. He toys with motifs and rhythm figures and builds well. I’m reminded of Sharrock (obviously) but also Nels Cline, Raoul Bjorkenheim and Bern Nix. You can hear how much these guys are enjoying this. Lagomasino on drums uses dynamics wonderfully on this tune which one for jazz people to check out first. Another shockingly sudden ending though.

6. It was the Medicine – If the last track was closest to the jazz this one rocks out. It has a great Sonic Youth style single note guitar clarion call and is propelled along by a driving backbeat and riffing bass. Fun tune.

7. Jungle Cats (Zilla) – The longest track and, for me, their masterpiece. A sinewy, serpentine unison line briefly hints at metal before developing into an epic duet between Millevoi and Lagomasino. DeBlase lays out and wonderful, freeform, feedback drenched guitar-drum interplay takes the music into the stratosphere. This is a soloist/drummer duet performance of comparable intensity with Hendrix/Mitchell and Coltrane/Jones. It’s a powerful, riveting performance.

8. A Vision of the Past, A Vision of the Future – OK, by now, you’re thinking that maybe there is a sameness to many of the tunes and then this one comes on. It starts as spiky, ferocious and wild as the others but some sections have a more expansive, calmer mood. It’s a track that goes through many prog-like changes and developments but it works well as piece and shows a different side to the band.

This is a record where bass does not take centre stage. The guitar and drums take the spotlight but John deBlase does a splendid job in the engine room. He is clearly not ego driven; at times he takes self effacing role even to the extent of laying out for large sections of their best tune; but he makes the right thing for this band with his choice of tones, driving supportive playing and rhythmic vitality. He plays short punkish ‘anti-solos’ but spends the whole record driving the band’s momentum forward.

So, overall, an exciting record which documents a band who clearly love what they do. It has an engaging sense of freedom and fearless spirit of adventure. All the tracks start very similarly but they each develop in a unique way. This is definitely a band to keep an ear on whether you like noisy, abstract jazz or adventurous, punkish, instrumental rock.

Nick Millevoi – guitar
John DeBlase – bass
Ricardo Lagomasino – drums

Palabras Malas is available from CDBaby.