Making Ginger Baker Proud – Portland’s Secret Drum Band’s “Dynamics” Going Well Beyond Expectation

Secret Drum Band
Dynamics
XRAY Records

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Continuing on with my feeble attempt to wrap up what I missed covering in 2017 by basically treating January as the past year’s lost 13th month, we come to Portland’s Secret Drum Band, an eight-strong mostly-percussion outfit that happily defies almost all description. Nevertheless, we give it a go anyway, because, among other things, that’s what you expect from us around here, to wrap our addled brains around the otherwise profoundly inexplicable (see, for instance, this and this). Wish us luck.

Well, pfft!, this is madness. What’s madness, you ask, a band made up primarily of percussionists (five out of the eight) abetted by some treated guitar, synths, and treated vox daring to make a daring noise then daring to release an album of their various rhythmic peregrinations? No, ya goof. It’s madness that, though the Secret Drum Band are from Portland, and I live in Portland, and that they’re made up of members of four quite prominent groups – Explode Into Colors, !!!, Typhoon, and Unwound – and that their (quite reasonably titled) album Dynamics was released August 4th of 2017, I’m only hearing it now. I mean, granted, that’s a (too?) common form of madness for me – I’ve known of them, have had this record in my possession since, I’d guess, last July – but it’s damned mad no less because what transpires across this debut’s eight tracks demands an immediacy of response commensurate with the sense of utter presence thereon.

 

Letting that stand as my apology, such as it is, we attend to the tracks at hand. Displaying as a kind of unifying principle a restless progressive bent throughout, Dynamics, due the natural, inevitable kinship with human diastolic rhythms, can’t help but break down whatever barriers the band’s collective esotericism might erect. Hence, against a backdrop of droney synth, a track like “DaDaDa” (no, not that one) straddles the line that both joins and separates some mythic Max Roach-Ornette Coleman-Sun Ra mash-up with – and from – an advanced parade-ready drum corps, “Jazz (Timber Sale),” per its title, is apparently seeking from said transaction some deep jungle hardwoods, the track, past its tentative first movement, offering a kind of rumblingly nervous tropicalia abetted by gospel-y handclaps, “Tin Pan Allan” mines similar, if breathier terrain – everything’s percussive to these folk, as it should be – while closer “Vons Tundra,” though initially, perhaps, appearing as Dynamics‘ most traditionally song-based structure thanks to the prominence of bass dropping in now and again, in truth ends up feeling, if subtly, like the album’s most daring cut, the controlled frenzy of this small crowd of musicians reaching an understated but unmistakable fever pitch.

Ultimately the curious thing about this record is how its ‘shouldn’t work’ works so well, how the presumed limitations of its working premise explode past the barriers not by overwhelming them but by allowing the tensions inherent in the process to find their way, the challenging simplicity of a largely percussion-centered project converted with a steady brio into something quite scintillating. Ginger Baker, in the heart of his otherwise bitter heart, would be proud.