The prospect of an established rock musician venturing into classical territory will probably always raise eyebrows, and rightly so. It takes a major leap of faith to view Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio or Billy Joel’s Fantasies & Delusions as anything other than a misguided stab at legitimacy.
Fortunately Central Market, a new album of compositions by Tyondai Braxton, falls on the extreme opposite end of the spectrum. Braxton’s best known for his work with the innovative instrumental-rock quartet Battles, who have become one of the signature signings on the 20-year-old Warp label, but this is no puffed-up vanity project. This set of lush, highly kinetic pieces, performed with the Wordless Music Orchestra (a New York project designed to bring together classical and contemporary musicians), ranks among the year’s most forward-thinking releases. And despite its grand scope, sci-fi-esque weirdness, cryptic titles and dearth of lyrics, the album is surprisingly accessible. For fans of Battles, this brand of listener-friendly experimentation shouldn’t come as a shock: despite its considerable oddness, the band’s last effort, 2007’s Mirrored, stunned the indie-rock set with its furiously funky rhythms and crystalline melodies.
But Central Market is a far cry from ‘Battles with strings’. The project’s roots actually lie in the electronic-loop-based solo music Braxton has been creating since the mid-’90s, well before he joined the band. During an animated chat in a New York dive, the 30-year-old Braxton calls Central Market the next logical step in his development. ‘My solo work is a very economical reduction of what my imagination was really pointing toward,’ he says. ‘And even now, if I have an idea, it’s not feasible to just go [affects mock-haughty voice], “Oh, I’m just gonna go try it with my orchestra.”’
Though he remains committed to stacking layers of voice and guitar in real time, Braxton clearly relishes his newly expanded palette. After laying down basic tracks, the composer brought in Wordless musicians piecemeal to add the orchestral material. Recalling his first listen to the record’s centerpiece, ‘Platinum Rows’, in all its sumptuously strange glory, Braxton can’t help but gush: ‘It was one of the happiest days of my life,’ he says. ‘When I was able to play that one all the way through and know that it was done, it was a really heavy moment.’
Like ‘Platinum Rows’, Central Market as a whole exhibits immense sonic range. The album’s many string swells and snare-drum flourishes scream classical music – and indeed the album title is, in part, an allusion to Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka – but Braxton also incorporates kazoos, whistling and other whimsical ornamentation. ‘As far as those sounds, you look at Carl Stalling, who did the Looney Tunes music, and then you could also look at [modernist composer] Edgard Varèse, who did this insane “Colossus of Sound” thing with the same instruments,’ Braxton notes. ‘One’s perceived as lighthearted and one’s perceived as serious, but their textures are very similar.’
It’s fitting, then, that Central Market – to be released on Warp, which, in addition to Battles, has backed many cutting-edge electronica and indie-rock outfits – stubbornly resists categorisation. Caleb Burhans, a highly in-demand string player and composer who performed on the record and served as a liaison between Braxton and the Wordless players, agrees. ‘The people that listen to Warp records most of the time will get it, and you could also put it into a concert hall and it would work,’ he notes.
But, like any shrewd composer, Braxton’s not all that concerned with how his music might be classified. ‘I’ll put it to you like this,’ he states matter-of-factly, ‘I just want to be able to push play and say, “Ahh, this is f****** awesome.”’
Central Market is available online form September 15.
Braxton isn’t the only great musician on Warp; these are Time Out’s top five releases from the label’s 20-year history. Words Bruce Tantum
Artificial Intelligence (1992)
This early anthology of tracks by Aphex Twin (as The Dice Man), Autechre, Dr Alex Paterson and others was a watershed for the notion that electronic music was suitable for more than just raving.
Autechre: Tri Repetae (1995)
On their third full-length album, the UK duo of Rob Brown and Sean Booth fashioned a dazzling mix of digital crunch and ethereal drift.
Aphex Twin: Drukqs (2001)
This double-disc effort from Richard D James is all over the map – ambient piano tickling frequently gives way to clubby blasts – but it’s also indelibly pure Aphex Twin.
Battles: Mirrored (2007)
The debut full-length from this all-star quartet reconciled Warp’s electronics-heavy past with its rock-oriented future.
Grizzly Bear: Veckatimest (2009)
Warp’s biggest crossover success to date has come with this exquisite art-pop effort; one of the year’s most widely acclaimed indie releases.