Review Summary: Buck Fever tackles an incredibly difficult musical concept and comes out as one of the most compelling bands of the 2000s.
Among bands that wish to be taken seriously, one of the most universal tactics used to show that a band is "talented" is to insert a bunch of elements from disparate genres into their music. One of the easiest ways to make your music stand out is to incorporate elements from another genre, so it's only logical that incorporating elements from a lot of other genres is a great way to make your music stand way out; maybe you're "in" with the prog crowd, or maybe you're the next big avant-garde band. Either way, a lot of the bands that take this route fall into the same trap - their music ends up going from boring to unbearable as poorly executed genre-switches and awkward structures destroy any semblance of flow in their music and mar their songs with poorly executed ideas that would have been better off not being explored in the first place. It's for this reason that a lot of people come into Buck Fever, the second full-length album from Californian band Estradasphere, with a lot more doubt than excitement.
Fortunately, Estradasphere belongs solidly in the group of bands that execute strange genre combinations with ease and grace - the Between The Buried And Me
s and Mr. Bungle
s of the world. In fact, if there was any band to compare Estradasphere to, Mr Bungle would be a great choice - the band released 3 of their 4 studio albums on Mr Bungle guitarist Trey Spruance's Mimicry label and several of the members have done time in Spruance's avant-garde music collective Secret Chiefs 3. However, Estradasphere is a unique beast more comparable to Mr Bungle in concept than in style. The base of their music lies not in metal, but in experimental rock and jazz, and the genres they incorporate elements of are wider in scope, with Buck Fever alone covering everything from surf rock to disco, black metal to chiptune, bluegrass to big band, elevator music to klezmer, and more.
There are a few elements at work here that make Estradasphere's genre-pinball approach to composition work a lot better than, say, iwrestledabearonce
's does. For one, Estradasphere demonstrates a frightening level of competency in every genre it tackles. When I listen to Meteorite Showers, I truly believe that Estradasphere is as much of a top tier carnival music ensemble as they are a legendary rootsy rock band and a blazing jazz combo. Estradasphere doesn't take surface-level elements from the genres they incorporate, but instead dives deep into the nitty gritty of each style and writes music that really sounds like it came from seasoned performers in whatever genre they take on. One of the best examples of this is Super Buck II, a big band arrangement of the Super Mario Bros 2 theme with pitch-perfect big band harmony, quintessential unison horn lines, and subtly brilliant drumming from the incredibly talented Dave Murray.
Another element that helps Estradasphere work is the centering of the composition around making the changes in genres feel natural; the only time a shift to a new genre feels jarring is when it's explicitly written to be jarring. The shift from noir jazz to disco in The Dapper Bandits, for example, sounds like it comes out of nowhere, but the slow wind-down of the horns combined with the use of the faux-TV narration allows the sudden change to "jumpy" uptempo disco to work narratively and compositionally. Feed Your Mama's Meter pulls off an even stranger jazz-rock to techno jump with astonishing smoothness. The beautifully cheesy synth bass and sudden dance beat slots right in with the horns in a way that should be garish but instead sounds like it was totally normal for the genre.
Of course, Buck Fever still has flaws. For one, the production really hampers the impact of some of the death metal and black metal sections, with the distorted guitar sounding far too compressed for its own good and the drums in general suffering heavily at the heavier sections. The harsh vocals accompanying these sections are pretty weak too. This isn't to say that these sections aren't good - Estradasphere still carries them and makes them heavily enjoyable with some great composition - but it shows the issues Estradasphere runs into sometimes trying to balance so many styles in the context of just a single album regarding the limits of the medium thereof. Buck Fever is also a little bit on the long side - I'm fine with The Dapper Bandits and Meteorite Showers breaking the 8 minute mark, as they have a ton of different ideas to express in one song, but did A Very Intense Battle really need to be almost 9 minutes long" And for that matter, is there any reason why the album's new-age closer, What Deers May Come, is over 5 minutes" Again, small complaints, but these things add up to impact that album, especially when there are songs like Feed Your Mama's Meter on here that cover a ton of concepts in significantly shorter amounts of time.
All that said, Buck Fever is still a fantastic album that I really can't recommend highly enough, ESPECIALLY if you're like me and generally don't enjoy bands that do the whole "switch genres ever 30 seconds" thing. Estradasphere was an enormously talented band that showed off their ability as musicians in some really compelling ways on this and their other albums, and it's definitely worth checking them out.