Review Summary: Time to get funky. But like, moderately so.
As I continue explore new music and write about it, I find myself becoming more attentive to the way an album communicates as a whole. It’s a sorry confession, but for a long time I never really grasped why people would refer to certain songs as “filler” or not. Either a song itself was good, or it was bad. In nearly a year of doing this though, I’ve come to realize that while I don’t necessarily expect every song to be a masterpiece, the way an album engages the listener over its runtime with change of pace, melody, mood, and timing should be one of its most important aspects.
The Way It Is
, the fifth album from the “genetically enhanced cybernetic super men” known as The Funky Knuckles is not a bad album (it’s actually a good one), but it should be far better than it is. I mean really, it has all the ingredients to be a stroke of jazz fusion genius. Technical virtuosity, stunning melodies, and impressive improvisational work are mainstays of the record. It funks, it grooves, it flexes masterfully, and the band has the sort of panache and humor that does not normally accompany a jazz outfit such as themselves.
So what’s the problem? Fundamentally, it’s that the description provided above only really applies to the first third of the sixty-one minute record. Even if I’m generous and say the first thirty minutes is extremely solid music, the second half is, well… filler. The contrast is not only highly disappointing but sours a stellar first half to the point where I actually wanted it to be over.
From the first track through “Social Distancing” I was treated to some of the better modern day jazz fusion I’ve heard in years. The Funky Knuckles effortlessly walk the line between accessible, profound and technically mesmerizing. The horns and keyboard sizzle against each other while a jazzy guitar noodles its way through the tracks, almost taking a back seat until called upon at which point Phill Aelony and Ethan practically preach the good word with their performances. All of it is supplemented by an absolutely stellar rhythm section with sumptuous bass lines and drumming that frequently jumps between subtle and outrageous.
More importantly though, it flows in a way that makes sense and is never unnerving. The time signature changes and technical mastery are never put before the overall feel of the album. The composition is reflective of actual feel and emotion.
All good so far, right? Except the album falls off a cliff right around “Mind Runs” and never really recovers. The energy that is present in the first half of the album peters out and the next half an hour becomes unnecessarily dull. All of the same factors are present; the instrumental mastery, the groove, it’s all there, but as the album rolls on and the tempo hardly changes, it becomes more and more evident that this album isn’t really going
anywhere. I desperately waited through the rest of the album for something, anything, to really engage me and that moment never came again.
Simply put, the rest of the album is boring, which is a shame because the top half is stellar. Maybe, once again, it’s just me. Maybe I’m just having trouble appreciating it in some way, or it’s just my personal taste. I’d love to be able to say The Funky Knuckles are the next great thing in jazz fusion but with a second half that is about as lackluster as the Lakers were tonight in the third quarter, it’s hard to muster that mentality. But hey, if you want some really great jazz fusion, stick to the first half. At least you can’t go wrong there.