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Album Of The Week

Volcanic Super-Eruptions: Sly & The Family Drone's Walk It Dry
Bernie Brooks , July 9th, 2020 07:33

Sly & The Family Drone's latest LP, Walk It Dry, is a rolling disaster in the very best way, says Bernie Brooks

Photo by Scott Simpson

16 December 1811, 2:15 AM: The town of New Madrid, in what is now Missouri, is rocked by an earthquake. When people think of seismic activity, I'd imagine the Pacific Rim and specific locales like San Francisco come to mind – not the southernmost tip of the American Midwest. But that night on the frontier, the ground shook hard, toppling chimneys states away, ringing church bells along the Atlantic coast. Residents of the sparsely populated territory endeavoured to rebuild in the following months, but more quakes followed on 23 January and 7 February, shattering the eerie post-disaster calm again and again. The New Madrid earthquakes hit with such force – each with a magnitude of at least 7.2 – that sections of the Mississippi River were said to have run backward.

Walk It Dry, Sly & The Family Drone's latest LP, and their first to be recorded in the aftermath of ringleader Matt Cargill's devastating injuries in a van accident, is a rolling disaster in the very best way: thirty-three minutes of tremors and aftershocks that'll absolutely clear your sinuses, maybe even do your head in.

But I don't want to give you the wrong impression right off the bat, to have you, dear reader, mistaking a series of actions and reactions for chaos. Like the movements of tectonic plates below us, what Sly does is systemic, purposeful. The Family Drone – a quartet featuring Cargill on electronics, vocals, and drums; Kaz Buckland on more electronics, vocals, and drums; Ed Dudley on even more electronics, vocals, and drums; and James Allsopp on baritone saxophone and harmonium – are fully interlinked, working in unison toward a common goal: a sort of transcendent, euphoric state wrestled into being through the application of awesome power, a listening experience not altogether unlike the once-solid ground lurching under your feet.

2 March 2018, 11:00 AM: The Springfield News-Leader, a local Gannett paper covering the Ozarks, reports on an anthropogenic goose disaster. Snow geese populations are booming, increasing from approximately 800,000 in the 1960s to something like 18 million in 2016, due to changing agricultural practices in the midwestern United States. Once harrowing migrations have become a smorgasbord. Flocks of snow geese are more like swarms, thousands strong, and are literally destroying their fragile summer habitats in the Arctic. The point being, in numbers like this, these are disruptive creatures. One snow goose is loud, consistently so, but many? "Possibly the noisiest of all waterfowl," according to the Cornell Lab Of Ornithology, which also describes the sound of a modern flock as a "cacophony of honking."

With the exception, perhaps, of 'Swearing On The Horns' or the unsettling, contemplative drones of Walk It Dry's final number, 'Tsukiji', these tracks honk. They are riotous, all-consuming swarms of geese. The interplay between the saxophone and electronics (and Al Bonney's guest trumpet on 'My Torso Is A Shotgun') is thrilling. The percussive elements and unrelentingly heavy drums are the beating of thousands upon thousands of wings, lifting the rest of the instruments, allowing them to soar, grounding them when necessary. The players twist and roll and turn in formation, riding those magnetic fields, always sure of their final destination. There is an assuredness present in every bar – as in nature, things work out as they must. The compositions here feel satisfyingly like an inevitability, like muscles responding to genetic memory accumulated and refined over millennia.

Circa 627,980 BC: The Yellowstone supervolcano explodes, rocketing about 240 cubic miles of debris into the sky and creating the Yellowstone Caldera and the Lava Creek Tuff. Now known as the Lava Creek eruption, it is the last of three super-eruptions that occurred over a span of 1.47 million years, give or take, which left behind three huge, overlapping caldera in northwest Wyoming, in what is now Yellowstone National Park. Ranging between 600 and 2,500 times more powerful than the Mt. Saint Helens eruption in 1980, the plume of crud ejected by each of them would have changed the climate globally.

It's difficult to talk about the sheer power of Sly & The Family Drone without sounding ridiculously hyperbolic, but they are indeed volcanic. Opener 'A Black Uniformed Strutting Animal' swings while electronics hiss like steam through a fissure, pressure building and building until the track bursts wide open near its halfway point, all dubbed-out horns and bludgeoning drums like a series of explosions. Even the album's more sedate moments are loaded with tension – another super-eruption always looms on the horizon.

15 January 1919, 12:30 PM: A winter “heatwave” causes somewhere around 2.3 million gallons of molasses belonging to the Purity Distilling Company in the North End of Boston, Massachusetts, to expand rapidly, rupturing its container. As the historical marker says, "A forty foot wave of molasses buckled the elevated railroad tracks, crushed buildings, and inundated the neighbourhood." There were fatalities and remediation ultimately took weeks, the harbour was brown with molasses for months, and even today Bostonians will claim the city smells of the stuff.

I've written about how people conflate intense or noisy listening experiences with unpleasant listening experiences as a matter of course. But that can be the furthest thing from the truth and is often better evidence of a closed mind than rank tunes. The compositions on Walk It Dry, for instance, are a blast, and they're sticky. They stay there, in your head, inviting multiple listens. While this is certainly the most accurate studio representation of Sly & The Family Drone's intensity to date, it's also their best and most accessible record, something that jazz heads or hard rockers or experimental music freaks could jam with equal gusto. Maybe they're not exactly sweet, but I've always sensed more than a whiff of the utopian around this crew. And the thing about disasters is their tendency to bring people together.