The latest release from Toronto's Muskox succeeds at fusing progressive rock, jazz, and folk music through accentuated use of the banjo.
The concept behind Muskox‘s latest full-length release came to composer Mike Smith when he was 14 years old and dreamed of creating music to complement the fantasy novels he liked. Clocking in at just under 50 minutes, Invocations/Transformations is indisputably fantastical, featuring 10 distinct tracks that subvert traditions of progressive rock and jazz music through prominent use of the banjo.
Smith’s signature banjo playing effectively serves as the instrumental album’s narrator. At first, it’s almost unsettling to hear an instrument typically associated with more formulaic genres such as the blues or Dixieland jazz cast as a sort of Wagnerian leitmotif on a progressive rock–inspired instrumental album. There’s no traditional bluegrass rhythmic banjo picking or strumming on the record; instead, the banjo lends a sublime, melodic melancholy to the pieces. Each of the 10 tracks on Invocations was composed by Smith, except for “Generic Organs,” which was co-written with fellow band member and Juno nominee Jeremy Strachan.
Although Muskox usually consists of five performers (Smith, Strachan, Ali Berkok on keyboards, Pete Johnson on bass, and Jake Oelrich on drums) there are 11 musicians on this album, each with a highly impressive level of talent. Invocations features three flutists, three keyboardists, two drummers, a bass player, a cellist, a violinist, and a saxophonist, all of who assist in bringing Smith’s electro-chamber prog-jazz fantasy to life. Be sure to check out the album’s second track, “Buff Stop,” (streaming above) for an incredible soprano saxophone intro performed by Mark Laver, as well as an organ solo from Berkok. Invocations‘ opening track is also very catchy, and the seventh song on the album, “Gelding,” has a gorgeous layering of synthesizers.
It’s fitting that Smith was partially inspired by nostalgia for the fantasy music he wished to create as a teenager, because his style of progressive rock is aural pleasure that can perhaps only be compared to the joy a 14-year-old boy gets from reading fantasy novels. With the help of a highly adept ensemble, recording engineer James Anderson, and mixer Sandro Perri, Muskox’s latest LP transcends the boundaries of its ’70s prog-rock influences through its clever inclusion of the banjo. Regardless of whether it can be classified as “jazz,” Invocations/Transformations is a genre-defying jam session that most jazz musicians would kill to join.
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