Hold your breath until you're Blue in the face and Finnegans Wake would still probably not arrive in your town to perform music from their fifth album, released by the Italian AltrOck label in late 2008. They would simply have too many geographical and logistical challenges to surmount. Consider the ensemble circa Blue: a Belgian bandleader and multi-instrumentalist living in Brazil; Brazilian flute and keyboard players; a band co-founder and bassist residing in Belgium; and a German lyricist/poetess who doesn't sing or play anything here, but is considered a full-fledged member nonetheless -- unlike the clutch of additional Brazilian musicians who play electric guitar, drums, violin, cello, oboe, and trumpet and who are merely guests. A Brazilian classical soprano vocalist is also here, singing in German, and some Belgian and Swedish avant rock heavyweights appear on a bonus track. The musical results are more coherent than one might imagine, because although some of the musicians are an ocean apart, they all seem to be on the same page -- one written by Belgium-to-Brazil immigrant Henry Krutzen, who has composition and arrangement credits for everything (sharing such credits with keyboardist Marcílio Onofre on five tracks). Krutzen writes complex pieces with emphatic melodies and themes; strong foundations of electric instrumentation and drums with lighter acoustic instruments layered through the mix; and oftentimes a sense of groove allowing guest drummer Rogério Pitomba to drive things along crisply and cleanly. The title track bridges groove-based and classical impulses with stop-start rhythms, electronic keyboard underpinnings recalling the sequencer-heavy days of Tangerine Dream, a nearly romantic midpoint interlude, and the wide-ranging palette that the diverse acoustic instrumentation is capable of bringing.
On the straight-ahead rhythmic side, "Mida" begins with an insistent motif played in staccato double stops by violinist Alexandre Casado, with later contrapuntal riffage on the theme by flutist Alexandre Johnson, oboist Joao Johnson, Eduardo Pinheiro's heavy metal guitar, and an array of Krutzen keyboard voicings in ostinatos, arpeggios, and punctuating chords. From across the pond in Belgium, Alain Lemaître (an expert mixologist as well) enters with his bass alternately funky and singing melodically, while back in Brazil, Antônio de Pádua's improvised trumpet overdubs add a jazzy flavor to a composition that otherwise unfolds with clocklike precision, although always engaging the ear with its often surprising sonic puzzle pieces. Contrasting with "Mida," "Ents and Things," "Battle of Novgorod," and other rhythm-driven excursions are more overtly "classical" pieces, such as "Die Geste von Kreuzlingen" and "Luftspiel," with episodic instrumental narratives and a chamber music feel, and notably featuring the lieder-style soprano vocalizing of Brazilian singer Amarilis de Rebuá. The German language challenged will be left to ponder the importance of the lyrical content penned by Hamburg slam poet Xóchil A. Schütz. And although some might recoil in kneejerk fashion from the vocal style (also present in Olga Podgaiskaya's contributions to Rational Diet's At Work, another late-2008 AltrOck release), the singing might be viewed as a refreshingly audacious touch that improves considerably upon the mannered pop vocalizing of Richard Redcrossed (Bowie, anyone?) on the preceding Finnegans Wake release, 4th. De Rebuá's vocals are truly used as an instrument among many, as in "Magical Cave," where piano, flute, violin, oboe, trumpet, and vocals circle around one another before the piece coalesces around a cruising midtempo pulse with machine gun-like rhythmic interjections. Blue ends with bonus track "Agakuk," featuring Belgians Reginald Trigaux on guitar and Guy Segers on bass, along with Swedish drummer Morgan Ågren slashing his way through the roughest and most (unsurprisingly) Present-like piece on the disc -- a robust conclusion to what is arguably Finnegans Wake's strongest outing to date, and another winner in AltrOck's impressive catalog. ~ Dave Lynch