Given this Kentucky-based band's well over 30-year history on the experimental fringes, the thoroughly approachable qualities of 2014's Ancestors' Tale may surprise those expecting musical radicalism. With Ut Gret having dabbled in free improvisation and world fusion, interpreted Terry Riley's "In C" at a Louisville tavern, experimented with various homemade instruments, and collaborated with the likes of Eugene Chadbourne, seemingly anything could be offered up by the outfit's fourth album and AltrOck label debut. What one gets is an album that possesses sonically and thematically heavy touches -- a particularly horrific historical event is visited on one notable track -- but often remains bright and lively, particularly early on. Yes, the duo improvisation "The Departure," with Gregory Acker on baritone saxophone and didgeridoo and Gary Pahler on drums, offers a brief helping of deep vibrational multiphonic skronk, but that merely minute-long excursion is preceded by the breezy opening title track with Louisville indie rock singer/songwriter Cheyenne Mize (who also plays violin) taking on the role of light, jazzy diva, asking cosmic questions like "How can you know who we are?" backed by the amiable groove of Ut Gret mainstay Joee Conroy's fretless bass, Steve Roberts' electric piano, and Pahler's drums before Jackie Royce's bassoon, Steve Good's clarinet, and Acker's flute break out of the arrangement to dance jubilantly over swelling Mellotron.
Mize's singing is both circular and expansive as she adds a multi-tracked vocal harmony to each repetition of "Round and round/We go round and round" on "Selves Unmade," a less eccentric take on the Eastern reincarnation-based spiritualism of Daevid Allen's '70s-era Gong (check out Zero the Hero turning around "the wheel of births and deaths" on 1974's You). A powerful, yearning, and just plain rockin' singer on her solo albums, Mize adds an appealingly jazzed-up quality to her range on Ancestors' Tale. And despite references in the liners to multiple simultaneous time signatures (the Hugh Hopper-inspired "Hopperknockity Tune") and 12-tone rows ("Zodiac"), Ancestors' Tale never sounds "difficult" for its own sake, even after Acker drops out during the album's second half and multi-sectioned instrumentals like "The Grotesque Pageantry of Fading Empires" and "Walk the Plank" take over, not quite as dark as their titles might suggest. The band's crisply and precisely executed ostinatos and arpeggios, shifting chord progressions, and abrupt compositional transitions contrast with Conroy's burning guitar sustain, Good's woolly clarinet soloing, and Royce's jaunty bassoon and lovely flute -- until Royce drags out her contrabassoon and huffs and roars through the aptly titled ultra-heavy "Dinosaur on the Floor." Her playing on the alternately tense, pounding, and poignant "An Elephant in Berlin" seems nearly as entertaining -- until one reads in the liners that Roberts composed the piece after learning about a 1944 Allied bombing of Berlin that killed thousands of animals at the Berlin zoo and left one elephant alive. Here Ut Gret have defined at least part of "who we are" in a way that isn't the slightest bit reassuring. ~ Dave Lynch