Music listeners need to feel good about the choices they make with their hard-earned entertainment dollars, dammit! Thankfully, Oakland, CA-based avant-proggers miRthkon realize this, and so begin their first full-length CD with "Congratulations," a spoken word exercise that elucidates (over the swells of inspirational-sounding harp and "the miRthkon virtual orchestra") the wonders of this particular Vehicle, depicted in the cover art as a quite impressive '30s-vintage classic car. The clearly disturbed narrator promises a fantabulous array of features -- up to and including revelation of the secrets of the universe -- with increasing passion that builds to a lunatic frenzy as the "orchestral" accompaniment becomes more dissonant, all over the course of about a minute. Now that miRthkon have your full attention, can they deliver on their extravagant promises over the next hour or so? Well, perhaps Ultimate Truth is buried in the music or the extensive and sometimes cryptic CD booklet, but a wild ride is in store at the very least, ranging from the catchy chicken scratch funk-metal of "Daddylonglegz," one of the most tuneful tracks (and one of four that also appeared in one form or another on miRthkon's debut EP, The Illusion of Joy), to the concluding "Camelopardalis," where the band actually finds a rolling groove and sticks with it, underpinning some outré jazz blowing from altoist Jamison Smeltz.
Vehicle arrives on the Italian AltrOck label, whose Eurocentric, Rock in Opposition-influenced artist roster includes guitarists like Francesco Zago (Yugen), Marco Marzo (Accordo dei Contrari), and Maxim Velvetow (Rational Diet), making an American guitarist named Wally, the leader of miRthkon, seem like a bit of an outlier. But Wally Scharold is a graduate of Oakland's Mills College, where the music department head is Fred Frith -- a former member of Britain's Henry Cow during the 1970s and arguably the preeminent first-wave RIO guitarist -- and it would be hard to imagine Scharold and Frith not crossing paths, or Frith not influencing young Wally. And, in fact, Scharold and company appear to have an RIO sensibility, with the reeds of Smeltz and Carolyn Walter seemingly drawing inspiration from the Italian Picchio dal Pozzo, Belgian Aksak Maboul, and Swiss Débile Menthol, not to mention Henry Cow, of course ("The Black Fruit" is an extended dose of multi-sectioned astringent program music rivaling anything on Western Culture). The rhythm section of bassist Nat Hawkes and drummer Matt Guggemos is tighter than tight, while Scharold and second guitarist/composer Rob Pumpelly's axes are often pure brain-shattering metal, a particularly crunchy contrast to Walter's clarinet, suggesting Tony Iommi and Benny Goodman somehow tossed onto the same stage together. Meanwhile, miRthkon alumni and honorary members on drums, reeds, keys, and vocals match the size of the core lineup, while Jarred McAdams is credited as a full-fledged bandmember, with crucial items like "conceptual and narrative design" under his clearly oddball purview.
And then there is the obvious Zappa influence, heard in melodies, vocal arrangements, and reed instrument harmonies -- not to mention the guitar solo cutting loose during "Honey Key Jamboree." MiRthkon seem to love Frank's attitude as well: the vocals scattered throughout are delivered Zappa (or maybe even Firesign Theatre) style, with spoken voice-overs (from Wally himself) like the opening "Congratulations" and a truly hilarious interlude in "The Black Fruit," suggesting a soothing corporate spokesperson injected with truth serum, as well as harmony singing in the choruses and refrains of funked-up offerings like "Coven of Coyotes" and the aforementioned "Honey Key Jamboree" -- although "Banana"'s vocals coupled with the tune's occasionally prominent near folkish acoustic guitar riffing might bring Gentle Giant to mind. The occasional Zappa-isms ultimately get caught up in heavier, chunkier currents, however, with so many uninterrupted stops and starts on "Zhagunk" that the pummeling music maintains a sort of crazed flow -- perhaps akin to the way someone falling down a flight of stairs would "flow" from the top of the stairs to the bottom. Congratulations everybody! ~ Dave Lynch