The Italian AltrOck label has extremely high musical standards, and Humble Grumble, one of their latest signings as of early 2011, display this in spades. On the evidence of their label debut, Flanders Fields, Humble Grumble can do practically anything. The question is whether doing quite so much is a good idea. First, make no mistake, although wacky, this is a group of astoundingly accomplished musicians. Theoretically at least, some portion of the public should enjoy listening to what such musicians can do when operating at the peak of their powers, as they are here. And in the rock music world, wackiness shouldn't count against them either. The main wackiness on Flanders Fields is delivered by nominal frontman Gabor Humble Vörös, who is Hungarian despite the group being headquartered in Belgium, and who mostly sings in a poppy European croon while here and there suggesting a bizarre hybrid of adenoidal David Byrne and space pixie Daevid Allen, with maybe even a smattering of Tiny Tim. Not that he is incapable of seriousness; he is a killer electric guitarist -- a huge asset in the band's lengthy complex jazz-rock instrumental passages, which bear a heavy debt to Frank Zappa -- and he can also sing quite nicely and unaffectedly when he wants to, particularly when harmonizing with other vocalists.
But the X-Legged Sally-ish Humble Grumble are far more than Vörös, and also include saxophonist Pol Mareen, clarinetist Pedro Guridi, bassist Jouni Isoherranen, drummer Jonathan Callens, and Pieter Claus on marimba and vibraphone. A number of guest musicians are also scattered about, including six background vocalists (previous bandmembers Megan Quill and Franciska Roose are deemed guest vocalists here). The band packs a head-spinning variety of music into the CD, cartwheeling from swinging jazz to knotty avant-prog to strummy folk-rock to zany vocalizing and leaving the listener dizzy and disoriented. Imagine a mash-up of Uncle Meat and Abbey Road and you might not be far off -- and just listen to the echoed harmony vocals at the end of "Sleepless Night" ("'Cos people they dream, they sing of peace and love they make, hey!"), suggesting late-era Beatles or at least a Julie Taymor reinvention, if you think the Fab Four comparison is a stretch. Is it All Too Much, so to speak? The answer is perhaps yes for listeners desiring something a bit less manic than like-minded albums such as miRthkon's Vehicle or Hasse Bruniusson's Flying Food Circus, but fans of Zappa and jam-packed avant-prog should be fine. And despite the tendency to be overstuffed, Flanders Fields is, overall, remarkably cohesive musically. Lyrically, not so much: whiplash is induced by the group's try-anything mentality when the deadly serious subject of a World War I legacy (the title track) is followed two tracks later by an utterly nonsensical tune about hippopotamus-sized sexual appetites ("Horny"). But shifting gears quickly enough to throw you over the handlebars is no problem for Humble Grumble. ~ Dave Lynch