Oakland, California-based avant-prog sextet miRthkon return with a heaping helping of hijinks on 2013's Snack(s), their third AltrOck release following the 2009 album Vehicle and 2012 DVD (Format). Guitarist/composer Wally Scharold and company provide candy for the eyes as well as the ears on Snack(s): Scharold's CD booklet art depicts each of the album's ten tracks as a package of junk food -- a candy bar, can of soda, bag of chips -- complete with nutrition label and ingredients listing. Kudos to miRthkon for informing consumers about the music's saturated fat and cholesterol content; quite helpfully, the nutrition labels also provide details about each track's instrumentation and complicated time signatures. And a close inspection of the ingredients (printed in a suitably tiny font) reveals that they are actually lyrics for the six tunes that feature vocals. The ingenious concept might suggest empty calories, obesity, and type 2 diabetes, but no need to worry. Snack(s) is actually quite nutritious, as miRthkon -- guitarists Scharold and Travis Andrews, reedists Carolyn Walter and Jamison Smeltz, bassist/composer Matt Lebofsky, and drummer Matthew Guggemos -- provide a healthy musical feast, not a brief sugar rush, across the album's 55 minutes.
Opening salvo "QXP-13 Space Modulator" is not simply manic but maniacal in its twang-into-thrash metal guitar and frantic alto sax/clarinet riffage; Andrews' wild solo proves he is no mere "second guitarist" in the group and -- along with unfettered showcases for Smeltz on sax and Walter on clarinet -- seems to belie the notion that all of miRthkon's music is thoroughly scored. Notwithstanding a few other suspiciously spontaneous-sounding moments across Snack(s) -- a brief, melodically inventive run around the fretboard by bassist Lebofsky on "Osedax," for example -- complex, multi-layered compositions strongly influenced by Zappa, Frith, and legions of thrash metallers remain the order of the day, as energetic and even jaunty reed harmonies contrast with the guitarists' metal crunch and the musicians demonstrate their ability to leap suddenly into spiky unison lines. "Mymaridae" presents myriad rhythmic changes and fragmented motifs with a conspicuous Henry Cow flavor, while grooves actually stick around a while elsewhere -- "Snack(s) - The Song!" even features syncopated handclaps and the steady rhythm of a flanged clavinet in its labyrinthine mix. And the three-minute "Variety Pack" is "just a pretty tune," as the CD booklet art accurately proclaims (before asking, "Can you handle it?"). Lyrically, Snack(s)' loose conceptualism encompasses both literal and figurative food: "stewed and pre-chewed" for octogenareans, dead whale carcasses for tubeworms (yum!) -- and, seemingly, fragmented snack-like ideas that thwart coherent thinking. Musically, the band's wide range of influences is ably demonstrated by Snack(s)' two covers: a blurty baritone sax-fueled reading of "Fairies Wear Boots" from Black Sabbath's Paranoid and -- perhaps most audaciously -- Samuel Barber's tonal/atonal piano masterpiece "Nocturne, Op. 33" in a sometimes grooving Scharold arrangement that suggests night driving more than nighttime reverie. ~ Dave Lynch