Culcha Vulcha marks the first time Snarky Puppy has recorded in a studio in eight years. Between 2006's The Only Constant and this, the Texas-bred, Brooklyn-based collective issued a generous slate of live albums according to a single strategy: capturing a single dynamic performance and messing with it as little as possible. This date proves they can accomplish that in a studio, too. Culcha Vulcha was cut at Sonic Ranch Studios in Tornillo, Texas and in Brooklyn. There is no dearth of energy or spontaneity on this strikingly varied set.
The musical reach of bassist Michael League's compositions allows for dynamic group interplay as well improvisation and exploration. Things get off to a roaring, funky start on "Tarova," with all 17 members shaking it down led by organ, Rhodes piano, fat, thrumming bass, hot snare breaks, swinging violin, and blazing horns that touch on everything from Muscle Shoals to East Indian modalism to Southern gospel. "Semente," alternately, is a Latin jazz workout that nods at Mexican bandleader Luis Arcaraz's mariachi-inspired lyricism combined with Afro-Cuban rhythms and Northern Soul with its killer string chart. "Gemini" is more nocturnal and spacy as the melodic interplay between guitars and Rhodes is balanced by a hypnotic drum kit pulse, then underscored by an out saxophone solo. "Grown Folks" delivers a bubbling funk bassline, a jazzy hip-hop drum shuffle, and a neo-soul harmonic line around bluesy, cinematic horns and dubby jazz keyboards. The soundtrack vibe is also present on the glorious "Palermo," recalling at once Piero Umiliani, Alessandro Alessandroni, and Jon Hassell's Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics, with labyrinthine woodwinds, keys, brass, and rhythms. "The Big Ugly" is post-psychedelic jazz-rock grounded in deep soul. Layers of keyboards -- Rhodes, clavinet, organ, and an out-of-this-world Moog solo by Cory Henry -- alternate roles up front as colorful horns take on wah-wah and solo guitars, strings, crashing tom-toms, and kick drums, all grounded by a nasty, elastic bassline. Over nine-minutes long, it is an anthemic, suite-like closer. Culcha Vulcha is an inseparable whole; each tune is a doorway into the next, with no visible seams. No matter how different individual tracks are from one another, they unfold like stages in a dream. Any listener who has derived satisfaction from Snarky Puppy's live recordings will easily find it here, too. This is the place where musical restlessness and discipline meet creative adventure. ~ Thom Jurek