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Surviving Death/Alive Why?

by Larval
2007, Cuneiform Records, $18 US
Distributor’s website: http://www.cuneiformrecords.com

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


This reviewer paid particular attention to what was most characteristic of Detroit rock traditions to be found in the recent instrumental music of Bill Brovold and his band Larval. To begin with the package, the band's double album Surviving Death/Alive Why? sports a cover by Mark Dancey (http://www.illuminado.com). Yet it is not one of Dancey's outlandish "Clown Skull" cartoon graphics that have promoted other Detroit bands; the painting is one of Dancey's classical oil tondos of nude aerialist women. This is fitting, for Larval often distances itself from the skronk and screech and ka-chunk of many of that city's bands, from the MC5 and Stooges, to the White Stripes and Dirtbombs. Beside all that raw energy, there existed a more trained, virtuoso tradition in the region too, in bands like Savage Grace and SRC (who medlied Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King" with Ravel's "Bolero"), cerebrally worthy of a record cover like Larval's as teasing——peekaboo!—as Fragonard's "Girl on a Swing". Despite an ocean between them, there was only a short aesthetic distance between Steve McKay's fierce sax in Earth Opera and the Stooges' Fun House, and Andy MacKay's learned reeds in Roxy Music.

On the first disc, called Surviving Death, "Scottish Blood" strums chords reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens' songs of Michigan, yet the title song "Surviving Death" has the ominous biting guitar of Pink Floyd's Ummagumma. "The Hospital Visit" has deep lonely piano chords, while the wordless variety show of "The 300 Pound Nurse" seemingly includes a Spy-vs.-Spy segment. "It Was a Puny Plan" manifests big rock themes atop 1970s drum fills, and postmodern Bowie melancholy. It's reminiscent of M3, the work done by Michigan-raised Roger Miller with brothers Ben and Larry, abrupt switching of time signatures and that Beefhearty saxophone that Ben honked with Destroy All Monsters three decades ago. On Larval's second disc, the live album Alive Why?, "Alpha Thejone" has transformative time signatures and stop-time, characteristic of M3.

What could be more Detroit than a live album? Detroit bands the MC5 and Commander Cody & the Lost Planet Airmen recorded live albums as their first albums when the prevailing tradition of the time was to precede the concert document with three or four studio albums. Alive Why? includes tracks recorded by Larval in 1999 to 2001, and then 2006. On "One Step Forward", Kurt Zimmerman saws away on scary violin until the tune groans into Led Zeppelin gravitas. In the late 1960s, a staple of Detroit's WABX-FM was "White Bird" by the California band It's a Beautiful Day, with violinist David LaFlamme. Another current Detroit band, Tone and Niche (http://www.toneandniche.com), features violinist Nicole Varga.

"Crippled Dance" is grindingly repetitive, as were the Stooges at their most irritating and hypnotic. "Childish Delusions" and "Last Ditch" have a slouching, smoldering atonal insistence and angularity. The saxophone of "Last Ditch" is a distant air raid siren, promoting rock-drill-to-the-head anxiety, soothed by swirly guitar lines. "Guitar Trio" features strumming rock guitars that can't forget the Motor City.



Updated 1st June 2007

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