Fans of classic-'70s art rock as performed by progressive icons King Crimson and Henry Cow need not fear that their music is forever a thing of the past, thanks to the unpredictable emergence of an ensemble like Blast. This Dutch band led by guitarist Frank Crijns, reedist Edward Capel, and multi-instrumentalist Dirk Bruinsma breathes new life and energy into the moribund form, which is usually left for dead by critics and listeners who equate progressive music with the genre's most seriously bloated and pretentious practitioners. Wire Stitched Ears, Blast's first release on the Cuneiform label, bristles with tightly focused energy, avoiding indulgent grandstanding and never meandering into the pointless noodling that can characterize much of today's rock-based improvised music. Throughout the disc drummer James Meneses punches out contorted rhythms, sometimes in lockstep with Bruinsma on electric bass, as guitarist Crijns throws his own clipped chords or noisy fills into the mix. Punchy, staccato bursts and wide-interval melodic lines from the reeds (bass clarinet and soprano, alto and baritone saxes) complete the twisted picture.
Uncannily tight, the ensemble sometimes approaches the mechanistic, performing a peculiar robotic Euro-funk that is jawdropping in its precision. (During Crijn's "Pastorale" and "Wire Stitched," for example, the listener might be inclined to investigate whether the CD player is skipping.) The bandmembers are more than capable when stepping into the spotlight; the reedists squeeze out some incendiary solos despite the relatively few opportunities for extended blowing. During "Zozoter au Funiculaire," Crijns builds his guitar solo to a fearsome energy level recalling Robert Fripp on King Crimson's Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, or Red. Not everything is successful, however; Bruinsma's alternatingly terse and overwrought delivery of self-consciously arty lyrics on "Pain of Fear" and "Welter" (the latter penned by guest clarinetist Wim van der Maas) are not among the CD's high points. At least guest vocalist Emanuela Cavalho seems to bring a sense of dadaist absurdity to "Pastorale," and a similarly warped and humorous attitude guides the vocal presentations during "This Is Not a Folksong" and "Or-Na-Ra-Tio."
However, vocals are only a momentary diversion from Blast's compositions and arrangements, simultaneously intricate and unbridled. Wire Stitched Ears grabs your attention and rarely lets go; from start to finish the CD is a wild ride from a very aptly named ensemble.