Celebrating their 13th anniversary, the world's craziest big band Flat Earth Society released their 13th album, the 13-track 13, in February 2013. They also embarked on a 13-date CD release tour. Perhaps you're wondering how many musicians play on 13. The answer: 15. Thankfully, the album's overarching numerical concept didn't extend to tampering with the lineup, a good idea because this number of musicians is just about perfect. Still, be forewarned that bandleader/reedman Peter Vermeersch sometimes writes big-band music intended to accompany, say, a movie featuring a living severed dog's head. If that sounds grotesque, take comfort in the near certainty that the 1940 Soviet film Experiments in the Revival of Organisms, for which Vermeersch composed new music heard as the opening track here, is a fake. The film depicts an alleged experiment in which a decapitated dog's head was kept alive and responded to various stimuli; approaching this as pure propaganda, FES have provided suitable mad-scientist music over 60 years later. The rather cartoony intro of stop-start tuba, brass, vibes, and accordion suggests the busy activities of important men in lab coats, and soon baritone saxophonist Bruno Vansina is jamming out over the full ensemble's powerfully grooved-up backing. But wait! A sudden voice-over from British geneticist J.B.S. Haldane proclaims the experiment's authenticity, provoking a suitably discordant response from keyboardist Peter Vandenberghe, his hands hitting the keys like a big "What?!" As the band quickly shifts to a tense and escalating 5/4 jazz-rock vamp, Vandenberghe unleashes one of his overdriven mutant Rhodes-voiced solos as the full ensemble gradually engulfs him. It's FES at their most...enlivened.
Another soundtrack project for this cinematic big band is excerpted in the 11-and-a-half-minute "Raincheck," with Vermeersch's music written to accompany Regen, Joris Ivens' 1929 short abstract film of rain falling on Amsterdam -- the CD's back cover provides a URL for viewing the film online and instructions on syncing the audio and video. Tom Wouters' ringing vibraphone atmospherically mirrors raindrops in puddles and Vandenberghe's low organ growl and guitarist Pierre Vervloesem's roaring, swooping sustained guitar ominously foreshadow the coming deluge before the band takes off with hurricane-force freneticism, including Vermeersch's entertainingly overwrought vocal ("Drip! Drip! Drip!") suggesting near panic at the sight of rainwater running down a windowpane. Elsewhere, prepare yourself for straight-up high-octane swing ("Sneak Attack of the Sponges"), a noir-ish collaboration with Fischer-Z multimedia poet/vocalist John Watts ("Patsy"), a Middle Eastern-flavored excerpt from the Zilke "existential variety farce" ("Goat's Wool Without Abbas"), chopped-up Scott Joplin ("Stoptime Rag"), a reboot of FES antecedent X-Legged Sally's furious 20th century schizoid jazz with Vervloesem and drummer Teun Verbruggen in a textured noise assault ("Ffwd"), and even hyper-swing in the face of existential dread ("Domination of Black," the concluding track with lyrics from the Wallace Stevens poem), along with a few calmer interludes. 13 is indeed a celebration -- of the omnivorous imagination of Peter Vermeersch and the musicians who enthusiastically tackle anything he throws at them.