An exhilarating blend of electronica, hard, outside jazz, and rock drive, Birth's eponymous debut is one of the most exciting CDs to come out of Cleveland since Nine Inch Nails' 1989 debut, Pretty Hate Machine. And even though it is jazz -- determinedly instrumental, no vocals in sight -- it shares the drive that Nails brought to industrial rock, only in the jazz field. Birth is Joshua Smith, saxes and effects; Joe Tomino, drums, percussion, metals; and Jeremy Bleich, bass. The band recorded this October 19-22 in Pittsburgh, had it mastered in New York, and released it at the very end of the 20th century (December 30, 1999).
Birth's music is tough, exciting, and demanding. The CD starts with Smith's "Subliminal Ink," a rough-and-tumble roller-coaster ride featuring Smith's squawky, skronky alto, Bleich's supportive bass, and Tomino's busy, blustery rhythms. "Digital Burrito" (also the name of the band's web site), is more subdued -- at least it begins that way, as Smith puts his alto through a phaser, floating otherworldly effects over the patient, spectral rhythm section before the band works up a head of steam fronted by Smith's electronically choraled saxophone.
The moods span the contemplative (Smith's "2 phô," Tomino's visceral, stacked "6 More Minutes"), the frenetic (the group effort "Trouble Bubble"), and the danceable (Tomino's "X1+ e"). The sonics are remarkable; it is impossible to tell where Smith's saxophone ends and the electronics begin, particularly in "6 More Minutes," and the interplay is always remarkable. It's particularly clear in "Dan Dockrill," a tough workout in which there is no discernible differentiation between background and foreground. "Dan" exemplifies group improvisation at a peculiarly sophisticated level of empathy; classical string quartets can achieve this kind of unity, but it's unusual when so improvised a piece achieves it.
The moods are diverse, too, spanning the weird orientalia of "Cows" (a group piece the fusion-era Herbie Hancock would have been proud to write), the drum 'n' bass-heavy "X1+ e" and the quasi contemplative, quasi dervish "2 phô." The melodies aren't always easy to follow, the interplay not always engaging. But both are involving. Abstract, cerebral, and driven, Birth is one of those groups that seem to have sprung fully formed. One can only hope that a major label hooks up with these talented musicians and gives them the freedom to develop even more. If major labels can still do that. (Birth, Box 770525, Lakewood, OH 44107-0028.)