Incidentals marks the second album from Tim Berne's Snakeoil quintet -- three others, two on ECM and one on Screwgun, were cut as a quartet with the saxophonist, clarinetist Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell, and drummer/percussionist Ches Smith before guitarist Ryan Ferreira joined for 2013's You've Been Watching Me. Again produced by David Torn -- who lends his guitar playing to two tracks -- this five-track set offers what is by now an unmistakable sound, with Berne's constantly interweaving scripted melodies, modes, and dialogues seamlessly wedded to group improvisation. When combined, they create not only a musical signature, but a shared language.
There are five tracks, four composed by Berne and one co-written with Mitchell. Opener "Horus Feliz" commences sparsely, with sinewy piano, clarinet, and percussion and Torn's atmospheric guitar emerging slowly from the shadows before Berne and Ferreira enter with knotty, gradual, contrapuntal, melodic development. Berne's solo, backed primarily by Smith and Mitchell, goes afield and signals the entire group to engage in primal improvisation, but it's led, conversely, by Noriega's solo. The set's hinge track is the 26-minute "Sideshow," which contains most of the band's character traits. Its clearly delineated sections often and by design evoke particular but ever-changing moods. It's suite-like, with individual sections focusing on one member -- at least initially -- before a collective architectural buildup creates a plurality of dialogues and statements. The addition of Torn on the track adds a loopy dimension to Ferreira's fire and flight. In its most intense sections, Smith ignites the band's gallop with his vibraphone and timpani as well as his drum kit. Three quarters of the way through, as a new harmonic statement commences, both Ferreira and Torn go head to head in counterpoint with Berne and Mitchell to stunning result. While "Incidentals Contract" is the most kinetic and complex track here, it sounds like a logical extension of "Sideshow." But set-closer "Prelude One/Sequel Too," by Berne and Mitchell, is easily the most beautiful and startlingly inventive tune here. It's slower than almost everything else, its saxophone and clarinet lines are carefully and spaciously scripted, and Ferreira's guitar and Mitchell's almost-skeletally taut piano paint a backdrop of spacious, shadowy, and understated drama that reveals the complexity of the harmonic relationships at work. Even when it breaks out modally via Berne's thoroughly out solo with almost majestic piano chords, fleet cymbal work, and effects-laden guitar lines providing a strong frame, Noriega holds to the original melody so it is never erased by what preceded it. Each track on Incidentals makes more room for its individual players within its compositional boundaries than previous outings. Berne's ideational process comes to fruition within a complex textural, multi-dimensional group interplay and communication; as such, the album shines dark, bold, and strong.