Percussionist/composer Gregg Bendian is an unusual character: a musician with serious free jazz credentials who also professes a fondness for 1970s-style progressive rock. Interzone, however, produces music closer to classic jazz-rock fusion, although Bendian's compositions also provide breathing room for exploration of pure sound and texture. There are also densely scored rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic complications that occasionally place the band squarely within the contemporary avant-garde. Regardless of musical category, Interzone is a phenomenal ensemble and the band's second release, Myriad on the Atavistic label, is its strongest statement so far. The album's closest stylistic antecedent might be the initial incarnation of Pierre Moerlen's Gong, which during the late '70s featured Alan Holdsworth's electric guitar pyrotechnics propelled along by a crisp and driving rhythm section that included vibraphone, glockenspiel, and other tuned percussion in addition to bass and drums. Bendian handles the vibes and glock on Interzone's Myriad, with Alex Cline and Steuart Liebig ably navigating the leader's charts on drums and bass. Nels Cline, Alex's brother and one of today's finest electric guitar improvisers, rounds out the quartet. While the Pierre Moerlen ensemble of nearly a quarter-century ago ultimately fell prey to many of the same stylistic missteps that afflicted other '70s fusionists, Gregg Bendian's Interzone makes no compromises for the sake of commercial appeal.
Bendian is a very nimble and accomplished soloist and accompanist on the vibes and glock, and as a composer and bandleader he confidently steers the band away from the jazz-pop or new age comfort zone, even during atmospheric pieces like the opening "Interzonia 1" in which the bright timbres of the tuned percussion are prominent. ("Interzonia 1" is dedicated to filmmaker David Cronenberg, which should say something about the darker sensibilities at work.) Sans resonator-produced vibrato, the vibes' crystalline clarity is even pushed in the direction of distorted noise rather than soft shimmer, as in the aptly named "Drive," which features Bendian on "fuzz vibes." "Drive" begins and ends with a big swaggering beat and simple but effective melodic riff; the musicians throw fiery improvisational shards in all directions during the track's explosive central passage. Elsewhere, as on the track "Intrepid," Interzone executes a fervent swing that is perhaps the quartet's biggest stylistic tip of the hat to the jazz tradition. (Despite its fusion proclivities, Myriad is dedicated in memoriam to Red Norvo and Milt Jackson.) Since everyone in the band performs remarkably throughout the CD, singling anyone out for particular praise is difficult. Still, future Wilco member Nels Cline simply amazes. On John McLaughlin's "Sanctuary" -- Myriad's only track not penned by Bendian -- Cline unleashes a burning, fluid, and powerfully phrased solo that reveals why he is one of the most admired electric guitarists around. Categorically speaking, Myriad deserves attention as one of the top post-fusion releases of 2000 or, for that matter, any year. Crisp and clear as crackling ice and simultaneously molten hot, it is a wonder to hear.