Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society: “Infernal Machines”

infernal macines

Darcy James Argue– jazz composer, wunderkind, pundit, and renaissance man– refers to the music he creates as “steampunk big band,” a reference to a literary niche that is defined by its anachronisms: Antiquated technology imbued with a sense of futurism. To some, that might sound like a hipster joke taken way too far, but if there’s meant to be any irony in Argue’s music, he doesn’t let it slip past his stoney poker face. He’s not a postmodern prankster; he’s an honest-to-God visionary whose motives are pure and whose sense of humor is appropriately subtle; he’s an intellect who’s never too erudite to be elitist; and he takes this whole steampunk thing seriously enough to believe that he really can reshape the past in order to comment on the present.

For proof, look no further than his chosen means of communication: An eighteen-piece ensemble, a real-life big band. The very concept of big band jazz is largely antiquated, but to say that this isn’t your grandfather’s big band is a dramatic understatement. As composer and bandleader, Argue completely reboots our expectations of what big band music can sound like, all while remaining true to the medium’s roots and without ever seeming like he’s trying to be audacious. The music he makes sounds like the natural evolution of big band jazz, had the genre remained in the public eye for the past several decades. It’s the natural progression of a genre that’s been too neglected to truly progress– and therein lies the audacity.

Argue’s musical vocabulary is rooted in tradition without ever seeming particularly orthodox, which means that his music is hip without sounding like a novelty or a self-conscious experiment. And it’s no pastiche, either; indeed, Argue– a prolific blogger on all topics jazz-related– has expressed a distaste for jazz ensembles that simply incorporate modern pop/rock cover songs into their repertoire as a way of seeming edgy. His own music is not a pastiche, but a true integration; he honors the structure and spirit of big band jazz even as he shows that he’s absorbed the language of Radiohead, Steve Reich, Charles Mingus, and countless others.

His album– Infernal Machines— takes its title from a quotation from John Philip Sousa, who was issuing a warning about the dangers of advancing musical technology. And that’s the one true irony of the record– not only is Argue clearly a 21st century man, active as a blogger and Twitterer, but he also incorporates modern recording technology into his own compositions, such as the muffled effects that cloak the percussion leading into “Phobos,” or the looped acoustic guitar that builds the hypnotic effect on “Redeye.” He takes Sousa’s warning as a dare, and he succeeds not in subverting it so much as flat-out undermining it, making music that employs technology for its own soulful, compositionally rich and intellectually stimulating ends.

And indeed, while Argue is nothing is not an intellectual– his song titles will likely send you scurrying to Wikipedia in search of an explanation for his obscure historical references– the music isn’t merely enjoyable as mental masturbation. It’s genuinely thrilling, intoxicating music; for while Argue winks at the past with one eye, his music is decidedly a product of the present. It’s a musical commentary on an ever-changing global community, and it’s at once filled with bright-eyed wonder and ominous dread. The steady progression of time is made literal in “Zeno,” which begins by quoting from old-timey swing music before evolving into something else altogether, and present-day concerns are never far off; “Habeas Corpus” is a dark and eloquent political protest in which words are unnecessary, and “Jacobin Club”– named after a group of French revolutionaries whose secret meetings and shady dealings eventually gave way to a reign of terror– begins all sinister and slinky before erupting into a jarring explosion of violence.

Shockingly, this is only Argue’s first recording, despite several years of performing with this outfit. The time spent playing these songs in live settings has honed the instincts of everyone involved, but what dazzles the most is Argue himself, a composer is extraordinary sophistication and skill. His achievement stands out not only in the relatively small world of jazz, but in the broader sphere of popular music: Few musicians command such a broad musical vocabulary as he, and still fewer attain such a striking balance of history and present-mindedness. If he manages to break through from the fairly small confines of big band jazz circles and reach a larger audience– to let the secret out, so to speak– it will be another undeniably impressive line on his resume, but it will do nothing to eclipse the momentous achievement of the music itself.

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  1. Jazz Revolution « The Hurst Review - May 24, 2009

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