fusion (noun) – a merging of diverse, distinct, or separate elements into a unified whole.
When venturing into conversations about experimental or hard-to-define musical styles I often find it beneficial to go back to the original literal definition of the genre name.
Fusion (the musical style) conjures a particular sound and a particular era, mostly the early 70s and bands like Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, Tony Williams’ Lifetime, Miles Davis’ electric bands, etc. A briefly exciting marriage of rock rhythms and jazz vocabulary that eventually got watered down through the corporate machine until it came out Smooth Jazz on the other end. Thousands of waiting rooms in dentist’s offices beckoned. But the sound of early 70s fusion is very much defined now, so I believe we’ve lost the focus on the diverse elements that went into creating that sound in the first place.
That 70s fusion sound can be heard on both of these albums, but it’s now just one ingredient among many again, it has returned to being an element of a larger whole.
Panzerballett and Special Providence have tackled a similar range of variables; combine various jazz styles and arrangements with highly technical, complex progressive metal. However, they’ve chosen their own individual approaches to attaining that merger.
(Picture by Uzziel van Baalson)
Panzerballett from Munich formed in 2004 and instantly made an impression with their insanely complex and often humorous cover versions of famous jazz and rock standards. Songs as diverse as Smoke On The Water, Giant Steps and Birdland (Weather Report) were dissected and reassembled in all kinds of imaginatively quirky ways. Classically trained bandleader Jan Zehrfeld (guitar) assembled a lineup of similarly schooled musicians including a full-time sax player and set out to play “jazz metal”. ‘Breaking Brain’ is their fourth full-length album and while the humorous elements still come into play, as a whole this is a more focused affair and features primarily original compositions.
Yes, their music is insanely complex and the music nerds have plenty to dissect and study here. But, they are so much fun at the same time, such an infectious spirit permeates these instrumental pieces that even non-musicians should find plenty to enjoy on ‘Breaking Brain’.
My attention is constantly drawn to the saxophone in their arrangements, an instrument that is still a rarity in the prog metal arena. The coloration offered by paring the saxophone with the tightly controlled prog metal arrangements really gives Panzerballett a unique sonic signature. Saxophonist Alexander von Hagke (who has toured with Asia) is an excellent player in the post-bop mold; I hear a lot of Joe Henderson and Michael Brecker influence in his playing. In fact, the music of the Brecker Brothers looms large in Panzerballet’s fusion bag; ‘Heavy Metal Bebop’ for the 21st century.
Highlights include the ferociously complex opener Euroblast, the excellent saxophone feature Der Saxdiktator and the “funk turned inside out and backwards” opus Smoochy Borg Funk.
The comical tendencies come through in the infectious Typewriter II where the rhythm of the piece is stated by the clicking and carriage returns of a manual typewriter. The album also feature a couple interesting cover choices; Mahna Mahna from the late 70s TV series The Muppet Show and an insane reading of Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther theme.
As a whole ‘Breaking Brain’ is the most exhilarating and entertaining instrumental album I’ve heard in 2015 and I highly recommend it to the more adventurous leaning progressive rock and jazz fans.
Special Providence from Hungary released their first album ‘Space Café’ in 2007 and it was primarily a jazz fusion album with elements of funk and rock mixed in. It was on their follow-up record ‘Labyrinth’ from 2008 where they really started integrating progressive rock, instrumental rock, electronics and progressive metal elements into their arrangements.
‘Essence Of Change’ is their most streamlined release to date with a more defined approach to the overall sound. The whiplash-inducing shifts from rock to jazz on their prior album ‘Soul Alert’ were undeniably thrilling but it was probably a hindrance for the non-jazz initiated to warm up to. The jazz elements and compositional complexity are still definitely in place on ‘Essence of Change’, but they’ve now been more subtly integrated, which could be partially attributed to the addition of new keyboardist Zsolt Kaltenecker.
The album flows beautifully through a variety of moods and styles, every piece melodically engaging while also revealing further complexity on repeated listens. The tracks work individually but I think the album is best experienced as a whole.
Guitarist Márton Kertész has to be mentioned here, because his assured playing permeates all these songs. A very tasteful player who possesses the chops for shredding and the restraint to only use them when absolutely necessary (which is a rarity in my experience). That description also really works for the band itself; they never allow their obvious technical skills to take precedence over their compositions.
The highlights are many, with Kiss From A Glacier and first single Northern Lights being the standouts on the first half and the song cycle of Atlas Of You, I.R.P. and the lovely Darkness on the second half.
As a jazz fan for many years I tip my hat to both Panzerballett and Special Providence for showing that fusion is alive and well in the 21st century. It warms my heart to hear young musicians still exploring that vocabulary and finding new and interesting way to apply it to modern progressive music.
‘Breaking Brain’ was released on 30th October 2015 and can be purchased from:
‘Essence of Change’ was released on 30th March 2015 and can be purchased from: