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Snarky Puppy’s most recent release, ‘Immigrance,’ may be their most mature offering yet – and that’s saying a lot about a band with unparalleled sonic elasticity and three Grammy awards.
Fifteen years in, Snarky Puppy still just want to groove. If you’ve listened to any of their previous work, you’ll know that the Brooklyn-based jam outfit has a lot more to them than the rather dismissive “jam” label often implies. Snarky Puppy incorporates an absolute deluge of influences, ranging from jazz to funk to hip hop and even klezmer. Such is their musical competence that even at 19 members strong, the band still manages to keep it tight as hell.
Their most recent (and thirteenth) album release, Immigrance (released March 15, 2019 via GroundUp Music) may be their most mature offering yet – and that’s saying a lot about a band with unparalleled sonic elasticity and three Grammy awards.
Still, Immigrance can basically be summed up in one word: groove.
Early Snarky Puppy had a bebop relentlessness to it. Their Java Jazz performance of “Strawman” exemplifies this perfectly, an exercise in searing solo sections, sharp staccato hits, all above a tight funk beat (you’ll notice, of course, that their cohesion was no less impressive then). Immigrance shows off an immaculately evolved Snarky Puppy. On Immigrance, Snarky Puppy takes their musical virtuosity and smelts it into an album that’s groovier than the 60s and funkier than the 70s. The first song, “Chonks,” has an addictive guitar line that’s so laid back it practically lands on the next beat.
Throughout the album, Snarky Puppy stun with their dynamic shapes. “Chonks” exemplifies this, starting out with slow but moderately intense interplay between the rhythm section, the horns, and the band’s characteristic creamy synth that rises to the top of the arrangement with its magical and psychedelic tremolo. Slowly “Chonks” builds intensity before dropping out to only that swaggering guitar line and drums, steadily reintroducing instruments and adding new flourishes before a fierce close.
This kind of dynamic experimentation is breathtaking and sadly missing in much contemporary music, and shows definitively how musically mature Snarky Puppy’s arranging is. Immigrance does, quite literally, slow the band down, but it’s in this space that listeners can hear how intentional their arrangements are.
The mellowing out wasn’t entirely unprecedented. 2014’s We Like It Here closed with “Lingus”, which lurches back and forth between a swaggering horn line and an agile guitar passage. Still, the frontman, Michael League, told Rolling Stone ahead of the release,
“You risk alienating people who love the big, exciting moments. But as we get older, the guys are into the idea of nice grooves and sounds, especially the farther away they get from being young! Those things appeal to you more than crazy licks. We’re more into setting up nice grooves that we like and sitting with things a bit longer.”
It certainly sums up Immigrance’s ethos, but perhaps in an uncharitable way.
Far from alienating, the sludgy funk of Snarky Puppy’s new album lays the foundation for some terrific, slow burn tunes. The first two songs, “Chonks” and “Bigly Strictness,” both having roaring endgame jams that earn their explosiveness with a solid four minutes of buildup – and the payoff is resounding. The immediacy of other forms of jazz has its place, certainly. Still, the intricacy of Snarky Puppy’s sonic forms, the ease with which they build on one another’s ideas in improv sections, and their willingness to keep things on a low simmer until it’s absolutely time to erupt sets them apart.
By contrast to other jam-bands, Snarky Puppy can groove on a line for swaths of time and still feel like they’re driving to something. Often this means a massive, cathartic outro but if the tune calls for it, a creeping descent into nothingness, as in the closer, “Even Us.”
“Even Us” marks further experimentation with some exotic scales for Snarky Puppy. Its mourning string section sounds practically tears at your heart, while a relentless guitar line repeats overtop like a funeral dirge. This song isn’t exactly a departure from the broad ethos of the album – that is, groove – but a subversion of it. The tempo is laid back, there’s a repeated motif throughout most of the song, but the overall arrangement communicates a completely different feeling.
Listening to “Even Us,” it’s like the band was trying to take their slow down to its creative extremes. It’s a haunting way to close what is otherwise a downright funky album.
Look forward to their live performances of these songs, which are sure to add even more complexity. For now, give Immigrance a listen.