Eight years ago, there weren’t many people who knew Snarky Puppy. Heck, the pups were in their infant stages only forming four years prior. That was the last time the band hit the studio though in the traditional sense. Fast forward to today and the band is leading a very real revival of jazz music, gathering fans along the way with recent albums performed and recorded live. After the band’s first Grammy win in 2014 with Lalah Hathaway for Best R&B Performance from Family Dinner – Volume 1, the group followed it up in 2015 with a Grammy for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album with Sylva, collaborating with the Dutch Metropole Orchestra. Both wins showcased the group’s formula of recording an album live with an audience, limiting retakes and capturing raw emotion.
That was then, this (only one year later) is now. The band has decided to throw their recent formula for success out the window and head into the studio for something one can only expect to be a tightly controlled exploration of freedom and expression. The verdict is in and the new album doesn’t disappoint. On April 29, 2016, Snarky Puppy will release Culcha Vulcha, their eleventh album and first traditional studio album in eight years. Recorded at Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas, the band set their eyes within their home state, just 600 or so miles from where they formed at the University of North Texas in Denton.
Snarky Puppy is much like the ’92 Dream Team, all supremely talented individuals in their own right. And just like basketball, there’s not enough room within the bounds of a song for each to showcase those deep skills. Lucky for fans, this nine-track release strikes the perfect balance of calling the right player to shine on each track. Their understanding of timbre placement in both the forefront and background is vital in a group layered this deep and the band has always chosen wisely.
The album is blown wide open right from the start of the first track, “Tarova”, which features a sleazy riff, oozing with confidence, swagger, and a dark, cool demeanor. The opening piece features the most amount of members on any one track (17), giving you their all right up front. The rhythmically syncopated backbeat provides the protagonist to the song’s melodic antagonistic color. Michael League’s bass seems to mediate between the two, but throughout all of the interplay, the song’s identity aggressively shines.
As previous recordings have shown, Snarky Puppy has this way of bringing in worldly rhythm and feel to new audiences through their funk-laced, rhythmic jazz. As they say it’s, “music for the brain and booty”. While this influence ebbs and flows, “Semente” and “Palermo” are great examples of the worldly influence being more upfront, drawing a parallel to previous torch-carriers like The Derek Trucks Band.
The album progresses down many paths, taking on different feels yet always remaining true to the band’s unique sound. It’s the ability to draw with pencil, oil paint, acrylic, or chalk yet still have something that screams your name. Even with a mixed roster on each song, you hear this truth through the evolution. “Beep Box” is a great example of their maturation, featuring a tonally rich, almost J. Dilla, hip hop-esque feel. It’s certainly new ground, but again, inherently Snarky Puppy through and through. The slow moving, futuristic piece strips them down to their forward-moving vision. Chris Bullock’s flute work on this is delicately divine amidst the underlying pulse of the beat.
As with any other Snarky Puppy recording, it’s not about the individual tracks as it is the body of work and this is beautiful, dark, different, exploratory, and as layered as they’ve ever been. You can tell the band focused less on showing their talents and put that effort into pushing some new boundaries. What they’ve created with Culcha Vulcha is the next evolution of a dog whose getting even more bite.