With large gatherings banned for the foreseeable future, fans of musical theater and full-band live music are on the search for musical fulfillment and interesting story arcs. Enter the concept album- a perfect cross between long-form storytelling and studio recorded music. Albums like The Who’s Pinball Wizard and Green Day’s American Idiot hold their place on the pedestal of great rock operas. Over time, fans of musical theater have seen soundtracks becoming more contemporary. Musicals like Once and Hamilton make for otherwise great studio soundtracks to listen to apart from their visual stories. It’s a tall task for bands and composers to be able to write soundtracks in this long storytelling form. One NYC based band is doing it right here, combining catchy tunes with technically brilliant songwriting and performances.
The Ninth are a dynamic, often changing group of musicians. Ben Halperin (Guitar, Songwriter), Tim Russell (Vocals/Keys), Stephanie Genito (Vocals), Tim Galvin (Drums), and Jeff Ostroski (horns) make up the core of the group. The talented crew of musicians have two stellar studio works in their catalog, The Answer (2018) and Olympic Dream/Nightmare (2019). For the most part both combine elements of funk rock and musical theater. The outcome is wonderfully groovy and incredibly intricate. Catchy hooks unify every song, keeping the listener coming back.
To begin with, The Answer is a short and sweet trio of songs clocking in at just over 10 minutes. The group’s propensity to uniquely combine the minutiae of classic rock, funk, and R&B is showcased in this initial release. Funky beats match with masterfully crafted bass lines to drive the songs and provide a delightfully dance-able groove. For instance, huge brass and string parts mesh well with the core-band. This gives each song a sense of grandeur.
Vocalist Tim Russel steals the show with his soaring vocals. Meticulously performed guitar and bouncing bass reinforce the technical expertise that the band possesses. Guitarist Ben Halperin remembers how the songs acted as a jumping off point in the first place. He recalls “We were just getting our bearings and feeling out our sound…we love those songs, but there isn’t anything to them other than that we thought they were good and ready.” Halperin had been working on something special however, before the band had even assembled.
The Ninth released their first full album Olympic Dream/Nightmare in October 2019. The album tells the story of the Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding Olympic scandal. Ultimately the story was adapted and written by Halperin. The songs were also written in collaboration with the band over time. Halperin’s wife had recently opened his eyes to Broadway, theater performance, and all the possibilities the medium presented. The album idea came quick.
Having watched the Hardy/Kerrigan debacle unfold as a child, and after watching an “ESPN 30 for 30” special years later, Halperin was inspired to write about the event. He focuses especially on a couple main themes. One being how difficult it is to achieve lofty goals. The other about the damage public judgement can have on a person. Together with each other, these themes are of principal focus in the lyrics. Album in hand, Halperin started to put together his troupe.
Halperin was able to assemble an incredible crew of musicians including the likes of Broadway pit performer Jeff Ostroski, who played trumpet and also arranged the horn parts for the album. Adding in musical theater performers Tim Russel and Stephanie Genito on vocals gave the project’s lineup an extra kick. Consequently, they were outfitted to sound like a Broadway ensemble. The Ninth’s music consistently exudes influence in funk rock and jazz. The band’s consistency in genre lends to their tight-knit sound. With the clear album topic and a great sound in mind, the project could move forward with a common goal.
Putting it All Together
The re-imagination of such a dynamic event allowed the group to leverage emotional complexity to create large compositions that reflect such bittersweet themes. The real life story is about as wild as any Hollywood script. Particularly, The Ninth do a great job of capturing the chaos and beauty of the story. Every track is a roller-coaster, with highs and lows dominated by the intricate composition and wonderfully crafted lyricism.
Halperin remarks that “almost the entire first half of the album comes back some way or another in the second half.” For instance, “the title song introduces themes that recur in Limelight and Oksana, with Limelight also having a Trailer Park reprise.” Everything ties together splendidly, despite the long story arc. No strangers to big studio projects, the band offers up hit after hit.
Halperin mentions specifically how “the emotion and characters translated well to the funk and rock music that I love.”
Full brass and string sections give each song a larger-than-life feeling. This is something that the band strives to deliver. Songs such as “Saving Grace” and “Trailer Park” provide character introduction and juxtaposition between two of the story’s main characters. Namely, the band uses different vocalists for each character. Each vocalist offers a magnificent performance on their tracks and also mesh well together in harmony.
The guitar work shines marvelously throughout the entire work. Halperin matches tone to every small part of the story thus acting as a sort of narrator in the story. He provides a magnificent performance all around. Cory Wong-styled funk lines opposite soaring solos. Generally the guitar foretells the mood of the song. A sleazy funk song like “Crowbar” emulates the Jeff Gillooly character wonderfully.
Successes and Challenges
Although projects of this size don’t come together easy. It was great preparation and a solid cast of musicians that helped Olympic Dream/Nightmare come out so well done. Halperin mentions that it wasn’t so much the undertaking of the music that made the recording a challenge. He says “making music in a great studio with great musicians always has and always will be a complete pleasure.” The band recorded everything Steely Dan-style. Putting painstaking detail put into each instrument’s recording and layering is a point of pride. Indeed, the hard part was the scheduling and financing. This was no rush job, and it shows with the final product. Everything was meticulously planned and executed.
Playing Live and The Pandemic
It’s no surprise that the group has a big live sound too. They have played some of NYC’s iconic venues such as The Bitter End. Their tight grooves keep live renditions of their songs dance-able and exciting. High energy is a big defining characteristic of The Ninth. Together, this unrelenting powerhouse of a group can perform with stellar execution. “Boy do I miss crowds”, Halperin says. Specifically those crowds including musicians who are digging the music.
The off time has been ultimately slow for the band since everything is shut down. For instance, Halperin has kids and a day job. Consequently, with no access to child care right now it’s tough to focus on music. Though he is optimistic about the future. He says “we’re itching to perform once it’s safe.” In the meantime, he says the band has new music to record. Otherwise, he is available to help out with other projects, and is available to write if anyone has an idea and needs music.