When the drumming’s this good, who needs vocals?

When the drumming’s this good, who needs vocals?

In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. 

Drummer Zach Barocas was always Jawbox’s secret weapon—or not-so-secret, to fans of the late, beloved post-hardcore band. As the band’s Wikipedia page notes, with far too many words, “Barocas’ unique drumming style is central to what became recognized as the band’s signature studio and live sound following their major-label debut.”

Following Jawbox’s late-’90s demise, Barocas went instrumental, playing in a post-rock trio called The Up On In, but devoting much of his artistic time to other media. In 2009 he started another instrumental group, Bells≥ (the “≥” is silent, the band’s website helpfully notes), which just released a stunning new album called Solutions, Silence, Or Affirmations

Barocas refers his instrumental music as “it-is-what-it-is art,” meaning it’s all there on the table and “contingent only on what the group plays, not on what the audience might think about what one of us is saying.” Instrumental music can seem impenetrable or academic (“You have to think of the notes they aren’t playing, man”), but Barocas’ literal approach makes it all seem a lot more listener-friendly. And Solutions, Silence, Or Affirmations is grabby that way—it doesn’t require expertise in music theory to be appreciated. 

Drummers rarely get the spotlight, but it’s easy to feel like Barocas is the frontman here, his kit up front and center stage. Not that the other members serve only as accompaniment; guitarists Stephen Shodin and Chris Ernst expertly craft mood, cellist Gordon Withers adds another intriguing layer, and on bass is Barocas’ former Jawbox bandmate J. Robbins—who also recorded the album and plays in Office Of Future Plans with Withers—locking his superbly crafted basslines in with the drums. 

Songs like “Brothers, Sisters” feel like The Barocas Show, though, thanks to an intricate beat that fills in the spaces left by the airy guitars and rumbling low end. Barocas has a way of adding quick flourishes and accents to his drumming that don’t steal focus but add a bit of detail that contributes to the whole. In the final 20 or so seconds of the song, the other instruments recede as Barocas’ beat stays front and center—but only for a few seconds before the next song begins. 

The press materials for Solutions, Silence, Or Affirmations describe the music’s “liquid, mesmerizing shifts”—specifically in regards to the Barocas/Robbins pairing—and that’s pretty apt. Sometimes instrumental music can grab just as hard as a guy screaming in your ear.

Filed Under: Music

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