May 17, 2011
The brothers of Hypnotic Brass Ensemble convene to do what they have always done so well; blow the doors off. Following 2010’s Heritage EP, the 9-piece band steps to the fore with Bulletproof Brass. This is a no frills beat driven album, fronted by a group that is slowly building a place for themselves amongst the great horn sections of recent history. Sons of trumpeter Kelan Phil Cohran, a member of the Sun-Ra Arkestra, the band members are direct descendants of both the brass band and experimental traditions rooted in the gospel of bold presentation and fearless sound – their brand of brass funk manifests like the lovechild of Public Enemy, Phenix Horns, and The Marching 100 of Florida A&M University. What they have done in a slightly smaller format than a marching band, is to preserve the traditions that survived over time in the crude horns of Haitian rara Bands, gatherings at Congo Square, big band music during the Harlem Renaissance, jazz fusion, and flat-out sweat drenched funk; the latter probably a direct result of their Chicago roots.
For the uninitiated, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble has traveled quite a long road from their native Chicago, through the subways of New York City, and into the hearts of a great many, including Gilles Peterson, host of BBC Radio 1’s Worldwide, where the group performed for live broadcast at Maida Vale in 2010. Since then the group has dispersed and reunited at their most familiar, on Chicago’s South Side, to record a collection of ideas and songs amassed during time touring and living to create what would become Bulletproof Brass. Opening with “Starfighter,” the picture of Voltron covering the EP suddenly seems outrageously appropriate.
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble – “Starfighter”
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble – “Starfighter” by noraritchie
As a 9-piece band, they are absolutely the sum of all their parts and likely not as deadly individually as they are together, which is saying something when you consider the level of musicianship that each man brings to the table. Add to that pot, the rhythm provided by drummer Emanuel Harrold, which hits like a knockout combination of 808’s and bass – these dudes are not messing around. This may not be such a novel idea, but it bears consideration after hearing the track; what if this song were played in place of “Hail To The Chief”? The ways in which “Starfighter” commands respect and submission to rhythm, make it much easier to imagine actually having a funky president instead of just thinking it a novel idea on the part of James Brown – a man who more than likely would have had a huge soft spot for Hypnotic Brass Ensemble.
“Touch The Sky,” randomly enough, will appeal heavily to fans of Uncle Luke’s Miami Bass movement of the 90s. Driven by a cadence eerily similar to the twerk friendly thump of “Its Your Birthday,” the band reaches upward with the alternating chants of “I feel good” and “Touch the sky”, dropped into breaks where the horns are not as dense. It is the upbeat lead-in to the funk clinic of “Pluto,” which plays like a mash-up of D.C. Go-Go and New Orleans’ Second Line tradition. The band’s performance sounds at times like it may very well double as a communal experience for the musicians, horns engaging in a call and response on many of the tracks, as sections ebb and flow across the register – it is hard to remember if there was ever a clear solo at any point on any of these tracks. If nothing else, the Cohran brothers and their collaborators are a well-oiled machine.
“Kryptonite” plays like the angrier sequel to “Starfighter,” it is the kind of track that leads armies into battle in warrior films and may lead to the assumption that it will not be much longer before college marching bands are calling on them for arrangements or at least playing this track during halftime shows. Punctuated by a rhyme as hard as it is sexually charged, the track is definitely in line with hip-hop’s tradition of anthems for the braggart in everyone. At least in this case the band is such a stellar force of musical talent that the idea of sitting through one ego driven track is not so offensive. Besides, anything that rocks as hard as “Alyo” and “War,” both standouts from their self-titled first release, is an automatic win. What really manages to tie the use of vocals, however sparse, into the rest of their sound, is that they are always participatory chants that allow people to feel like more than just spectators, whether the experience of Hypnotic Brass Ensemble is as close as it is in the bustling quarters of a subway station, the less immediate confines of a concert hall, or from afar in the more relaxed and controlled environment of a personal sound system.
“Champion” falls in line and builds the momentum of the project to a comfortable height fraught with the easygoing stride of a great theme, executed in warm tones and reminiscent of the ticker tape parades and Gatorade showers that often accompany those teams and individuals who bear the same distinction as the track’s title. It is the triumphant raise of a fighter’s fist, as his opponent lies on the canvas just steps away. This is not about brutality, but the celebration of survival and the exceptional talent born of the ability to outlast and surpass all others – something Hypnotic Brass Ensemble is positioning themselves to do.
The project seems alarmingly short, which is comes with the territory of an EP. Even more, however, it seems so because it is rich with the same kind of texture that makes it hard to leave a venue even after your favorite act has performed two encores – it is the blushing warmth that allows a chord or downbeat to produce tears that fall freely down the cheeks of hardened men. The problem essentially is that there just is not enough. Thankfully, there is the opportunity to replay and the promise of future releases. What they embody is likely what people actually miss when they romanticize music as it was. There is a purity of emotion that comes from instrumental performance, in all forms, that is less accessible or even noticeably present in music that is purely electronic – except in the case of those achingly talented producers who have truly bothered to master the modules they manipulate in order to create and perform. Piggybacking on that momentum, the EP closes with “BlackBoy.” Similar to “Pop’s Rap,” a staple of albums produced by emcee and fellow Chicagoan, Common, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble tap their father for words of wisdom on “BlackBoy,” as they play behind the monologue – his voice projects the kind of age that comes from the crackle of needles against vinyl records and dog-eared pages, but remains rather resolute as he references his childhood and other observations in life that have ultimately led to his definition of life as a black boy. He offers his progeny as a gift in the form of Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, simultaneously allowing a glimpse at the source of their collective mission, ethos, and talent; each harmony produced is absolutely as thick as blood – the unbreakable bond that allows them to create such impenetrable sound.
Words by Karas Lamb
You can grab the EP over at iTunes here.