Braving the Harshest Sonic Textures and Minimalist Permafrost With Toronto’s Muskox

If there’s one thing I can really appreciate in music, it’s things that cannot be described easily. Musical projects that defy the classic Who-Meets-Who model and that cannot be tied down accurately without necessitating a lengthy explanation are likely to intrigue me the most. I suppose by that measure then, I must be totally flipping my shit when I meet someone who is not only a part of one such act – one that so flagrantly flaunts categorization – but is also just as stumped as me when it comes to describing his own music.

I know that no one feels really comfortable describing their own art, but if you happen to be privy to the genre-bending glories and technical brilliance of Muskox, you’ll no doubt agree that it would take a music writer of Herculean literary prowess, with monstrous prose of steel in order to tackle the very surface of this Toronto-based sextet. And with this chaotic yet monolithic concoction made from the finest Americana, Jazz and Avant-Garde Minimalism, to listen is to be as rewarding as it is baffling.

“Essentially it’s just whatever I’m hearing that’s interesting me,” explains an exacerbated Mike Smith, chief composer and banjo-player for this unique outfit, “But also within the shackles of that group of instruments that I’m working with and going by the music I’ve written already. But in terms of where it started, I started this project initially the first time I started hearing things like Steve Reich. And this was years and years ago, but I started thinking about taking that and applying it to a jazz equation.

“At the time I was interested in writing large-ensemble jazz music, like jazz orchestra stuff and looking at how the rhythm section functions within that, like piano, bass, guitar. I thought, ‘OK, their job is to provide harmonic accompaniment, what if I make these constructions minimalist pieces and have that as sort of the engine that the melodic stuff can form over.’ So it keeps the same function but does it in a much stricter way; it’s a heavily dictated way, but it’s also a lot freer rhythmically, it’s a little more floaty. So I was playing off of that idea but at the same time got really into Captain Beefheart and listen to the jagged, irregular rhythms and basically played around with that kind of stuff for quite a while trying to find something that worked.”

You see what I mean? Muskox is not an easy act to wrap one’s head around; though let’s be honest here for a second, that is not something that any Steve Reich fan would really want of his audience. Unfortunately, or perhaps extremely fortunately, the plot only thickens from here as Reich and Captain Beefheart are only the beginning for this, the mysterious case of the perplexing, gorgeous Muskox. Smith continues:

“And then I saw a band called Town and Country, from Chicago, they’re this sort of crazy, I guess kind of improv band but that did really slow, long pieces with a very similar instrumentation – that’s where I first saw someone really use a harmonium. They had a couple of bass players, they were all playing hand bells; just a lot of stuff from the same sort of pallet that I was into and that sort of got me thinking that I could do this too. Since then the music I’ve written doesn’t really – well, there are similar characteristics, but it’s a lot faster, a lot more rhythmically active. Just hearing music like that inspires me, now it’s the same thing: I’m listening to tons of calypso now and really drawing a lot from those rhythmic textures.”

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Utilizing an extremely idiosyncratic lineup of instruments and musicians – banjo, upright bass, cello, vibraphone, saxophone and harmonium – Smith is able to gain access to sonic territories that most have rarely experienced, and without fail these powers are used exclusively for good. Five Pieces, the first full-length release from Muskox after a slew of EPs over the past three years, released by local boutique label Standard Form, is a dense, intelligent and technically magnificent record that stands as both a fear of musicianship and composition. Smith’s composing is erratic but deliberate and his band is here in top form as they navigate Smith’s uncompromisingly demanding rhythmic and melodic feats of strength.

Each of the record’s five pieces stand out individually as being perfectly-crafted and isolated incidents of unheard glory (the tense, immediate “Slinger” is especially able to run on its own two legs as it pulses and churns with almost paranoid urgency), but taken together Five Pieces is a workout, an intense marathon of intricacies and wonder. It is a challenging album, but it is also an extremely rewarding one and it is a record that matches its own skill with an ever-present sense of whimsy and discovery.

“In some ways [switching to the full CD as opposed to the 3” mini-disc which all previous Muskox offerings have been released on] it was to get away from writing twenty minutes of music in one chunk,” Smith says of the new form of Five Pieces, “It represents stuff I’ve written roughly over the last year whereas on the three previous EPs it was more like a single idea stretched over three or four parts. This one is five distinct… pieces, or whatever, really trying out different concepts for each one.

Recorded at 6 Nassau, a relatively new studio in Kensington, Five Pieces certainly marks a distinct turning point in Smith’s composing. But as the soft-spoken, quirky banjo-player notes, his career with Muskox has hardly been constant.

“It’s funny because I never studied banjo, I studied double bass, that’s what I played at school and that’s what I played in this band for the first year and a half. Originally the group was just four and it was people who were really interested in approaching the type of music I wanted to make and one of them was a friend of mine – great banjo player. After a while – and everything’s written down, it’s all pre-composed, everyone just gets music in front of their faces and he was the only one who wasn’t a trained guy and he ended up getting – I don’t know if he got frustrated, but he left the group in any case.

“But I had all of this music I had written with banjo and just didn’t know anyone who could sort of play this stuff; but I knew the part so I said ‘OK, I guess I play banjo now.’ But in terms of where it fits in with the music… it’s definitely the oddest one, from the core of it and that’s because it has a fairly percussive sound, but it’s also very melodic so it fits in with the mallet percussion really well and with piano too, it’s a similar sort of sound. It’s suited to doing these really repetitive, kind of minimalist textures and then it’s just about countering that with long sounds as well, there’s the harmonium and the saxophone there now. Since then it’s only grown so I think we’re going to cap it at six people.”

So, I came up with a term for Muskox of my own and I’m going to try and coin it here and see how that goes. I’m not entirely confident about it, but I feel like it’s going to be the best we’re going to get for now: Post-Folk. I think Post-Folk is a pretty good way to go as far as Muskox is concerned, much in a way that the better Post-Rock groups blended elements of jazz and minimalism in with rock and roll instrumentation, so here does Muskox (to a degree) do with traditional folk. What we are left with is long, meandering (but always purposeful) pieces that utilize instruments – such as banjo – more commonly associated with Americana and fit them very successfully into an avant-garde mode. It isn’t easy doing your own thing against anything even resembling a grain, but with Muskox and their Five Pieces, Mike Smith is treading new territory hopefully, cheerfully and never without a sense of wonder.