Monstrous fusion orchestra Snarky Puppy is hands-down one of the most inspiring acts making music right now. With its multitude of musicians, Snarky Puppy is able create intricate and vast sonic spaces that have a lot of moving parts working in beautiful unison. Its latest album, “Culcha Vulcha,” actually scales back the band’s scope and captures a side of it that has not been seen in awhile.
Snarky Puppy’s “Culcha Vulcha” was the 2017 Grammy Award winner for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album.
The one thing that separates the ensemble from a lot of the pack is its unbridled ambition. Create a musical juggernaut with a rotating cast of players that feels more like a passion product of music nerds than a viable succes? Check. Release 11 albums and earn a Grammy in five years? Check. Record multiple albums with a live audience and cameras rolling? Check. Snarky Puppy also has worked with a number of eclectic artists and its last release, “Family Dinner Vol. 2,” captured the band performing with more than 15 guests including songstress Laura Mvula, renowned jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter and the legendary David Crosby.
With “Culcha Vulcha,” the group decided to step back and put away the invitations to the studio recordings, put down its Roledex of collaborators and record its first true studio album of core members since 2012’s “Bring Us The Bright.” Environment seems to be critical to the musicians and it left behind the guests and audiences for the isolating, desert allure of El Paso, Texas. What this did was shed the excess weight and clear the head of distractions and allow the band to just find the music. The album feels less concerned in creating heavily technical parts and more about capturing the natural byproduct of these gifted guys sharing a room together and pressing record.
If the band’s recent output is a Eugene Delacroix epic from the French Romantic period with its 6-foot tall canvas and overly dramatic depictions of war history, then “Culcha Vulcha” is an Ansel Adams photo of the desert in a simple but neat frame. This shift in direction leads the album feeling more groove-centric. “Semente” is an easy going wave of Latin rhythm that is highlighted with delightful flute and horns circling around the melody. “Gemini” is a languid breeze of guitars and “Beep Box” feels like a handful of the members just sat at their instruments and pieced together an opiate-like jam on the spot with synths that consume you and bass that buzzes your cortex.
This isn’t to say Snarky Puppy has gotten less dynamic in its compositions, it is just less busy. “Grown Folks” builds from a bubbling interplay of bass and guitar into a loose, funk exercise and finally into a gnashing back and forth of guitars, organs and horns. It is more primal than thought out and you can feel the energy of the musicians trying to one-up one another with their solos in the third part. “Palermo” places you right in the tropics with enchanting flutes and vibes that hover over a deep-seated bass line. It grows in intensity and desire as the melody hums with the roar of the ocean. Just close your eyes and Snarky Puppy is capable of taking you to some far out places.
This masterful group could never make a record again and still be considered one of the most influential and prolific musical projects of this era. Thankfully, that doesn’t seem to be the case and we can look forward to more albums of stunning musicianship. After doing its most back-to-basics material in years on “Culcha Vulcha” it will be interesting to see where Snarky Puppy heads next.