Even among today’s many ambitious drummer-composer-bandleaders, Ches Smith applies his skills to an especially dynamic array of brainy projects. Last year he appeared on Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, continued in Mary Halvorson’s quintet and released a solo percussion disc, to name a few. His technique has landed him in a number of exploratory rock bands, too, including Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog.
Halvorson switched leadership roles with Smith for These Arches’ strong 2010 debut, Finally Out of My Hands, which also included Andrea Parkins (accordion, electronics) and Tony Malaby (tenor saxophone). When Malaby couldn’t make a tour, Berne filled in and never left, ratcheting up the caliber of the music and the potential for wild flights off of the compositions. Hammered delivers in both respects.
Smith’s writing straddles his musical backgrounds, with the visceral attack of his rock side, some tripped-up melodic detours and a willingness to stop and rethink directions when least expected. The steady guitar and thundering toms on the title track sound like a Sonic Youth backing track, with alto and accordion superimposing an Eastern European melody on it. Like many of the songs, it includes a section where the quintet splits into five-point chaos.
With all those lead instruments, the album’s free flights get busy but never cluttered, and someone always directs everyone back to the theme. Smith’s accents and fills spur the group on to the next level. Of the two saxophonists, Malaby often plays with more aggression, coming to a boil with growls and overtones, yet Berne does his fair share of ripping, too. Parkins and Halvorson cover the low end, rocking especially hard on “This Might Be a Fade Out.” Hopefully the players’ busy calendars won’t preclude a follow-up to Hammered.