On their fifth release, a vinyl LP and digital download, the Chicago-based sextet Herculaneum has grown into a taut, high-impact unit, its four-horn frontline weaving together into a formidable and flexible vehicle for the band’s hard-charging grooves. This time out, drummer Dylan Ryan shares songwriting duties for the first time, ceding half of the tracks to his bandmates without diluting the ensemble’s voice. Alto saxophonist David McDonnell’s “The Dragon’s Office” opens the album with an exhibition of the horns’ agility, a tenor/trombone train whistle signaling a sinewy unison line that blooms into a four-part sunburst. McDonnell’s second contribution, “Age of Iron,” is anchored by Greg Danek’s steady, chain-gang bassline, a platform for trombonist Nick Broste’s moaning lament.
Nate Lepine’s “Fern” sets a slinky, loping groove over which the horns snake around, over and through one another, each solo seeming like an unraveling of the melodic thicket. Trumpeter Patrick Newbery draws the session to a menacing close with the headbanging “Rumors.”
The first of Ryan’s contributions is a dose of Martin Denny-style exotica (sans kitsch) titled “Elmyr,” on which Danek scrapes an impression of African percussion on bass while Lepine flutters a birdsong flute line. “Chianti” and “Elizabeth Perkins” both spotlight Ryan’s knack for horn lines evoking the fiery arrangements of Andrew Hill, while “Little Murders” takes more acute turns suggesting Eric Dolphy or Sam Rivers. This band arrived several decades too late to take its rightful place on the inside-outside Blue Note roster of the ’60s.