Dancing on A’A
Review by Kevin J. Aylmer
Produced by Bill Carman & Birdsongs of the Mesozoic. Recording/Mixdown engineer Bill Carman. Recorded at Lyx Studio, Worcester, MA. Mixed at Squid Hell, Jamaica Plain, MA & Lyx, Worcester., MA Digital Editing done at Virtual Planet, Brighton, MA. CD Audio Mastering, Roger Seibel, Phoenix, Arizona.

Between images of flying pterodactyls and Tyrannosaurus Rex in the cover art, Dancing On A’A might initially appear to be some spin-off of “Jurassic Park.” Stepping nicely beyond the conventional realms of harmony and melody, dissonance and power chords, the quartet known as Birdsongs is creating aural excursions, exploring sonic landscapes by mixing composition and recording expertise. From the electric glow of the prehistoric paintings in the Altamira caverns of northern Spain to the volcanic glow of lava in Hawaii, Birdsongs of the Mesozoic is defying time, space, and gravity.

Explains band member Ken Field: “We’re not a dance band. Without vocals, we try to evoke images and emotions. From a classical perspective, we use a more varied palette of sound: Acoustic, electronic, synthesizer.” Reminded of critic Milo Miles’ perception of “a party in a Cubist roadhouse” (New York Times, September 26, 1993), Field chuckles and responds: “We’re a dimensional warp on a traditional party band.”

“Remember the bar scene in the original “Star Wars”? Bizarre band, bizarre music. We’re like that — music you’d never hear in a bar now, anywhere. Something futuristic, a little bit warped from the norm.”

Lovingly pouring rock cliche’s into an electronic Cuisine Art, Dancing On A’A begins with a distinction: “A Band Of Deborah’s (Not Debbie’s).” “Here’s a Beavis and Butthead rock lick in 7/4 time, catchy but hard to dance to,” says the composer of the piece, Michael Bierylo. Bierylo used to be seen playing gigs with Senegalese drum master Ibrahima Camara; now he’s with Birdsongs besides teaching at the Berklee College of Music. He’s also left behind his acoustic guitar work with Ibrahima for a brave new world of MIDI programming and teamwork. Mickey Bones of the Cajun-inspired Krewe de Roux adds a washboard effect and the listener embarks, accomplished through a wizardry part Tianamen Square chaos, party Kafka’s Vienna; Sturm und Drang as Field’s sax meanders towards Marrakech.

Suddenly, on track two, we’ve arrived in an atmospheric rain forest, crunch style, where Pharaoh Saunders meets in the eye of the beholder Sun Ra’s Arkestra. This is called “Dancing On A’A,” the title track revealing the inescapable hold of Hawaii on the collective imagination of Birdsongs.

In Hawaii, there are two types of lava. The first is smooth and glossy; the second is rough and full of bubbles. The latter is called “A’A” (pronounced “Ah Ah” by indigenous Hawaiians) says band member Ken Field, in all the patient tones of a field guide escorting tourists. “We’ve made three trips to Hawaii, teaching workshops at high schools on the islands. Places like Oahu and Hilo.” In the old whaling port of Hilo, the passage of time has resulted in a vibrant sense of urban music and commercial American pop culture. Birdsong is the alternative, performing in part due to a grant from the Mesozoic album. The pools, eddies, and lagoons of Maui; the renascent movement of indigenous Hawaiians exploring, for instance, the slack key guitar idiom of old; the current fusion of world music and Japanese drumming now taking place, the sybaritic meditative retreat of Kalani Honua — these memories are indelibly printed in Birdsongs’ passages. While Leo Kottke, too, has explored the primordial primitivism of a “Swamp,” in the hands of these Birdmen, Timothy Leary and MTV are revisited.

Ever-expanding, from primordial ooze and ectoplasm up to the astral belt, heralded by a soundtrack suggestive of the Starship Enterprise control room, Birdsongs’ “Swamp” is a piano-driven take-off of H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine.” Shades of Hendrix and Nigeria’s Fela superimpose onto blues reminiscent of B.B. King and the power surges of Deep Purple. Here is Hieronymous Bosch’s world, updated, through a time morphing quality more seamless, to be sure, than that of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

Again, in “Sirius The Scorching,” a liquid lava flow cascade is evoked through a sax-synthesizer synchronicity that is pure serendipity. “Sirius” is Latin for “fire”; “A’A” is Hawaiian for “fire”; a seven-bar “Bolero” pattern is repeated, augmented by the guest appearance of the Concussion Ensemble. With the Concussion Ensemble there is a drumming counterpoint to these geysers and undulating waves of sound. Out of Oceania comes another exploration called ‘Birdgam,‘ a Balinese-flavored excursion full of the exotic sounds of the Javanese gamelan orchestra. Composer Bierylo recalls. . .

“‘Birdgam‘ began in Hawaii. It’s an inspiration while there of Bali. In Balinese (or Javanese) culture, there’s no distinction between musicians and citizens. Everyone is a musician. In ‘Birdgam,’ you can feel the influences of the Pacific Rim nations.” Bierylo is adept at reproducing the sonic textures of Bali, although to the uniformed it might suggest Spike Lee interpreting ‘The Nutcracker Suite‘.”

Begun as a keyboard-based group in 1980, Birdsongs has maintained this foundation, while replacing guitar with the flute, percussion, synthesizer, and King Cleveland slide saxophone sorcery of Ken Field. Mixed at Squid Hell in Jamaica Plain, Dancing was recorded at Lyx Studio in Worcester between October, 1993 and April, 1994. With guests Mickey Bones and Jim Doherty, the album concludes with a funeral dirge. It’s called “The Pearly Eyed March,” appropriate not only for the season, but for a George Winston-like presence; more quartet magic with colleagues Erik Lindgren and Rick Scott. “We’re all about different cultural influences and music, arranged in an unexpected way, with both reverence and irreverence,” says Bierylo. “We rarely gig, although we will be artists-in-residence at Emory University this March, with shows in Georgia and North Carolina.”

Adds Field: “We are an experience, a bit avant-garde, like Picasso. If the images in Picasso’s paintings existed, this would be the music they would listen to.”

More Birdsong's Press

Scroll to Top