Herd of Instinct – Conjure

In the late spring of 2011, the self-titled debut album by Herd of Instinct  – a hitherto unknown outfit named after the only album by Talk Talk offshoot O’Rang -  was released on Firepool Records, the label created by Gayle Ellett and Chuck Oken Jr, founding members of veteran US progressive rock band Djam Karet. Based in the Dallas-Forth Worth area of Texas, the idiosyncratic “power trio” of Mike Davison, Mark Cook and Jason Spradlin was augmented by a number of guest musicians – some quite high-profile, such as drummers Jerry Marotta, Gavin Harrison and Pat Mastelotto, and touch guitarist Markus Reuter and Gayle Ellett himself. After a few spins, the album – at first deceptively unassuming – quickly became one of my favourite albums of 2011, also earning and Herd of Instinct my personal “best new band” award.

In the months prior to the release of Conjure, their highly anticipated second album, some things have changed in the Herd of Instinct camp. The trio is now a quartet, with Ellett (an accomplished multi-instrumentalist and composer involved in a myriad of different projects)  now a full member, manning the keyboards and providing some exotic accents. While the debut featured vocals on two tracks out of 10, with Conjure Herd of Instinct have chosen a completely instrumental format. The album expands on the ideas presented on the debut, introducing subtle adjustments to the band’s distinctive sound rather than opting for a dramatic change in style – though avoiding the all too common syndrome of the sophomore effort being an inferior copy of its predecessor.

This time around, the presence of guest artists is kept to a minimum – with Porcupine Tree bassist Colin Edwin the only household name on the list –  emphasizing Herd of Instinct’s status as a real band rather than a loose group of musicians. With Ellett’s keyboards used discreetly to accent the work of the other instruments, and a smattering of programmed drums to supplement Jason Spradlin’s deft work behind the kit, the musical texture is profoundly atmospheric, often hypnotic and occasionally hard-edged, each instrument meshing with the other to produce an organic flow. On Conjure – even more so than on Herd of Instinct’s debut – the four band members bring their wide range of influences and keenly eclectic attitude to full fruition

Clocking in at around 53 minutes, Conjure features 12 tracks, the longest of which falls short of the 6-minute mark. However, there is plenty of complexity for fans to sink their teeth into, and a lot of interesting details are packed into each of those apparently short numbers. The one criticism I might level at the album is that, though anything but overlong, it temporarily loses steam in its second half. In fact, a couple of somewhat repetitive tracks might have been omitted without any detriment to the rest of the material. On the other hand, the performances of all the artists involved are top-notch, possessing that effortless quality that is not always easy to achieve when playing highly complex music.

Immediately creating a connection with the band’s debut, “Praxis” successfully combines variety and fluidity, its many layers subtly and skillfully rendered. Gayle Ellett’s Mellotron – an essential ingredient of the album’s instrumental texture – fleshes out the sleek, intricate work of Mike Davison and Mark Cook’s guitars, blending with the liquid polyrhythms of the Warr guitar and contrasting with an array of eerie electronic effects, while flute adds a  soothing, pastoral note. “Dead Leaf Echo” introduces a keen metal-like edge reminiscent of King Crimson ‘s late Nineties incarnation; the many tempo changes are handled deftly, with peaks of riff-heavy intensity followed by low-key passages dominated by the evocative sound of Mellotron and Warr guitar. Starting out in similar fashion, “Brutality of Fact” soon turns solemn, tapping into that cinematic vein evidenced by the band’s debut, and pushing Mellotron and Hammond organ to the forefront together with the guitars and Jason Spradlin’s powerful drumming.

With the one-two punch of “Alice Krige pt. 1” and “Solitude One”, Conjure reaches its creative peak. The former explores the rarefied, atmospheric territory that had made Herd of Instinct’s debut such an intriguing proposition, with ethereal trumpet and flute complementing the echoing sound effects and sparse lap steel guitar, spiced by warm-sounding percussion; the latter, based on the Indian dilruba (one of the many exotic string instruments mastered by Ellett), juxtaposes haunting ambient and ethnic elements with trance-like electronics. The first half of the album closes with the clear, intersecting guitar lines and wistful Mellotron of “Ravenwood”, accented by a sprinkling of electronic effects.

The Mellotron takes a lead role again in the aptly titled “Mother Night”, a stately, faintly gloomy piece redolent of Scandinavian prog icons such as Anekdoten. “Vargtimmen”, based on a percussion sample from Steve Tibbetts’ Friendly Fire collection, is introduced by recorded voices that intensify its brooding, ominous quality; while the somewhat harsh-sounding “Malise”, rife with buzzing electronics, is in my view the weakest link on an otherwise strong album. Urgent drumming and sharp, assertive guitar lines propel the Morricone-influenced “New Lands, which also features a particularly expressive guitar solo (almost a rarity on an album based on a tight instrumental texture rather than on individual performances). Slow and measured, “A Sense of an Ending” hints at some episodes of Trey Gunn’s output, as well as the more sedate compositions of second- and third-phase King Crimson, while the airy, spacious melody in the first half of closer “The Secret of Fire” leads to an entrancing, almost slo-mo finale enhanced by piano and spacey sound effects.

Herd of Instinct have also upped the ante in terms of artwork, and Conjure comes with a strikingly sinister cover that suggests one of the Three Fates ready to sever the thread of life. Like its predecessor, the album may be a grower rather than a “love-at-first-listen” affair, and require more than a couple of absent-minded listens to make its full impact. On the other hand, with its sophistication and eclecticism, it strengthens the band’s reputation as one of the most interesting presences in the variegated “instrumental prog” universe, and will not disappoint those who had appreciated their debut. It is to be hoped that some festival organizers – either in the US or elsewhere – will also take notice.

Tracklist:

1. Praxis (5:14)
2. Dead Leaf Echo (3:18)
3. Brutality of Fact (3:17)
4. Alice Krige pt.1 (5:54)
5. Solitude One (4:25)
6. Ravenwood (3:27)
7. Mother Night (4:23)
8. Vargtimmen (4:59)
9. Malise (3:15)
10. New Lands  (4:12)
11. A Sense of an Ending (5:30)
12. The Secret of Fire (5:16)

Line-up:

* Mark Cook – Warr guitar, ADG fretless bass, guitar, programming
* Mike Davison – guitar, 12-string acoustic guitar, guitar synth
* Gayle Ellett – Moog, Mellotron, Hammond organ, Rhodes, dilruba
* Jason Spradlin – drums, programming

With:
* Joel Adair – trumpet (4)
* Joe Blair – lap steel guitar (4)
* Colin Edwin – fretless bass (1, 11)
* Bob Fisher – flute (1, 4)
* Lisa Lazo – keyboards (5)

Links:

http://www.herdofinstinct.com

http://www.djamkaret.com/firepoolrecords/herdofinstinct2/

http://progmistress.com/2012/03/21/interview-herd-of-instinct/

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