Anyone who has spent any time with Mike Keneally’s Scambot 1 album from 2009, or indeed any of his other albums, will be aware that Mike is a very strange man – and more power to him for that! His releases always take you to somewhere different, whether you want to go there or not, and the verb to ‘Keneally’ should be common parlance for taking an existing thing and turning it on its head to produce something new that no one had previously considered possible.
Seven years on and we now have Scambot 2, the second part of a proposed trilogy, complete with the Inkling bonus disc of sketches and more bonkers stuff recorded during the album sessions. All of these creations use such things as guitars, fingers, drums and human brains – pretty standard kit. But wait! The music has been ‘Keneallied’ to the point where it resembles nothing much else. There are influences apparent, on first listen I heard bits of Zappa here (In the Trees), some Gentle Giant there (superbly realised in Pretzels and Buzz), even some Steely Dan – but it has all been Keneallied through Mike’s particular audio prism and comes out… different. There’s jazz; there’s Southern boogie; jam band looseness; sunny Californian sounds; baroque; Dethklok style intensity. In fact, Allsorts, but it works a treat.
The story behind Scambot, as detailed in the liner notes, is all but impenetrable without some serious work, but that doesn’t overly matter. Scambot 2 is more lyrical than the first volume, allowing the words to drive the plot. Individual characters appear but are not delineated by specific voices so you WILL need the included lyrics/storyline if you want to follow it all. As a whole Scambot 2, despite still being a very odd thing, is less wilfully obtuse than the first volume and as a result more approachable and accessible. As Mike himself says, “I had to keep reminding myself of my stated desire to have this album be less dense and demandingly abstract than Scambot 1 was.”
Keneally’s stunt guitar credits with Zappa, Joe Satriani, G4, his own Beer For Dolphins and Dethklok should be wider known than they are but he is so, so, so much more than a shredder. A musician of incomparable skill he is also a wonderful composer and arranger with a very individual style, his workaholic nature producing a mountain of music that is often hard to categorise. Add to this the awesome skills of the sidemen he uses – step forward Bryan Beller, Joe Travers, Marco Minnemann, Rick Mussallam et al – and the MK brand is always one of crafted quality.
So how does one approach reviewing a massive amount of strange sounds such as these? Well, first stop would be Mike’s website where can be found a song diary, Mike enlightening the head scratching listener on the inspiration and method behind the songs for both discs. It really is a good read if you want to get a handle on where Mike is coming from on these songs. The scene is well and truly set by opener In the Trees, the longest track, an avant burst of disconcerting jazzy Zappaness with beautiful melodic bits and vocals from Ben Thomas of Zappa Plays Zappa fame. Roots Twist is almost Blues, only, er, Keneallied and there’s a fine groove to Sam, the guitar soloing another tip of the hat to Zappa that shows how much Mike learnt from his time with the Great Man. Clipper is a lovely thing, the studio banjo being pressed into action with beautifully layered guitars and a choir, the scope of this album often beggaring belief, but if it works, it’s in. A brief fragment of cheesy keys, brass, flutes and harpsichord? Well that’ll be Forget About It.
Race the Stars is a rocky strut with tastefully brilliant and unexpected soloing, Umphrey’s McGee drummer Kris Myers adding to the vocals, whilst O is an interlude of electronics with a repeating guitar figure. Ben Thomas returns for the heavy rockin’ Roll while Constructed slows things down with a left-turn into country. ’60s references comes through for Freezer Burn with brass and some lovely Keneally soloing, the last part with an air of Steves Hackett or Howe about it. Scores of People features an instrumental section that Mike wrote aged 16 while Cold Hands Gnat is a cousin to Cold Hands from Scambot 1, actually recorded prior to it with titular gnat performing the vocals. It’s fragile and acoustic with guitar, piano and sax. Finally, Proceed leaves things hanging nicely for the third volume.
Inkling, although by definition more fragmented and less complete, is another enjoyable listen. There are ideas that haven’t found a home anywhere else, some guitar based, some keyboard, many experimental, and fully formed songs like Scambot, Tom and the groovesome Cram that didn’t quite fit the finished concept. There is much unorthodox melody and weirdness, angstyness from the likes of The Coma through to the delicate flute melody of I Named You or the organ of Skating Backwards. Some of them are bits of tracks that were dropped from the finished pieces on the mother album, as can be seen with Falafel, but all of them are worthy and well housed under the Inkling umbrella, the lugubrious piano ‘n’ clarinet Uncompressed Rag wrapping it all up beautifully.
The scale of it all – the playing, the writing, the concept – just bends the brain. There is not one moment of Scambot 2 that appears as expected but it all makes sense when it clicks the gears in your mind to the right setting. If you struggle with this might I suggest some WD-40 and a little leverage as it is more than worth the effort. We are fortunate to have artists as singularly talented and with the vision of Mike Keneally – we are truly not worthy.
Disc 1 – Scambot 2
01. In The Trees (10:28)
02. Roots Twist (3:02)
03. Sam (3:20)
04. Clipper (4:36)
05. Forget About It (0:46)
06. Pretzels (4:25)
07. Buzz (4:32)
08. Race The Stars (3:44)
09. O (1:26)
10. Roll (6:23)
11. Constructed (3:46)
12. Freezer Burn (5:23)
13. Scores of People (5:22)
14. Cold Hands Gnat (4:00)
15. Proceed (3:19)
Total time – 58:00
Disc 2 – Inkling (More from the Scambot 2 Sessions)
01. Presence (0:48)
02. Scambot (2:17)
03. Boghe (4:01)
04. Sickness (2:01)
05. The Coma (2:11)
06. I Named You (0:45)
07. Falafel (1:29)
08. O Elastic Love! (1:23)
09. Cram (8:10)
10. Mystery Song (0:04)
11. E (0:37)
12. The Scorpions (5:32)
13. Skating Backwards (2:15)
14. Tom (7:01)
15. Mayday! (1:25)
16. Lovesong (1:27)
17. Back It Up (2:54)
18. Inkling (1:37)
19. Uncompressed Rag (2:04)
Total time – 48:01
Mike Keneally – Guitar, Keyboards, Piano, Bass (tracks 1.14 and much of Inkling), Bells (track 1.15), Wood Flute (track 1.15), Banjo (track 1.4), Lap Steel (track 1.12), Organ (track 2.12), Vocals, Songs, Illustrations, Story, Production
Ben Thomas – Vocals (tracks 1.1,1.10 & 2.9), Congas (track 1.3) Trombones & Trumpets (track 1.12)
Jesse Keneally – Vocals (tracks 1,4 & 11,2.9)
Pete Griffin – Bass (tracks 1.1,1.3,1.7,1.12,2.7,2.14 & 2.17), Upright Bass (track 1.11)
Kris Myers – Drums (tracks 1.1,1.3,1.7,1.8,1.10,1.11,1.12,2.9,2.14 & 2.17), Vocals (track 1.8, 2.7)
Bryan Beller – Bass (tracks 1.2,1.8,1.10,1.15,2.4 & 2.12)
Joe Travers – Drums (tracks 1.2,1.8,1.15 & 2.12)
Doug Lunn – Bass (tracks 1.4,1.6 & 1.13)
Gregg Bendian – Drums & Percussion (tracks 1.4,1.6 & 1.13)
Evan Francis – Saxophones (tracks 1.5,1.14 & 2.12), Flutes (tracks 1.5 & 2.6), Clarinet (track 2.19)
Marco Minnemann – Drums (tracks 1.5,2.2,2.4,2.5,2.6 & 2.10), Cymbals (track 2.13)
Rick Mussallam – Guitar (tracks 1.10,1.15 & 2.12 plus others uncredited on Inkling)
Record Label: Exowax Recordings
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 9th September 2016