Critics, we of the great unwashed variety, are always ruining things. Our unwarranted, unqualified shenanigans have slaughtered many a classic artist and wrecked many a deified professional. We laugh about it now, sure, but in our quiet moments we’ve been known to shed a few tears. Not human tears, mind you. We critics are an evil lot.
Chris Dahlgren and Lexicon “critique the critics” with Mystic Maze, a concept album of sorts that sets negative reviews of Béla Bartók’s music to the bassist-composer’s work.
So who was Béla Bartók? He was a Hungarian composer and pianist, widely considered one of the most important musicians of the 20th century. Even in those days, there were critics. They may not have been snot-nosed bloggers or puerile commentators, but they still spewed venom and still, yes, ruined things in their own snooty fashion.
Dahlgren’s desire to take on these ruiners of all things holy comes from a pure place, I suppose, but the execution on Mystic Maze leaves an awful lot to desired.
Lexicon is his band. Comprised of some of Berlin’s top players, it is an eclectic and vibrant group of musicians without question. Dahlgren meshes into things nicely and pokes his bass through the spaces with patience.
He underlines the proceedings immediately on the title track. The scattered arrangement is laid under Dahlgren’s reading of a negative review of Bartók taken from the Cincinatti Enquirer in 1928. The review is scathing and pretentious. It doesn’t gain much of value when Dahlgren reads in it the rhythmic style of a Beat poet. He sounds more like a computerized model than a vocalist of any kind, however, and the lack of humanity distances the piece considerably.
Dahlgren’s vocals don’t always take on a Dr. Spaitso air. With “Reminisences on the Fourth Quartet of Béla Bartók,” he sounds like a new age author reading his book aloud over meandering 70s keyboards from Greek player Antonis Anissegos and full-blooded reed-work thanks to Gebhard Ullman’s soprano sax.
With these sorts of pieces, Mystic Maze can be quite abrasive and pretentious. When the group swings into its instrumental pieces, however, there is beauty to be found.
“Painless Dentistry No. 1” is an example of the melting of spirits that Lexicon allows for in their best moments. A low groove is tapped out early by Dahlgren’s double bass and Eric Schaefer’s percussion. The reeds dive in to the party and Anissegos adds ivory spice to the open piece of experimental jazz. It’s a treat.
Mystic Maze attempts to be the intersection of criticism and art. It is a revenge fantasy of sorts, acted out through the passionate and creative meanderings of Dahlgren and Co. There are moments of splendour tucked into this adventurous record, to be sure, but too much is wrapped up in a gaudy labyrinth of overwrought manipulation and less-than-intriguing vocals.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some senior citizens to push down a hill. We critics are, after all, an evil lot.
Originally published as Review: Chris Dahlgren & Lexicon – Mystic Maze at Blinded By Sound.