It’s no secret that I enjoy the complicated compositions of Chris Rosenau and Jon Mueller, and that I have followed their collaborative efforts for many years, beginning with the contemplative jazz-inspired noodling of Pele, and eventually moving on to the evolutionary and electronically-aided instrumental experiments of Collections of Colonies of Bees. (And let’s not forget the Justin Vernon-accompanied and electronically-tweaked ambient-folk project Volcano Choir.)
Indeed, I am a fan; make of that what you will.
But before I can explain the reasoning behind my introductory accusations of musical fraud, you need a little bit of history. Back in 2004, Collections of Colonies of Bees—then comprised of founding percussionist Jon Mueller and guitarist Chris Rosenau, plus electronic composer Jim Schoenecker and guitarist Jon Minor—recorded and released their seminal opus, Customer, in two distinct forms. Intentionally composed as two separate albums (one released in the United States, the other in Japan), the dueling iterations of Customer served as mirror-images of one another, their identical track lists featuring inverted performances wherein their electronic and instrumental elements traded places; what was ethereal on one became corporeal on the other, and vice versa.
Customer was a unique and ambitious project to say the least. Stranger still, a third iteration of the album eventually became available in the form of an all-electronic LP which combined tracks from both the US and Japanese editions. While an arguably superfluous release, there’s no denying that this late edition of Customer made for an altogether different listening experience than its older, far-from-identical twin siblings.
(And, yes—as implied by the introduction, I own all three. Like I said/wrote, I’m a fan.)
Flash forward four years later. While listening to Collections of Colonies of Bees’ fifth album, Birds, I noticed some strange similarities between Bird’s four-part “Flocks” song-cycle and the nine-part “Fun” compositions from Customer. Certain guitar riffs sounded as though they were borrowed or adapted from those of Customer. Select percussive rolls and runs appeared retooled and reconsidered. True, the resemblance was subtle in many cases—I only noticed it after a marathon listening session of Pele and Bees albums that inevitably trailed into the then-new Birds—but it was definitely there. I just wasn’t sure what to make of it.
I could hardly bring myself to believe that Rosenau or Mueller were simply phoning it in for the sake of having a new album to sell on tour. That’s just not their style; nor is their established fan base large enough to make such an artistic retread worthwhile. It’s not like Collections of Colonies of Bees were trying to pull a Pearl Jam and sell yet another live version of “Jeremy”, y’know?
Eventually, my nagging suspicions of cryptic self-referencing and compositional interconnectivity were both confirmed and explained in an email from composer and electronic musician Thomas Wincek. Along with guitarist Daniel Spack, Wincek had joined the Bees’ roster in the years following the release of Customer and the departure of Jon Minor. Specifically, the email revealed that the first three “Flocks” tracks were indeed reworked versions of the “Fun” compositions from Customer, and that they had been substantially rearranged and reconfigured to make better use of the Bees’ expanded lineup and improved live dynamics. Familiar elements notwithstanding, the songs were essentially brand-new. Wincek further noted that “Flocks IV” was the only entirely new track on the album, and that even it had been altered during brainstorming and recording sessions to the point where it scarcely resembled Wincek’s original composition (which itself says a lot for the inclusiveness of Collections of Colonies of Bees’ creative process).
With this in mind, I couldn’t help but go into the Bees’ sixth album, GIVING, with expectations of hearing a few familiar melodies and reminiscent rhythms woven into the album’s otherwise-all-new compositions. I was hoping to find some auditory Easter eggs, and I was not disappointed.
Aided and abetted by bassist Matt Skemp (who also plays in Wincek’s All Tiny Creatures), Collections of Colonies of Bees’ Rosenau, Mueller, Schoenecker, Wincek, and Spack have once again rummaged through the Bees’ back catalogue, carving bits and pieces off their old tunes and tossing them into the whirling musical blender that is their current six-man setup. Really, the end result is far less redundant than this description—let alone my half-serious opening gripe—would have you believe.
It bears noting that the contributions from Customer are far more subtle this time around, and that their provenance is altogether trickier to ascertain. Opening track “Lawn”, for one, tweaks and twists a familiar Rosenau six-string progression—previously heard in “Fun #6”, later slowed and savoured in “Flocks I”—to the point of neigh-unrecognizability. Which is almost entirely the point: However referential that riff might appear to an experienced Bees listener, it soon gives way to the metamorphic rhythms of Mueller and Skemp, which in turn provide a quick-shifting counterpoint to the slick guitar interplay of Rosenau and Spack and the sampled-and-processed flourishes of Wincek and Schoenecker. So, really, it’s less a trumped-up rerecording than a total reimagining of an earlier composition. The ingredients might be the same, but these musical master chefs have whipped up something entirely new that will doubtless shock and amaze the listener’s unsuspecting aural palette.
Likewise, even though the bright guitar passage that asserts itself roughly thirty seconds into “Vorm” bears a strong resemblance to “Flocks II” (and to its sire, “Fun #3”), Mueller’s pace-setting percussion—aided by Wincek and Schoenecker’s burgeoning ‘spherics, Skemp’s weighty four-string contributions, and Spack and Rosenau’s divergent riffs—soon leads “Vorm” far and away from the beaten path. Ditto for the head-bobbing “Lawns”, which hearkens back to “Flocks IV” without contenting itself to patently ape or lightly amend its predecessor. Certainly, avid fans of Collections of Colonies of Bees’ earlier recordings will know exactly where these songs came from, but even then there’s no predicting as to where they will inevitably lead.
Rounding out the album, “Vorms” appears to reach even further back into the collaborative history of Mueller and Rosenau, with faint traces of Pele-era compositions like “Olympic” (off 1998’s Teaching the History of Teaching Geography) sidling up against Customer’s “Funeral” to peer out through the chinks in the song’s elaborate progression from humming bass, chiming guitars, and dire keys to a full-band blend of driving kitwork, blaring riffs, and sundry synth effects. Admittedly, that is more an allusive comparison than a definite assertion of the song’s primordial beginnings; in all likelihood, “Vorms” is the “Flocks IV” of GIVING, in that it is the singular all-new composition on the entire album.
Truthfully, it’s hard to be 100% certain of the lineage of any of GIVING’s tracks, and I may very well be running up against the schizoid tendencies of the obsessive scholar, intuiting logical patterns from unconnected chaos and all that. Still, I find it impossible to believe that there is no conscious link between GIVING and its predecessors, and I applaud Rosenau, Mueller, Schoenecker, Wincek, Spack, and Skemp for selling me (once again) an album’s worth of music that I have already purchased many times over… and then showing me (once again) that I still haven’t heard everything that Collections of Colonies of Bees has to offer.
Bravo, good sirs. Bravo.
Released August 2, 2011 via Hometapes, Collections of Colonies of Bees’ GIVING is available in CD and LP/MP3 download formats, and can be purchased online at the Hometapes website, as well as wherever fine records are sold.
Audio Reviews (August 19th, 2011)
Tags: beatbots, audio, reviews, collections of colonies of bees, giving, hometapes, 2011