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Songs of Freedom

Can music free your mind from mental slavery? Depends which Free Radical you ask

Fifty musicians, dozens of different instruments from every continent on earth, and three and a half years in the making. Eighty minutes of music, comprising 32 songs with titles like "Supreme Order of the Attention Deficit," "Deathbed Orgy" and "The Brass Band Liberation Front." Singing, rapping, chanting and scatting. Rhythms from Brazil, Jamaica, Africa and America. All of it improvised, in locales from São Paulo, Brazil, to Cafe Brasil on Westheimer, and all of it dedicated to the two to seven million civilian victims of American bombs dropped from planes since 1942.

It's Aerial Bombardment, and it could be only a Free Radicals album, and in a way, it could come from only Houston. More so than other towns, we are still a city of big bands and big ideas. There's the Calvin Owens Blues Orchestra, Guy Schwartz's New Jack Hippies collective and this bunch, all still active and all with ideas as large as Tom DeLay's ego.

We're also a town that likes to wing it. Planning isn't our strong suit. It's anathema to the Free Radicals, who make up almost all their music at each and every gig. Aerial Bombardment harvests some of the highlights of these shows. "The general recording method of this album is pretty consistent," says drummer/bandleader Nick Cooper. "There were a couple of tunes done in the studio, but generally the songs are recorded live, edited down, tightly condensed and then chosen from there. Out of a two-hour show, we might end up with ten minutes of edited material. There's a little bit of overdubbing here and there."

Don't tell Free Radicals drummer Nick Cooper (bottom row, center) his band is a metaphor for Houston.
Don't tell Free Radicals drummer Nick Cooper (bottom row, center) his band is a metaphor for Houston.

With any improvisational band, there's a danger of noodling and musical wankery. Most of this kind of stuff comes across as a great blob of undifferentiated musical protoplasm -- ever shifting, ever throbbing, but never arriving at a destination of any kind. Not so with the Free Radicals, at least the great majority of the time.

Free Radicals vibraphonist Harry Sheppard credits Cooper with keeping the band moving forward. "Most of these bands that play free -- the music doesn't sound like it goes anywhere. Years ago somebody called that stuff nuthouse music. Snake-pit…People walking around…It's insanity! But Nick does a different thing. It's a time thing, a pulse. We all go around that pulse, and that's about it. There's no restrictions, it goes about anywhere -- sometimes it evolves into the same key, sometimes there's two keys playing opposite each other, and that's interesting, but nobody's doing what he's doing -- keeping that pulse going. If they are doing it, it sounds too organized."

Sheppard says that music begins and ends with the beat. "Most of the time Nick starts playing. Nobody says a word to anybody. He starts playing the beat, [bassist] Theo [Bijarra] come in and builds and builds, and we listen to each other. It tells a story, it goes in this direction, it's always communicating and listening. It's total musical communication. Sometimes it has to be edited out, but most of the time it's very exciting stuff."

Sheppard's right -- about both the "most of the time" bit and the "very exciting stuff." On the negative side, there are parts of Aerial Bombardment that arrive out of nowhere as suddenly as a red wasp at a picnic and disappear just as fast. Then there's the reggae-capoeira "Quilombo Dub," a tune that collapses under the weight of its groove, its ambitious sitar and its Brazilian drum instrumentation. Still, it's merely plodding, a far cry from the nuthouse snake-pit of Sheppard's disdain, and the very next song, the hot and jazzy "Harry Stops the War," picks up the pace considerably and features a nice buildup.

Other highlights include the Coltrane-meets-James Brown summit of "Give It Up or Turn It Loose / Impressions," which finds the band sounding something like Karl Denson's Tiny Universe. And all of the vocals numbers -- be they Edwards's vampy blues on "Eyebrows," the raps of Zin or Perseph, or the spoken-word poetry of Keshia, Equality or Karega -- bring much-needed breaks from all the instrumental onslaughts. In fact, with the multitude of varied styles on the album, Aerial Bombardment feels more like a 40-minute quickie of a record than an 80-minute marathon platter. It's as interesting a headphone record as it is a cool thing to slap on as ambient background noise, and it would make a great record to play while watching FOX News on mute.

It's an easy metaphor -- a cliché, in fact -- but Houston's sprawl and no-zoning mentality would seem to explain the album's catch-all vibe. In the city where the porn shop stands hard by the church, so too can ska, blues, Afrobeat, jazz, dub, spoken word, samba and other Brazilian forms, funk and hip-hop all exist in the same band's repertoire, sometimes in individual songs.

Cooper's not buying the analogy. "If we're going to talk about Houston, let's talk about how it's the capital of militarism on the planet earth. The militarism of this country and this planet poisons all of us -- even those of us who are in the peace movement and want nothing to do with it."

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