The opening seconds of Free Radicals' debut CD, The Rising Tide Sinks All, are ungodly cacophony. So many instruments -- horns, flute, drums, saxophone, guitar, you name it -- sound off toward different ends that it's hard to know whether to laugh or to cringe. But, before you know it, the mucky, atonal morass gives way to a spry, succinct funk beat, and "The School of the Americas" is off and running.
In a sense, the song is a loose rendering of James Brown's cocksure rave "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine" -- albeit one that's purely instrumental, and with a title revised to reflect the pre-millennium's fucked-up state of affairs. For the record, the School of the Americas is a controversial training compound run by the U.S. Army in Georgia; its Latin American graduates are the source of countless human-rights atrocities south of the border.
While Free Radicals' drummer/producer Nick Cooper may not fully agree with that somewhat flip assessment of "Americas," he'd have to acknowledge that it sums up a lot of what the Radicals' concept is about, musically. Easily among the most linear and comprehensible of the CD's 29 tracks, "Americas" is chaos with a spine; the band's mesmerizing, eclectic rhythms serve as the vertebrae. Cooper is more than willing to confer the obligatory credit to the Radicals' groove-savvy reference points, namely James Brown, the Skatalites and Parliament.
"I've been playing funk nearly all my life," says Cooper, a New York City native who came here to attend Rice University in 1986 and wound up staying for good. "I was playing funk before I'd really even heard funk."
Taking the musical-collective premise to near-illogical extremes, Tide is about as all-inclusive as fusion gets; nothing is a safe distance from its skewed orbit -- ska, jazz, R&B, soul, rap/hip-hop, funk, even surf. Vast in every capacity, the album lists 55 contributors in its lengthy credits. Some are well-known around Houston (producer/multi-instrumentalist Sam Taylor, Middlefinger's Matt Kelly, vibraphone whiz Harry Sheppard, trombonist Dave Dove, reed guy Kelly Dean), others decidedly less so (one participant is listed simply as "anonymous"). The product of four years of jamming and mere months of last-minute, direct-to-tape cramming, the album was recorded in various locations, including Sound Arts studio (where Cooper works in post-production and as a graphic designer) and the drummer's home/rehearsal space on Lexington Street. One number, "Oil and Water," was even salvaged from a mobile Radicals gig on an art car parade float, then tinkered with and transformed later in a more controlled environment.
Though the music is instrumental (save for the rare spoken-word interlude or guest singer) and open to interpretation, Cooper, an avid supporter of various sociopolitical and humanitarian causes, crams as much relevant information into the CD's liner notes as minuscule type will permit. Along with the rundown of who did what are web-site listings for no fewer than 19 groups and publications, among them Covert Action Quarterly, The Nation, Amnesty International, Greenpeace and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. (Cooper, an author and playwright whose politically charged, train-of-thought essay for Tide fills an entire CD jewel-box panel, says he's been misquoted in print a number of times.) Meanwhile, the seemingly harmless cartoon of an undersea setting on the disc's cover actually depicts a highly disturbing reality: the rape of our environment by petrol companies worldwide.
"Oil corporations can potentially spoil the earth for future generations -- of course, with the full help and consent of all of us who drive cars and pay taxes," Cooper says.
Album titles and liner notes aside, Free Radicals are careful to isolate the music from the message. "We're an instrumental band, and nobody going to any of our concerts is going to come away feeling informed about anything," says Cooper. "But when they're sitting around looking at the CD booklet, my hope is that they'll look up the web sites and familiarize themselves with these issues.
"But most people take a look at the album art and say, 'Oh, that's a cute little octopus.' And that's fine."
To the layman, Free Radicals' helter-skelter sonic hybrid might seem like an obvious extension of Cooper's previous work in both the wildly popular ska/funk/rock outfit Sprawl and, to a lesser extent, the freeform jazz collective Necessary Tension. For simplicity's sake, that's not far off the mark -- though, in some respects, Free Radicals defies such logical evolution.
"At first it was just me and Nick, and then I invited [saxophonist] Marcos [Melchor] to play, and it just grew," says Radicals upright bassist Shawn Durrani. "Nick's idea of the band is that it's a theory, an ideal."
Free Radicals' amorphous ideal has been fulfilled most frequently at No Tsu Oh (a.k.a. the Home of Easy Credit), a 24-hour pawnshop/cafe on Main at Congress, where the group has been known to set up well after midnight and play until dawn. Everyone from underground rappers like D-Ology and Khalif to punk-rock kids to high-profile jazzers have shown up at these impromptu shows to watch and perform; the group named a tune on Tide after the place. But while it's anyone's guess who might sit in with Free Radicals on any given night, Durrani, Cooper, sax players Marcos Melchor and Pete Sullivan and keyboardist Tsepo currently make up the band's on-stage core.
"We've had a really high turnover rate," Cooper admits. "A lot of the people on the album weren't just guest musicians we called into the studio to do something; they were people who actually joined the band for a month or two and then just stopped playing."
It's worth noting that ex-Sprawl members Dave Dove and Matt Kelly (who plays Hammond organ) also show up in several instances on The Rising Tide Sinks All. Fact is, even after Sprawl's breakup four years ago, Cooper's ties to his former band mates remain solid, if less intensive. And his recollection of Sprawl's heady heyday is still as misty-eyed as ever.
"We just kept playing, man; we toured the country seven, eight times; we never had any record deal; we never had any booking agent," Cooper remembers. "But we just kept doing it, and the high school kids really got into it."
But Cooper is also aware that Sprawl's remarkable eight-year run (which included six releases and numerous sold-out shows at Fitzgerald's and the now-defunct Axiom) will always be something out of the ordinary -- even freakish. And besides, Cooper has no interest in recycling old formulas.
"Sprawl was a band that played funk, ska and rock, and Free Radicals is a band that plays funk, ska and jazz," Cooper says. "[Necessary Tension] introduced me to a lot of jazz players and to the idea of doing instrumentals in a full-time kind of way. The free jams are really crucial [to Free Radicals]. We also have the freestyle rap, and we try to play as many free shows as we can. So we got this little free theme going on.
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