Marblewood - Marblewood album cover as reviewed on The Phantom TollboothWith song structures that are loose, fluid, and supremely high-energy, Swiss jamband Marblewood compose long, blues-influenced instrumentals well-suited to the live performance.

Artist: Marblewood
Label: independent
Time: 6 tracks / 77:00 minutes 

Without going into too much background detail, Marblewood is the self-titled debut release from a Swiss psychedelic jamband.  Released January 30th, the album also served as the official announcement of the band itself, whose members had been playing together under various names and amalgamations for several years.  The official lineup is the trio of Marc Walser (guitars, vocals), Dave Zurbuchen (drums, vocals) and Arie Bertogg (bass).  On the album, they are joined by several guest musicians, including Sarah Weibel (vocals), Sandro Hussel (dilruba/esraj), and Michael Marti (organ).

Let me start out by mentioning that the band’s ability to improvise is top-notch.  Their song structures are loose, fluid, and supremely high-energy – elements fostered in the band’s home environment: the live performance.  In that regard, Marblewood’s debut release isn’t going to surprise you with tons of variety.  The recording only has a handful of tricks up its sleeve, and that’s the downside of improvisation: the jam mentality is restricted to basic progressions and subject to the parameters that keep the engine from flying off the tracks.  Frankly, it’s only the illusion of free thought.  However, I don’t say any of that to degrade the band’s final product.  I like this album because the band simply does the thing it excels at doing: jamming.  On the production side, Marti’s organ patches aren’t terribly diverse since he mostly provide background pads (with the exception of some quality solos on “Hit the Brakes,” “Silence,” and the “In the Beginning” jam).  Walser too only utilizes three or four guitar effects for the entire album.  To me, the vocal content was the hidden gem.  Marblewood’s lyrics are poetic, obscure, and somewhat hindered by the fact that English is the band’s second language, but subsequent listens revealed a surprising level of thoughtful depth – considering the fact that the main event here is not the singing.

“Kailash” is a gritty march of an album-opener.  Simple structure and a plodding tempo allow for Walser to provide an initial taste of his good-and-sloppy soloing style, as well as to introduce the type of heady lyrical ideas the band will ponder throughout the album.  “You are the mother,” Walser sings, “[the] axis of the world / You are the navel / source of life and death / You are the diamond / in the world’s mighty crown / You are the mother / you foster and destroy.”  In poetic form, the band invoke the majestic image of Mount Kailash – the Tibetan peak overlooking the source of some of the longest rivers in Asia – as the symbol of mother earth’s power, vitality, and longevity. 

After some initial ringing chords, “Hit the Brakes,” kicks off in an upbeat 2/4 groove, riding an energetic guitar/bass riff before fading into free-time verses.  Marti’s organ patches add a level of psychedelic uncertainty to the timbre of the song, so even when the music follows a particular structure, it still feels only loosely connected.  I particularly appreciate the way that unsettled sentiment establishes the lyrical context: “Hit the brakes before we crash into that wall / slow down the dash to cushion that fall.”  The imagery is that of a car flying out of control toward an inevitable collision, and a lack of faith in the capability of anyone to regain control.  “Who will back [us] up when there ain’t no plan B?” the band ask in desperation, in full realization that the distance between “now and oblivion” is rapidly narrowing.  The track returns to its initial upbeat sentiment toward the 3:00-minute mark.  Some back-and-forth conversation and unison passages between guitar and organ contribute to the long, wailing fade-out that comprises the latter half of the song.

Above the others, “Splendour” stands out as a unique composition.  The track begins with Sandro Hussel’s ragged but expressive esraj playing, accompanied by Bertogg’s extended whole notes on the bass, until the grungy guitar chords growl into the mix and the bass jumps an octave.  Walser delivers the verses as spoken-word poetry, grimly describing the seven-day funeral procession of a departed monarch, defining it in terms of colors and social hierarchy – all in mournful yet harmonic contrast.  The song begins in the appropriate tempo of a funeral march, but gradually gains momentum on the chorus.  Another guest on the album, Sarah Weibel adds a strong vocal to the central refrain: “Now the king is gone / his people mourn the empty throne / they come together, all the tribes / to bow their heads one last time.”  “Splendour” runs the emotional gambit from heavy, reflective sentiment to complete exultation – much the same way a memorial for a beloved ruler truly would be – and establishes the beautiful idea that it was not the king’s physical wealth, but the love and devotion of his people, that adorned him in honor and splendor.

The intro riff on “Silence,” the fourth track on Marblewood, is an example of Walser’s ability to play soft, tactful riffs as well as improvised solos.  Overlaid with a thick organ patch, Bertogg’s bass-line meanders beneath the established riff.  “Silence” is the ballad of an enslaved peoples’ plight.  “In the days we work as we’re told,” Walser sings in this persona, knowing that “silence is silver and hard work is gold.”  But at night, when they dream, it is of the open seas and the freedom to run without restraint.  At nearly 10 minutes in length, the track utilizes the band’s predisposition toward long instrumental passages to reflect the idea of laboring in wordless, enduring silence.

“Postwar Apocalypse” begins with a free-time guitar lick, and is eventually joined by a loosely harmonizing bass-line.  The only track on the album not to feature Michael Marti on the organ, “Apocalypse” is driven by Bertogg and Walser, and also features Zurbuchen on keys as well as drums.  The bass especially sounds fatter and occupies more space in this song than it does on any other track on the album.  Toward the halfway point, Zurbuchen briefly switches to hand drums, channeling a more primitive, post-apocalyptic musical sentiment.  “We have to fight for our lives, with sticks and brains / with instinct and pains,” Walser laments via the guise of a survivor, arguing that the survival of the fittest is the only evolutionary principle which can be guaranteed to prevail.  Therefore, “Let the sick ones die.” 

In addition to these five polished songs, there’s also one final bonus track stapled onto the end of the album, entitled “In the Beginning.”  Of course, at 21+ minutes in length, it’s one heck of a bonus track, and there’s frankly not much to identify it as a standalone song outside of its considerable length.  “In the Beginning” is twenty minutes of loosely structured instrumental jamming, recorded – according to the liner notes – on the first day in the studio, most likely as a soundcheck to gather levels for the project.  The track begins in a swirl of cymbals, bass rumble, organ patches, and earthy hand percussion before moving into the central riff that forms the heart of the jam.  Marti’s organ returns to add an element of funk as well, especially around the 5:00-minute mark. The music fades away almost to nothing around 8:00 minutes in, then builds agonizingly into the unkempt, psychedelic blues rock the band prefer to play.

If the general mantra Marblewood pursues is long instrumentals with bluesy guitar solos and elements of Floydian psychedelia, then the band have certainly achieved that much.  However, that deceptively narrow approach is also the problem that plagues the album: without a careful listen, the songs essentially become one elongated jam, and while each track certainly highlights the band’s ability to play well together, the songs are almost indistinguishable.  It’s a strength and an Achilles heel that this trio of musicians compliment one another so well: they have chops and plenty of raw ability, but they also tend to follow the predictable pattern of establishing a cool guitar groove, adding some lyrics to formulate a verse and a chorus, and then unleashing Walser for a solo.  I suppose that isn’t necessarily a complaint, but it does seem dangerously formulaic.  Perhaps that approach works onstage, and I’m reminded of the fact that Marblewood originated as a jamband, but subsequent releases are going to have to do something more than tread the same paths.

Take all that with a grain of salt, because this album is certainly a statement.  It establishes the band’s identity, defines their strengths, and identifies exactly what they do well.  Marblewood unquestionably have found their sound, and I like it.  Now, I want to see them do something with it.

Justin Carlton

3.0 tocks