I still remember the day I learned Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin had launched a label, beginning a solo career and an excursion into a musical world very different from the riff-heavy, guitar centric world of rock as defined by early-'90s Seattle. I remember the excitement of dipping my toes into a sonic universe well beyond my typical exploration. I remember the day the album arrived in my mailbox, looking at the artwork of The Painted Desert, thinking how audacious it was to launch a solo career by naming the first track on one's debut solo album "Muhammad Ali."
I remember the feeling of dormant receptors in my brain being agitated, activated, and excited by a kind of music that felt wholly new to me, and anticipating each new release. I remember the first time I listened to Earthspeaker and Zenga and the thrill I felt by hearing brand new sounds or hearing familiar musical voices used in ways new to me.
After three exciting, acclaimed solo albums, the element of surprise achieved by the creative deployment of exotic percussion elements and sounds has diminished. Martin is now at a place in his post-rock career where the success of his records relies more on the quality of the ideas and execution of them by himself and his fellow musicians. If it sounds like I'm about to damn the debut from Barrett Martin Group, Atlas:Latitudes, with feint praise, read on. I don't know that Martin's musical vision has matured so much as my capacity to hear and comprehend it has.
Yes, there are familiar sounds on this record and in some cases Martin references and borrows from ideas from his previous records but his new jazz combo has created something familiar yet it stands apart from the previous solo records.
The compositions on Latitudes are shorter than the more expansive ones of Martin's most recent solo effort, Zenga. There's no inherent value in that as the longer explorations were interesting and rewarding as opposed to bloated and tedious, but pulling back and focusing also has merits. Again, it's about the ideas and the execution.
Another difference between this and the solo efforts is the use of guitar within this band combo. On Martin's solo records, he played a minimum of 10 instruments himself in collaboration with other musicians. Rather than playing some guitar himself and bringing in guest guitarists, Paul Fischer is a full-time player on this record and as such he and the instrument are given a featured role. He doesn't go Malmsteen when he steps out front for a solo but his playing is fused with a rock spirit, as heard on "Jakarta By Taxi" and "The Docks." On "The Iron Does Not Lie," he is prominent yet supportive, not taking a solo so much as assisting trumpeter Dave Carter carry the melody.
In addition to the new, there are some collaborators and ideas from the past that make their presence felt on the record. Martin produced, performed on, and released Carter's Commitment And Change. Pianist Joe Doria and bassist Kevin Hudson both played on Zenga and are now fixtures in this grouping. Longtime Martin friend and "King Of All Musical Side Projects," Peter Buck (R.E.M. is his day job, if you didn't know) contributes acoustic guitar to two tracks as well.
In addition to familiar names, there are some compositional similarities between songs on Latitudes and those of Martin's past records. "Habanera" opens like a sped up version of "Afterlife Architecture" from Painted Desert and that percussion figure reoccurs later in the song but outside of that is its own idea with only passing similarities to the previous composition.
"Temples Bells" opens with an ominous piano accented by vibes and percussion before transitioning to something that feels a shade or two lighter, buoyed by Carter's trumpet and Buck's buried-in-the-mix acoustic guitar. "Skyline" features Doria's piano prominently. His runs throughout aren't frenetic or flashy nor do they become exhausting, atonal, tedious exercises. He remains close to the heart of the track's melody while still exploring variations. "Skyline" ends abruptly, with an ascending note that feels almost like a question or a thought interrupted. These songs – along with "Nightshade" and the mysterious "The Twilight Hour" along with the album's title imply themes of geography at night and the sounds paint these pictures without becoming overly dark or foreboding.
Atlas:Latitudes succeeds as a fully formed, self-contained set of ideas expertly played by veteran musicians who communicate effortlessly, and yet there is a companion volume due in December. The journey feels complete yet this is only the beginning.
Latitudes is presently available in digital form. eMusic has it available immediately with iTunes and Amazon's MP3 store due to add the album soon; plans for a physical release have not yet been confirmed.