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In the Name of Prog

With Knuckles and Valleys, Timbre Coup deliver a concept album as complex and expansive as the live sets they’ve used to assault the festival circuit

by Raurri Jennings on February 23, 2012

In I Heart Huckabees, Dustin Hoffman’s existential detective character is explaining the interconnectedness of all the matter and energy in the universe to Jason Schwartzman using a blanket. He juts his hand through the cloth at different distances, saying, “This is me . . . this is you. You’re about 21. You have dark hair, etc. And over here, this is the Eiffel Tower. This is Paris,” he says with an elated grin. “And this is a war. And this is a museum. And this is a disease. And this is an orgasm.” There’s that grin again. “And this is a hammer.” He’s explaining that all of the disparate signifiers under the blanket are one.

Photo by Joe Putrock

With progressive rock, disparate elements of all different styles of music fall under the folds of the blanket. Over here is a drum pad intro. This is a heavy-metal breakdown. And this is a Primus riff. And this is a finger-picked acoustic guitar. Over here is saxophone solo a la “Us and Them” by Pink Floyd played on guitar with a synth modulator. When put that way, it sounds like Tracy Jordan’s “most popular song ever written” experiment on 30 Rock. But Albany progressive jamband Timbre Coup (pronounced “tamber coo”) create conjunctions between these improbable ingredients with energy and expert musicianship.

Precision is key for bassist and vocalist Dan Gerken. During the first song of their third show as residents at Jillian’s for the month of February, Gerken closes his eyes and locks in with drummer Matt Pickering on a syncopated breakdown, mimicking the kick drum, while the multiheaded guitar hydra of Ben Pickering and Andrew Chamberlaine perform arpeggio gymnastics. Before any kind of extended improvisation takes place, the players stop on a dime and smoothly transition into another theme with an ascending guitar lick. It’s gestures like these that set Timbre Coup apart from their peers in the jam/improvisational rock crowd. They do not indulge in eight-minute solos. They don’t linger on a theme. They don’t “jam,” per se. Instead, they develop a theme using tangent and digression, and create an elaborate system of bridges and breakdowns that summons Dustin Hoffman’s hands jutting through the blanket.

Matt Pickering, a self-taught drummer who began by studying the likes of Umphrey’s McGee, King Crimson and the Police, met Gerken, whose initial inspirations were Primus and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, at the College of Saint Rose, where they formed One Track Mind in 2007. The band soon became Timbre Coup when Matt’s younger brother Ben was added to the band; Chamberlaine joined in 2009, completing the dual-guitar sound.

Timbre Coup’s new album, Knuckles and Valleys—a concept album that follows the dynamics of a calendar year, each song named after the month in which it was written, each attempting to capture a mood or feeling for each month—is a highly ambitious project from a band who heavily road tested their new material before committing it to tape.

After the addition of Chamberlaine, the band committed to an elongated RPM Challenge, writing a song a month for the entire year. On the experience of writing, Matt Pickering described the concept album as “a great way—once Andrew joined the band—to make it feel like it’s his band.” By the time they finished writing in 2010, the band already had more material composed by the new lineup than they did with their former guitarist.

The band bonded over the creative growth they were experiencing and grew confident in finding new ways to develop material, especially onstage. Sections of “February,” track two on Knuckles and Valleys, were inspired by an improvisation during a previous show, with the band adding a drum machine stutter step over a foundation of phased guitar chords and arpeggios. Instead of verse-chorus-verse, the lyrics and vocal melodies on “February” appear as a brief comment to the minor mood. “Another night comes to an end,” sings Gerken, “I hope warmth comes with the next.”

Songs like “May,” “October,” and “July,” the first single off the album, were all composed by Chamberlain and brought to rehearsals complete, but the bulk of the album was a true collaboration by all of the band members. The building chemistry was immediately apparent to Ben Pickering. “I can bring something to any one of these guys and they’ll finish the sentence,” says Pickering. “It’s like Captain Planet,” adds Gerken. “Everybody’s got a ring and everybody’s got a job. And Captain Planet only comes to hang out when you’re all together,” he says with a grin.

At the end of 2009, the band took their new material on the road before bringing it to a studio. Playing almost 100 shows, including a major fesitval run that included Camp Bisco, Big Up, Mountain Jam and Snoe.Down, gave them ample time “to make small detail changes, practice vocals and hear harmonies,” says Gerken. “Giving [the songs] that time was what enabled us to make the record that we were hoping for and ultimately are very proud of. It is exactly what we envisioned it would be.”

Nowhere is the band’s chemistry more apparent than in their live show. The second song of their set at Jillian’s, “Fool’s Gold,” from their first record of the same name, is an instrumental metal behemoth, beginning with a finger-picked electric guitar line played by Ben Pickering. The song mutates as Gerken and Matt Pickering add a simmering low-end rumble to the guitar harmonies until the song erupts into an Yngwie Malmsteen guitar suite. Chamberlaine flashes baroque finger-tapping and lifts the intensity to the one ecstatic note that can be released only from the tinniest frets on the fretboard. In the crowd, one man experiments with free-form tree dancing, while another in the back screams, “fuck yeah” and flashes the devil horns as the song closes with a chugging riff and double-bass pedal thrash.

If the finger-tapping (note for haters: yes, finger-tapping is still rad) and seven-minute opuses were not enough to prove the band’s chops and musicianship, Gerken and Pickering trade axes mid-set (Gerken on guitar and Pickering on bass) and continue to rip for the rest of the set. First up on the shredding block is the opener from Knuckles and Valleys, “January,” in which Gerken, a dormant guitar giant in his own right, rips a monster guitar solo all while singing lead vocals and adding flashes of synthesizer to accent the frozen-tundra atmosphere.

As the band transitions out of “January” into an LCD Soundsystem-inflected disco groove, Gerken is still holding down guitar and Pickering thumbing the bass. With high hat slapping and all the emphasis on the upstroke, the crowd starts to shake. The ladies up front in Tree Shurts fitted hats lead the way. Just as the groove is beginning to take hold, Matt Pickering’s crack drumming comes to a halt and the plain-spoken words, “I need your arms around me. I need you so much,” hang in the air for a moment, before Chamberlaine delivers the signature riff of, “Never There,” by Cake. This may seem like a cheeky cover for a prog band, but Timbre Coup add an extra sixteenth note to the sailing trumpet melody following the chorus and make it their own.

This is a disco ball. This is a woman wearing a short skirt and a long jacket. And this is a cake. I mean, Cake.

Each song of Timbre Coup’s set is a microcosm of the complex terrain the band is plotting on Knuckles and Valleys; and each show is its own album. It is not like a Grateful Dead or Phish bootleg. Every note is so meticulously arranged and rehearsed to create the desired effect that their live act comes across as expansive as an unfolded LP or the space between knuckles (under the right magnification), but as precise as a Volkswagen.

“We want people to be interested in albums again,” says Gerken in the billiard room above the bar in Jillian’s. Before he can finish his thought, the motion sensor lights go out. Ben Pickering stands and commences waving his arms while Matt Pickering and Chamberlaine ape the Clapper infomercials and sing, “clap on . . . clap off!” When the lights click back on, Gerken continues unfazed, “the 70-minute album is going to come back.” While that is up for debate, and regrettably so, a solid 70-minute set of live music will never go out of style.

To that effect, the band will bring their act to new venues and festivals across the States this summer. “This year is the year of firsts,” says Matt Pickering. Armed with a new booking agent, J Goldstein—who has elevated acts like Papadosio, Roster McCabe, and Ultraviolet Hippopotamus into bolder font on the festival lineup cards—and manager, Greg Bell, Timbre Coup have confirmed gigs in Tennessee and Georgia, and a spot on this year’s Catskill Chill in Hancock.

“And look out for our Disney Album!” says Matt Pickering amid the din of his bandmates’ excitement and laughter. The idea is for each band member to choose a Disney movie and compose a song inspired by the film while cleverly disguising it’s subject. “I don’t know if it will actually work.”

“We’ve discussed this,” says Gerken. “And agreed.”

All I want to know is who’s got Aladdin.

 Timbre Coup will wrap up their monthlong Jillian’s residency tonight (Thursday) and celebrate the release of Knuckles and Valleys along with guests Higher Organix.