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Group hug! (clockwise from left) James Kehoe, Dustin Warner, Craig von Dutra III, Chris Tenerowicz, Nick Warchol, Richard Levengood, August Rosa, Mark O'Brien, Marissa Wendolovske.

Photo: Leif Zurmuhlen

The Gang’s All Here

If two’s a couple and three’s a crowd, prog-rockers Aficionado are a small nation

By Josh Potter

Getting nine people to agree on anything can be a challenge. But when those nine people have a touring progressive-rock band, coordination requires a certain sort of acrobatics.

To paint a picture of how the average Aficionado rehearsal unfolds, bassist Dustin Warner says it generally “starts with a 30-rack, and then there’s a lot of yelling.” It’s a small wonder to get the whole shaggy crew in one place at one time, but here they are, standing in the cavernous back hallway at Albany nightclub Savannah’s before their set, nine voices echoing over one another as in-jokes ping-pong around the circle.

“The recording process went a lot like this interview,” Warner continues. “Everyone had a lot to put in.” After five years together, and with a lineup that has snowballed to the scale of cultdom, Aficionado have defied anarchic odds and set their momentum rolling with the release of a 14-track concept album and an ambitious touring schedule.

If you haven’t yet been swallowed by the clattering grandeur of an Aficionado show, then one spin of their self-produced Circus Music should be enough to prove that this isn’t some novelty act. Sure, there’s flute and French horn, burlesque and vaudevillian elements, even a bloody ragtime “Intermission”—but through angular time changes, searing guitar riffs and anthemic choruses, each idea remains delicate and subservient to a musical vision as singular as it is volatile.

According to guitarist August Rosa, Aficionado began as a “five-piece At the Drive-In rip-off” while the members were attending Albany’s College of Saint Rose. Vocalist Nick Warchol explains, “When we first started, everyone said I sounded like Cedric [Bixler-Zavala],” the At the Drive-In front man who went on to form the Mars Volta. While Aficionado have grown weary of the association, the influence is still quite evident, but it ought to elicit more praise than scorn. Indeed, Warchol can croon with the best, amid, like Bixler-Zavala, the disorienting rhythmic scaffolding his band continually provides.

Songs like “Said the Elephant to the Snake” and “More Like a Machine” are presented to Warchol like a dare from guitarists Rosa and James Kehoe. This is, it seems, the way nine band members begin to write a song. After the yelling, musical ideas are assembled from the guitars up. In the manner of a jazz-organ trio, Aficionado’s earliest incarnation featured a keyboardist who could cover bass lines with his left hand and high harmonies with his right. But when his schedule prevented him from touring, the band had to improvise. After auditioning a number of bassists, the band found Warner, like many a 21st-century musician, on MySpace.

“We thought Dustin looked cool because he didn’t have any eyeballs in his profile picture,” says Rosa. So they arranged to pick him up one day at Price Chopper and bring him over to play. Warchol described the sentiment on the car ride over.

“We decided that if he looked goth or metal, we’d just keep driving by.”

Having left the eyeliner at home, Warner joined the band in time to record a five-track EP.

Photo: Leif Zurmuhlen

With the low end now covered by an electric bassist, Marissa Wendolovske joined in order to tackle the high register with flute and vocal harmonies. In their new, wider instrumentation, the band realized that they could begin writing songs with greater depth and a higher degree of complexity. The addition of Christopher Tenerowicz brought trumpet, trombone and mandolin to the band’s palette. This only seemed to whet Aficionado’s appetite for brass, and they soon went looking for a second trumpet player. In a similarly 21st-century move, they found him on Craigslist. Craig von Dutra III tied the whole thing up in a symphonic little bow when he brought the final textures of trumpet, French horn, and synthesizer.

But wait; who are we forgetting? This is a question the band continually ask themselves. In this case, it’s drummer Mark O’Brien, who’s sole contribution to our conversation is to pronounce himself “the backbone of the T-bone steak that is Aficionado,” and Face, the band’s full-time, compositional light-man.

Between “March of Welcome,” the opening track on Circus Music, and “Triumphant,” the album-closer, whole worlds ratchet open and closed. The band relocated for a month to Lancaster, Pa., where they rented three offices in which to write and record the album. The result is a dense saga that drifts from operatic (“Deaf Ears”) to desolate (“For Those Who Fear Death”), and features some precocious self- engineering. Making do with what they had on hand, they “strove for what any band tries to do on a record: capture the energy of the live experience,” Warner says.

This is, of course, where Aficionado thrive. But with a sound inspired by Yes, King Crimson, and the Polyphonic Spree, the band have to work to win people over.

“Progressive rock is something that’s overlooked a lot,” says Rosa.

Warchol agrees: “It doesn’t fit into the niches that people are really talking heavily about right now.”

As a result, Aficionado have made a habit of playing to any crowd they can find, often staying up to four straight nights in a single town to let the shock of early gigs fuel each subsequent show. While Face asserts that metal kids tend to love them the most, Warner highlights the range of people that come to see them. While not every listener is going to understand the deranged complexity of most songs, the band offer rawness and intensity with both their stage presence and the accompanying lightshow, for which Face has composed perfectly synchronized displays.

“I think if we hope to get any record label interested in us, we really need to have them see us live,” says Warchol.

The band members do not shy away from the topic of label affiliation, as they are actively pursuing support. The band’s conglomerate oddity tends to be both their greatest strength and limiting factor. But to operate on the level their number demands, every little bit helps.

“I don’t care if we get the worst record deal ever,” Rosa jokes. “We can live on very little. Mark still lives in the school bus we used to tour in!”

Warchol adds, “They don’t even have to pay us; just let us say we’re on their label, and maybe get us some shows.”

True, it seems Aficionado already have the important stuff covered. As challenging as it may be at first, once you get nine people to agree on something, there’s very little anyone can do to change their minds.


ROUGH MIX

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Let us know about local-music news and happenings for inclusion in Rough Mix: E-mail John Brodeur at jbrodeur@metro land.net or call (518) 463-2500 ext. 145.



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