It turns out that before I know of Dan Britton’s bands, I actually knew of him through Rate Your Music. See, our tastes run fairly similar, and he’s a fairly prolific reviewer, so naturally I began to recognize his style after a while. After all, Britton’s the sort of reviewer who is very clear in what he likes and what he doesn’t like. In general, the wilder and more complicated the better, while music that’s droney, ambient, or too vocal-centric tends to get the wrath. He is prone to the obnoxious habit of insisting that other people only like the bands that he doesn’t in order to bolster their image – as though others only like groups such as Stars of the Lid, Neu!, and Boards of Canada because they’re trendy, rather than because of any actual artistic merit. I think he has a pet peeve with reviews that lay the hyperbole thick on a piece of work that he isn’t big into, which is something I can understand, but nowadays I disagree with this stance on principle.
But you have to hand it to Britton, because he really does put his money where his mouth is. All we can really ask of artists is to make a piece of work that they themselves would be a big fan of, rather than what they think would appease the audience. In other words, the sort of album that they’d give 5 stars to on a site like RYM. Dan Britton’s certainly done that – Birds and Buildings are about as wild and complex as a band can get without enlisting Tatsuya Yoshida himself. The band consists of Britton on the keys (and sometimes vocals), Brett D’Anon on guitar and bass, Malcolm McDuffie on drums, trumpet, and viola, and Brian Falkowski on sax, clarinet, and flute. D’Anon also plays in Deluge Grander, Britton’s other band – you could argue that Birds and Buildings is really just DG with horns. A wilder, sassier Deluge Grander, if you will. That’s good, because I like that band a whole lot, enough to say that prog is alive and well in the new millennium.
So I’ll say the same thing: if this album was released in 1972, we’d be looking at it as a classic right now, and Steven Wilson would be remastering it in 5.1 as we speak. And by the way, this isn’t yet another one of those albums that I champion even though nobody else does; Bantam to Behemoth has gotten great reviews across the board. Sadly, all that gets you these days are 700 Facebook likes and a write-up on Critter Jams. What makes Birds and Buildings so interesting is that they don’t really have a singer; Dan Britton does most of the vocals, but he has a deep tone without much range, and thus doesn’t sing a lot. Megan Wheatly actually can sing, but she’s only on one track (“Chronicle of the Invisible River of Stone”). Either way, the vocals are often so undermixed that you can almost never make out what they’re saying, which I’m sure has irritated a great many. But this is a good thing; how many prog rock tunes have kick-ass instrumental parts that eventually dissipate, resolving into a much slower, less interesting vocal section? The first track (“Birds Flying Into Buildings”) actually does have a moment like that at about 5:45, but it instead turns into a stuttered funk guitar workout. That’s the way things go on this album; there is not a single minute here that isn’t stuffed with notes, even on the slower tracks.
What would you call this kind of music? Whirlwind jazz? Maybe, but there’s almost no improvisation here; though things threaten to fly off the handle often, this music is very composed, every little theme and excursion deliberate. Zeuhl? They’ve got the sprit, but it’s not repetitive enough, no chanting or thick, oppressive bass lines. Zolo-prog? Well, the mellotrons are certainly there (and kudos to the band for layering ’em on thick whenever they can), as is the occassional throwback organ. It’s kinda like if Relayer-era Yes had kicked out Jon Anderson, hired David Jackson, and given Moraz the reigns. In other words, pretty freakin’ cool, and also very reliant on everyone being on their A-game through the entire album. Not just because the parts themselves are so tricky, but everything is so syncopated and exact that there’s no room for error.
Best tracks? Too hard to say – opening “Birds Flying Into Buildings” is certainly one of them, particularly sense it clued me off in the two minutes that this album was potentially a masterpiece. “Batallion” is just as wonkybonkers, plus it suddenly explodes into a samba three minutes in, at which point you have to figure they’re just showing off, but more power to ’em – prog should be this way. Then you’ve got “Yucatan 65: The Agitation of the Mass”, which incorporates Flemenco guitar strumming and some Arab influences before going all Zeppelin in its final third. Really though, it’s all good stuff – only part that took me a few listens to get into is the middle section, “Caution Conglomerates and Forms a Storm” and “Chronicle of the Invisible River of Stone” – more low-key and (dare I say) pretty, featuring some downright gorgeous piano playing. “Chronicle” also features Wheatley, who gives the disc a chance to ground itself a bit. The album is kind of an embarrassment of riches; not to skip over the brilliant “Tungska” or the funky “Chakra Khan”, but there are just so many great parts on here that you can’t remember them all. Which has got to be one of the highest recommendations I can give.