This article was originally published in The Berkshire View in January 2016.
I first saw Luke Bemand and Rory Dolan perform music in a Nirvana cover band at a middle school dance in our hometown of Kent, Conn. There’s nothing out of the ordinary about that sentence; the characters and geography are easily replaceable for a common scenario across America’s once adolescent millennial generation. What is out of the ordinary is how fast these youth deviated from the cliché. A few years later, in 2005, an avant-garde jazz trio called lespecial debuted at Housatonic Valley Regional High School’s inaugural Battle of the Bands. They looked like a regular band — Bemand on bass, Dolan on drums and Falls Village native Jonny Grusauskas on guitar — but sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before. Last month in an interview, Dolan recalled some major inspirations at the time: progressive rockers The Mars Volta and jazz-funk group Medeski Martin & Wood.
I was not alone. Apparently, lespecial stood out to the judge panel as well and claimed first place that night.
So how did three boys — literally, at that time, children — land on such a mature sound? Dolan attributed it to a process of tracing back influences.
“We’ve kind of arrived at, you get a lot of information when you look at a band like Primus [for example] — why do they sound the way they do?” he asked me, setting up his own answer. “You try to look at all the different components that make up a sound — some of it’s not directly identifiable. You trace it back, get to the meat of the influence.”
In this way lespecial evolved from rock bands like Nirvana and Primus (though both are paid tribute in Omnisquid — the Nov. 20 release that induced this review) to extraordinary sounds.
Did I say extraordinary? Extraterrestrial fits Omnisquid better.
Another thought Dolan offered to our first discussion is a common phrase: scratch the surface.
That idea transfers from lespecial’s own story of development to the way in which listeners should experience their first full-length studio album.
On the surface, Omnisquid is a collection of similar sounding songs. In a way, the musicians have neared full circle in the album’s prominent heavy rock and strayed from the airy, primal style established in 2013’s release, Ceremony EP.
Regardless of their surface features, both records are rooted in lespecial’s jazz origins — be it in sound or in practice. Ceremony may have had explicitly jazzier moments, but Omnisquid still declines to confine to the orderliness of popular music. Both efforts embrace technology, like sampling, synthesizers and a wealth of effects.
“To me jazz kind of means music that’s pushing the boundaries,” the drummer said. “It doesn’t have to be swing or big band.”
Beneath the surface of Omnisquid (or shall we say “beneath the sea” — keep reading) are lyrical and musical themes that, together, form a narrative. Record aficionados reading already know my claim: Omnisquid is a concept album.
The opener is “Fruit Wolf Dance,” a momentum building instrumental that walks lespecial’s audience out of the organic world of Ceremony and into a supernatural nautical dystopia.
Minimal at first, the song grows with a booming, grandiose rock production and eventually falls into a stripped, funky electronic interpretation of the composition. Again, it rises, like the namesake of song number two, “Squid Rising,” where our story is formally introduced.
“And who decides when a squid must rise?” asks Grusauskas in the first lyrics of the album, “And who arranged for the deranged to have a change of mind?”
The verbal Omnisquid, Bemand explained to me, broadly embodies the idea of universal absurdity (“lespecial is not a word, [and] neither is Omnisquid…Omnisquid can be whatever the hell you want”) — but its presentation in “Squid Rising” is lucid to follow along with what he offers as a specific sci-fi interpretation: aliens telepathically controlling giant squid that rise up to take over the world.
“Any interpretation like that, that’s the whole point,” Bemand said. “It takes you to different places — space, underwater…in terms of perspective, I think it’s more of the perspective of us, of humans; what lies beneath the surface?”
The bassist continued that the ambiguity and fear of what’s under water fascinates and inspires him. It’s no surprise that Bemand studied English in college before transferring to music school, and easy to surmise he steers lespecial’s conceptual ship.
As referenced above, central to lespecial’s music and Omnisquid is disconnect from convention. Each song is schizophrenic in the way I described “Fruit Wolf Dance,” with rises and falls, climaxes and breakdowns, conspicuous shifts in song structure, even genre. With 10 songs total, the second half of the album delves deeper into the Omnisquid realm, though not just in concept. The latter five songs have time signatures I strain to identify and all yield to the listener that sense of accomplishment one realizes when triumphing through an abrasive yet satisfying Pixies deep cut.
“Leaps Evil,” for instance, is feisty prog with a hypnotizing falsetto breakdown, which is a description fit for Radiohead. Its successor is its reprise, “Ships in the Night,” and a melody from the pair is borrowed two tracks later in album closer “Absolutely Stunning.” Motifs in instrumentation solidify the cohesion as much as, if not more than, the thematic lyrics.
Lyrically, “Absolutely Stunning” hints back to the plot in “Squid Rising” with those dubious alien squids — “We know/ What we saw/ Don’t tell us/ That we didn’t/ It came up/ From the lake/ Crystalline/ Seismic shockwave.”
Contrasted with this series is “New Fish,” a buoyant ride of hip hop with a trebly lead guitar riff in lieu of an emcee. Though by this point you can expect lespecial will try to surprise, you still can’t imagine what’s next: a “go nuts moment,” as Dolan called it, of death metal drum thudding and crunchy distortion closing the song.
I called lespecial out for not inviting a rapper onto “New Fish.”
Bemand rebutted, it was a conscious decision not to include any guests. With one exception — Julian Lenz, a cellist, on “Absolutely Stunning.”
Fun fact: the only guest on Nirvana’s Nevermind was Kirk Canning, a cellist, on “Something in the Way.” Is it meditated or coincidence that both songs are closers? Maybe, it’s something else.