12/11/15-Thunder Road

Thunder Road in Somerville might be a spiffy new venue with a roomy dance floor and a remote soundboard run from an iPad, but the stage probably wasn’t built with Strange Changes in mind.

All eight band members crammed claustrophobically onstage as the room gradually filled with patrons trickling in from the downstairs bar. Then the psychedelic jazz collective unleashed the head-turning sound of a big band gone haywire.

Strange Changes were opening up for self-proclaimed “Middle-Eastern, Sci-Fi fusion” band Consider the Source after all. While their genre-shifting madness might be considered overly jarring or grating to the untrained ear, the group quickly won over the diverse crowd of jazz heads, daydreaming hippies, and even heavy metal headbangers. But those who tried to dance and groove along only had a fleeting opportunity to do so before a new musical idea interjected. Luckily the crowd never responded with frustration, but with wide eyes, knowing grins, and chuckles.

Smooth jazz verses dissolved into dissonant math-rock breakdowns in the blink of an eye, demonstrating head-spinning unpredictability that kept the crowd on its toes. Vocalist and rhythm guitar player Tom Dowd appeared unassuming in a white tee and jeans, but his presence onstage was anything but. His personas shifted just as rapidly as the music. One minute he was a delicate, soulful vocalist, the next he’d appear as a growling madman, practically convulsing onstage,eyes rolled back in head.

Strange Changes are all about hyperactive, dynamic textural changes, whether that be in composition or personality. The peaks and valleys of intensity are what make them so fascinating to watch. But there were no showy costumes or self-indulgent pageantry in the performance – it all felt oddly genuine. Undoubtedly the focus was on the musical technicality and how far the band could push the chaos until total combustion and collapse.

The song “Evil Genius” was clearly the most well-rehearsed, as it was written and recorded well over five years ago on an eponymous EP. The tune is perhaps the best example of the Strange Changes formula.  The listener was lulled into a false sense of security with a minimalistic yet slick opening featuring only Dowd’s vocals and guitar. Eventually the horn section made an entrance for an upbeat, retro funk verse.

But just as soon as the crowd entered their comfort zone, the song devolved into a super dissonant, satanic-sounding breakdown, part homage to the John Zorn experimental project Naked City. The band continued to play with the crowd’s expectations by inserting a cover of the Tears for Fears hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” into “Evil Genius”. It fit topically with the lyrical content and had some impressive though lengthy solos. Still, it dragged on a bit too longFor such an experimental group, it was refreshing to see Strange Changes show off their traditional improvisational jazz chops. They even threw in a brief jam on the Coltrane jazz standard “Mr. PC.”  because…why not? Clearly each and every member was well-trained as they took turns riffing and soloing off one another. The crowded stage served for some humorous moments during these solos, with band members having to bunch together to reveal bass player Greg Toro or lead guitarist Sam Crawford who were both tucked away.

Keys player Evan Waaramaa stood out with some unorthodox synth lines, while alto saxophonist Sam Morrison (it was his final show) blew through some head-spinning solo lines that climaxed with intense squeaks and squeals.  These solos really hit their stride with the song “Dinosaur Gravy” from their debut 2012 full-length I Want You.

Not only did it showcase how well the group can handle odd time signatures, but it also demonstrated their affinity for nearly random sections of free jazz. A truly unsettling, creepy section of demonic circus music highlighted the influence of Mike Patton’s band Mr. Bungle,  with jams over some truly strange chord changes.

Despite some overly indulgent soloing – the set ended with what felt like a five minute long drum solo – Strange Changes is an awe-inspiring, highly ambitious project that will always keep listeners  guessing and scratching their heads in the best way possible. They openly embrace the experimental and the bizarre while also building off of traditional jazz. This signature blend makes it hard not to be excited about what musical barriers they’ll break down next in this new year.

They’ll be playing a few shows across New England in the coming months, check out the details here!

A Frenzy of Fusion: Strange Changes
Frenetic Fusion
Pros
  • Impressive blend of genres and styles, with unexpected transitions
  • Each individual member was talented but also knew how to improv and jam as a band
  • Dynamic textural changes, peaks and valleys of intensity kept your attention
Cons
  • Lyrics were generally nothing to write home about
  • Besides the singer, not a whole lot of stage prescence
  • Some of the soloing dragged on a bit too long
8.5Frenetic fusion

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