I always say that if you’re going to be a nerd, you shouldn’t apologize. Be proud!
Herein lies my justification for being unapologetically nerdy about some things. I suppose the same applies for being a band: if you’re going to be socially conscious, be unabashedly so.
Judging by their first full-length release, “Silence Fiction,” Durham-based band The Beast must agree. Almost every track is infused with laments, celebrations, and everything in between concerning matters of religion, race, politics, Bojangles, and other matters of pertinence.
And there’s no vacillating on some of these issues. The Beast is in your face about words like freedom and about race issues. It’s no wonder, then, that emcee Pierce Freelon is a visiting professor in the political science department at the UNC-Chapel Hill and the founder of the blog blackademics.org.
Additionally, The Beast’s recorded lyrics are less the product of writing than freestyling, so Freelon’s messages are genuine, if a little overbearing at times. But if issues don’t get you excited about music, then that’s okay too. The Beast is anything but a one-trick pony. I’ll get to that shortly, but their formative process is a prerequisite to understanding their sound.
The Beast could be called an academic super group. Freelon — whose mother is Grammy-nominated jazz singer Nnenna Freelon — needed a backing band for his thesis work in Pan African Studies at Syracuse University. He went asking at his alma mater, UNC-CH, and came back with three musicians all studying jazz.
While Freelon, Eric Hirsh, Pete Kimosh and Stephen Coffman were scoring the music for a film relating to the thesis work, they decided to stick together longer than originally intended. The result has been two EPs and an imminent LP that are refreshingly unique.
This distinctive sound is what, in my mind, makes The Beast noteworthy.
The band members are all students of jazz and manage to mix a vast array of musical influences. Their MySpace page will tell you they fit into the “Hip Hop/Jazz/Soul“ genre, but that is a bit disingenuous. The song “Translation” illustrates this point perfectly. It begins with an intense beat with Freelon rapping, but around the one-minute mark the band turns the song into what sounds like a salsa number, with some of the accompanying lyricism in Spanish. Such a tightly executed change of pace indicates quality musicianship and great production — courtesy of Sound Pure Studios.
The entire album is full of surprises similar to this one, as well as several points during which Freelon’s contagious energy culminates with a chant of “Whoo!”
Messages, influences, and production aside, this album is carried by its songs, each a unique story — some of them approaching didactic. Each song adds something new to the list of the things that The Beast does well, which in turn gives the album great replay value. “Silence Fiction” is long awaited but worth that very wait.