Willis Drummond’s Latest Album is Brain Boot Camp – Review

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A ala B (A or B) is the fifth album by Basque rock band Willis Drummond released November 19, 2012 by independent label Bidehuts. The album features 10 tracks of rock that explore the nature of the human experience and ends up working rather seamlessly with the band’s sonic assault. This is not an album that you slap on in the background of your life. This is music to be appreciated. A ala B is food for your brain and nothing left up to chance. Every turn is meticulously planned, and the result is a brilliant album that holds attention melodically, rhythmically, and mood-wise for 39 minutes, 47 seconds (longer, if you repeat songs – as you should). Willis Drummond plays music, and they do it brilliantly.

The album themes deal primarily with feelings of uncertainty, inner strugle, self-doubt, and escapism, with transparent lyrics expressing guilt, ego, and references to idolatry. Its subject matter also explores the passage of time, and the relationship of self and society, the latter inspired by Mon oncle d’Amérique (“My American Uncle”) a 1980 French film directed by Alain Resnais.

A ala B has something profound to say about what it means to be a human being. It’s a fascinating album with a powerful, beautifully realized production.

It’s all held together by a tight mood that stays strong even when the songs change. Karlos Osinaga and Iñigo Irazoki recorded the whole effort. Recording sessions took place at the Bonberenea Studio in Tolosa, Basque Country. The album was mixed by Burke Reid, Bronco Studio, CA, and masterized by John Golden, Golden Mastering Studio, USA. The mix is pristine, showing off exactly what the band is.

The cover art by artist Ramon Zabalegi is eye catching – simple, obscure and remarkable, with a bold design that captures the essence of the music it promotes. The album booklet, also design by Zabalegi, has the original lyrics written in Basque-language translated into English, French and Spanish. The album was released on CD, vinyl LP, and digital format.

Xan Bidegain (bass), Felix Buff (drums), Rafa Rodrigo (guitar) and Jurgi Ekiza (lead vocalist, guitar) have come up with an album whose audacity is often thrilling — a lost soul trying to find his equilibrium, and his place in the world. Isn’t that the essential meaning of life, and perhaps what we are put here to discover? The reason being that, through the thousands of choices which we make between thinking and not thinking, by being responsible towards reality, or evading it, we are continually and automatically creating a sense of the kind of person we are.

The album doesn’t have a storyline. Instead, Ekiza pours his heart out on these 10 tracks with a laser-like focus, which gives his sincere vocals a weary dignity that is largely missing in contemporary rock.

A ala B is the next step in Willis Drummond’s evolution, moving effortlessly with diverse tunes tied together by Ekiza’s empathetic vocals – and the stirring music that backs up his words has such propulsion and authority that his laments resonate with fresh urgency. The dynamic push-pull tension of the album’s different tones enhances the overall concept of a person struggling to find direction. The emotional assault of Willis Drummond’s new album feels refreshing in a rock era when too many bands settle for conventionality.

The songs are strong, engaging and worth repeating; they draw in and invite the listener to experience that with the band. Ekiza guides the band across emotional terrain that’s often rocky, but the passion and pain in his voice quite often makes that journey rewarding.

There aren’t singalongs here; that’s not the point of this album. However, it is a testament to the grit and guts of the quartet doing what they want, and doing it well. The guitars weave rhythms and melodies together in a fascinating and mesmerizing way, often resulting in beautiful harmonies that take the ear off-guard. The power comes from the drummer, who pounds away as the best straight-up rock band would. And the parts, well, mix gloriously. This can only be the result of hours and hours of practice and songwriting.

The band kicks the set off with the track Ilegala (illegal); the energetic song concerns the destruction caused by pillage-wars financed by taxes, inequality, the appropriation of resources by and for a few, that contrary to what we’ve been told, nuclear power is not safe; and that the new laws are designed to go after critical civilians whose rights are violated.

While managing what you think about, certainly can be a great advantage; it can also be a great burden. The album’s first single, Menperatzen dut (I’m in control) makes you realize that you cannot feel truly confident and worthy of greatness while conducting your life in a mental fog. Ekiza declares: “a sense of priority compensates failures and given up dreams / but these never really fade / they become a new reason to escape.” It’s this dynamic push-pull tension throughout the entire album that makes Menperatzen dut the devastating punch it is. The song is set to hard, fast- tempo that would probably fit an Alice in Wonderland. It’s an awesome tune with outstanding guitar work commanding memorable riffs and lumbering rhythms.

Having known the band primarily as a loudly energetic band, the title track A ala B was a bit of a curve, but a good curve nonetheless. The tune can be melodic, and the band can turn up the intensity when the situation requires it. The track leads you into the slow and mellow opening to deliver an incredibly beautiful tune; then turns up the intensity with a faster, lauder, crushing sound, before switching intensity again ending the piece with a softer and mellow sound. A ala B concerns limited choices in a human society. Ekiza sings about the lack of a “third option” in an overrun world: “It’s impossible / I’ve always supported the idea of another way / but today, my love, we have to accept that there’s only two options: A ala B” — with a resignation that is heartbreaking. The feeling is powerful, commanding.

Anai (Brother) written by Willis Drummond’s drummer Felix Buff, is a beautiful mid-tempo tune that suddenly accelerates to a much faster, louder level. The work of American singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt, songs of inner struggle and timeless illumination, is the source of inspiration that led Buff to write the lyrics. In a recent interview, Buff talks about how the work of Van Zandt made him think about his brother, so close yet so damn far away, to whom he dedicated this song. Anai addresses time and physical distance, but it’s more of a symbol of shared dreams and brotherhood. The song ends with a soulful metaphor by Van Zandt to hidden places in the soul: “Time as sole dressing and tears as coagulant / Time makes brothers / Time is like water, but we are a sea and we can’t notice it passing.” Insistent drumming make it another standout.

The last track on side A, Komedia (Acting) threw me for a loop for a few seconds until I understood what was going on; it’s one of the most complex and heaviest of the bunch, but it also features one of the quietest sections on the album. Ekiza continued delivering the song, his voice thick and plush like velvet. Komedia reflects the mental breakdown of a person lost in the huge impact that mass media have on society, with people losing the plot and becoming out of touch with reality, trying to hang on to what little sanity they have left. The media can form or modify the public opinion in different ways depending of what the objective is. Ekiza declares: “I swallowed too many images. They injected them, force-fed them to me…” But there’s hope in Ekiza’s words: “now… I’m vomiting them all.” The money slave media have lost credibility and rest assured it is not reversible.

Tresna (The Instrument) is side B’s opening track featuring the song’s sonic assault and explicit lyrics. Ekiza sings: “You have nothing to say. You have nothing to express. You never get tired of listening to the same song.” and “In front of gods we always act the same: imitate and copy them.” He declares: “We forgot that music is not a tool to be someone else, it’s a way to express what we are.” This song adds to the marketing of the fictional image of beauty and success by the mass media and their allies – the music and fashion industries – they have created the ideal image of men and women, the gods and goddesses, with all the ingredients of a successful person. Giant music companies have been aware of this, and have cultivated it for many years, with purposes and functions of music becoming grossly distorted in our societies. Adoration of musical gods and goddesses, which has for many years been actively fostered by big recording companies as a marketing tool, creating an atmosphere of idolatry: feelings of religious worship directed at ordinary humans. The consequences of making people into gods can cause personality distortions in both musicians and fans. Musicians can become extremely arrogant, cold, impersonal, and generally not within reach of normal citizens. Those living in Hollywood and Beverly Hills for a long time can attest.

Agindurain Zain (Awaiting Orders), a thunderstruck, is among the most energetic songs in the album. The song examines the manner in which the passage of time can control one’s life and offers a stark warning to those who remain focused on mundane aspects. Ekiza declares: “I am awaiting tomorrow, surprises, forgetting, promises… awaiting orders. Absolutely everything has a why, and everything also has a what for. We are a dot between two dots. At first glance no sense at all, but from the distance, lines appear. It is going to appear. Something will happen… otherwise why?” and he adds: “Each thing has its moment, I’m not going to sleep yet. Give me the strength to stay up more, we must win this battle against time. If we lose, we’ll lose yesterday’s too… “ Intelligence is surely the most fantastic creation of nature — it is nature’s gift to us. We have the ability to perceive what goes on around us, and more important, we can learn why. We do this with human reason — a process of freeing our minds of old, fixed beliefs and observing reality with an open mind.

Atte ttipia (The back door) deals with self-doubt, guilt and evading responsibility. Magic mushrooms – people have been escaping reality for centuries! These “magical herbs” have now been replaced by other types of drugs, alcohol and technology. Although in essence, they still serve the same basic purpose: an escape from one reality to another. The song blurs the line between fantasy and reality, and becomes a zonked nirvana with demons underneath; a fragile state that can’t help but break apart on the very next song. “Always looking for another way, I make sure not to trap myself with my own choices. In this long hallway, it’s impossible to back up, I have to make sure back doors aren’t locked… Pardon me. I’m all doubts…” The song ends with a question: “Is this hallway a passage or a hole?” Evading reality will prevent us from seeing what’s really going around us. If we know there’s a hole in the ground, we can walk around it. Life is a lot like this. There are holes everywhere just waiting for us to fall into them. But when we have the knowledge that comes with living a conscious life, we can avoid these holes, and if we do fall in, we can get out again. This is what living consciously is all about, recognizing, accepting and taking appropriate action for the reality which we are in.

Berantegi (Too Late) espouses the concepts of alterity and unity, while recognizing common traits shared by humans. “It’s always too late” she told me sadly. But I, I love when it’s too late, tomorrow is another day. At dusk, today ends, and tomorrow is not here yet. When it’s too late, lies end.” This track features a drumbeat that sounds relaxed and effortless, in other words, the music sounds like it’s playing itself. There’s no wavering here, or in any of the album’s tracks, both the drums and the bass are in the pocket. Great guitar riffs. All in all, brilliant music.

The album’s last track, Munduari Kondenatuak (Condemned to the world) used a feedback on the introduction of the song, which reminds me of an EKG flatlining. The drums inducing sadness lead you in to the song; they say volumes with very little, because it means something as a piece of the bigger whole. Behaviorist theories of survival, combat, rewards and punishment, and anxiety, as well as retreat into solitude, inhibition and withdrawal used by Prof. Henri Laborit in Alain Resnais’ “Mon oncle d’Amerique” are the source of inspiration for Ekiza to write this very moving song. “When escape is not an option, inhibition or fight. A: The consequences of inhibition: rotten anxiety and illness. B: Rats fight. They fight in vain but they react, and remain healthy. Condemned to the world, condemned to fight. Giving up the fight would not bring peace. “ The feelings conveyed and the unsubtle hooks about disconnected souls and low-expectation lives hit you with a blunt force that’s hard to deny; a feedback fade-out ending the song with a mournful sound from a distant guitar, generates rather than relieves tension. The band use space, rhythms and distinct song sections to really create the feelings that they want. They rely on these songwriting skills instead of on walls of distortion, ferocious screaming or virtuosic instrumental performances. This is a band, not a project of one individual person.

A ala B is such a pleasant surprise because it found a band coming into its own, flexing its creative muscles and proving equally adept at doing what they want: “Nahi duguna egiten saiatzen gara, eta horrek ematen digu gure nortasuna.” (We’re trying to do what we want, and that gives us our identity.) A ala B offers comfort to the listener. Willis Drummond don’t want to challenge or control their audience; they want to make music that helps their fans get through tough times.

It is incredibly rare for a band to have talents this strong at each instrument, and rarer still for them to have interlocking chemistry as tight as Willis Drummond’s. This band is relentless; A ala B flaunts the chemistry brewed over the years that this four piece band have been together. Guitarists Rafa Rodrigo and Jurgi Ekiza maneuver speedy melodies, while drummer Felix Buff and bassist Xan Bidegain propel the band. Five albums is an impressive feat for a rock band in what lazy journalists and tag-loving music dudes call a “post-rock era.” It’s called “modern rock” dudes! The entire album is infectious and invokes a lot of heartbreak tunes that everyone can relate to.

I felt the album is undeniably appealing, emphasizing its slamming drums, upbeat guitar riffs and bass grooves. This is easily one of my favorite releases.

Take the journey; let your heart be broken. It will remind you of what it means to be human, how hope and despair can sit side by side in our lives. A ala B is no less than a boot camp for the mind, because brain fitness boot camp is all about us taking action.

This album is a stand-out release in every sense of the word, and people will realize that, and lavish the praise this album so rightly deserves. I mean, who else in the world is going to write a song as ambitious and profound as Munduari Kondenatuak, and then make it sound easy? No one.  Buy this album now.


Side A:
1. Ilegala  02:46
2. Menperatzen dut 04:19
3. A ala B 03:49
4. Anai  03:57
5. Komedia 04:46

Side B:
6. Tresna 02:40
7. Aginduaren zain 03:25
8. Ate ttipia 04:16
9. Berantegi  04:59
10. Munduari Kondenatuak  04:50