An Open Love-Letter to Chavez
I've probably seen Chavez live more than any other band. The first two times I saw them were by
complete accident. They were the opening band who captured my attention and imagination far
more than the headliners I had gone to see. Its funny how great musical moments in one's life can
emerge out of sheer coincidence, being in the right place at the right time. Perhaps my views are a
bit tainted by the amount of times I've seen this band but I must on record to state that I believe
Chavez is one of the most original musical ensembles in existence today. Their recorded output is
among my most-listened and re-played and probably will continue to be for many years to come.
For example, two summers ago I purchased Korn, deftones-adrenalize and Chavez-
While all three of these albums are brilliant, the former two will most likely be considered
"snapshot" records as time goes on. What I mean by this is that they will be like time-capsules,
capturing the moments of the times during which I purchased them, representing what I was
interested in and heard on WSOU during my last summer at home before my family moved.
I'm a little scared to admit it, but there may even come a time when I will put in either of these
two albums and not be as enthused about them; they may seem too angry and relentless to me;
they both may represent an angst-ridden phase which I no longer inhabit. ( I hate using the
condescending phrase "Grown out of". To me, in this context, it would imply that Korn and
deftones' music was somehow inferior or immature which I DO NOT believe or would want to
suggest at all)
Chavez's Gone Glimmering, however, carries with it a
timelessness that doesn't age with repeated listenings. I still remember the first time I heard the
opening track coming out of my stereo (It was 5 o'clock in the morning; I had bought the album
that afternoon at Princeton Record Exchange on my way to the closing night of a show I was
playing bass in. After a very late cast party, a long drive home and 3 hours of sleep, I had to get up
for work at 6 a.m. and while getting dressed, I finally got to listen to my purchase). It may become
harder to recall this story as time goes on, because I STILL listen to this album all the time. I'm a
bit reluctant to mention them in the same breath as The Beatles (and I would absolutely not
compare them) but I will say that Chavez are definite choices on the list of albums I'd be stuck on a
deserted island with.
So what's the dilly-o? What is it about this band that separates it from the thousands of other
talented groups in the country today? Sound, for one thing. Many bands nowadays are using the
noisy dual-guitar approach to an almost nullifying degree. There are plenty of "unique"
(read: scratchy and whiney) singers around as well. This is commonly referred to by Beavis and
Butthead as "college music"; music that is original in its conception, but boring and uninspiring
when carried out. A person with rocks in their head that can tune out everything else
may be able to say that indeed Chavez contains these elements. The double-guitar format is in full
effect but much more IN YOUR FACE than everybody else. Guitarist-vocalist Matt Sweeney,
when not strumming his SG and chainsmoking Marlboros, can be found wheezing and almost
whining through their songs (comparisons to The Psychedelic Furs' Richard Butler are not too far
off base). What one person would consider whining, I would consider SINGING, something that
seems to have fallen down several notches on the priority list of upcoming bands lately. I'd be
more likely to compare Sweeney with early Michael Stipe, a discernable pretty melody amidst the
mix that surrounds it, somewhat mumbled and clothed in ambiguity ( one isn't given much
more of a clue with the records because there are no printed lyrics to go along with the packages).
OK. We got two guitars and a scratchy voice; doesn't sound too groundbreaking to me. On paper
it doesn't. But Chavez takes these ingredients and puts them together in a completely different
configuration. For starters, they completely do away with the concept of a rhythm section. The
two guitars, in various drop-tunings (one if not both down to Low A), take on the task of setting
the tempo, dictating the rhythm and supplying the harmonic foundation. So what the hell are
bassist Scott Masciarelli and drummer James Lo up to?
What indeed! Aha! Here is where the comparisons to their indie-rock peers completely dissipate.
Examine James Lo. The guitars have supplied the rhythm, freeing up the ambidextrous Lo to
pretty much supply the excitement. I WILL mention this drumming titan in the same breath as
Keith Moon; to me, there is an OBVIOUS link. Moon's job in The Who was less concerned with
keeping time (which he left up to bassist John Entwhistle) and more concerned with
approximating, embellishing and accompanying the sonic onslaught Pete Townshend was
wreaking on his guitar. Listen to Lo. These are loud, brash and hopelessly random drums.
There is no easily recognizable beat pattern but there is primal, flailing, energized percussion.
James Lo doesn't play his sparkling Slingerland kit so much as beat it senseless.
So you're watching them live and you have thick, low guitar chords chopping out a steady
rhythm, you have James Lo hellbent on pounding his set into submission but you have NO bass.
What the hell is Scott "Marshall" doing off to the side, smoking a cigarette, wearing really goofy
high-tops, a ridiculously loud shirt along with a ridiculously QUIET Rickenbacker bass?
At times in the music, he is barely perceptible, quietly plucking along with the guitars, other times
not even plucking at all, standing off to the side taking it all in. Suddenly he enters and all hell
breaks loose. You didn't even realize the bass wasn't there until it entered with a grinding evil
chord twisting the fluid music mass into another dimension and introducing sheer power into an
already crowded musical landscape. Picture a ship caught amidst choppy waters and overcast
skies; just when you think it can't get any worse, add THUNDER and LIGHTING and you have
the makings of a shipwreck. Thunder AND Lightning. Marshall isn't content to simply supply
more fatness to the lower strings of Sweeney and second guitarist Clay Tarver; Marshall's bass
suddenly swoops up into the upper reaches of the neck and saws out a rhythm on one note (which
coming from a nearly over-driven Rickenbacker sounds like an air-raid siren signaling the
oncoming apocalypse). Who ever thought one note could be so fun!
Amidst all these stormy seas, Chavez navigates the tempest-tossed listener and when one believes
the maelstrom will never cease, it suddenly becomes quiet, like having someone pull the plug. But
the music is still there, only now you are craning your neck and straining your eardrums to
pick it up. Unlike their mostly mezzo-forte contemporaries in the indie-rock field, Chavez has the
unique ability to inhabit both extremes of over-blown madness and subdued tranquility with equal
ease. Any musicologist will tell you that it is easy to achieve a triple-forte sound from a full
orchestra but what separates superior ensembles from the amateur ranks is that same orchestra's
ability to play a barely perceptible triple piano.
Chavez is not simply a post/punk string quartet; to me they are a rock and roll orchestra with
exaggerated dynamics and musical finesse. A perfect example of this is in the songFlight '96
off their second album Ride the Fader.
Sweeney's guitar plucks out a simple ostinato,
a repeated pattern over and over, much like a full orchestra string section. Tarver's Les Paul
interjects with some feisty one-liners and squeaks and whirrs, like a woodwind section (think
oboe, bassoon, clarinet, flute and all the musical color that they individually add to an orchestra)
James Lo is keeping a simple beat, but when the low brass (Marshall's bass) enters, Lo becomes
the percussion section with booming gran casse, tam-tam, snare and rolling thundering tympani.
And crashing, clashing cymbals, cymbals, cymbals, explosions (Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture).
Scott Marshall's bass I would liken to the job of bass trombone or tuba in an orchestral setting.
Under concert or brass ensemble settings, these two instruments function as the foundation, the
bass. In an orchestral setting however, that job is already taken care of by the string basses.
The tuba and bass trombone play only very occasionally, but when they DO enter you know they
are there, rounding out the bottom of the already blaring brass (think of the low brass entrance
near the end of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries, when the low brass adds into to the famous french
horn melody) .
This is Marshall's bass in the context of Chavez, providing depth and fullness to the other brass
(again Sweeney's and Tarver's guitars) and also souring to glorious heights in other sections (like
a french horn in a Strauss tone-poem). One doesn't have to go to Avery Fisher Hall to
experience orchestral splendor.
So what more can I say? This is a band of absolutely epic proportions and not easily described or
categorized within the context of the indie-rock community in which they dwell. For further
reference, I suggest you go the Matodor records' homepage and read all about the existence of
Chavez (itself a story of epic proportions). BuyGone Glimmering, Ride the Fader and the Pentagram Ring EP. Listen to them on loud volume. Make sure you have a stereo
with both speakers fully functioning (as the band pans its guitars). If you are not sufficiently awed
by the web of guitar mass, the delicacy of the vocals, the snarling of the bass and the pagan-skin
thumping of one of the most unique, dynamic and exciting drummers around today; if all of this
does not blow you away (or at least casually entertain you) then I might suggest a more
death-defying activity such as cliff-diving. Me, I'll do my bungee-jumping with my Chavez
Written By: Sir Brian C.