Two years in the making, Hazmat Modine’s new album, is a true epic
involving four continents, dozens of musicians, and collaborations with The Gangbe Brass Band,
Natalie Merchant,Elizabeth Gilbert, and The Kronos Quartet.
Hazmat Modine is a band in perpetual motion. In 2006, All Music Guide called the New York-based octet’s debut album, Bahamut, “at once ageless and primeval, authentically indigenous and inexplicably otherworldly, familiar and unlike anything else.” Since then, this remarkable ensemble that specializes in happy collisions of disparate sounds has continued its non-stop evolution, extending their musical reach further than ever before.
Formed in 1998 by Wade Schuman, who writes and sings nearly all of the band’s material and forges their creative direction, Hazmat Modine seamlessly integrates primal, guttural blues, funky, unadulterated old school R&B and myriad sounds from other cultures, absorbed during their constant touring in more than 20 different countries across the world.
Says Schuman, “Hazmat Modine tries to get to the core of what makes American music work, and American music is informed by the immigrant experience. There’s an organic evolution that takes place.”
Cicada is an ambitious statement that serves as the culmination of everything Hazmat Modine has assimilated thus far. Among the album’s 14 tracks are two collaborative efforts with Benin’s electrifying Gangbe Brass Band, as well as with Kronos Quartet, the sensational Tuvan throat-singing ensemble Huun Huur Tu, and the popular American vocalist Natalie Merchant.
“Music is coming from all over, and this is reflected when you play festivals,” says Schuman “you have musicians from everywhere: Africa, Asia, all over. The cross-fertilization is natural. It’s how musicians see and hear the world. We are in a period in which so many kinds of music have already been influenced by other kinds. Gangbe, for example, has absorbed so much of the Americas in its music: Latin, funk, jazz and, of course, the music from other countries in Africa. But we all relate because we have absorbed a lot of this too. When they play a song and you can hear the music of Dizzy Gillespie. It is as if you are having a conversation, or throwing a ball; we all know the points of reference but they come from our own experiences. It’s all connected, how they feel American music is reflected in how we hear African music and visa versa.”
Four years in the works, Cicada marks the maturity of this fascinating collective, more cohesive and intuitive than ever. As original as Bahamut was, Cicada finds the band performing at a level only suggested on the debut. Steel guitar, cimbalom, cello, and found sounds gathered during the band’s travels in Indonesia, Slovenia, Amsterdam, Germany and Schuman’s own Harlem locale add to the core instrumentation.
Among the tracks featuring guest artists is “Child Of a Blind Man,” co-written by the American author Elizabeth Gilbert and featuring Merchant and the Gangbe Brass Band—one of two songs on which they appear. Written on an Indonesian mountain road and constructed over an extended time on four different continents, it’s teeming with visual imagery: “Eyes on a highway, keys beside a bowl, rain on a Monday, bones turned to coal/Leaves in a fishpond, plastic radio, figures on a war bond, fences in a row.” The tune is a true collaboration borne out of a deep kinship.
The title track, “Cicada,” takes off via a spoken word soliloquy before veering onto an improvisational road paved by stop-time surprises and Ethiopian-influenced polyrhythms. The murder ballad “The Tide” turns a corner from uptempo Delta blues to invoke both Sudanese music and the American heartland “Mocking Bird” at first is almost peaceful, a gospelesque harmony and a lone, swampy harp setting up the melody. Progressively it intensifies, the drums raging, the guitar and tuba representing the helplessness of sleeplessness. “2:47” also deals with the racing thoughts of the still after-hours, in this case the culprit not a bird exercising its right to imitate but a wayward lover whose arrival home is long past due.
In addition to the Schuman-penned original compositions, Cicada also features three Hazmatized cover tunes that fit right in thematically, a testament to the band’s panoramic range: Louis Jordan’s menacing blues dirge “Buddy,” Frederick Knight’s 1972 R&B smash “I’ve Been Lonely For So Long,” and Irving Berlin’s “Walking Stick.”
Cicada is a feast of textures, atmospheres, hues and dynamics from an American music group with a planet’s worth of sounds at their fingertips. “I don’t hold to any orthodoxy,” says Schuman. “I’m not trying to make music that blends in with any scene; I just want to hear certain sounds. At the same time, I do think we are a New York City band because the eclectic nature of the band and its instrumentation is very New York. New York is one of the only places you can find, say, a great tuba player who can play Latin music or blues or rock, African or whatever—in short, a virtuoso who can sing in many voices. That reflects the city and the essential immigrant and mongrel nature of American culture, the beauty of what it can be to be American.”