COUGAR – Law
(2006 Layered Music)
The members of Cougar all met in Madison and, although they were conceived as a Madison band, none of the members live here anymore other than David Henzie-Skogen. Aaron Sleator, who is credited with electronics in the band, lives in Tuscon, guitarist Dan Venne is in New York, guitarist Trent Johnson lives in Milwaukee and bassist Todd Hill resides in Chicago.
Cougar did a European tour last spring and did a warm-up debut performance at the Orpheum Stage Door Theater, a show we covered in Rick’s Café. Their first album, Law, was released on October 24th. The band will embark on their first U.S. tour in January.
Cougar’s music has been called “emergency rock,” and as the band’s bio states, this characterization “is not wordplay but a literal description. It captures the model of neutrality/purpose/efficiency that defines emergency procedure and extends it to music. Cougar began as a group that gathered for informal compositional and rhetorical gatherings. They began to explore the idea of the ‘hook’ as an institution that occurs within all beautiful music.”
If the intent of the Youngblood Brass Band is to get people sweaty, up off their feet and shakin’, the ideal gig for Cougar is one in which people pay complete attention and the room is silent enough to hear a pin drop. The music is meant to accompany other things in life. The visuals, which are an important part of their total presentation, juxtapose organic/synthetic elements to highlight the contrast between the acoustic/electronic musical elements.
Law is nothing short of exquisitely beautiful music and is one of the most soothing, beguiling and transporting albums you’ll hear. Though it sounds improvisational, the music is constructed like chamber music, with each player knowing exactly what he is playing.
The music is capable of large shifts in dynamic range, from soft, chorused guitars, to raging, high-powered electric passages with thunderous percussion. All of this is achieved in the album’s opening track, “Atlatl.”
“Strict Scrutiny” is acoustic-based, the two guitarists interweaving their parts while the bowed bass is double-tracked, interweaving with its own line. “Pulse Conditioner” is interesting for its contrapuntal rhythms. So many marriages of style exist here that it is impossible to classify, though there is a strong organic current happening, as if the music evolved naturally and just grew up out of the earth. “Your Excellency” comes close to approximating rock, being one of the relatively more straightforward tunes. The guitarists play rich, arpeggiated chords with many inner notes in the intro and outro, making for a lush sound, and this technique is used repeatedly in Cougar’s music. “Black Dove” is a dramatic piece, its dark overtones accented with strings played by guest Christian Zamora. “Merit” exemplifies the variation-on-a-catchy-hook ethos of the band while the accompanying instruments crescendo and diminish, building to a rousing and distorted climax. The album also has five short tracks scattered throughout it, percussive and electronic ideas that break up the other pieces which run from three to five minutes.
Law was recorded largely at the Layered Studio in Madison with some additional recording by Chicago’s John McEntire, who mixed the album. McEntire has worked with Tortoise and the Sea and Cake, and although comparisons can be made, Cougar stands as a unique listening experience and are even more dynamic and powerful in concert.