Snarky Puppy has released eleven albums in the last ten years. Their last studio album (Bring Us the Bright) was released in 2008 – everything since has been in Snarky Puppy’s signature live album format. Culcha Vulcha is the band’s second, full length release of this year and is their first studio album since 2008. This record is a true creative endeavour that seeks to create something new and different for the band that they were unable to do in a live setting, whilst still trying to convey the excitement and on-the-spot ingenuity of previous albums. Culcha Vulcha, to me, feels like a scaled down, natural progression from 2015’s orchestral record, Sylva, that is a summation of everything the band has learned from working with all of the musicians involved with their label, Ground Up Music. Whilst this album is messy in places, it achieves something special in its ability to bring together all of the disparate elements of the Snarky Puppy family.
The band’s sound is noticeably different from previous recordings from the outset with the opening track, ‘Tarova’, which has a particularly thick and rich texture. The studio recording allows for more instruments to be incorporated into the sound at any given time without the balance of the track being affected. On ‘Tarova’ in particular, this has an effect on the use of keyboards, which are very well utilised. Their interweaving melodies and rhythms enhance the sense of groove which underpins every Snarky Puppy tune. The importance of a powerful groove holds together some of the sparser tracks on the record such as ‘The Simple Life’ and ‘Palermo’ which, whilst being two of the least memorable tracks on the record, are demonstrative of the band’s ability to create an involving and infectious experience for the listener with less attention grabbing material.
Snarky Puppy’s world music influences are made incredibly clear on the album’s second track ‘Semente’. I love the use of flutes on this track, and this, combined with the thumping, syncopated bass line, makes ‘Semente’ incredibly evocative of the music of Banda Magda – a world music group whose sophomore album was worked on by Snarky Puppy members and released on their record label. It was also nice to hear a violinist being featured so prominently on a Snarky Puppy song. Zack Brock’s violin playing added to the Mediterranean feel of the track. Small details like these are what makes this album stand out from the band’s previous work, and shows why recording this album in a studio, rather than in a live setting, made so much sense.
Another stand-out track on Culcha Vulcha is ‘Grown Folks’. This piece makes the best use of the band’s sizeable horn section (particularly the saxophones) and bass guitar. Immediately noticeable, is how different the tone of saxophonist, Bob Reynolds is from the rest of the horn section. He enters at the beginning of the track in a call and response section with the other horn players and his sound is so smooth and laid back that it creates a really satisfying contrast, a feeling that defines the track. On ‘Grown Folks’, the band alternates between quieter sections, and big dramatic ones expertly, which allows for a demonstration of the band’s dynamic and textural range. This is exemplified by the transition between the two excellent saxophone solos. Reynolds takes the first solo, which is fluid and controlled and accompanied only by drums and percussion. One short, textural build up later and the listener is suddenly slammed with a monster of an effects-laden tenor solo from Chris Bullock. In many of the track’s transitions, Michael League will play a fantastic, yet brief bass break, while the rest of the band drops out. This is one of the many elements of the song that contribute to its visceral nature. I am not one for dancing, but this track (which I think is one of the best Snarky Puppy has ever produced) had me dancing in my seat on a crowded bus, and I had absolutely no shame in doing so.
Michael League, the band’s main writer and arranger, has often said that the music of Snarky Puppy is for both “the brain and the booty”. This sentiment absolutely rings true on Culcha Vulcha. Tracks like ‘Grown Folks’, ‘Semente’ and ‘GØ’ are rhythmic and infectious, yet they reward the attentive listener with subtle details and interesting rhythmic, harmonic and melodic ideas that get the brain whirring. This album however, embraces the intellectual side of Snarky Puppy’s music more than ever, with tracks like ‘Beep Box’, which are more abstract and less grand, making use of more synths than the other tracks. ‘Beep Box’ in particular is interesting to me as it sounds very much like a track that would fit well on Bill Laurance’s second record, ‘Swift’. It doesn’t have so much of a defined melody or structure, and relies heavily on lots of different elements that meld together into one, sweeping sound. This is also the only track on the record that I doubt would work at all in a live show.
There are two gripes that I have with Culcha Vulcha. The first is that some of the tracks feel a little self indulgent, in that they are longer than they should be. ‘Semente’ and ‘Grown Folks’ are both on the longer side, but never out stay their welcome. ‘Big Ugly’ and ‘Palermo’ on the other hand, are longer than they need to be, as they don’t make as effective use of the time for significant development of their core ideas. The other issue I have is that the album’s so called ‘bonus track’, ‘Jefe’, is a much more solid ending to the record than the last official track, ‘Big Ugly’, which comes to somewhat of an unimpressive finish. Make sure that if you listen to this album from start to finish, that you listen to ‘Jefe’ as well, because its ending is much more definitive.
Culcha Vulcha is an album that achieves a lot of things. It is not as immediately satisfying as We Like It Here or Family Dinner Vol. 2, but it achieves something that the other two could not. This eleventh LP from the ‘Fam’, is its most detailed and meticulously crafted, but even without the more immediately personal setting of the band’s seven live albums, it still has that signature feeling of spontaneity and fun that listeners have come to expect. Culcha Vulcha is not instantly accessible; it requires a little more patience than prior projects, but for dedicated listeners, it is just as rewarding.
Great review, although I completely disagree regarding Big Ugly. I really think this is among their best songs and a fantastic closer to the album – the groove that drops in at 4:53 especially: it’s so sultry and sexy, and it eases the album out perfectly. Then around 5:50 it starts building up again with the synths and harder drumbeat, while still perpetuating the feeling of closure of the album as a whole. When Jefe came on after Big Ugly it really clashed with where I felt I was within the album.
But yeah, great review!