Blue Man Group
AudioBy Dan Katz
Many people reading this review may have seen Blue Man Group’s open-ended run of performance art at the Charles Playhouse, and some others might be going tonight (since the Source released discounted tickets to tonight’s show earlier this week). There’s a common misconception that Blue Man Group is a show about three guys doing amazing and bizarre things ... actually, it’s six guys doing amazing and bizarre things. Not much credit goes to the band that accompanies the trio in performance. Blue Man Group’s new CD, Audio, changes that.
The back of Audio proudly proclaims, “This is not a soundtrack. This is better.” Essentially, Audio incorporates a multitude of instruments developed for the show, some of which have are used in the performance and some of which aren’t, due to space considerations. Still others are used in the show in other cities, but not in Boston. As for the musical compositions, some are original, and some are very clearly recognizable from the show (including “TV Song,” “Tension 2,” “PVC IV,” and “Opening Mandelbrot”).
For those of you who haven’t seen the show, Blue Man Group’s music is drum-based. Very drum-based. Almost every track on the album is driven by a steady rhythm. These drums range from a standard drum set to a gigantic oversized bass drum, and from an aggressively struck cimbalom to the drumbone, a series of pipes that change length to alter the tone of the beating. The most prominent instrument in the show is the PVC Instrument, a xylophone of pipes of varying lengths that are struck with foam paddles to produce percussive notes. Uniquely, it often serves both to keep the beat of a piece and to provide the melody, usually a soothing harmonious one.
On the other hand, my favorite thing about Blue Man Group’s instrumental repertoire is their use of the Chapman Stick. The Stick, made popular by Trey Gunn of King Crimson, is a ten-stringed guitar/bass that is played with both hands on the neck by sliding and tapping. This allows one player to cover both the guitar and bass parts of a band (very useful for Blue Man Group, since they require so many drummers) and produces a fabulous distorted and powerful sound. In performance, only the Stick is used due to its flexibility. On the album, guitars, zithers, and basses are added into the mix. Also present on the album (but not in the Boston show) are air poles, which are waved through the air to produce a rhythmic “whoosh” sound.
So where does the actual music stand, beyond all the interesting instruments? Well, it’s occasionally repetitive, but for the most part, it’s fabulous. The constant drumming gives most of the tracks a very frantic pace, and many of the guitar parts have a surprising surf-rock feel to them. Contrast is established on the album more effectively than in a theater; when the guitars suddenly appear in “Drumbone,” there’s a real in-your-face feeling. “TV Song” has the same contrast, and makes a nice opener for the album. While “Endless Column” is a very slow and expansive closing track, it seems anticlimactic after the masterpiece that is the next-to-last track, “Klein Mandelbrot,” which combines many of the musical styles present throughout the album to produce an eight-minute epic. “Tension 2” invokes (what else?) some serious tension, “Shadows” is moody and isolating, and in general, the tracks are just different enough to keep the listener intrigued.
While Blue Man Group is responsible for some incredibly creative visual pyrotechnics, their music is what I find the most exciting. This album fulfills its claim as being better than a soundtrack -- it takes the group’s unique form of music and uses the freedom of recorded media to enhance it, make it deeper, and create something that truly stands up on its own. Whether or not you’ve seen the show, if you’re interested in new forms of music, I highly recommend Audio.