Legend has it that Mike Keneally was hired by Frank Zappa in 1988 as a “stunt guitarist,” because the eccentric composer realized he couldn’t do justice to the increasingly dense music he was writing at the time. He toured with Zappa that year as both guitarist and keyboardist to deserved acclaim. Keneally worked with Dweezil Zappa, Steve Vai, Henry Kaiser, and Andy West. A multi-instrumentalist of the highest fashion, his music has been far more than the Cuisinart virtuosity that makes so many rock pick-wielder studio efforts a test of one’s tolerance for relentless displays of technique. Keneally has broad musical literacy and has revealed his acumen as an electric and resourceful composer for his elevated guitar skills.
Context is everything when one labors to bring an outsized instrumental technique to effective musical application, but we find that Keneally is fluid and fluent in styles and genres he constructs for his superhuman skill set. His qualities as composer and arranger are on full and ample display on his recent release, The Things that Knowledge Can’t Eat. As with his previous boundary-straddling records, these nine new songs are a consummate fusion of off-kilter eclecticism, highlighting evident traces of prog-rock and excursions in tone-poem expressionism that would be difficult for mortals to bend to their creative will. Keneally has the needed moxie to make all the parts of a piece. No matter how odd the meter, how propulsive the rhythm, how abrupt the shifts from suggestion of free jazz to a gracefully amorphous melody that swells with a painterly sense of color and contrast, this album displays a grand mastery of the idioms he employs. Trust me, the excitement is witnessing a rare artist handily reinvigorating and reinventing the old ways of mere mastery of all the moving parts. Rather, he’s made something new and vibrant.
To be precise, Keneally’s music is art rock of a new kind. The Things that Knowledge Can’t Eat is an enticing and stitchless merging of different means of provocation. It constantly surprises and slips into an unexpected rhythm, oozes seductively from glorious folkish balladry to outré extravaganzas. The open track, Logos, is a Zappaesque bit of vocalese, a slightly strident chorus with a chirpy vocal line expounding on the wonders of a friend’s company logo—or personal logo—an inane sentiment undermined by the percolating, whack-a-mole near-dissonance of the music. Keneally, we note here, is not merely an instrumental wunderkind but also a literate and oddball lyricist as well, able to mimic voices or create personas who free associate about their place in the world. He has a particular skill for using non sequiturs, which adds to the absurd tragedy he writes about, how material things meant to make us happy only deepen our melancholy.
“Cell,” an instrumental assemblage that seems vast and nearly oceanic in its flow through a robust array of moods, is a wordless contemplation that has us navigating the sweep and sway of sonic waves. It’s a masterful construction that features two adeptly situated improvisations by guest guitarist Steve Vai, another veteran of Zappa’s touring band. Vai is nearly without peer in the top tier of innovative fret-maestros, and demonstrates this in both solos, combining the expected variety of tone and fluidly from alternative blues intonations to hard-shred attacks to jazz-like note excursions.
I should say again is that Mike Keneally is an intriguing lyricist, a rare quality in musicians who’re best known to the general music audience for their guitar chops. Obviously inspired by the cutting satire and acerbic commentary of mentor Zappa, he’s forged his book of lyrics that reveal an author’s awareness of what’s happening in the world around him. As often as not, his lyrics make one think of a person ruminating over an insoluble problem or undefinable emotion; there’s an elliptical juxtaposition of specific detail, bewildering elisions, and purposeful gaps in the narrative. Very often you come away not understanding of what Keneally is talking about but remain confident that you “get” what he’s getting: that elusive feeling, the shining insight, the rush of intense joy or sadness that vanishes before you can come up with the words to define what you felt. Good lyricists inclined to write in the crisply diffuse cadences of modern American poetry can do that. Keneally does this very well, and I’d recommend close and repeated listens to the songs. The lyrics are set in artfully eclectic settings, private thoughts, and half-heard musings, synchronized with flawless craft with the array of odd time signatures and passages that reflect the edges of metal and math rock. Anger, rage, joy, ambivalence, sympathy, despair—the word sheet touches on all these.
I have to come back to this overview of Keneally’s spectacular disc, with appropriate raving for the instrumental called “Ack.” Keneally is a multi-instrumentalist, as has already been mentioned, playing the majority of instruments on most of the nine tracks. But with “Ack” he receives bravura support from an exceptional troupe of musicians. It explodes as a jacked-up swing song, rapid tempo and horn choruses adroitly burn down the ballroom. But it soon morphs into some attractively splintered bars of dissonance that bring us near the outer-space experiments of prime Sun Ra. It then shifts rapidly into a breathless bebop chase, finally segueing into a scorching shred solo by Keneally and easing into an orgy of high contrast tonal color. This is what art rock should be doing, subverting expectations, switching up old styles, and creating new dimensions from them. Michael Keneally has the capacity to surprise the musical curious. This musician is a category unto himself.
Note: The San Diego Troubadour would like to congratulate Mike Keneally on his Lifetime Achievement recognition from the San Diego Music Awards. Well-deserved, Mike!