Emperor Joseph II of Austria famously complained to Mozart about one of his early operas, “Too many notes, Herr Mozart!” and there was nothing poor Wolfgang could do about it. If he were alive today, Mozart could just join a “brutal prog” band and play all the notes he wanted. Although some people might lodge the good Emperor’s criticism against the Los Angeles instrumental quartet Upsilon Acrux based solely on the first twenty seconds of its fourth album, Galapagos Momentum, the virtuosity-as-narcissism argument doesn’t hold up so well here. Upsilon Acrux doesn’t care for masturbation. Instead, the band’s into four-man hardcore alien sex, using warp-speed guitar tapping and athletic drum/bass maneuvers to lock in and then orgasmically bust out of rhythmic and harmonic prog pretzels.
There’s no shortage of bands around that make brainy, zany instrumental rock, and certainly Galapagos Momentum can go toe to toe with Sleeping People, Zs and Ahleuchatistas in terms of the complexity of the material. But despite all the unpredictable switches between harmony and dissonance, space and clutter, groove and anti-groove, Upsilon Acrux wants to connect. New guitarist Brady Miller applies the kooky melodicism of his other band, Bad Dudes, to songs like “Expiration (Alaska, My Darkness),” resulting in some beautiful, finely textured passages the likes of which we’ve never heard from Upsilon Acrux before. Or any other instrumental rock band for that matter, save perhaps Don Caballero on its watershed 1998 album, What Burns Never Returns. Seldom is music so challenging also so easy to listen to.
Of the ten trillion notes on Galapagos Momentum, only about five of them weren’t meticulously mapped out. And yet these ten hyper-composed tracks come off as elastic, almost spontaneous. Maybe the culprit is the ultra-clean guitar tone employed by Miller and Paul Lai, which gives the ping-ponging fugal lines of “Touched By God (Inappropriately)” a rubbery feel, like they could be alive. Maybe the way that Eric Kiersnowski stubbornly refuses to accept his role as bassist and instead finds his way into the contrapuntal guitar matrix, keeps things from getting stale. Perhaps it’s drummer Jesse Appelhans’s aversion to conventional fills and pickups that gives the album such a fresh rhythmic drive. Whatever the cause, Galapagos Momentum is weird and playful and glowing, a much-needed antidote to the normally sober world of instrumental progressive rock.