If credentials alone drove the ratings system here at Prefix, Guillermo E. Brown, the proprietor of the Beat Kids, would be in good shape. A contributor to Thirsty Ear’s magnificent Blue Series Continuum, Brown is the drummer for the world-renowned David S. Ware Quartet, performing with jazz heavies like Matthew Shipp and William Parker. His genre-bending Soul at the Hands of the Machine won him critical acclaim and respect across the globe. In short: If this man talks, we are obliged to listen.
The Blue Series prides itself on leading the avant-garde jazz movement by pushing boundaries and blurring genres. The genesis of the Beat Kids, then, is no surprise: Brown’s had his taste of electronic goodness, and is eager to carve himself another slice. But while the intentions are honorable, the execution leans more toward the lackluster. In the confines of the Blue Series, Brown’s effortless drumming adapts to the composition, but on Open Rhythm System, Brown and his crew sound lost amidst a new experiment, wondering how best to approach it.
Most of the tunes share a foundation with the drum ‘n’ bass that was prevalent a few years back: buzzing, distorted bass matched with three-round bursts of drums. Brown’s flair for density adds the personality to these songs, adding other squelches and blips, as well as vibes, flutes and the occasional piano. The potential there is realized to some extent on the opener “Bang!” as multiple drum beats — some live and some sampled — weave their way between growling bass and Yamamoto’s delicate vibe work.
And though there’s little to complain about there, perhaps you picked up on the blinking warning sign in that last sentence: sampled drums. Brown’s a drummer; this project is called the Beat Kids — am I wrong to be shocked by sampled drums and canned beats? The result isn’t a loss of freshness; plenty of artists have killed with only an 808 at their disposal (though it may lose him some listeners coming to this album from the jazz side of things). The problem with the reliance on sampled beats is that it nullifies Brown’s most potent creative weapon, instead allowing him to rely on repetitive loops, like the one that drags “Danger Zone” into the ground. Near as I can tell, we’ve got four seconds of music that lasts about four minutes. It ain’t pretty.
Disappointments like “Danger Zone,” however, make triumphs like “Fraction” all the more sweet. Rolling pianos echo into obscurity as Keith Witty’s bass line pops its way home, Brown’s drums giving chase. The tune exudes a sense of sluggish drama not unlike the soundtrack to an O.J.-speed highway pursuit. “Space Cats” reaps a similar reward from its jazzy foundation, and the two tracks display the rare moments of synergy between the performers that exist on the album.
A great deal of Open Rhythm System ends up droning its way toward insanely repetitive drum ‘n’ bass, reliving the past without offering anything Roni Size’s Full Cycle collective hasn’t already shown us. But if there’s one thing Brown has proved with his work in the Blue Series, he’s generally an adaptable artist that goes with the flow, and these excursions may help refine Brown’s contribution to other projects. It just didn’t pan out this time.