“Egos suck,” says the Budos Band’s bassist Dan Foder. “That’s why bands don’t last more than two records.” And with upwards of 12 egos to contend with at one time, it’s a wonder the group gets anything done. But on their third album, The Budos Band III, and certainly throughout their career, the Budos Band have displayed a remarkable commitment to an aesthetic that feels more like a tight-knit family than a band.
The group characterizes itself as “Staten Island instrumental afro-soul,” and perhaps the most potent of those qualifiers is their hometown. There’s a certain grittiness to their sound that only New York City can provide. Sure, they play soul music like the rest of the Daptone Records roster, but their brand is far darker than the bright pop of Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings. The members of the Budos Band are all avowed metalheads; their Black Sabbath LPs rub shoulders with those of Mulatu Astatke and James Brown. Consequently, III reflects this diversity, melding dark guitar riffs with funky breakbeats and punchy, Eastern-tinged horns.
From the stark album cover down to the production, the band commits to a vibe built on noir and mystery. “Rite Of The Ancients” is an album opener worthy of the big screen. Its locked-in groove and brass splashes wouldn’t sound out of place on a Tarantino soundtrack sandwiched between scratchy ‘70s soul or Afro-Cuban jazz. The congas on “Ancients” are a sublime touch on a record full of them: The heavily reverbed horns on the stumbling “Nature’s Wrath are as intriguing as the decision to cover “Day Tripper” as a minor-key, half-time funk workout (“Reppirt Yad”). The band is tight and focused, having spent the better part of the past two years on the road working and reworking these songs. Reportedly the album was recorded in just 48 hours, and this creative energy is apparent on songs like “Unbroken, Unshaven” or “Crimson Skies,” the former a fiery explosion while the latter gradually unfolds.
With so many instruments at work, the players have to be precise in their playing. The haunted-house organ blasts of “Black Venom” lend a perfectly creepy air to the song’s insistent cumbia beat, creating such a realized world you’d guess the band storyboarded the idea ahead of time. Yet with this precision come few individual surprises. The horns stick to staccato unison, with an occasional solo that fits the mood but hardly ever transcends it. The bass can get lost in the mix as well beneath all the moving parts. With the kinds of rhythms the Budos Band lay down, you need the bass up front and center.
These qualms are minor compared with the overall delight the album conveys. The close-knit brotherhood that bassist Dan Foder talks about jumps off the record on its first spin, and the band uses each other as springboards to explore some pretty heady rhythms and melodies. But don’t let this instrumental complexity scare you: These smoky, unrelenting jams don’t require anything but open ears and a pair of feet.
How does a "retro-soul" group keep things fresh? Why, make music that really shouldn't be categorized as "retro-soul," of course. The Staten Island-based ensemble returns for its third LP of vintage-instrument-and-equipment-using and musically-eclectic instrumentals. Much like the Young-Holt Unlimited's extensive blending of popular rhythms, song motifs and rhythms in the '60s and the '70s, the Budos Band distinguish themselves from their "retro" company (particularly their labelmates) in their free-for-all songwriting approach. The first single, the uptempo "Unbroken Unshaven," is an odd pastiche of cultural fragments ranging from b-boy uprocking swagger, swampy blues modes, garage-y farfisa presence and, yes, triumphant Afro Beat horn lines. Expect more of this? Yes. Expect the expected? Never.