Since their debut album in 1990, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones have been fusing bluegrass, jazz, world, funk pop and every other conceivable genre of music with virtuosic musicianship and a whimsical, accessible attitude. Their music evokes a spicy Cajun gumbo served with a fine French wine and “The Epic of Gilgamesh”. They’ve been nominated for Grammies both individually and as a group in bluegrass, jazz, pop and country, and have won critical acclaim for such indefinable masterpieces as “The Sinister Minister”, “Sunset Road” and “Big Country”. Their most recent endeavor, “Hidden Land”, is consistent with their previous successes, but is also spotty, unexciting and overdone.
The album opens with classic Flecktones, in a track clearly derivative of the critical and commercial success of Bela Fleck’s 2001 classical release “Perpetual Motion”. The Flecktones’ bold new cover on Bach’s “Fugue” features Victor Wooten’s distinctive bass, Roy “Futureman” Wooten’s aggressive acoustic drums and a familiar melody played on saxophone (Jeff Coffin) and banjo (Bela Fleck). The first track showcases the band’s brilliant capacity for delving into the heart of a familiar theme and completely re-envisioning it.
Unfortunately, the second track — reportedly inspired by Futureman’s fevered dreams — completely undoes the achievements of the innovative opener. “P’lod in The House” is as incomprehensible as its title; fast-paced, playful and constantly changing, it sounds like a track that must have been a lot of fun to record, but it seems to develop into a “you had to have been there” story. The first track succeeds largely because of its interesting focus, and it is the utter lack of any such scope that proves to be the downfall of much of the album.
Though he gained much of his popularity as a virtuosic banjo player, some of Bela Fleck’s most impressive work is as an arranger and songwriter. In addition to his work with the Flecktones, his solo endeavors such as “Tales From Acoustic Planet” are characterized by remarkably full sounds that crescendo to an overpowering wall of emotion drawn from very few instruments. A master of the traditional AABB fiddle tune form, his best work is characterized by variations on a consistent theme, with judicious and carefully-applied deviation at the most powerful moments. Unfortunately, as made evident by “Hidden Land”, wall of sound sometimes equals cacophony, and, simply put, deviation is not true deviation without something to deviate from.
“Chennai”, for example, is a song based entirely on riffing off not a melodic theme, but rather a general feeling of “relaxed Indian” or “vaguely ethnic acid trip.” Lacking any kind of structure or focus, hints of consistency in the song remain frustratingly unrealized. It hits its stride towards the end with slightly more cohesive accompaniment, but it fails to bring the song to any kind of meaningful climax. In the same vein, the meandering 7:27-long “Misunderstood” builds from a relaxed tone to a bombastic rise in energy, speed and complexity. Sadly, these moments fail to make sense with the rest of the song — the structure of the track is evident, but impotent.
Shortcomings aside, the album does contain a few of the great moments that make the Flecktones’ body of work so impressive. Bela Fleck has been the first banjo player to gain access to mainstream consciousness since the bluegrass pioneer of the early 20th century, Earl Scruggs. He shows off his smooth, constant and artfully accented style on the closing track, “Whistle Tune”, a peaceful yet rhythmic song with some truly beautiful banjo lines reminiscent of Bela’s background in traditional Celtic music. The other members of the band do an impassioned job accenting a traditional-style tune with modern pop sensibility, with the unfailing bouncing beauty of a simple melody played on Victor Wooten’s fingerstyle bass.
Similarly, “Subterfuge (Bond)” perfectly evokes its parenthetical descriptor, and a hard-driving guitar riff makes up for occasional wanderings. A welcome departure and a nice juxtaposition with “Chennai”, which precedes it on the album, “Subterfuge” never stops moving forward and stays relatively unified. “Rococo” features an interesting and slightly dark theme that is well-accompanied by non-intrusive percussion, never letting the song become too boring.
Nearly every song on the album has wonderful and interesting parts (oftentimes as the centerpiece to a composition), but the bottom line is, few are willing to stick with one idea long enough to allow it to become a complete song. “Hidden Land” has fabulous moments, but too often dreamy noises, cacophonous arrangements and unnecessarily-recorded experimentation bog these moments down, refusing the music its full potential.