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Rock's got its mojo working again

A New Generation Of `Fusion' Bands Ignites The Scene By Knowing How To Mix It Up.

September 10, 2006|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

ONCE upon a time, back when everyone (even Don Henley!) had an Afro, the word "fusion" had a particular musical meaning. It signaled the attempts of jazz musicians to contend with rock and soul by incorporating elements of those more popular forms. The result was some of the most indulgent, adventurous, silly, pleasurable music of the 1970s.

Now, 37 years after Miles Davis's classic fusion album "Bitches Brew," it's rock that resides on pop culture's periphery. Country rules the Heartland and informs political culture; hip-hop points toward the future musically and fashion-wise. Rock's still a commercial monster -- seven out of Forbes' 10 top-grossing musical acts of 2005 loosely fit the category -- and its savviest young purveyors, such as the Killers and Jet, craft songs with hooks just fresh enough to disguise the rehash at their core. But rock's messianic pull relies on the idea of a crowd united, whether on the arena circuit or through the undergrounds of indie and punk, and that kind of connection is nowhere today.

In an age of digital downloads and real-time online chats, everything moves too fast for rock's anthems to stick. Rappers coin phrases, at least; today's most visible rockers have a hard time getting beyond the similarities of their sneers.

And yet this season rock reemerges with a bang, or perhaps I should say a sampler squeal, kicked forward by the spirit of fusion. The most interesting bands revel in a wide array of influences, from R&B to electronica, or mash up a few subgenres to make dated ideas sound surprisingly urgent, if not exactly new.

Leading the way is TV on the Radio, a Brooklyn-based collective creating elaborate pastiches using sampled sound effects, distorted guitar, unhinged percussion, soul-tinged vocals and whatever else they find in their crawl space. David Bowie appears on the band's new disc; unlike many who claim his influence, TVOR deserves his art-rock crown, though it's equally accurate to call what they do art-soul.

"Return to Cookie Mountain," the band's Interscope debut, gets an official release this week after ruling the Internet in a leaked version for months. The album's ability to hold hipsters' interest this long attests to the complexity of its 11 songs. Thickets of sound -- everything member-producer David Sitek's hard drive might hold, including head-bopping beats, synthetically bent strings and long patches of plain noise -- evolve into singable, meaning-heavy songs about the peril and rough magic of our disastrous age. Singer Tunde Adebimpe channels post-psychedelic pop from late Sly Stone to Pere Ubu's David Thomas; there's even a bit of Yoko Ono in his moans. "My mind is like an orchard, clustered in frozen portraits," he sings on "Tonight," productively mixing metaphors.

Easier to categorize, but no less ambitious, is L.A.'s own the Mars Volta. Latin influences, a jazz jones and indie-style looseness combine within its epic fantasy-fiction rock. The group's third album, "Amputechture," also out this week, bears all the grandiosity of its previous efforts. But since it's the group's first without a unifying concept, it's easier for non-aficionados to enjoy.

Having made its mark in the metal world, Sacramento's Deftones can't claim the underground credibility of TVOR or the Mars Volta. But the band's chrome-tinged sound, dark with minor tunings and swimming in electronica, earns the comparison. It took three years for the Deftones to complete its latest effort, "Saturday Night Wrist," out this Halloween. Fans will be delighted with its taut convolutions; now's the time for neo-art rock snobs to finally give these brainy metal dudes their due.

Scissor Sisters is another band perfect for rock's fusion era, mixing influences like drinks at a Las Vegas wedding. It trades in disco, bubblegum and glam, yet despite its shiny outfits, the group warrants more than the novelty label. For its sophomore effort, "Ta Dah!," out Sept. 18, fabulously foppy singer Jake Shears and his crew enlisted spiritual uncle Elton John. Together, they execute that mix of deep thoughts and bubbly hooks that made rock in the disco era so much fun.

My Chemical Romance also flaunts the trappings of a historical genre while making music that veers beyond its limits. Goth is this New Jersey band's favorite brew; it brightens up the style's vampiric tendencies with catchy melodies and rapid-fire punk beats. Ambitiousness characterizes "The Black Parade," a concept album about surviving illness, due Oct. 24. And talk about eclecticism: singer Gerard Way somehow talked Liza Minnelli into guesting.

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