The cover of Happener-Magicker, by local art-pop band David Bernabo + Assembly, is quirky enough to raise eyebrows: Burly policemen resembling The Yellow Submarine's Blue Meanies are frozen in their tracks by waifish pixies dressed in white unitards and displaying magical powers. According to bandleader and composer Bernabo -- veteran of Vale & Year, Boxstep, The 9th Ward and DBL-D -- the concept was inspired by '60s Dutch anarchists Provo, whose situationist tactics presaged today's anti-G-20 utopianists.
The lyrics can be political without being heavy-handed, like those of "Sub-Saharan": "all hail the synthesizer, the social sympathizer / to the greatest private power, waged for home and mental cower." Says Bernabo, "I was reading Noam Chomsky and [anarcho-syndicalist] Rudolf Rocker. It's luxurious if you're in the upper or middle class, but otherwise, you're kind of screwed."
Similar subversion is evident in the avant-garde memes smuggled into Assembly's rock tunes, much like Frank Zappa or recent analogues Dirty Projectors. The complex string arrangements on "Saxton" were inspired by composer Gyorgy Ligeti, while the percussion on "Sub-Saharan" evokes John Cage or Steve Reich.
"I was trying a wider harmonic range -- denser chording instead of just major triads," Bernabo recalls. (His recent composition work has included a piece for local ensemble Alia Musica, and a track for the Nintendo Wii game Critter Roundup.)
Yet the prog-rock and free-jazz elements in "The Channel," the smooth funk of "The Library" and the soulful horn-laden swing of "The Greatest Thing" also indicate he's listened to Marvin Gaye and Steely Dan. And like Becker and Fagen, Bernabo's a master of studio tech available to him. "There's a technique where I'd record every note of the guitar, sample all of them and sequence them using Reason [software]," he says.
Assembly's live quintet is steady with drummer Owl Barns, guitarist Dan Newman (also of Drugdealer), bassist Chris James (formerly of Life in Bed) and saxophonist Brandon Masterman. The album includes 20 other local guests, ranging from Pairdown's Alan Leicht and Anita Fix's Alan Lewandowski to indie-folkster Julie Sokolow, Local Honey's Megan Williams and jazz drummer Clarence Grant.
"A lot of time was spent figuring out what parts should go where," Bernabo says of the album that took two years to create. "But the [results] were so solid, we used almost everything."
Assembly celebrates Happener-Magicker's release at Brillobox on Sat., July 11, alongside Meeting of Important People, readings and films from Incredibly Thin. The album will be available through local label Sort of Records on white and black vinyl, CD and digital download, and distributed via Other Music and Carrot Top in the States and Metamkine in Europe.