Alex Henderson Reviews Limbic

Some musicians will opt for a minor change of direction, while others will opt for more radical change; Erik Austin Deerly is a good example of the latter. In the early 1990s, the producer/composer/multi-instrumentalist fronted a Chicago-based alternative rock/indie rock band called Every Good Boy; other members of that band were part of Red Red Meat (guitarist Glenn Girard and drummer Brian Deck) and Eleventh Day Dream (bassist Doug McCombs). But the solo albums that Deerly has been coming out with in the early 2010s (which include 2010’s Biomes and 2012’s Limbic) don’t sound anything at all like Red Red Meat or Eleventh Day Dream; in fact, they aren’t alternative rock or indie rock at all. Biomes and Limbic both fall into the ambient electronica category, although they approach ambient electronica in different ways. Biomes is ambient electronica with elements of new age and world music, whereas Limbic is best described as ambient electronica with world music and jazz overtones. Limbic is a very easy album to appreciate.

Limbic is essentially an instrumental album but uses wordless vocals from female singers Nani and Cait here and there. Their vocals, which are scattered about, are really background vocals; Nani and Cait aren’t featured in the way that, say, the late Grover Washington, Jr. sometimes featured vocalists on his albums. And Deerly is obviously the one in the driver’s seat on Limbic; on top of writing the material and producing the album, he handles all the electronic programming and plays various instruments (including saxophones, guitar, flute, percussion, and drums).

Different types of world music are incorporated, including Indian music on “Neda” and “Voice Hearer Negotiations” and Arabic/Middle Eastern music on “Ash-shab Yurid Isqat An-nizam,” “Entheogen,” “The Gulistan of Sa’di” and the title track. It is evident that Deerly has a taste for modal music; Indian, Arabic and Middle Eastern music involve what is known as “modal” or “scalar” playing, and so does the type of modal jazz that influences Deerly on parts of Limbic.

Those who know a lot about the history of jazz know that in the late 1950s and early 1960s, trailblazers like trumpeter Miles Davis, tenor/soprano saxophonist John Coltrane and tenor saxophonist Yusef Lateef began to incorporate the type of modal or scalar playing that Indian, Arabic, Middle Eastern, Jewish, Armenian and North African musicians were known for (which was a definite departure from the “chordal” improvisation that hard bop, bebop and cool jazz musicians had favored).  And even if one isn’t a professional musician and doesn’t have a technical understanding of terms like “modal,” “scalar” and “chordal,” suffice it to say that the difference between chord-based playing and modal/scalar playing really jumps out at people who listen to jazz extensively.  Anyone who has spent a lot of time listening to Coltrane’s modal recordings of the early to mid-1960s and hears Limbic will notice the modal jazz overtones that Deerly brings to “Vivisepulture,” “Willful Misconceptions” and “Villa Las Estrellas,” all of which have the probing quality that Coltrane was known for during that era.  None of those selections are modal jazz in the strict sense; again, ambient electronica is the main ingredient on this album.  But they do underscore the fact that ambient musicians can incorporate modal jazz elements and use them to their creative advantage.  And the fact that Limbic isn’t alternative rock or indie rock doesn’t mean that the album hasn’t been influenced by musicians who came out of the rock world (specially, the progressive rock world).  Elements of Brian Eno, Tangerine Dream and Pink Floyd (all of whom influenced the development of what came to be called ambient electronica) can be heard on Limbic.

When Biomes and Limbic are played side by side, Limbic stands out as the slightly more essential of the two.  And Limbic, like Biomes, demonstrates that Deerly’s decision to take up ambient electronica is serving him well.

— Alex Henderson, Tonmeister