If you're looking for delicious prog fusion served fresh from the Nutmeg State, then Helmet Of Gnats' self titled 2004 album is your destination. Helmet Of Gnats is comprised of keyboardist Matthew Bocchino, guitarist Chris Fox, bassist Wayne Zito, and drummer Mark Conese. Their sound is energetic, powerful fusion that sits comfortably next to Return To Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and the Dixie Dregs. Bocchino & Fox take us through the album track by track...
Track 1: Almost Babylon
MB: This was a weird one for me as the original part was written by Chris in block chords in 4ths. It took me a little time to write a varation on those chords and come up with a little line to link the turn around together. One of my favorite parts is the synth pad (very low in the mix) on the descending chords after the "A" section of the song. It adds a nice harmony and texture to the part. And yes, the organ solo was inspired by Emerson ( a little) LOL. Chris's guitar solo is sublime!
CF: We now refer to this tune as "Babs" and its origin started with a guitar figure in stacked fourths that alternates between the time signatures 7/8 & 8/8. I actually don't play this riff until 6:48 , after both solos and the bridge. Matt's brilliant chordal variation on this guitar part is what begins the tune. I'm pleased with how the guitar solo builds in a "Steve Morse What If " kind of way. I think I came up with the title, in reference to "Babs" being almost perfect..., to us.
Track 2: Chinese Leftovers
CF: Another tune that started with a guitar figure, this time from the symmetric diminished scale. I love that scale, and seem to find a use for it everywhere! The pattern moves up in minor 3rds ( ala King Crimson), which we put through the wringer rhythmically. The pretty Asian sounding section that follows is where we got the title, Chinese Leftovers. That was Mark's idea, I wanted to call it Nosebone. LOL!
MB: The diminished lines that Chris wrote for the song are the kind of lines that are not that natural for a keyboardist to play. Ok to play slow but tough to play when we start to change the time around...Chris has always come up with lines that are a challenge to play as they require some pretty strange fingerings. The middle Chinese section was an improv that I was doing as everyone was coming into the rehearsal studio. Everyone liked it so, we inserted it into the song and it worked as a nice tension / release from the dense lines of the song. I like the way it builds with the adding of strings and Hammond on top of the electric piano part. It also inspired the name of the song.
Track 3: Yesterday's Brain
MB: I love this song! The original idea for the intro was single notes. After some attempts to play with the time of the melody that did not work, I came up with the sus chords that start the song. I love all the varations of the sections of the song and the space part in the middle. This song seems to have more of a "classic" fusion feel than our other songs. One cool thing about the space section is, as the Hammond chords start to ascend, the white noise from the Moog Voyager matches the pitch of the chords as the filter has a very high resonance setting and as the cutoff is moved, the pitch changes.
CF: My favorite track on the CD. This song went through many drafts before the arrangement settled into this. I like the unison guitar/bass runs, Matt's Kit Watkins-y moog solo and that main A minor arpeggio figure that is the heart of the tune. This one's hard to pull off live, due to its stop and go structure, and foot pedal dancing.
Track 4: Crumbs
CF: This slow & bluesy ballad was inspired by John Coltrane's beautiful Naima from the Giant Steps album. I was impressed by the restraint he had in executing that simple stately melody. I've heard people say Crumbs reminds them of Jeff Beck, Focus and Larry Carlton. I have no problem being in that company.
MB: What can I say...Chris just kills this song! His playing is just breathtaking!! Also, that solo of his was improvised!! Brilliant, just brilliant!! Other favorite parts: The way the Hammond builds with the melody I think is very nice. I also love when we reprise the melody and the Moog plays in- between the melody. Funny, but this has always reminded me of classic Jean Luc Ponty...
Track 5: Lesser Beings
MB: One thing the band has always loved to do is to put the tape machine into record and then just play - no rules to anything except to listen to one another. We have captured some great moments by doing this kind of thing. Lesser Beings is a little different in that we were trying to come up with a dark, electronic music soundscape. We all took electronic music in high school and some of the influences are still there. The shortwave radio, door closing, footsteps and the kids singing were added after the improv. We set up two microphones in the live room to capture the footsteps in stereo. It was very funny watching Chris run figure eights between two mics as well as Chris holding hands with the kids singing in a moving circle. When they sing "ashes, ashes, WE ALL FALL DOWN, they all fell onto the studio floor laughing their butt's off!!
CF: This group improvisation was originally supposed to be an extension of Crumbs. If that happened, it would have turned out much more melodic than this dark atonal experiment. Afterwards we added some sound effects like an old radio, which happened to tune into a redneck delivering some Satan bashing sermon. You can hear him say Lesser Beings if you listen close enough. My son and his two buddies sang Ring Around The Rosy also.
Track 6: Misfit Toys
CF: Matt wrote most of this one, and it turned out to be one our most popular live tunes. This is due to the trades section or "duels" between guitar and keys. Matt and I have been playing together since seventh grade, and its always a lot of fun to push each other while trading solos. I also love the tribal drum part ending, with that soaring modal guitar melody on top!
MB: Fun song to play! The piano part that starts the song and the driving piano part a little later were inspired by Dave Stewart's piano playing on The Sahara of Snow pt1 from Bruford's One of a Kind. I am happy with the dueling Moogs on the c# minor section. I love how the high resonance Moog on the right channel sounds like a bunch of pissed off Gnats!! Also, when we play this song live, the duels between Chris and I are always alot of fun - gives us a little room to stretch out and play off one another. The rhythm section of Mark and Wayne add a lot to the groove. Mark's HUGE tom toms in the tribal section and Wayne's bass chords make that section very cool for Chris to solo over.
Track 7: Chimps in Space
MB: This piece was a labor of love by the whole band! A lot of thought and effort went into the parts. After the disc was released, I read a few reviews that stated it was a tribute to Return to Forever. This is not true but it is very nice to be thought of in that way. This song has alot of dynamics. Out of all our songs, this song is the hardest one for me to pull off live due to the keyboard orchestrations. My favorite part of the song is the ending and how it builds. Chris's playing over the ending is very tasteful.
CF: The epic that ends the CD! This one also went through many drafts before it was recorded. Parts of Chimps remind me of Chick Corea & Pat Metheny. I like the arrangement, lots of space and dynamics., My favorite part is Matt's spooky synth solo over EMaj7th/EMin-Maj7th in the middle. The endings pretty tame compared to how we play it live. Our next CD has a thirty minute epic on it!