Reviewer: Michael Popke

Death & Taxe$: The Alaska 12 Expeditions

Unlike the images of final certainty the band’s name conjures, Death & Taxe$ play an "anything goes" amalgam of progressive rock, jazz, fusion and even a little heavy metal. The California-based trio recorded two albums — Paradigms for a New Quarter in 1996 and theenigmathatisman in 2001 — and the music sounded alive, infused with creative energy and enthusiasm. But then bass player Tom Shannon passed away in November 2002 when cancer seized his brain, throwing the band’s future into jeopardy but inspiring remaining member Vince Martinez and new drummer Dean McCall to record The Alaska 12 Expeditions, a curiously titled collection of songs written and/or recorded before, during and after Shannon's death. Featuring a slew of guest players, the album is a discomforting, slightly awkward but ultimately beautiful disc.

By following lots of styles and taking plenty of Shannon’s musical and lyrical cues, Death & Taxe$ — Martinez says he’s not sure the name will survive after this record — have released a musical eulogy of sorts. As Martinez writes on the band’s web site, which offers excellent track-by-track commentary about the origins and significance of each song on The Alaska 12 Expeditions, the lyrics he penned for this album “ended up having more meaning than intended. And although only a few lines are directly stemmed from my friendship with Tom and my time of mourning, they all seem to point to him or my friendship with him directly.”

The spoken-word “Introduction to S.F.T.G.” comes from a tape Martinez found of an early Death & Taxe$ gig, featuring Shannon introducing the “The John Galt Song,” one of the band’s oldest songs. That leads into “The War Against Mental Atrophy,” a brief and dark instrumental that showcases Shannon’s delicate playing style. “Misunderstanding A Little Less Completely” borrows from King Crimson to explore philosophical views of life and death, and “Revolver” is the first song on The Alaska 12 Expeditions to follow a traditional verse-chorus-verse structure, sounding like – get this – a Seal song. “The Suffer Ring” is the album’s heaviest track, rocking with a modern vibe that embraces distorted vocals but then breaks down in the middle to reveal the subtleties of the core Death & Taxe$ sound.

Elsewhere, “Death: Theory” is a mostly instrumental blues song that segues into a jazzy middle and then an ominous spoken-word segment penned by Shannon and voiced by one of his longtime friends: “I will walk alone/Into the void … I destroy life/And seek out my own death/A way to rest.” “Terrifying Anticipations of the Unspeakable” is a haunting improvisational piece that uses a foreboding tolling-bell loop, and “It Is Now Becoming Fantastic,” a title Martinez says he ripped off from Trey Gunn’s online diary, is a catchy corker that represents the last piece he and Shannon wrote together. The album closes with a promising 32 seconds of music recorded during a Saturday-morning writing session years ago.

Interestingly, The Alaska 12 Expeditions contains only 11 tracks. Proceeds from the sale of the CD will go to UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center — as if you needed another reason to add this eclectic and oddly moving CD to your collection.

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Reviewer: Schroeder

5 Stars! A brilliant masterpiece!

This cd is a brilliant masterpiece and one that will without a doubt be in my top 5 releases for 2004. The first 2 D&T cds were more experimental and some tunes are a bit to 'far out' to listen to all the time, although I like them very much, I have to be in the right mood for taking a musical journey like the ones offered on the first 2 releases. The Alaska 12 Expeditions displays a diverse array of well crafted songs that not only challenges the listener but grabs you by the ears and screams "LISTEN TO THIS". Great packaging, incredible lyrics, great vocals, and musicianship that would stand up to anything released past, present, and future... this cd is timeless. The opening 2 tracks 'introduction s.f.t.g.'and 'the war against mental atrophy' are obvious choices for starting the cd which is dedicated to the late D&T bassist extordinaire Thomas Patrick Shannon some soft spoken words and a bass instrument that relaxes your mind and puts you at ease...only to be brutally awaken by track 3 'misunderstanding a little less completely' The first thing I noticed is how much the singing has improved on this cd and this track will 'knock you the fuck out'. A musical assault that hits you from every angle. Weaving in and out, dancing and taunting and then beating you to a bloody pulp. Influences on this disc are all over the place and they blend their idols into a sound of their own. Track 4 'revolver' lets you sit back, recover and just plain chill. The words 'beautiful' 'ease' 'calming' would all be understatement for this. It remond me of how King Crimson changes pace on the THRAK album with the song 'Walking On Air'. I LOVE THIS TRACK, incredible words, and the help of Matt Brown's voice is the icing on the cake... he nails this one. Back into the ring to be smacked around by 'the suffer ring'. With a similar musical pattern to track 3 this piece takes you to different places through out the epic. Just when you think you can catch your breath, BAM, they hit you again...slowly building to a climax, dropping and back up again!!! 'Snail' is a psychotic little short instrumental of bass and snare that set you up for 'death: theory' which gets you grooving from the first few notes of the harmonica. With many musical guest splattering this track with smooth smokey grooves, this one's like an old frend you haven't heard from in a long time and one you don't want to leave. 'it is now becoming fantastic' as another D&T masterpiece, thats moves all over the just FUCKIN' GREAT. Check your pulse if your body's not groovin to this tune... you might be dead. Wth bass and drum that cuts a groove as deep as the Grand Canyon, vocals that are mellow, powerful, aggressive, guitars that rip & shred, cut you deep, lyrics that sear your brain and make you want to learn the words to sing along. What wouldn't you like about this song? Track 9 'famous strangeness' is a trippy, heavy, ditty with guest lyricist/vocalist John Stack who adds his own style to D&T. Vince lays down some chuncky, funky riffs and some leads that tear your flesh, all the while Dean McCall is drummin' like a man possessed in his own 'land of grooooove'. DAMN BOYZ!!!! 'Terrifying Anticipation Of The Unspeakable' beging the ends of the journey, and beging like AC/DC's Hells Bells. But these cats are way to talented to go down that 4 chord highway... This feels like an improv with the guys just feelin' it out and creating a monster. I'm reminded of some live King Crimson improvs that take on a form all their own, and when it's done all you can say is WOW!!! LET THERE BE LIGHT leaves you like you started... Vince picks out a nice passage to... take a deep breath and let it out, and relax again!!! The journey is over. I never write reviews like this but after 2 listens to The Alsaka 12 Expeditions this was the least I could do for what this music has done and will do for me. Vince and Dean, Thomas Shannon would be proud of this work of art.
by Stephanie Sollow, May 2004

Death & Taxe$ got their start 14 years ago, spearheaded by bassist and vocalist Tom Shannon, though they didn't release their first album until 1996's Paradigms For A New Quarter; Theenigmathatisman followed in 2001. And in late 2002, Tom Shannon passed away, having been battling brain cancer for most of the previous year. This third release by the band includes material that guitarist and vocalist Vince Martinez and Shannon were working on before Shannon's death. Proceeds from the sale of The Alaska 12 Expedition album will go to UCLA’s Jonsson’s Cancer Research Center in honor of Shannon. You can find out more about this project in my interview with Martinez.

If you try to pin Death & Taxe$ down as a metal band based on "Misunderstanding A Little Less Completely," then you'd be only listening to one aspect. And even then, "Misunderstanding…" is what might be called avant-metal, as there's arty angularity to it that puts DnT closer to a true progressive rock level. And before you start wondering just what I mean by "true progressive rock," step back and don't look at the last two words of that phrase as a genre. The comparison I was going to make was a metal band influenced by King Crimson (which DnT were, though also by a host of other folks), which might be a new progressive direction in itself, except then Tool comes to mind. So it's a least a small pocket of the wider progressive music genre. Truly, as much as some (I) love the progressive rock (genre, this time) of The Flower Kings, Pallas, IQ, etc., it's not truly progressive (as a concept) as they dabble very much in the sandbox of others. But remember, I love those bands, and I'm not making digs, just observations.

I think DnT's sandbox has so much sand from so many shores, it may be more microcosm of the whole musical sphere than mere sandbox. I mean, for every comparison I make here, it is just a fragmentary point of reference, because in truth, DnT rarely sound like anyone else specficially. Their music is complex structurally, and so there's no easy way to say, this is this type of track, this is that. They aren't styles or genres, but moods, abstract paintings in colours that one can only describe by finding colours that come close, but aren't exact, and aren't even comprehensive. And to me, that is progressive, when your music is still easily classifiable as music, but doesn't fit really into a known genre, meaning one has to be invented. This does sound like a whole lot of hyberbole, I suppose… but bear with me.

"Misunderstanding…" is played both furiously and languidly, as with the liquid section that begins the second verse (and there's a lot that happens between verses). But, this leads back into some furious (as in fast, quick, not as in angry) playing. But don't think thrash – remember there's an artiness here. The bass punctuates each and every moment, matched in impact only by the drums (Dean McCall). Which isn't to say the guitars have no impact on the mix, only that these two other elements hammer each note home. Martinez's guitar playing is what gives this piece it's occasional liquid feel, and he does also play an acidic bit before the third chorus. By the way, there's an aspect of this piece that reminds me of a Kinks song, "Destroyer" (I think).

And see, there's the bluesy harmonica in the mostly instrumental "Death: Theory," a piece that includes some crying guitar leads that are quite sad and sweet. The percussion (Mark Segal and McCall) seems jazz influenced – a far cry from the bash-bash-bash rhythms of most metal bands, even progressive metal bands. Which is to say, no, you can't call them a metal band, and have it say it all. This piece is a funky jazz that falls somewhere between rock and fusion, closer to one or the other at times. Oh, and there's sax (yum) from Marc Mylar. And this track, this very eclectic track, even ventures into the psychedelic, including the spoken-word poetry of David McIntire (yes, shades Morrison and The Doors in that).

And if you categorized DnT as a mostly arty, sometimes metal band, then you'd be overlooking the mellower "Revolver," which seems more like something off a Mike and the Mechanics album, especially as guest vocalist Matt Brown sounds like Paul Carrack. It's a beautiful - and the most concrete - track that includes both string-like and piano-like keys (Brown as well), a dreamy atmosphere, and glistening guitar phrases that shimmer. Thematically it is at once dark and hopeful, and certainly something many can identify with if you've ever felt hopeless or depressed.

Then, just following that piece, there's the angular, funky, but still arty, "The Suffer Ring" that recalls at times the Red Hot Chili Peppers. There's also the distorted, fusiony metal of the Rush-tinged "It's Now Becoming Fantastic" here - just listen to the bass work of the Shannon and guest George Radai -, although the distorted vocals (Martinez, Brown) are something else again.

But, in listening to the heavy "Famous Strangeness" you will call them a metal band, one that has a bit of a Soundgarden feel to it. Yes, that means a bit of a grungy metal feel to it. But also a bit of a vocal and guitar rock feel to it with a catchy though chorus. And the death knells sounding in "Terrifying Anticipations Of The Unspeakable" are chilling, even without a "real world" context. Guitars and bass are given a warped and eerie,… chilling sound, all played at a pace just a few clicks above…a death march. It's odd and fascinating at the same time – the horror you can't turn your eyes away from… yes, the title says it all. You know something's coming, you can see, and yet you can't move. Grim, very grim, and arty, and there's some ugly beauty in its awkward darkness.

After a short spoken word piece, "Introduction S.F.T.G", the album opens with the dark and moody, and somewhat eerie, "The War Against Mental Atrophy" which is Shannon playing bass – actually it sounds like several basses layered, including Chapman Stick (which may mean Chapman only, given the range of the instrument). It's a bit haunting, but part of that comes from the thought that it represents some of Shannon's last work.

Okay, so it's gangly and weird and ugly, but it is good? Yes. Quite so. If you like music that defies easy categorization, then this album is as unavoidable as, well, death and taxes.

Rating: 5/5

Stephanie Sollow

Issue 40 - Spring 2002

Unlike the images of final certainty their name conjures, Death & Taxes plays an "anything goes" amalgam of progressive rock, jazz, fusion and even a little heavy metal. An improvisational approach allows band members (and a handful of guest players) to squeeze their creative juices onto virtually every note of Theenigmathatisman, the California trio's second album. Challenging, unnerving and certainly not something you'd want to digest during a particularly trying day, the music of Death & Taxes transports listeners to a higher plane in much the same way Rush, Yes, and King Crimson once did.

If you take time to really hear the lyrics over the cacophony of their quirky delivery, you'll encounter some fascinating turns of phrase. Take these vivid lines from the title track: "Enter will, and thoughts he can't get out of his mind/Soul to till, hands to produce the fruits of his mind/A thrust of good and evil entwined/In the task of navigating his mind". And what song titled "Instrumental with Words" isn't going to arouse curiousity?

Indeed, curiosity may be what initially draws listeners to Death & Taxes. But a pervasive desire to better grasp this band and it's work will keep them coming back.

Michael Popke

Progressive Newsletter
(Germany) November 2001 Issue

Five years after their debut album "Paradigms for a New Quarter" (Kritik PNL Nr. 21), the California trio "Death & Taxe$" releases their second work. Any band that describes its own style as progressive metal fusion and whose spectrum of influences includes Rush, The Beatles, Miles Davis, Kiss Yes, King Crimson and Iron Maiden, is clearly a band that sets no limits for itself. This second effort of Death & Taxe$ is as multifaceted as their first, no lightweight offering. The trio doesn't allow the listener any time to rest or think. With energy and tension, this album rocks off to a great start, then continually changes direction. Its toughness and aggression reveals its Metal base, but it just as easily takes off in a funk/jazz direction (with a guest trumpeter). The music is quick-changing but never drifts aimlessly. When Tom Shannon switches from bass to Chapman Stick, the groove gets intense. In spite of the many stylistic directions, these Americans always tie it together with surprising segues, which doesn't make this album any less complex. These three take time to stretch out or to relax in the many instrumental parts and aren't only concerned with fast playing, but more to create a mood.

Because of the many influences, this album was slightly inconsistent, which could be considered either a pro or a con. In contrast to their first album, this one is more irregular, but in its instrumental realm, it has its gripping moments, over and over again.

(USA) Issue No. 23, December 2001

Five years after their debut Paradigms For a New Quarter, LA area trio Death & Taxe$ is here with their long awaited follow-up, no less unsettling than their first, but more focused and uniquely twisted. There's still a strong Rush influence at work here, though D&T sound nothing like the Canadian trio, instead finding a raw funkiness that drives at the bottom end and an edgy metallic guitar sound that screams with aggression. Gone are the cookie-monster vocals - this time singer/bassist/stick-player and primary composer Tom Shannon sings it direct with a healthy dose of attitude a la Sky Saxon, and combined with the wall of sonic textures and soaring guitar solos, it all contributes to a newly found psychedelicism within the band's sound. The spirited lead work of Vince Martinez spins around inside the listener's head while Shannon and drummers Mark Hanson or Don Medina (track depending - seems they switched drummers mid-stream) blast upward from the bottom end. Occasionally the guitars take on an almost jazzy tone ("The Enigma That is Man," for example) that combines with the punchy bottom end to create a very unique sound that seems to straddle a number of genre-bending styles simultaneously. Likewise on tracks like "Diet of Worms," the guitars take on a shimmery tone while the throbbing bass tones burn with urgent intensity. While D&T are not particularly difficult or avant-garde, they are definitely operating in sonic territory where few have gone before.

Peter Thelan

Colossus Magazine
(Finland) - December 2001

Death & Taxe$ calls their music progressive jazz/metal/fusion and this is what you get on their album "Theenigmathatisman"... the sound is heavy and the rhythms change suddenly... the players of the band seem very talented... for fans of heavy rock.
Reviewed by: David Cisco, October 2001

One of Los Angeles' more intriguing exports, Death & Taxe$ sport a musical approach uniquely their own. DnT (their acronym, not mine) bill their sound as "Progressive Jazz Metal Fusion" and their claim is absolutely credible as their musical explorations are eclectic and adventurous. The band's influences are equally diverse, ranging from Rush to Miles Davis. Odd time signatures, neck-snapping dynamics, crunching power metal, and wild improvisations abound, giving the listener plenty to digest and enjoy.

Theenigma... is opened by the brief atonal jam, "Becoming," that gives way to "Questions In Question," could be an outtake from Hemispheres, complete with heavily phased and fuzzed guitars a la Alex Lifeson circa 1979. "What Can You Make Of This" and '"Words Of A Feather" both sound like a funky, driving Led Zeppelin, the former complete with horns. "Human Fly" keeps the funk a-rollin', built around Vince Martinez's twangy guitars and Tom Shannon's bass and Stick riffs, poking fun at modern technology and convenience while taking a sharp stick to the eyes of Luddites and the Unabomber.

"Instrumental With Words" is the album's first epic, the first seven minutes of which is eerily reminiscent of Disintegration-era Cure (this is NOT a bad thing!). The final four minutes become a roaring metal improvisation, alternately similar to Rush and Liquid Tension Experiment, thanks again to Martinez and Shannon.

"The Enigma That Is Man" ponders the contradictory nature of human behavior, and supports its theme by juxtaposing an acoustic beginning against a racing electric finish. "Bottomless Hippopotamus" follows as a swinging blues and again features competing bass and guitar improvisations. "Frenetic Genetic Overdrive" kicks out the progressive metal jams, blowing down the proverbial doors while sounding like an overture for "Diet Of Worms" which rages in and uses the example of Martin Luther's struggles with the Catholic church to rail against enforced conformity and resistance to necessary change. "After Words" - the second epic - closes the album with an offbeat juxtaposition of ambience, improvisation, and heavy metal. Horns, harmonics, cymbals, tablas, and electric guitars collide in a spacey improvisation that threatens to collapse in on itself before giving way to a driving prog-metal finale.

Ultimately, Theenigmathatisman is an interesting listen that falls squarely into the "acquired taste" category. Heavy fusion and progressive metal fans will find plenty to like about Theenigmathatisman while progressive purists won't be so receptive to, probably because of the coarse production and DnT's aggressive approach. Don't be deterred though - Death & Taxe$ have done a good job with Theenigmathatisman and clearly deserve a spin on your cd player. Me? I like it - a lot!