Big Gigantic are neither big nor gigantic at the moment, but they’re working on it. The Colorado-based duo of synthesist, saxophonist and producer Dominic Lalli and drummer Jeremy Salken, often called Big G, (coming to Track 29 on Friday) have a novel take on techno. On stage, the conservatory-trained saxophonist looks more like a DJ as he dances behind a bank of synthesizers creating a melodic counterpoint for his tenor sax. Salken, a deft and dynamic drummer, mostly maintains straight four-on-the-floor-dance beats, but every once in a while he breaks time following Lalli’s swirling synths in apparently improvised synth and drum skirmishes.
“We’re really getting closer and closer to finding a sound that mixes a lot of electronic sounds, but is a solid thing that is really us,” said Lalli in an interview in the Aspen Times. “It’ll be nice to get something in these kids’ ears that is new, but is really us.” That was more than a year ago. Judging from the shows excerpted on You Tube and their most recent album, Nocturnal, they’re edging toward an interesting hybrid. (Free downloads of all their albums are available on their website.) Combining electronic dance music’s fiercely rhythmic drive with Lalli’s free floating sax and synth melodies, the two often approach something like a mix of Pink Floyd and Skrillex. It doesn’t always work.
“Oh, a super smooth sax solo and live drumming,” asked one reviewer from Spin, considering whether to stop and listen to their set at Lollapalooza last summer. He wasn’t enthused—and despite being the only person anywhere on-line with a negative reaction to Big G, he had a point. Another reviewer noted that the duo, whose live shows have received almost uniformly rapturous reviews, is at times a tad dull in the studio. Part of the problem is their tendency (like many jam bands) to rely on a riff. They latch onto a catchy riff and then wear it out over endless repetitions. An audience hearing the tunes for the first time may enjoy the repetition, but on record it soon wears thin.
At times on the album it sounds as if the musicians are fighting with the beats, synths and bass drops driving the music. Techno works best when the energy of the beats is offset with relatively simple, often repetitious melodic lines. Lalli said he’s looking for “something solid.” On this album, that often means an uneasy mix of Herbie Hancock’s funky pop jazz dance tracks (like “Rockit,” an MTV staple in the early ’80s) with his edgy, experimental big band that expanded the boundaries of big band jazz from the late ’60s.
Lalli’s sax rides high in the mix over often densely layered combinations of horns, bubbling synths and rumbling bass lines energized by Salken’s powerful percussion. When it works, as on a track like “Its Goin’ Down,” it’s as headily danceable as the best rock and roll, but on tunes like “Heavyweight Champion” and “Hopscotch” it becomes ponderously top heavy. Ironically, it seems techno’s elephantine approach needs a light touch.
It often sounds as if they are feeling their way through on the album. It’s not until the second half that they start getting a handle on how this music works. Lalli has said in several interviews that he only recently began paying attention to techno. Before he and his then-roommate Salken began experimenting with electronica in 2008, Lalli had been playing Afrobeat-based jazz with The Motet. A number of tunes on the album, “All Nighter” for one, sound like a mix of Fela Ransome-Kuti’s airy Afrobeat big band’s massed horns mixed with techno’s skittering rhythms. The problem is that too often the two don’t mix very well. Afrobeat’s rangy organic swing feels airless and constricted in this context. Combining Afrobeat’s exuberance with techno’s manic drive should and sometimes does create a heady hybrid, but more often the two work against each other and the result is more enervating than exciting.
In concert, the duo plays in front of a backdrop of what one reviewer called “daring light show dynamics,” an essential element of most electronic dance music shows. The duo are dynamic live performers (witness their performance at the Fox Theatre in Boulder on You Tube) and when the material is as strong as “Eyes Closed” or “Stronger,” the closing tracks on the album, it’s a lot like Pink Floyd in their prime with the added excitement of booming bass drops and Salken’s masterful Charlie Watts-style drumming.
with Ana Sla
Friday, Nov. 30 • 8 p.m. • $17/$20
Track 29 • 1400 Market St.
(423) 558-0029 • track29.co
Richard Winham is the host and producer of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years.