Progressive music seems to have embraced the term ‘supergroup’. There have been countless collaborations between talented musicians in an attempt to make one cohesive piece of music designed to impress technically and musically. However, in many cases, these groups have not been able to capture the talents of each individual equally and simultaneously create music that works as a composition which makes sense.
Occasionally, a certain group of individuals come together and manage to create something which is greater than the sum of its parts. I cannot think of a better example of this than The Aristocrats. Formed in 2011 after guitarist Guthrie Govan, bassist Bryan Beller, and drummer Marco Minnemann played a concert at the Winter NAMM Show (after only one rehearsal!), The Aristocrats have succeeded at being able to utilise the considerable talent at their disposal to make music which sounds pleasing to the ear and at the same time makes you wonder how it is possible for any human to play an instrument that well.
I discovered The Aristocrats during my first year at college, and was immediately blown away by the insane amounts of talent and musicianship the three members were filled to the brim with. They play a brand of progressive music heavily influenced by jazz, resplendent with complex harmony and rhythm. All three members play extremely complex parts in almost every song, but it never seems like it’s too much. They each know their place in the composition, and never overstep their bounds, which makes all the difference. If all three members were to start showcasing their chops at the same time, the result would be a cacophonous mess, as is the case with a significant number of prog bands, and this is something The Aristocrats never do. The songs are composed not as a vehicle for showcasing technical prowess, but as music which means something and manages to convey an emotion or a story. Bryan Beller has said in an interview that while composing, he likes to name the song before he writes any music because, being an instrumental band, that is the only (very limited) avenue for language to express something. When he writes a song after naming it, it helps him convey that story or feeling a lot better. It is extremely clear from their songs that they are not just talented musicians, but extremely accomplished songwriters as well.
The Aristocrats are currently on world tour promoting their third album, Tres Caballeros, and as part of the tour, they played four cities in India, New Delhi being one of them (the others were Kolkata, Mumbai, and Bangalore). Tickets for the Delhi and Bangalore shows were sold out in a mere three days, filling me with hope for the music scene in the country. My excitement for this concert knew no bounds and it only kept increasing as the date grew nearer.
The concert was at the Hard Rock Cafe in Delhi. The venue was packed by the time I got there. Along with a few friends, I managed to secure a decent spot near the stage. The moment the band got on stage, ear-splitting cheers erupted from the audience. It was amazing and hilarious at the same time to see the looks of genuine surprise on their faces at this reception. Without any warning or intimation, the band launched into their first song, and from that moment, I knew that this would probably be one of the best gigs I’d ever see. The first song ended and Bryan Beller took to the mike to introduce the band. Chants of “Guth-rie! Guth-rie!”, “Mar-co! Mar-co!”, and “Bri-an! Bri-an!” came from the crowd as each band member was introduced, which prompted Minnemann and Beller to play little grooves along with the chants. The band then proceeded to absolutely demolish their one and a half hour long setlist, playing each song perfectly. The thing I found most impressive was that it was completely effortless on their part. It didn’t look like they were playing extremely complicated, technical music which requires incredible amounts of skill and practice. For them, it was just another day at the office, but for me and the other approximately 500 people there, it was a revelation. Minnemann took a drum solo in the middle of one of their songs, and I think that every drummer in the audience (including me) took a vow to never touch a pair of drumsticks again. There’s a level of talent which inspires you to do more, and then there’s this level which you can never attain no matter how much you work towards it. I think all three members of The Aristocrats have attained the latter. A Stephen Fry quote about P.G. Wodehouse (seen on the jacket of many Wodehouse books) applies perfectly here: “You don’t analyze such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendour.”
The band interacted with the audience after each song, telling us which of the three has composed the next song they were going to play, and sometimes an anecdote related to the song. A particularly complex song of theirs was dedicated by Bryan Beller to driving in India because, as he said, “it’s fucking crazy here!” The audience was incredible throughout the concert, and it was clear that the band wasn’t used to such enthusiastic and frankly, loud responses. A prime example of the amazing audience came when they were playing a song off Tres Caballeros, Smuggler’s Corridor. The song has a vocal part, the only vocal part in any Aristocrats song. Naturally, the band got the crowd to sing it. Here’s the amazing part: when the time came to sing, Minnemann started playing a quiet groove to keep time, and Beller started explaining to the audience what to sing, but the audience didn’t need explaining. At least half (optimistically about eighty percent) of the audience starting singing immediately. That moment was one of the best things I’ve experienced in my life, and added so much to an already amazing concert.
The Aristocrats is a band that plays music which may not be enjoyed by everyone. Even so, no one can deny that they are supremely talented musicians and some of the best people in the world at what they do. I’m honoured that I had the opportunity to watch them perform their magic in person. As I left that concert, my shirt having changed colour from red to maroon because of copious amounts of sweat, I had an overwhelming feeling of awe at what I had just witnessed, because seeing something like this is actually a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. The experience was everything I had hoped for and more, and I can now tick off watching three of the most talented musicians in the world in person from my bucket list.
P.S.: Here is a live DVD of The Aristocrats titled “Boing! We’ll Do It Live”. Even if you’re not into this genre of music, I highly recommend that you check it out for at least a little while. I promise you it’ll be worth it just to see the kind of stuff these three men can pull off on their instruments. If you do enjoy this kind of music, you probably won’t stop until the entire two and a half hours are over.