By Drew Ailes
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By Tom Murphy
Call it math rock. Call it progressive rock. Hell, you can even call it rock instrumentation with momentary hints of shoegazing if you like (which is how the members of Peña describes themselves), but for God's sake, "Just don't call us a fucking jam band!" says Aaron Ray, guitarist and one of the founding members of the instrumental act.
Ray's got reason to be raw. After a botched phone interview with a prominent local paper, the four-piece somehow got saddled with the inexplicable jam-band designation, something it's been trying to shake ever since.
"You know," Ray says, "it was just one of those things where she called me, asked me a few questions, but she wasn't too familiar with the genre, with what we do. It's nice that the press wants to give us some attention, but c'mon."
Not being familiar with the genre is something the fellas of Peña are hoping to change with a new EP consisting of six tracks of concentrated post-rock potency that clock in at just under forty minutes. That means that twelve-minute forays into complicated, crescendo-building marathons aren't uncommon; they're the norm. Hooks are subtle, time changes frequent. The transitions are rough enough to keep an audience engaged, smooth enough to somehow make the whole thing work. And it's this very lack of ornamentation and regurgitation that seems to hold the pieces together. The band's entire project seems less rooted in building an ode to tight time signatures and creating commercially viable music and more about making the right noise.
The reductive formula for creating complication works: Almost none of the new CD is written in standard 4/4 time, yet it all sounds like it should be. More important, the work is Peña's first with new guitarist Dave Allen, whose addition has translated into a richer, fuller sound, particularly in the studio. On the stage, however, it means the band can do more than just spread some wings; it's as though Peña is finally taking off and taking some chances.
"It's to the point," Ray notes, "that sometimes when we fuck up on stage, people are still blown away by it because what we're doing works. We're finally all locked in now, and we're much looser. Dave's a lot looser. I used to be the kind of guy who would shut the audience out. But now I'm more into our live performances."
Perhaps, but Peña's primary draw is the group's sound, which Allen compares to modern jazz. "Like Charlie Parker or Thelonious Monk," he points out, "we do a lot of different sounds. But it's still taking traditional instruments and bending them into their own thing. And we can do anything we want, three minutes or twenty minutes long."
Such range is the reason, says member Mike Scarano, that bands like Peña tend to fall between the cracks of convenient categorization. Nonetheless, amid a glut of machismo metal bands, sloppy, poppy indie-rock outfits and an endless train of gutter-punk debris, Peña's mix of voiceless, moody epics stand out. "People still ask us where our lead singer is," Scarano points out. "I'm not saying people are uneducated, but some don't even know this music exists. Which makes it nice when people who obviously don't listen to that genre come and are pleasantly surprised by what we bring."
Just the same, even those who are versed in the genre should be impressed by Peña's latest work. The plunky, highly technical experimentation that marked the band's first releases — material that perhaps suffered from being too ethereal, too unapproachably wispy — has been replaced with more fist-pumping oomph. Not Velvet Revolver anthem rock, mind you — Peña is still very much about embracing abstraction — but the new songs carry an unmistakable vitality.
"We're definitely more intense," Ray concedes. "On our old record, our sound was more melodic. We're a little faster now, a little more aggro."
While Ray credits Allen for the progression, his counterpart isn't interested in taking all the credit. It's a matter of chemistry, Allen insists. Well, that and the fact that the band is finally starting to gel. Peña has found that orchestrated, cherry-on-top completeness that was missing in earlier efforts before he came on board. "I think Dave makes a good job of making things fluid," Scarano says. "We're robotic. David smooths it out, wraps it all together."
Allen takes a less sophisticated view of the whole process: "I just like to get retarded on stage," he enthuses. "The greatest thing is the lights in your face. But I don't really know what I've caused them to do; I'm just a well-trained gorilla. They definitely make me re-evaluate how I play. I can hear the difference from this CD to the last."
You can also probably chalk that up to Allen's schooling. He's the only member of the current lineup with formal musical training. His bandmates — Ray, Scarano and bassist Nick Sullivan — are all self-taught, which has helped them sidestep the constraints of a reflexive verse-chorus-verse formula and remain refreshingly free of musical cliche. Although such autonomy might invite anarchy, it affords Peña's musicians the room they need to breathe. "We don't even know how to play chords," Ray confesses. "Allen will tell me to play an A — I don't even know what that shit means."