Jon Grusauskas of lespecial slid into the DMs unsolicited, and rather unassumingly. He had a humble request: please listen to our new album, Ancient Homies. It was slated to drop via Ropeadope on December 4th, which was about six weeks away.
One of the many perks of my chosen hobby-turned-vocation is that I’m often asked to check out the press advance of new music, sometimes from my favorite artists. It’s a pretty cool privilege, and I don’t take it lightly, nor for granted—though I cannot say I actually listen to every last track that comes through my desk, either. But something about the way this record was presented to me… a looming curiosity piqued for reasons not-yet-explained.
Though I’d occasionally enjoyed Grusauskas’ (henceforth: Jonny G) contributions to music discussions on social media, I must acknowledge I was less than familiar with his band’s work. As I recall, some years ago I heard something from lespecial that didn’t exactly click for me, made a snap judgement, and never really circled back.
That’s my bad. (There is certainly a lesson here, but that becomes self-evident.)
Turns out, I’ve been missing out on something pretty serious. Yet, I’m not sure anything could have really prepared me for the visceral, physical, downright spiritual experience that Ancient Homies delivers. I’m new to lespecial, but this mystique and music is in my blood. As such, this isn’t so much a traditional album review as it is a first-person narrative, and a paean to this sonorous slab of sound art—a record I reckon may have no peer this calendar year.
Hailing from Housatonic High School in Falls Village, Connecticut, childhood friends and bandmates Luke Bemand (bass, samples), Rory Dolan (drums, samples) and Jonny G (guitar, keyboards, samples, vocals) raise the roof and the bar considerably on the latest full-length lespecial LP, Ancient Homies. Dolan and Bemand have been jamming since elementary school. After dragging Jonny G first to a Primus show, and then enveloping him into their cryptic musical stew, lespecial was born in 2005 and has maintained this OG lineup ever since.
Ancient Homies follows up on 2017’s Cheen, which chased 2015’s Omnisquid. It’s their first album on Ropeadope, the tastemaker label home to fantastic 2020 releases from Christian Scott, Nir Felder, and Narducci, among other high-water marks. Always about the homies, lespecial utilized the engineering talents of Danny Sanchez (Havok), Anthony Thogmartin (Papadosio), and hometown homeboy Jules Jenson to help vitalize their industrious visions in the studio. The album cover illustration depicting the “heavy future groove” trio comes courtesy of Esseks, with additional sleeve art by Feather Vansik and Illy B (a.k.a. MMW’s Billy Martin).
lespecial – Ancient Homies – Album Cover
Unlike previous situations, COVID-19 and the accompanying regulations forced lespecial into unfamiliar creative spaces and wide-open recording processes. The band members spent more time individually writing and demoing material, then coalesced with producer Jamie Saft (Beastie Boys, Bad Brains, John Zorn) for liberating, marathon, ‘round-the-clock sessions in his studio near Woodstock, NY. From the outside listening in, it sounds as if each of the three amigos contributes equitably to this startlingly strange brew.
With that context now out of the way, I can commence with hyperbolic gushing and slack-jawed stannery. Ancient Homies is an absolutely stunning synthesis of slammin’ sludge riffage, shoegaze oscillations, breakbeat-meets-Brit pop, psychedelic dub, and brainiac polyriddims, all of it swimming in supersonic sound-design. lespecial’s cataclysmic, post-rock ambitions are all that jazz, expertly embedded within emotive songcraft. The band’s deft, minimalist approach and exquisite instrumental storytelling makes for definitive juxtapositions and a thrilling expedition.
Possessed by a dissonant loop reverberating in stereo, “Snell’s Fleet” jolts right out of the gates; an ominous invitation to Castle Grayskull that gives nary a f—k about any preconceived notions or critical compartmentalizing. The nervous build is a ticking time bomb, until the heavy metal haymakers rain down upon thee. Jack Nicholson chuckles, and the shadows fall, followed by a bludgeoning of the best kind; Jonny G wielding a ten-ton sledgehammer, the palm-muted, down-tuned, chunky-thrash-chug in full effect. Bemand and Dolan are locked, loaded and catatonic; soon, they unspool a harrowing Fibonacci sequence alongside their comrade, whipping matters into a veritable frenzy. “Snell’s Fleet” sets upon an electrifying ascent before boomeranging back to the brutality of embarkation.
Scratching my head in a state of perplexed awe, I asked myself: Did these dudes just order a Code Red on the opening salvo?
You’re goddamn right they did.
lespecial – Ancient Homies – Full Album
Before I go about decoding Ancient Homies’ DNA, let’s get one thing crystal clear: this music really sounds like nothing that’s come before. The record is the unicorn diary of three madmen that blasphemously blurs the lines, then sandblasts them beyond recognition. The ideas are wholly their own, masterfully brought to grandiose fruition. With surgical steel and a razor’s edge, lespecial weaves together disparate concepts, colors, sonics, eras, and technology into a multi-hued afghan of tectonic post-metal and intelligent dance music.
That stated, the record calls out to a myriad of influences and trailblazers of yesteryear. The inspirations run the gamut, be they on-the-nose (System of a Down, Nine Inch Nails), slightly more subtle (White Zombie, Aphex Twin), or otherwise subconscious (Lake Trout, Amon Tobin). Ancient Homies is a mycelial melange that obfuscates the barriers between what’s been done and what’s even possible. Tool, Tom Morello, and Mastodon? Naturally. But also J-Dilla, Squarepusher, and Depeche Mode. lespecial dissolves boundaries and defies genre whilst demanding—and then maintaining—your undivided attention for the duration of their defiant statement.
On “The Vessel”, lespecial forwards an updated mix of a track with which some fans may already be familiar, but was brand-new to these ears. Momentum downshifts from adrenalized into a more measured pace, leaning into the mojo. An opiate aesthetic in stark contrast to the malevolence that preceded, they somehow land it, and do so with panache. Ethereal textures abound, Jonny G’s urgent vocals levitate atop a driving digi-tech groove; “The Vessel” surfs a patient tempo and a bulbous, throbbing bassline towards a different kind of blue.
lespecial – “The Vessel” – Official Music Video
“Homie Numero Uno (The Craft)” follows, the first in a trilogy of improvisational, instrumental interludes. They say that three is a magic number, and this trio uncorks a trifecta of chromatic progressions, each hyperkinetic concoction bearing its own electrical current. These “Homie” hangs are adventure-time, individualized thought patterns that serve as buffers by sectioning the eight other songs into pairings. These ruminations remediate the soil and cleanse the palette, facilitating a symbiotic listening experience.
“Repeater” is yet another hard left turn in the never-ending search for new land. Think Radiohead’s Amnesiac chatting up Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish in the chillout room of a mid-’90s Bristol warehouse rave. Luke Bemand’s synth-bass leads the troupe here, his empowered hand at the helm. Rory Dolan’s freewheeling programming and spastic Amen-breaks channel Tobin’s Supermodified and Jojo Mayer on the drumkit. Jonny G’s ambient vocals unveil a vulnerability that’s disarming, and on “Repeater”, the sum of these parts is simultaneously understated and spectacular.
A foreboding phoenix gives way to a cannon blast of methodical fury, and “Tonberry” comes flying off the top turnbuckle with a savage riff and scintillating sequence, a declaration of war that respectfully bows at the altar of Toxicity, then pummels you into a lysergic delirium. Bassist Bemand again the point of this triangular offensive, bouncing ahead of the pack, the group drops into a prog-y passage, speaking in Lark’s tongues at once algebraic and aggressive. The smoldering remains morph into some kind of electrical storm, a sinister tech-step stomp and full-blown township rebellion. Cinematic machinedrum crunk rages beneath phantom soundbytes from antique motion pictures. As they gallop with rabid intensity and a whiff of ultra-violence, Dolan shifts on a dime into a half-time death march, and cool hand Luke promptly meets his battery-mate at the agreed-upon coordinates. On an album brimming with fantastic transitions, this mid-song misdirection is sui generis.
A few steps behind yet right on time, here comes Jonny G with that sledgehammer sludge; please believe, the boy means trouble. The guitarist uncorks a crushing, leviathan breakdown the ski-mask way—a devastating series of blows so hardcore it would make the Cro-Mags quarrel down on Avenue A, yet so f—king metal it summoned the ghost of Machine Head’s “Davidian” outro to my bedroom window under a full moon. Soaring guitar leads metastasize into a renegade, circular buzzsaw. Dolan’s double-bass pedals pulverize the pandemonium, with Bemand’s low-end theory the only sturdy anchor in the undercurrent of this terrifying, turbulent sea. Thrice through this phantasmagorical progression, and the boys mercifully land their mutant brothership. Ancient Homies’ magnum opus, “Tonberry” is razor-sharp high art, a switchblade serenade fit for the mountain king.
[Image via “The Vessel” music video]
Emerging in a state of euphoria, “Homie Numero Dos (Cryptic Triptych)” is a dubtastic safari-in-sound, as if King Tubby got lost in the tombs after dark and stumbled into Al Jourgenson just awakening from a siesta. Another improvisational wonder, this intergalactic excursion finds the group skankin’ purposefully through netherworlds of esoterica, atmospheric textures illuminating the spectrum. As smoke billows and the creek rises, Rory Dolan steers the trek outward bound. His frantic, lyrical drumming on this seance is pure capoeira, limbs flowing with reckless abandon before luring you into a meditation with teeth.
An empyrean detour through the underbrush of baroscopic blips, window-licking synths, glitchy jungle and subaqueous thunderclaps, the magniloquent “Machine Elf” is a cosmic divergence. Boasting a devilish lead vocal from Jonny G that is certain to have the rail-riders swooning, the cut is somewhat reminiscent of Baltimore’s long-gone, punky live-junglists Lake Trout, with a dash of Dave Tipper and a side of John5. “Machine Elf” is a genre-defying song that could be equally at home on college radio, indie-rock playlists, and a triple-decker art-car swaying in a torrid dust storm somewhere way out in deep playa.
Speaking of a mystical desert city, I cannot wait to hear a Black Rock selectah drop “Egg Time” on a finely-tuned pair of Funktion1 stacks, making the speakers pop at some ungodly hour. Just load up the slingshot and let this one fly. The trio tunnels thirty thousand leagues deep to the apex of the vortex. A swaggering, demonstrative dirge, the subsonic force, juno-bass, and frenetic programmed breakbeats make for a scorching encounter with the third kind. Word is, the fellas got shelled and recorded the sounds of cracking eggs, then strategically laid them over assorted hi-hats or snares. “Egg Time” is the most obvious display of minimalism found on Ancient Homies, a disciplined primordial banger that does way more with much less.
“Homie Numero Tres (Homies Blurring Lines Into One)” emerges from the wreckage, a tumbling cacophony of carnage, and tornado of energy and sonics. Imagine if Primus or Mr. Bungle get accidentally locked in the band room, and somebody mishandles the vial. Everybody snaps a synapse for a little over two minutes, and the natives are getting restless. This third interlude is only one that really feels improvised or off the cuff, and it serves a succinct purpose to thoroughly disorient the listener in subversive fashion.
We exit this perilous chapel to arrive at the majesty of “Boundary Dissolution”. After all the harrowing spaces and preposterous places we’ve traversed with these Ancient Homies, before floating off into the ether, they just had to bring the feels. Rest assured, lespecial doesn’t mince—they unmask, and come for the proverbial jugular, the halfway point between your heartbeat and frontal lobe. Jonny G bares a sleeve of introspection, imploring on behalf of all of us trapped in this ever-confounding simulation. As the bass tones bubble up beyond the surface, drummer Dolan revels in rim-shots and hangs way behind the beat, employing a drunken-Dilla flam, similar to the “Mother’s Son” style Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson made famous two decades ago on D’Angelo’s Voodoo .
This non-quantized foundation revolutionizes the sonic landscape, invoking somewhat of a future-bass R&B steez, yet another unforeseen colorway in lespecial’s kaleidoscopic arsenal. A longing lament rich in melody and McKenna, “Boundary Dissolution” is the emotional exclamation point to this entire sojourn, a thoroughly intoxicating number that tucks you into its warm bosom until it’s safe enough to place both feet back down on planet earth.
[Photo via lespecial]
lespecial concludes this breathtaking exploration with the solemn “Tritome” (there’s that magical numeral once again), apparently recorded on the grand piano that Luke Bemand slept beneath at producer Jamie Saft’s studio, Potterville International Sound. This haunting acoustic piano reprises the melody embedded within the album’s opening blast, “Snell’s Fleet”. As such, the melancholy “Tritome” feels like resolution, completing an akimbo navigation, somehow ornate in its brevity and restraint. This demarcation unveils a sobering reminder of what the great philosopher Christopher Moltisanti called “the regularness of life”. “Tritome” is a barren, beautiful, almost baroque coda that gently massages the temples before spitting the listener back out into the reality of their surroundings.
The beastly mark of a truly great record is that once it comes to an end, one is immediately inclined to play it through again. Never have I felt the urge to stage dive, slam dance, ecstatic dance, break dance, drop acid, scribble in my journal, or dial up my own ancient homies, all inside of the same album—and, occasionally, the same song. This journey profoundly impacted me on a plethora of levels, so many that I’m still unpacking them after six straight weeks of repeated spins. On the astonishing Ancient Homies, lespecial prove themselves to be gentlemen, scholars, sorcerers and shamans. Freestyle riding bolts of lightning, switchstance into the abyss, the trio tosses us their life raft for a death trip into another dimension.
You remember what Nas said about sleep, right? It’s the cousin of death. And I snoozed on these lespecial boys for far too long. Welcome to the imaginarium; this sacrament is the food of the gods.