With Real Enemies (New Amsterdam Records), composer/conductor Darcy James Argue uses his big band, Secret Society, to peel back the layers of modern history and slice right into the troubled human heart and of all its terror of the world and itself. The 13 tracks begin with “You Are Here” and end with a reprise of the same featuring a clock-ticking down and returning to 12. It marks the inexorable flow of time in layers of stuttered, woozy brass, and clarinet against piercing clouds of flutes. This interplay of the lowest and highest ends of the 18-piece band acclimates the listener to a state of disorientation that returns over and over throughout. That discombobulation feels perpetually wrapped around you, a too-tight sweater you’ve just gotten used to wearing. The first “You Are Here” shrinks around a slippery bass figure by Matt Clohesy and sinewy trumpet solo courtesy of Ingrid Jensen, leading, as only seems right, straight into “The Enemy Within.” This cut plays with “pop” forms as narcotizing agents of concealment, as comparisons with the easy pleasure of having targets served up to us like meat, but without sacrificing the pleasures of those forms.
Elsewhere, “Dark Alliance” elucidates the shadowy bargain of a drug trade flourishing in the wake of a so-called “war” (on our own citizens) in a cinematic way. The track starts with an irony-drenched just-say-no sample over coked-up disco that sounds like heat coming off L.A. sidewalks, rippling with crime-movie horns that erupt with a Dave Pietro alto sax solo over a layer of Sebastian Noelle’s guitar, Clohesy’s squelchy bass synth, and Jon Wikan’s hi-hat. It pans to a tropical scene drenched in that same dread, then jumbles those elements together, led by a ferocious Ryan Keberle trombone solo. “Casus Belli,” named for the act used to justify war, has a sprightly bounce as it leads the listener through a swinging dance. In the midst of a rain of percussion, with horn lines as hummable as classic Basie, Mike Fahie’s trombone leads every step before folding into a howl. The fun placidity settles again, but is broken even sooner by martial drums and a snarl.
More on-the-nose statements have their place throughout Real Enemies as well. “Trust No One” comes in right after the things-going-wrong party of “Dark Alliance” and deliciously rips off the scab. The song is all bloodspill, with slow bass and drums under crunchy guitar. There’s a solo by Noelle that ends in a wave of angry horns, just as deliberate and overpowering. Barely heard voices mutter about the CIA under this perfectly calibrated cacophony and a screaming bari sax solo by Carl Maraghi. This pairs with “Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars,” which uses that slowness to strip away and build up again, the insistent piano of Adam Birnbaum and Wikan’s off-kilter cymbals and snare conjuring and conducting dissonances in a way that recalls the post-minimalists. Cells pass between instruments, bubbling over in a hair-raising flugelhorn solo by Nadje Noordhuis, and come back to the insistent piano and a flurry of chalk-mark guitar. “Crisis Control” is all nerve ends, a precarious tightrope walk over a flame. Jonathan Powell’s flugelhorn and Cloehsy’s bass weasel through piano and percussion as the horns play so softly it’s like they’re trying to keep from waking a dragon.
Darcy James Argue’s bold abstractions intersect the sociopolitical and historical contexts here, sometimes propping them up, at times sluicing right through. It’s a record that makes you nod along in feeling and in recognition, but it also grabs your collar and reminds you to look deeper, to question those impulses, and it makes you love it more for having done so. Those historical elements are used to speak from the position of our own precarious time, and more than any record this year, Real Enemies is a reminder to trust no system implicitly. It also shows that curiosity can be both a life-preserver and a fountain of sensuous delight.