Rediscovered #8: Hypnotic Brass Ensemble

by Dominic Woodcock

In an attempt to diversify this column and move away from the angst-ridden rock music that has pervaded it lately, I’ve taken a journey back in time. When I was sixteen, a small music festival was founded a few villages away from my house. Headlined by Bob Dylan and featuring Laura Marling, Pete Doherty, and Mumford & Sons on the bill, I was thrilled to go to my first festival. While an ancient incarnation of the once-great Dylan mumbled from the main stage, a nine-piece band called Hypnotic Brass Ensemble were in action on the second stage. I have to admit I didn’t actually see them but a number of my friends did and after the festival they were everybody’s highlight.

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble is composed of eight brass-playing brothers and one non-family member on percussion. The eight brothers hail from great jazz heritage. Their father, Phil Cohran, played trumpet for Sun Ra in the 50s and mixed in the same circles as members of Earth, Wind & Fire. Cohran was intent on moulding his children into jazz prodigies, waking them up at 6am for several hours of music practice before school. While they were growing up, the brothers played as Phil Cohran’s Youth Ensemble but with adolescence came a burgeoning love of hip-hop. Inspired by Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, the brothers formed a short-lived group called Gangsters With a Curfew as teenagers.

A few years down the line, while busking in a Chicago train station, the group found their name after a passer-by told the band he had been “hypnotised” by their music and missed several trains on account of their mesmerising playing. Soon after, they transferred to New York and soon found success, supporting big names like Mos Def and Erykah Badu.

The band’s self-titled 2009 album is far from their only release, but it is certainly their most high profile and is the one that introduced my friends and me to the band after its release. Its thirteen tracks are almost entirely instrumental: numerous brass instruments tangle with each other, while percussion propels the show. But this isn’t a messy, improvised, free jazz style show, the band are well-oiled and the tracks are all tightly composed. Most of all, this music is fun: it is best enjoyed outside on a warm summer’s day.

It starts in ferocious form: Alyo leaps immediately into a spiralling rhythm with each instrument taking its turn to shine. Next up, Gibbous’ sleek hook is almost reminiscent of a classic Bond soundtrack. The album comes into its own with the one-two punch of War and Ballicki Bone. War is something of a calling-card for the band: slowly expanding to life, the instruments weave together to mesmeric effect. It showcases exactly what makes the album special: its sense of energy. This energy comes from the sheer volume of different instruments in play at any one time yet, despite this, it never becomes even vaguely cacophonous. Every track has pedantic construction, meaning the instruments work co-operatively rather than letting any single player lead the show.

Following on, Ballicki Bone is noticeably a quieter track, gifting it a smoother and more laid-back feel. This is also seen on the album’s longest track, Jupiter. Both take a more chilled-out tone, but the groove is still king. Whatever the band is doing, their foremost interest is creating an infectious rhythm to drive the song.

Party Started sees the band take the party music seen on War and Alyo to a longer run time, and also sees the most vocal use on the album. Elsewhere, vocals only consist of the band chanting the song’s name, but Party Started sees more fleshed out call-and-response vocals. It has to be said that lyrics aren’t the band’s strong point, but Party Started is one of the funkiest and most enjoyable tracks on the whole album.

Listened to as a whole, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble’s album is a perfect album to put on for a day of beers in the sun, or a night of brass-soundtracked dancing. Although the sound palate is limited to brass instruments, the collage of bustling horns, trumpets and trombones is gorgeous. These instruments meld together perfectly, invoking something like the metallic collage of colour seen on the album’s cover. Although each song finds its own groove and they all work well in isolation, the album almost feels like one 53-minute piece, bursting with infectious grooves and rhythms.