Closer to Home, the 11th release from the Atlanta-based musical collective Sensitive Chaos, finds bandleader Jim Combs and his smorgasbord of collaborators once more charting bold, experimental terrains in the world of instrumental music. One can hear touches of the Pat Metheny Group’s ethereal modernism, Tangerine Dream’s synthetic future-scapes and King Crimson’s tonal density. But those are only the guideposts on a journey into a realm of stylistically fluid originality.
Sensitive Chaos’ diverse sound is the brainchild of Combs, the band’s keyboardist and producer, who attributes his creativity to the free-form radio programming he listened to when he was younger. “When FM radio was starting, there really weren’t any genres,” he says. “There was just music. It wasn’t so pigeonholed. You’d get a fusion jazz next to a prog cut next to a rock cut next to a singer-songwriter, and it all kind of blurred together.”
Despite originating from one man’s creative vision, Combs points out that his primary role is in creating the lush musical backdrops that provide a stage for his soloists. “My thing is to start with sequencers and synthesizers and get this rhythmic bed happening. Once I get that edited and in place, then I start to add the collaborators and they bring their own point of view to it.”
Those collaborators run a wide gamut, from such Sensitive Chaos alumni as violinist Josie Quick and guitarist/bassist Ryan P. Taylor, to multi-instrumentalist Brian Donohoe of Snarky Puppy fame. The result? Tracks that sound remarkably cohesive while never setting foot squarely in one identifiable genre.
The opening track, “Fauna Funk Fusion,” begins with distorted, effects-heavy acid guitar reminiscent of Sonny Sharrock set against a mercilessly snaky bass line. “Backyard Limbo” lays down lush, Afro-Caribbean grooves and vapor-wave ambiance as the backdrop for soaring saxophone lines. And through it all are odd transitional moments like “Fort Hamilton Parkway” to help maintain the sense of mystery, reminding us that this is intentionally a journey without a destination.
Conceptually, Closer to Home is a spiritual successor and response of sorts to the group’s previous album. “I had done an album called Walking a Beautiful World,” Combs says. “I had done a tour around the world and gotten really influenced by being in Africa, in Europe, Japan and the Philippines, and in America. So that album was all about ‘the world,’ and this album was kind of a follow-up to that. That album was such a big production that I was really trying to do something simpler.”
Initially that simple plan was to pull the album’s tracks from a series of local gigs featuring the group’s core members (hence the title) but would later evolve into a much larger production.
The Sensitive Chaos creative process is a hybridization of live recordings and electronic sequencing that straddles the gap between wild improvisation and structural rigidity with the initial ideas for Closer to Home cultivated from recordings of live performances. “What started out being a 30-minute ambient jam and then a 30-minute [midi] sequenced jam became 10 minutes of each,” Combs says. “And then I add the collaborators on top of it.”
Like most performing musicians, the members of Sensitive Chaos have felt the burn of the COVID lockdown and the anticipation of wanting to return to a live setting. Combs admits that the pandemic played a role in Closer to Home’s overall punch. “People are really chomping at the bit to get out again and as soon as we get our shots, be able to be around people and find a venue where we can come together. I think there’s going to be a huge outpouring of support from live audiences,” Combs says. “People realized ‘I’ve lost a piece of my life.’”
With the prospect of a post-COVID world looming ever closer, it seems increasingly likely that Sensitive Chaos will return to the stage sooner rather than later. Until that blessed day comes, Closer to Home will thrill fans of instrumental, highly improvisatory music.