The Invincible Czars have become known for projects as audacious as their name would suggest—from covering Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and Iron Maiden’s Number of the Beast to performing complex live scores to silent films. For six years they’ve honed their chops live, developing a reputation amongst their musical peers for incendiary live shows, and carried on the legacy of Austin freak-rock on and off of Red River.
Their first album, Gods of Convenience (2005) was self-recorded and released, and while it captured the early original numbers, it didn’t have the snap, crackle, and pop of the band’s live shows. The Nutcracker Suite (2007) captured the manic energy and everything-but-the-kitchen-sink magic of the Invincible Czars’ take on the Tchaikovsky Christmas classic, but it didn’t contain any of the math-y, spastic weirdness of the band’s original material. Finally, with the upcoming release of Fortissimo, the Czars have struck studio gold. Working with Nutcracker producer Chico Jones at his OHM Recording Facility in Austin, the Invincible Czars have put together a stellar collection of originals tunes and a couple of classical chestnuts that properly capture their orchestral rock sound while maintaining the band’s senses of both dynamics and humor.
Due April 3, 2009, Fortissimo is a picture of the Czars at their heaviest to date. Still adherent to the “more is more” ethos, the band achieve a sonic explosiveness through sheer numbers. They succeed in creating an album that is “heavy” without being “metal,” as exemplified in such passages as the guitar/sax/violin “triple solo” on “The Curse of Foxes, Birds and Rabbits,” the onslaught of all instruments in pulverizing unison on “The Troll” and the meticulous arrangement of Modest Mussorgsky’s “A Night on Bald Mountain.”
The album comprises the first studio recordings featuring the Invincible Czars’ most solid line-up to date: the woodwind/vocal talents of Leila Henley, violent violin virtuosity from Phil Davidson, percussion from long time drummer Tommy Holton and new Czars drummer Louis Landry plus keys/synths by Bill “Willie Poland” Petersen, not to mention mainstays Adam Kahan on bass and founding member Josh Robins on guitar. The group also adds trombone, string section and choir-like vocals to their instrumentation on select tunes.
Fortissimo is also the first release on Future Banana Replacement, a label created by the Czars’ Josh Robins and Opposite Day’s Sam Arnold for the purpose of releasing quality recordings of Austin bands that are not easily categorized.
The Fight/After the Fight is a fitting prelude for Fortissimo. The song is actually two sections of the Czars’ 2007 silent film score for Aelita, Queen of Mars, and was written, like most of the Aelita score, by Petersen and arranged by Robins.
“The Curse of Foxes, Birds and Rabbits” mates the math-y rock of “Gods of Convenience” with tight song structure, crushing guitar/drum interaction and multiple harmonies backing Henley’s dulcet lead. Lyrically, the song warns, “Don’t make a mess in the nest where you eat breakfast.”
“Willie Poland vs. the Black Keys,” a longtime live favorite, is given a near-orchestral treatment, with guest vocals, horns and strings galore. Written by Josh Robins in 2004 for the Immersion Composers’ Society, the song has grown through multiple titles and arrangements. This recording takes “WP,” as the band calls it, to entirely new heights.
“Deeksha” was Bill Peterson’s first composition for the Czars, and it’s a doozy—it combines a long form, danceable instrumental with tightly wound melodic lines, improvised soloing and weird, off-center rhythms.
“An Ounce of Confidence” segues out of “Deeksha” and is another Josh Robins-penned math-rock anthem. Snarling vocals and killer, funky, odd-time riffs frame another well-orchestrated rock song.
“Erlkonig” and “A Night on Bald Mountain” feature the Czars doing what they’ve become widely known for: reworking classical compositions into a unique rock-based sound unlike any versions you’ve ever heard.
“The Troll” was written by Adam Kahan as part of the Immersion Composition Society, a secret lodge which performs great works of spontaneous songcraft. Josh Robins arranged the song, which features some of the strongest ensemble improvisation the Czars have ever performed, live or on record. Vocal contributions from Adam, Josh and Leila abound as well as ridiculous inward screaming by producer Chico Jones.
“Mursketine II” is a sequel to the titular Gods of Convenience track and is one of the oldest songs in the Czars catalog, finally captured on Fortissimo in all of its baroque-and-roll glory.