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Soldiers of Fortune - Ball Strenth

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Artist: Soldiers of Fortune

Album: Ball Strenth

Label: Mexican Summer

Review date: Feb. 9, 2011

Soldiers of Fortune convened in 2004, shortly after Pat “Pappa Crazee” Sullivan left Oneida to form Oakley Hall. The original line-up included Sullivan, Oneida’s Kid Millions, Home’s Brad Truax and Barry London and Marc Moore of Cat Power’s band. Moore passed away later that year, but the band continued with Mike Bones on guitar, and inviting occasional contributions from Matt Sweeney, Jesper Eklow (of Endless Boogie) and Allison Busch (of Awesome Color). It was a necessarily occasional project, given the schedules of everybody involved, and up till now never documented.

Ball Strenth is the debut album, then, of a band that’s been around for most of a decade, long enough for the other bands its players are in to have moved on to other things. If you’re a fan of Oneida or Oakley Hall, it will remind you of what they were doing half a decade ago, and maybe surprise you with how different that sound is from what they’re doing now.

The album opens with “Yes to Everything,” the most laid-back and Southern of its four tracks – and the one that sounds the most like Oakley Hall. There’s a bit of jam in the cut’s duel guitar lines, a trace even of the Allman Brothers in the way the two players (most likely Sullivan and Bones) casually echo and converse with each other, one breaking into a shredding solo, the other circling in a repetitive, anchoring riff. The piece swells into an all-hands chorus (“Yes…to every…thing”) for a ragged, down-home, joyous ending.

The next two cuts sound considerably more like Oneida, with synthy staccato rhythms pulsing against Millions’ beat-defying drumming. Yet, instead of just Papa Crazee on guitar, there’s a whole front line of them. A pensive interlude cuts “Tunnel Rats” in halves, and you can hear at least two (maybe three) guitars, plus the synth and bass, each pursuing slightly different, asynchronous ends. These threads of melody overlap and interlace, the sound gradually becoming denser, until it coalesces again in the monolithic rhythm of the opening. “Sleeping Sentinel” balances the jittery propulsion, the stark, open-chord vocal harmonies of Anthem of the Moon-era Oneida. It is the shortest, most structured, least jammy song on the disc, and also the best.

“Worm,” the 17-minute track which takes up the entire second side of the LP, is the other extreme. The song is built around a four-note riff, pushing upward in a short, piston-like motion over a series of half notes, ramming the top one twice, then circling back for another approach. It’s repeated twice a measure over the whole length of the song, a machine-precise foundation over which pianos hammer and basses rumble and guitars execute free-wheeling screeches and nose-dives and someone (possibly Millions in his heavy rock “Did I Die” voice) shouts indecipherable imprecations. It’s also pretty freaking great.

Ball of Strenth feels like the off-again, on-again side project it is: rough, unpracticed, casual, unmediated, powerful and perhaps unrepeatable. There’s no telling when this group of people might get together again, or if they do, whether their improvisatory energies will coalesce in quite such an effective way. Better get this one while you can.

By Jennifer Kelly

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