Johnny Butler – “HyperViolet” – Available August 25
HyperViolet is a space. It is a destination. HyperViolet is the hollowness behind aching, arching light glancing off half-hidden spires and metallic mountaintops. In HyperViolet, Brooklyn-based saxophonist and electronicist Johnny Butler has found his perfect medium, his perfect space within the sound of his own life. Combining pop sensibilities with avant-garde yearnings, Butler has created a world within a world, and it is a glorious place within which to get lost.
“It is its own little eco-system, a forest of its own, growing with its own organic rules,” explains Butler. “I hate when music is in its box and that’s it. I hate conservative creative behavior. The album has an electronic angle but I want it to sound real too though. I want real people playing organic music.”
The result is a forty-four minute, hard-hitting tour-de-force that explores the depths of depression, the ravages of creativity, the brilliance of overexertion, and the final serenity of embracing closure. Whirling through myriad musical environments, Butler and his band (bassist Michael Feinberg, guitarist Jeff Miles, drummer Bram Kincheloe, alto saxophonist JJ Byars, and keyboardist Dov Manski — along with special guests including Kassa Overall, Raycee Jones, Tecla, Sister Sparrow, Todd Reynolds, and Jackson Kincheloe, and mastering from Daddy Kev) paint in strokes that cut deep, leaving the listener hanging over a precipice of musical motion, waiting for the cliff edge to crumble.
That mastery of time and timbre is no accident for the Seattle-born Butler, who as a young man found himself drawn to the tension and passion of seemingly unconnected genres of music. “Even though I grew up in the jazz world, I used to judge the quality of any band based on how many people were moshing,” recollects Butler of those wild, early days. “If some band was playing and no one was moshing, I would just walk out. Maybe I’m in the wrong community, now. But at the right kind of gig I still get the occasional guy going buck wild.” That wildness lies at the heart of everything Butler does. And now, after years giving himself to other people’s projects — including being a founding member of the Brooklyn-based soul rock band Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds, plus accruing writing and arranging credits for such artists as Beyoncé — Butler is ready to take his biggest step yet in bringing his unique, bridge-like ideas and songs into the world.
“I have this crazy creative energy that if it is not getting used, it sort of turns inward and becomes a self-destructive feeling. I was channeling all of this emotional energy into all these songs and creating something out of it rather than having it turned inward. I have to be doing this,” Butler says with a smile. “After committing myself to this music, to my own vision, I had this crazy writing period where I was writing a ton of music. I wrote, like, five hundred songs. Things for myself, chamber pieces, pieces for other people, beats, remixes…”
Butler was on a hot streak and began enlisting as many friends as he could to play and collaborate on his overflow of ideas, which culminated in HyperViolet being recorded in stages, with each musician adding their own special touch to Butler’s initial vision. “It’s sort of like each person came in and spilled their guts. Everyone was so honest and vulnerable. It made the record come to life in a way I’d never imagined.”
“Crossing the River” and “Jump” both feature rapper Kassa Overall. The former uses immense space to support Overall’s syrupy flow. Incidental chatter and Todd Reynolds’ ethereal violin push and pull the listener through the former’s hazy reality while the latter digs even deeper into the hip-hop realm. “I think Kassa is exploring a lot of ideas that have to do with staying and going. Don’t stay or don’t leave. It’s all about trying to control the situation,” says Butler. “He thought he knew what he was writing but there is so much more depth that I don’t think he initially saw what had formed. You can hear the process very clearly. You can hear Kassa drinking. I wanted that to be part of it. That kind of stuff is my favorite: the seams of the music where you see the canvas a little bit like Monet in his old age where you can see the brushstrokes.”
If there’s a tune on this album that can fill the dance floor it is “What It Deserves.” Butler uses beats and the charms of vocalist Tecla to provide a forum to both riff and cut loose over a rising storm of percussion. “Crake’s Dream” is a pensive build-up of beeping keyboards behind the intricate twists and turns of vocalist Bridget Davis’ tightly harmonized lead. The title is derived from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel Oryx and Crake. “Flipper Wants Out” was one of Butler’s first tunes for the record and features his former band-mates from Sister Sparrow. Jackson Kinechole’s wheezing harmonica appears to emanate from a Martian juke joint before vocalist Arleigh Kinechole snarls a firm request for a little personal space. Butler’s horns swirl with downtown attitude, chomping at the air in tight formation.
HyperViolet is an eclectic debut riddled with creative insights and original horn work with Butler hanging in the back as often as he is in the spotlight. Each pluck of a string and tap of a pad is given its own room to breathe in a space that can be brimming with ideas. Butler knows that the all encompassing vibe only makes him stronger so he is happy to share, soloing when it feels right and laying back with an embracing pillow of thick harmonies and unexpected beats for friends and band-mates.
With his roots in the Pacific Northwest, his feet firmly planted in Brooklyn, his mind turned towards strangely swirling lands, and his saxophone unsheathed and ready to slay, Johnny Butler has — with the release of HyperViolet — announced himself as a true force in this musical landscape.