Making Waves

Instrumental rock quintet Cougar's sublimely beautiful 'emergency rock'

Music fans with good memories may fondly recall the thrill felt throughout the alternative-rock community when, in 1996, the instrumental band Tortoise released its landmark album, Millions Now Living Will Never Die. It was an important reminder that challenging rock music needn't be reliant on vocals to be emotionally moving and intellectually exciting.

Ten years on, and lots of great bands are out there making admirable instrumental rock--from Godspeed You! Black Emperor to Mogwai, from Explosions in the Sky to Pelican--while Tortoise continues to make waves that are felt around the world.

So it may be a little more difficult for the young and talented quintet Cougar to get attention as pioneers in the instrumental rock field, but its debut album, Law, deserves lots of it. Not coincidentally, Tortoise's John McEntire mixed the album and oversaw some of its recording.

Formed in 2003 in Madison, Wis., Cougar combines elements as varied as hip-hop, British folk, jazz, various Brazilian styles, chamber music, pop melodies and experimental and electronic music.

Law will be released Feb. 20 on the independent label Layered Music, the record-releasing arm of the Madison-based Layered Arts Collective, a community group that includes musicians, artists, teachers, writers and a music studio. Among Layered Arts' other activities are youth workshops, educational events and concerts.

In addition to playing with the constantly-touring New Orleans-style YoungBlood Brass Band, Cougar percussionist D.H. Skogen also teaches a drum line for teenagers through Layered Arts.

Partly to distinguish themselves from the rest of the instrumental rock groups out there, the musicians of Cougar have created their own category to describe their music: emergency rock.

Skogen says dubbing a new musical genre was meant, at first, to be partially tongue-in-cheek.

"But I actually think we really latched on to it at some point," Skogen says via phone from his home in Madison on the eve of the band's first American tour, which brings the group to Tucson for a gig Saturday, Feb. 3, at Plush.

"I feel like there're a lot of really great instrumental bands out there." Here Skogen alludes casually to most of the groups mentioned above. "And that all their music is compared as if they are all the same. And it seems as if everyone wants to call it post-rock, and for a lot of them, maybe all of them, that's a little bit of a misnomer."

But what does "emergency rock" mean?

Cougar's press release rather pompously mentions "the model of neutrality/purpose/efficiency that defines emergency procedure," which I think means the band makes music that by its nature simply demands to be written and performed, without all the bullshit baggage of ego, taste and value judgments.

Skogen says that's close.

"We want to compose and play music without all the genre attachments and the prejudice that goes along with them. The melodies form the basic construction of the tracks, and getting to the point is an urgent theme of ours. We try not to let music linger too long to become too repetitive."

He also said the band, while brainstorming conceptual ideas about its music, pondered whether any artists today represent the music of post-9/11 society.

"In light of the whole culture of rage and fear and heightened security, I think the idea of emergency rock also points to how urgent it is that people can overcome the fragmentation of cultures that we have experienced in the last five-plus years. We don't really play that up in the music, but it's there in that it is something we have thought about when creating the music."

All of which is philosophically nice, but it doesn't describe the sublime beauty of the music on Law.

The song "Your Excellency" is a good example. With acoustic guitar figures not too far from bossa nova, the breezy tune will make listeners feel as if they're watching in their minds a Brazilian movie scored by The Sea and Cake. Sort of. Soon, the song soon tires of that and explodes into crunching power riffs and pummeling 4/4 rhythm.

Found voices, such as on the opener "Atlatl" or the tune "Two," might remind some folks of Godspeed, but the context isn't as fraught with overtly political meaning. Dan Venne's and Trent Johnson's delicately plucked acoustic guitars on a song such as "Interracial Dating" show off the band's affinity for pastoral acoustic sounds. Under those melodies, Todd Hill's bass lurks and teases, rather than rumbles or throbs.

Throughout, Skogen plays a variety of percussion, basing his beats on the rhythms of Africa, Latin America, New Orleans brass bands and hip-hop, not to mention the works of minimalist composers Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Cage.

Aaron Sleator plays all manner of samplers and electronic devices, ably shaping and defining Cougar's music with sometimes non-conventional sounds.

Skogen speaks with obvious admiration for Sleator's invaluable contributions. "A lot of the composition process is that we use organic sounds from objects we just pick up: someone crinkling paper or one of us banging on a metal canister. The band live is more of a loud rock band than it is the record, but pretty much every song on the record finds its way to the live setting, thanks to Aaron and his laptop and keyboards."

Also, the album features six mini-songs--titled "One" through "Five" and the appropriate "Postcript," all woven in between longer tunes--that are each under a minute and present completely developed but finite ideas. They reminded me of the instrumental interludes on Roxy Music's Avalon or the hook-filled song fragments of The Residents' Commercial Album.

Trying to describe the Cougar sound, Skogen says, "We are very different from, say, Tortoise or from a group like Mogwai, even though, like us, their individual sounds are rock-oriented and based on electric guitars but without singers.

"But our music is more electronic and experimental, and hip-hop- and sample-based with elements of acoustic guitars. In some ways, it's like Four Tet remixing a song by Nick Drake. For me I think that is a shorthand way of describing our sound on this album."

Curiously, Law was released in Great Britain last year, and Cougar already has a European concert tour under its collective belt. For Skogen, the career high point so far was when the revered British avant-garde music magazine The Wire reviewed one of the band's shows.

Although Cougar was formed in Madison, only Skogen still lives there. Other band members--all are in their mid- to late 20s--have since moved to cities such as Brooklyn, Chicago, Milwaukee and, in Sleator's case, Tucson.

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