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Crime Pays, Eventually 

Local rock act artfully indulges its prog roots

Wednesday, Oct 18 2006
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Crime in Choir doesn't want to be popular. It's not that the group fears fame. It's just that ... well, celebrity doesn't come easily to an instrumental progressive rock band. Six-minute songs saturated with oily synths and nomadic sax riffs don't generally excite the masses. This music has its audience, but the members of Crime in Choir aren't willing to spend their lives in a cramped white van trying to find it. So they've set their sights elsewhere.

"We want to make records that will last forever," announces Jesse Reiner, keyboardist for the San Francisco quintet, as nearby patrons of dim Mission District watering hole the Attic noisily booze away workweek stress. No disagreement from Rhodes pianist Kenny Hopper: "We're never going to be the hip band that everybody likes. That's not what we're after."

"Twenty or 30 years from now," continues Hopper, "I want to be one of those obscure bands that someone else says, 'Hey, have you heard of this band?'"

Crime in Choir members (with Matt Waters on horns and sax, Jarrett Wrenn on guitar, and Tim Soete of the Fucking Champs on drums) admire many groups who have achieved that brand of notoriety. Magma, Faust, Gong, and Goblin may as well be cities in Poland to the average music fan. But they all inform Crime in Choir's blueprint for success — avant-garde leanings, an orientation toward the future, and few contemporary peers.

"There are not a lot of bands right now that are doing what we're doing," says Reiner. Among those that are, Coheed and Cambria and the Mars Volta have imbued instrumental wankery and high-concept rock with a new sense of cool. Underground groups like Zombi and Trans Am explore what it means to be at once artsy, progressive, and nostalgic. Crime in Choir may be unique, but it's not alone.

The group's grandiose new record, Trumpery Metier, mingles ambient textures and synthesized krautrock rhythms with dynamic basslines and drum fills. It's further distinguished by aggressive guitar parts that, given Wrenn's roots, aren't out of place. He and high school buddy Hopper played on the first two records by revered El Paso, Texas, post-hardcore group At the Drive-In, which dissolved into the Mars Volta and Sparta. That's a rich pedigree to live up to, but Crime in Choir doesn't mind waiting a few decades for its accolades.

A recent contract with Los Angeles label Gold Standard Laboratories should help. Trumpery Metier will receive worldwide distribution, plus a vinyl pressing for which Crime in Choir shoehorned the songs into 42 minutes. The group's sophomore album, 2004's The Hoop (critically acclaimed and under 4,000 copies sold), ran a scant 33 minutes — the members have since learned to expand the length without losing focus.

"Women of Reduction (Crystal Cake)" opens Trumpery Metier with baroque synthesizers that cede to a stadium-sized guitar riff, then an unhinged solo. "Complete Upmanship" keeps the tempo up and the drums crashing, even as a saxophone suggests less aggressive memes. "Land of Sherry Wine and Spanish Horses" shifts more times over its seven-plus minutes than is possible to register. Individually the songs are rich, dark, and epic. Together they evoke the absurdity — and power — of indulgence. Trumpery is a triumph for a 6-year-old band finally hitting its stride.

Thanks to the ease of digital distribution, Crime in Choir will continue to subsist on meager live exposure. Freedom from the nightclub grind provides more time to write that career-defining record. It also lets the band differentiate itself in concert by incorporating visuals such as looped film clips and abstract imagery. Ultimately, says Reiner, "we want to be more of an event than just another instrumental rock band."

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Nate Seltenrich

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