By Melanie Stangl
Artwork by Pierce Marratto
After three single releases, much anticipation, and even more hard work, the newest collaborative album from local electronic artist Chalk Dinosaur (a.k.a. John O’Hallaron) has finally been released. “Chalk Dinosaur and Friends” is eight songs long, with each track featuring one of six active Pittsburgh musicians. And, to summarize, it’s a masterpiece.
Here at Sound Scene, we praise a lot of local music (and for good reason.) But “Chalk Dinosaur and Friends” stands out even among such immensely talented company. O’Hallaron skillfully blends dazzling electronic beats, loops, and variously distorted synths with an assortment of other influences: psych rock, funk, soul, jazz; even occasional flirtations with ambient, dance, and classic rock. His intuition for adding and removing layers of sound is undeniably sharp, making for tracks that travel and flow enticingly. From high-energy triumphant jams to mellower songs, with many falling somewhere in the middle, there’s a mesmerizing pulse that runs throughout the record. Without fail, every creative twist in melody, rhythm, and/or instrumentation (and there are many) balances surprise and expectation: you’ll go somewhere new, but you won’t question that it’s exactly where you were supposed to be. It’s refreshingly original, remarkably well-put-together, and irresistibly immersive.
In addition, each featured musician’s talents are put on full, mesmerizing display. Nearly all of Chalk Dinosaur’s previous releases (dating back to 2009) have been solo projects, so this approach was something very new. “What I’ve found in working on this collaborative album is that the ideas multiply exponentially when other highly skilled and likeminded musicians are introduced,” says O’Hallaron. “They brought their own sonic palette to the table, presenting ideas that I wouldn’t have thought of, which in turn sparked a bunch of new ideas.” He continues, “With this album, it was amazing to have a player provide a performance that demonstrated what makes them special, in a way that I couldn’t conceive of or execute on my own.”
Lucas Bowman from The Commonheart, Dhruva Krishna from Eastend Mile and Sweet Earth (among other groups), Michael Berger from The Clock Reads, Julz Powell of Arkesh and Organ-I-Zation (among others), Jason Caliguri of Jimbo and the Soupbones, and Jeremy Colbert of Nameless in August each contributed their talents to either one or two tracks. “They were all players whose performances had inspired and impressed me,” explains O’Hallaron about what drew him to these specific individuals. “Lucas destroyed the keys and my brain, Dhruva’s energy was infectious, Michael’s bass grooves were really funky and smooth, Julz’s drumming grooved so hard and with so much energy, Jason’s guitar solos had me LICKED, and Jeremy’s Terrapan [a steel handpan drum] at dawn around a fire was the perfect ending.”
The idea for this project came about after O’Hallaron played a Pennsylvania music festival called FarmJammaLamma. “I saw a lot of great performances there, all by Pittsburgh area bands that I was previously unaware of,” he says. “It was very inspiring to see all these great musicians from Pittsburgh, and inspiring to be in such a positive environment. The feelings of community, love, and creativity were palpable.” Those feelings were clearly translated to each song on this album; read on to find out how.
“Farm Jam” gets things started on an energetic note—it’s big, bold, and assertive. The positive vibes pour out of a swanky midtempo beat that propels you along, buoyed by funky, rhythmic, and inventive key riffs from Bowman. The lyrics, sung in electronically distorted layers, drive the message home: a recurring hook of, “I feel so free and so fresh/Let me tell you, it’s the best/Light as a feather can be/Full of this hope that’s in me.”
O’Hallaron establishes a pattern here that can be heard throughout the record. The song (appropriately) jams out, with smooth changes over a more stable underlying pattern. In this case, the primary chord patterns and beat ride out the song’s full seven minutes, while the layers on top travel around and through and keep you hooked in their continual motion—everything relates well while going to cool and creative places. Occasional appearances of synth brass and cheery classic organ sounds cement this track’s contagious, happy energy.
“Dhruvasaur,” as you might guess, features Krishna on drums and lead guitar. It begins with a mellower vibe than the first track, with sparkling layered vocal “ooh’s” and a blissed out guitar line that recalls The Allman Brothers in both melody and tone. Paired with keys that are gradually supplemented by that organ sound, this makes for a pleasant, upbeat vibe. A substantial shift occurs around three minutes in, marked by mostly minor chords and scales, a more aggressive guitar, and faster, more insistent organ riffs in the background. Such a move can be risky, but in this case, it pays off—O’Hallaron is skilled enough to bring us along for the ride. Krishna also keeps up with the changes in both percussion and guitar expertly. We finish up with the happier sound of the beginning; this time, maybe a bit more triumphant in contrast.
“The Chalk Reads,” to quote last week’s review, features “spacey synths [that] shimmer throughout, moving repeatedly between the track’s foreground and background for a dreamy, ethereal effect.” Michael Berger’s skillful bassline brings a cool, funky groove to the immersive, ten-minute-long number. Click here for a more in-depth look at this journey of a song.
“Beast in Brookville” draws heavily on jazz influences and showcases the complicated, dexterous drumming of Julz Powell. The track begins with a more classical feel than the others—a prominent bass riff moving over slower, low moody keys before a brass section (reminiscent of fusion acts, such as our own city’s Eastend Mile) asserts itself. Effect-heavy synths eventually appear, but they share the spotlight with the more “traditional” jazz instrumentals, a psychedelic distorted guitar, and Powell’s truly impressive drums. Another brief descent into minor scale patterns keeps you on your toes. This track is just pure cool, and highlights O’Hallaron’s ability to bring a variety of genres into his own, singular sound.
“Rocket Dude” lives up to its name—the synths are spacey and atmospheric, the funky drums and sax throughout provide propulsion, and you actually get the vibe that you’re on a tripped out rocket ride, surrounded by stars. The song keeps Powell on the drums, and incorporates some of Bowman’s leftover synth riffs from “Farm Jam” as well. A somewhat subdued, moody feel at the beginning gradually gives way to more assertiveness on all fronts as the track progresses. Swoony effect-heavy sax riffs and increasingly complex drumming contribute to this transition.
“Soup Bones” is rad and intoxicating, groovy and interesting—a perfect soundtrack to a nighttime drive. It’s a highlight on an album packed with highlights. The funky guitar stylings of Jason Caliguri take center stage, made even cooler in their combination with more spacey synths, an irresistibly head-nodding, midtempo beat, and sparing use of distorted, effect-heavy vocals. This track is another prime example of O’Hallaron’s smart use of repetition: he lets things play out and keeps vibes going so well, knowing just when to try something different or bring in something new. His instincts are impeccable. And the guitar riffs from Caliguri truly shine. Don’t sleep on this one.
“Palo Santo” is a relatively subdued song—a happy, rhythmic jam that’s not too fast or in-your-face. Effect-heavy steel drum (more specifically, Terrapan) from Jeremy Colbert is the prominent instrument this time around, and what brings us into the track. This is quickly followed by a lovely blissed out synth line that strongly recalls Tycho. An 80’s-sounding drum machine appears next, making it clear that electronic percussion is taking precedence this time around. The way the synths and terrapan interplay rhythmically with the other percussive elements in the middle of the song reveals slight EDM influences. It’s a cool, unexpected move to put that vibe into an overall mellower track, and gives it an infectiously catchy pulse. The gentle fadeout of a slow electric guitar line into the Terrapan by itself at the end is the perfect bookend.
Finally, we arrive at “Embers at Dawn.” It’s smooth, slow, soothing, atmospheric, and absorbing. The only percussive element is Colbert’s Terrapan, providing the melody with more movement against the shimmering backdrop of those peaceful, held-out synths. Occasionally, the synths will trill and vibrate to contrast their overall slow, measured movement. This track is another that perfectly fits its title, sonically encompassing the meditative, peaceful possibilities of dawn. It’s a noticeable departure from the seven previous songs, but an insanely beautiful (and instantly calming) one.
“I love and am completely obsessed with making music, and I find the ultimate joy and satisfaction in the creative process,” says O’Hallaron. “There’s something truly blissful about the absolute freedom to explore sound and follow inspiration wherever it leads.”
That passion and dedication is obvious on “Chalk Dinosaur and Friends.” It’s a pretty rare thing to find an album where you love every track, but I’m willing to bet that this one will pass that test. Don’t just take our word for it, though: listen to the entire thing and decide for yourself. The album is now available for download on Chalk Dinosaur’s Bandcamp. Keep up with him on Facebook too.