Cole Wilson thinks in broad strokes. This is obvious in his lyrics about love and loss, the way he disappears into his songs when he is in front of a microphone and the way he directs the more than 20 members of his band, the Apple Miner Colony, to play the synchronized patterns that bubble from his brain.
For a little longer than an hour on the night of July 25 at The Humble Art Space, AMC posited itself into the angular cubby of the room and played the music that was bold, unafraid, filled with booming declarations of pain and wonder and delivered by a regiment of young musicians.
Two years ago, Wilson had the idea to build an orchestra to embody the sounds he envisioned. The result is a fresco, a mixed and matched selection of strings, brass, electric and acoustic instruments sweeping with ruddy choruses, that hold the audience’s collective attention above the spectacle of witnessing such a large band at play. The live show and the band’s recently released album confirms that relevant and soulful music is alive and well in Santa Fe.
The comparisons of AMC to other ensemble groups such as The Polyphonic Spree and March Fourth Marching Band are obvious on the surface. Each band has more than 20 members who either play instruments or sing in a chorus. Whereas the sound of The Spree and March Fourth is jubilant but forced, AMC relies heavily on the subtleties of the instruments; the result is a slow gossamer sound, capped with a groundswell of vocal crescendo, chanting hooks and lyrics meant to be savored.
For the July 25 show, AMC played with 21 members, a few of whom were stand-ins for out-of-town players. The set was a whirlwind sound. AMC had an arsenal of players and instruments (clarinets, flutes, mandolins, trumpets, violin, drums, cello, chorus, handsaw, tuba, electric and acoustic guitar) but didn’t include every instrument in every song. Instead, Wilson decisively orchestrated delicate waltz-like vespers into pot-boiling dirges. Without this restraint, the sound would be uninteresting and punishing, but when the entire ensemble chimed in, there was no mistaking its power.
The band’s first full-length album, The Heat Haunted Fever, is a collection of 11 songs written and arranged by Wilson. The album was recorded and produced at the College of Santa Fe’s recording studio; the majority of the players either study at or, like Wilson, recently graduated from the college.
It also would be easy to dismiss AMC for its connection, however slight, to the same Eastern European influences of two other bands, Beirut and A Hawk and a Hacksaw, which have gained international success and hail from the same 100-mile radius that spawned the Apple Miner Colony.
AMC has a similar cosmopolitan flair, but is careful in its sonic balance. A more apt comparison would be with Sufjan Stevens or Andrew Bird, artists who surreptitiously hint at their spectral influences, rather than immerse themselves in the root sound.
The Heat begins with the track, “Hooray for Bailey Moore,” an uptempo song that exposes the band’s folly, but may also limit or categorize its scope and the album continues with the noise piece, “Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders,” then slopes into “Death is Really Only Going to Sleep.” It sounds like an elementary school orchestra recital in which violins, saxophones and trumpets warm up to violate one of Bach’s fugues.
“Rabbit Feet” is the song to wait for. It carries listeners into its story of disembodied love with the power to make them swoon and to destroy. When the band launched into it, there was little difference between the live and recorded version, save for Wilson’s vocals, which are slight on record but prominent live. Wilson drinks deeply from each song, but it is “Rabbit Feet” that unveils the band’s collective skill and peels back the skin to reveal his knack for arrangement.
The band stood shoulder-to-shoulder, inches from the squatting audience, while everyone was covered with a dewy luster from the room’s warmth. At the conclusion of “Rabbit Feet,” Wilson was howling into the microphone, “All that I’m asking is that you please don’t be oh so afraid of me.” The song ended and Wilson turned away from the audience and wiped the tears that pooled in his eyes. We were all a bit stupefied at witnessing this kid reach into the emptiness of something painful and make sense of it by setting it to music.
AMC’s music, in spite its revelatory nature, is a work in progress. The songs aren’t necessarily incomplete, but are restless and perhaps a bit stifled. The orchestral sound that is the anchoring strength of the band also creates the desire to explore its subjects more deeply. The band is capable of creating a moving emotional experience, but experiences alone are only part of the equation in creating great music. And whether it’s an individual singer-songwriter or a battalion of musicians on stage, a balance of both the heart and mind is, ultimately, what counts.
Wilson is a fiercely talented young artist, who is a clear standout in the Santa Fe music scene. His lyrics, controlled voice and vision, exacted by his band, are poised and will hopefully materialize into something much larger.