Co-Written by Jeffrey Glenn and Sarah Gittleman
From the depths of quarantine creativity, Muscle Tough arose packing heat. Since March, the trio has been releasing miniatures on their socials known as “Tough Transmissions”: virtual snippets of improvisational funk and jazz that laid breadcrumbs throughout their locked-down city of Philadelphia. All twenty-one songs were weaved virtually, recorded remotely by each band member, and assembled into a package which, despite its brevity, comes crammed with musical ideas.
“It simply started as a way of connecting with each other,” guitarist Ross Bellenoit said. “[Drummer] Joe Baldacci had the idea that we really should try keeping the creative gears moving, even if it was in a less-than-spontaneous fashion since we couldn’t all be in the same room together. It also helped us to stay engaged with our fans and be delivering some sort of content to them since we could no longer play any shows.”
If you know Muscle Tough, you’re aware that the naming of their songs is a catalyst of their band reputation. If you’re not, these are the guys who wrote an entire album named Modern Romance with a track titled “We Met on Chat Roulette.” Even in confinement, this aspect of their art shines through and finds itself applicable to current days with titles such as “Stay the Fuck Home” and “House MD.” As the titles kept flowing, so did they.
“The more drum ideas [Baldacci] laid down, the more [Colman, bass] and I took to getting our writing chops exercised. It was a nice challenge to think to yourself ‘Okay, this feel is great. What is appropriate? Where should this go? What sonic world have we NOT yet explored as a band?’ It really is an exercise in thinking about song structure at a fast clip,” Bellenoit said.
Tough Transmissions is neatly divided into halves, each mixed by a different band member. The first is mixed by Baldacci, who favors a crisp, clear, open sonic palette featuring a snappy kick drum and punchy bass slaps, foregrounding the ensemble’s agile grooves. “Don’t Cross Carl” opens the set with the nimble filter-funk that is Muscle Tough’s hallmark. Early highlight “Disco Decoy” covers a lot of ground in ninety seconds; widescreen synth textures and hard-panned claps conjure a breezy Chromeo electro vibe, as does the later cut “Make My Wish.com.” The latter features Philly keyboardist Eli Winderman of Dopapod and Octave Cat, funky and tuneful on electric piano, who also lends a decidedly ‘70s-prog-synth lead to standout “Carpe Per Diem.”
Bellenoit helms the mix for the back half of the record, opting for a gauzier, warmer sound with a rounder kick and girthier low midrange. Both mixing styles function to highlight different aspects of the band’s musical identity. Also evident in Bellenoit’s approach to mixing and performance is an enthusiasm for sonic manipulation. Throughout, the guitar is subjected to all manners of modulation, pitch shifting, and filtering, most dramatically in the reverse delays and ring modulation of “Robo-Hydrates.” Examples of clever use of studio technology can be found throughout Bellenoit’s mixes, from the creative filtering of “Melodynamic” to the dub echo of “Swunky Towen.” “Seven Several Ways” delivers what it promises: a rhythmic exploration of septuple meter that moves to half time and back, shifting note groupings at will.
Tough Transmissions is perfectly in balance between the free-stylization of the music and the premeditation of the mixing: a reflection of the structured chaos that has become our daily lives and the creative release we all grasp at to keep the mind moving as the rest of the world stands still.
“What’s great is that [Baldacci] is SUCH a musical spirit, that he really thinks/improvises with a song form in mind,” Bellenoit explained.
“He differentiates sections really well and leaves room for different harmonic ideas to happen. Then, if it’s my turn to lay the next thing down, I really try to think about it spontaneously and just play what I immediately feel in that moment. I’ll take it and refine it for a couple of takes and then it’s done! I would imagine [Colman] approaches it the same way. Funny, now that I think about it, we don’t really talk too much in-depth about the process. We just create. It’s like breathing for us.”
Although these twenty-one tracks are cast into a collection, you can expect more Tough Transmissions in the future, so be sure you’re following Muscle Tough on Facebook and Instagram. All three band members now possess green screens, “so the video content will be even more outrageous.”
Beyond the transmissions, Muscle Tough squeezed in a few days at Turtle Studios before the world turned haywire, so there is a glimmer of even more material on the way. Click that seat belt in, hang tight, and listen to Tough Transmissions here.