Supergroups are a cagey beast, sometimes amplifying the talents involved into something transcending the sum of their parts. But just as often, it comes off as a tone deaf vanity project, where the musicians involved seem to be having such a good time hanging out and chugging beer in the studio that they are blissfully unaware of the unlistenable cacophony that they're laying down on tape. Examples of the former would include the recent Dunsmuir side project of Neil Fallon and Vinny Appice (though one could argue that it just sounded like a damn good Clutch record) or pretty much any one of the short-lived groups Miles Davis put together in the 50's and 60's. On the "cry foul" end of the spectrum you'll find no better representative than Superheavy, an all-star group featuring no less than Mick Jagger, Damian Marley and Joss Stone that mercifully released only a solitary mess of an album back in 2011 before returning to their own declining fortunes.
Giraffe Tongue Orchestra fall somewhere in the middle, at times gelling but just as often suffering from "genres in a blender" syndrome. The cast of characters: William DuVall (Alice in Chains), Ben Weinman (Dillinger Escape Plan), Brent Hinds (Mastodon), Pete Griffin (Dethklok), and Thomas Pridgen (Mars Volta). With that many disparate styles in play, you wouldn't be entirely wrong to suspect a case of too many cooks in the kitchen.
Thing is, though, unlike Scott Ian's half baked Mother Sister romp last year, where uncomplimentary talents pretty much cancelled each other out, leaving behind a dull, lifeless product, Broken Lines is more like a rumpus room full of irrepressible talents running amok. William Duvall deserves points for breaking out of the downbeat grunge mold of his primary band, but his attempts at cutting loose like a red-blooded rock star betray more heart than soul. Thomas Pridgen consistently lays down the sort of jazzy, off-kilter drumming Mars Volta was known for, but between DuVall's earthier groove and the manic guitar interplay between Hinds and Weinberg. The instrumentation often seems engaged in a battle royale with itself, DuVall coolly yet detachedly crooning above it all. Occasionally, as on the title track, this strangely comes together in compelling ways. It just doesn't quite happen enough to result in an overall rewarding listen. The team tends to bat just over .500, with the remainder of the tracks often coming off as every bit as seat-of-the-pants as the origin of the band name.
The songs consistently feature catchy choruses whose blunt immediacy are often at odds with the piano-falling-down-stairs maelstrom of the chorus instrumentation. This fact alone will win over second and third chances from the many of us who were already predisposed to hope for a grand slam out of an all-star team with a bench this deep. In some cases that persistence bears fruit ("Crucifixion", "No-One Is Innocent") whereas for other tracks the repetition merely uncovers further monotony ("Adapt or Die", the 90's cracker funk of "Everyone Gets Everything They Really Want"). Then there's the downright unsettling ballad "All We Have Is Now", which sounds like Chris Cornell making a half-assed stab at progging up one of his shittier solo albums ("-er" being arguably superfluous).
Nothing against DuVall, but if there's a particular weak link here it would have to be him. I also love Doug Pinnick, who bears a similar flair for creating so-so supergroups, and he would have been every bit as out of place here, for mostly the same reasons. DuVall isn't bad, really, and again he does play against stereotype and show us some new skills given the chance to mix it up, but he's a game manager at quarterback on a fragmented team that really needed a Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers to pull it all together. There's a lot of promise in this group, but the primary draw of Broken Lines is dissecting the always interesting, only sometimes compelling interplay of a pantheon of farflung modern rock gods. Art ain't always pretty.