Rich Freitas takes musical "Revenge" on his first solo album
Rich Freitas was at the point where he'd have to break something just so he could fix it. Or maybe start his own home-improvement show. It was a few months into the initial 2020 lockdown of COVID and Freitas, without his regular jobs at Mystic Disc and Mystic Army/Navy, had filled his downtime with every conceivable long-forestalled fix-it project for his car as well the house he shares with wife, photographer Michelle Gemma.
"It was weird," Freitas says in an interview last week. "I kept wondering, 'Is there still anything left I haven't repaired?'" Then an idea occurred to him. Though well known in the region for his role as drummer in iconic Mystic bands 17 Relics, Portersville, Low-Beam and Slander, he hadn't played any music since the disintigration of Slander several years ago. Now, domestically chore-less, Freitas picked up an old acoustic guitar he'd forgotten how to play and gradually reacquainted himself with the instrument's charms.
"Somehow, I ended up writing a song," Freitas says in a tone of someone not particularly surprised but moderately pleased nonetheless — as though it hadn't really been part of a general plan but was certainly a welcome development. "I thought, 'Hey, this is pretty good.' I should post it online, if only to say, like, 'Hey, look! I'm not dead!'"
Freitas is in fact SO not-dead that, last week, under the name of his alter-ego Ellery Twining, he released his debut solo album. The digital-only, nine-tune recording is called "Revenge." It was recorded last November and December at Dirt Floor Studios in Chester and co-produced by Freitas with Dirt Floor owner Eric Lichter, with engineering by Guido Falivene. Freitas played most of the instruments himself, did the vocals, and is "very grateful" for old friend and Relics bandmate David Bentley's bass playing throughout. Other guest spots came from guitarists Brad Benkso and Luke Hunter as well as percussionist Jay Curland.
A new musical direction
Composing that first song was key and inspired the 52-year-old Freitas to keep writing and exploring the nuances and sonic dynamics of the acoustic guitar — which are very different than the amplified rock and synthesized electronica on his resume. Freitas taught himself alternative tunings associated with blues artists, Joni Mitchell and Johnny Cash. And, fueled by a thawing snowbank of long-held frustrations and disappointments, the dimensionality of the work benefitted from genuine lyrical heft.
"When I had thought about getting involved in music again, I thought there was no point in doing pop or electropop. I've done it. And what I was coming up with was something new for me," Freitas says. He adds that watching the Ken Burns documentary miniseries "Country Music" was an eye-opening experience and led him to absorb the gospel catalog of soul band the Staple Singers.
"As I was writing songs, I came up with this concept that I'd make a country/gospel/dub album," Freitas says. He laughs. "THAT didn't happen, but the IDEA of it definitely informed what ended up happening."
As such, the sound of "Revenge" is sparse and haunting, with an infectious, slow-pulse percussive underpinning that propels the flow from song to song in a connective fashion. In addition to Freitas's acoustic guitar floorplans — he was seduced by the chord structures of a lot of the gospel material — there are splashes of moody piano runs, keyboard atmospherics and riverine bass guitar figures.
All this works beautifully behind the vocal delivery. Freitas, who's also a poet (and who adopted the name Ellery Twining from a character in a novel he's writing), relies on a dry, hypnotic spoken-word delivery punctuated by timely moments where he'll sing a refrain or phrase to great effect. It's not remotely hip hop but more a style that calls to mind work by artists like Lou Reed, Jim Morrison and Tom Waits.
In fact, Freitas says, he was most inspired by Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, Laurie Anderson and, quite specifically, the phrasing and intonation of Neil Young in the song "Tired Eyes" from the classic "Tonight's the Night" album.
"I knew I couldn't carry a record by singing — I don't have the voice — but I knew I could synchronize the poetry and use the syntax and rhythm of spoken word to get the songs across and sing just enough to give it a bit of emphasis," Freitas says. "And it's a great credit to Eric that he helped me get this done the way I imagined and hoped."
In the studio
When he decided to record the album, Freitas says there was never any real possibility than to go to Dirt Floor. "I'd never met Eric, but the testimonials from everywhere and everyone — including a lot of musicians I know — were overwhelmingly positive. And when we DID meet, it was an instant connection."
"We have similar musical interests, but more than the song demos, I was impressed by Rich's motivation and vision," Lichter says. "He came to work with detailed notes on overdubs and ideas and he knew exactly what he wanted. It was a fun project and he's a great and talented guy. Most of my job was simply to back off a little bit and let Rich create the album he he heard in his head."
"Working with Eric was one of the best recording experiences of my life," Freitas says. "He never dictated. He always asked if I was satisfied with a particular take or idea. He got me to do stuff at high levels and that's his real genius."
Freitas is also emphatic about the impact of Bentley's bass playing. The construction of the songs and the reliance on space and simple grooves gave Bentley quite a bit of room to roam, and he delivered in a big way.
"We've been very close friends and in bands together for over three decades," Bentley says. "We were the rhythm section, and we developed a great bond a long time ago. When I heard Rich was making an album and he wanted me to be part of it, I was excited. And when I heard the demos, I was floored."
Bentley also had the creative freedom, before entering the studio, to leisurely compose parts and try new ideas that went beyond the standard "in the pocket" foundation and include melodies not typically associated with standard pop or country songs. Bentley says, "There were no restrictions, and Rich told me to write what I wanted and do what I thought the songs called for."
That the album is provocatively called "Revenge" is both calculated and a bit tongue in cheek. "It's sort of like what Carly Simon said about 'You're So Vain,'" Freitas laughs. "If you think one of these songs is about you, it probably is."
But these tunes aren't Henry Rollins-style verbal sniper attacks on current events, culture or antagonists far and wide. Freitas, who wrote the lyrics before the music, takes the listener through an emotions-stained scrapbook that chronicles an array of experiences from his own life as well as outside issues.
His delivery is deliberately steady and understated, with a slightly jaded tone at times and a hint of bewildered exasperation at others, but the compelling overall consistency helps sustain the impression that "Revenge" is very much a work to be absorbed in an A-Z narrative fashion — as opposed to picking a single tune here or there.
Some of the songs — "The Belt of Orion," "A Month of Sundays" — focus on the anxieties and hardships of growing up in a fractured family. "On Schedule" addresses centuries of greed-fueled colonization and subjugation, while "Weatherall" seems to describe a bit of hometown pride and civil disobedience.
Given Freitas's 35-plus years as a musician, it's fitting a number of the songs talk about his life in the business. "The Day Jeff Buckley Died" and "Let Me Die Onstage" describe random events frozen in memory against real-life moments from Freitas's days in 17 Relics and Portersville.
And "Sequence," perhaps the most bittersweet cut on the album, is about Freitas's reaction to being unexpectedly fired from the band Slander as they were on the verge of a record deal. It was a particularly wounding development given the group of younger musicians had recruited Freitas in the first place — as much for his experience and leadership as for his estimable drumming.
"Slander ended in a 48-hour period after a show in Hartford," Freitas recalls. "Some people have a fear of success, I think. It's one thing to start a band and it's fun to play shows. When it gets real and labels are involved, maybe you have to take a chance and go for it. Or maybe you panic and one way to get out of the pressure, in this case, was to kick me out. That's my perspective, and it was sufficiently real that I said, 'I don't need this anymore.' And I didn't."
Freitas has no plans to release "Revenge" in any format beyond digital. There won't be any release parties or live performances in support of the album.
"For now, I'm just happy that it's finished," Freitas says. "I expressed some things I wanted to express and I learned some things. Who knows what it might lead to? But it's been fun making music again, I know that."
Who: Rich Freitas
What: Longtime Mystic drummer for 17 Relics, Low-Beam, Slander and more releases his debut album "Revenge" under the name Ellery Twining
How much: $9
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