Number Three Combo Reviews


Review: Number Three Combo – Retrofitting (released May 15, 2017)

 December 10, 2017

Jeff FitzgeralD

On their first release,Retrofitting, Number Three Combo explored a sound utilizing acoustic instruments like guitar, flute and hand percussion, with occasional synth to create both folky songs and more cinematic style soundscapes, often with a Middle Eastern flavour. On their second album, 2016’s Solarium, they explored similar territory, but they replaced the acoustic guitar with synthesizers for a much more electronic album. For Resurfacing, which is their final release, Number Three Combo shake it up again, this time producing a more traditionally song based album, without sacrificing the elements developed on the first two recordings. Returning for this outing are ex-Black Sun Ensemble members Eric Johnson on guitar, keyboards, and vocals and Joe E. Furno on flute and vocals, joined again by Cobracalia’s Carl Hall on djembe and dumbek. Assisting them on this album are former Cobracalia/Muddy Bug drummer Darin Guthrie and bassist Zac Seasley.

The album opens with the title track, a brief percussive instrumental echoing the more cinematic elements of the previous albums. It’s followed by The Diamond Mine, which is probably the closest thing to a Black Sun Ensemble track you’ll hear on this album. For those unfamiliar, it has a bit of a Kashmir vibe. With its heavy riffing, the Zeppelin influence is heard again on one of the tastiest tracks on the album, Killing Time, but this time the music also has a bit of Tull vibe to it as Furno rocks out like Ian Anderson on his flute. But after that, the album takes off in many different directions. There are the rockers, like the slow and bluesy Heavy Is the Hand,

 the Stones flavoured teen high school stomp of Friends, and the rollicking yet strangely moody and spacey Fog and Steam. Laziness Is Next to Godliness, the longest track on the album at just over 6-minutes, returns to the more cinematic sound of their first two releases, with an atmospheric instrumental excursion in three distinctive parts that magically come together as a unified whole. You’ll also hear stirring ballads like the lovely acoustic and quite spacey Band Blues, the moody and fatalisticNot for Long, and the haunting Walking in the Air, a cover of a song from the popular UK children’s holiday classic The Snowman.

Speaking of covers, I like that the band choose less obvious tracks to cover. Sure, everyone from Tom Petty to Haim have covered Fleetwood Mac’s Oh Well (Part I), but few if any have covered the lesser known Oh Well (Part II). The song dates back to 1969 when it was released as a single, with Part II as the B-side. Both parts were later added to a revised version of Fleetwood Mac’s 1969 LP Then Play On (also released in ’69). It’s a perfect choice for the band to cover as it delves into both traditional blues rock and classically influenced cinematic music. They preserve the bluesy vibe of the original Part I, but give it a bit of progressive edge with Furno’s furious flute playing and Part II is a beautiful and quite stately, acoustic meditation that adds soft synth swells for a haunting atmosphere. The album ends with Let It Play to the End, a rousing, melodic and joyous rocker (another of the truly standout tracks on the album) that segues nicely into the short final piece, End(less), a slow, swirling ambient fade out.

Over the course of their short career, Number Three Combo have left a legacy of fascinatingly varied musical ideas that nonetheless draw on the core power of the three main members giving it all a distinct and unique delivery. Resurfacing is less a summation of their sound, but more an addition to what had come before. But with songs like Not For Long and Let It Play to the End that echo the closing out of a story, Resurfacing is a fitting final chapter to the band’s saga, and just an all-round great listen.


Album: Resurfacing

Artist: Number Three Combo

Label: Slowburn

Release Date: May 12, 2017 BY JONATHAN LEVITT It was a sad day when the latest cd and accompanying press release from Slowburn Records arrived in my mailbox here in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In it, label doyen Eric Johnson explains that this is to be the final release of new music from the label, and that he’ll be focusing his efforts on archival releases, as he moves on to a new stage in his life. Slowburn, for those not in the know is the label that brought the reformed Black Sun Ensemble’s music to a wider audience, as well as projects from Sundarata, and the mighty Sun Zoom Spark. If there was ever a label in Tucson, free from the Gelb-axis of power, that typified a completely open space where artists could create to their hearts content then Slowburn was it. Over the years, Eric Johnson in association with an assorted cast of characters from the Tucson music scene managed to push musical boundaries and keep Tucson just weird enough to always wonder what new fascinating project lay right around the corner. Alas we come to Number Three Combo’s Resurfacing record with its killer cover drawn by Chicago artist, Ben Johnston. Eric Johnson has never shied away from his love of Arabic influenced rock, cue up Black Sun Ensemble’s numerous releases, or maybe it’s the Kashmir effect (speaking of Zeppelin we’ll get to that later!) “The Diamond Mine” is a cryptic number that has numerous intricate layers interweaving with each other. It’s a real tour-de-force that displays a myriad of influences that have propelled Johnson and crew forward. Here on exhibit is the fascinating amalgam of Black Sun Ensemble and Jethro Tull. On this track, Joe E. Furno (Inferno) turns in some stellar flute playing and as always Carl Hall mesmerizes with his hand drums and assorted percussive elements. If there’s a downside to the song it’s the extremely cold production that makes it feel a tad distant. Thankfully the song is powerful enough to rise above such sonic limitations. “Killing Time” is a blistering number that shows off Eric Johnson’s move into being a much more confident singer. I had to do a double take when I heard a few measures of Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” thrown into the mix. Indeed, this song is a showcase of Johnson’s earliest musical influences, from Zeppelin, to a smidgen of Deep Purple and a healthy dose of Jethro Tull. “Friends” is the closest the combo has come to making a commercial radio friendly tune. Part Tom Petty, part Alejandro Escovedo, the track shows a fascinating foray into a type of music the band have never attempted and show that they could easily have turned their focus that direction and maybe even one day appeared on Austin City Limits. The band blow things wide open with the cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well Part 1” and “Oh Well Part 2”. This is a masterclass on how to cover a song. Fresh, nuanced and lovingly rendered the band shine here in a total shocker, that truly blew me away. “Fog and Steam” feels like a reworking of the Cesare’s Dog classic “Shucks for Johnny G”, funky and tight, the song is another head turner that shows how truly diverse and talented Number Three Combo is. This band out of all the one’s Eric Johnson has been associated with has probably given him the widest berth for his myriad influences to play, react and collide with one another. Resurfacing is a fascinating record that to be honest works best when the band forgo the mystical myrrh infused numbers and let their rock side shine through. This is hard for me to write because those middle eastern tinged numbers are what attracted me to the band in the first place. To be honest though and I think this is the secret to the title, here the band are “resurfacing” what the band are capable of as they venture into uncharted waters. Sadly, since this is the end of the road we’ll never know where those uncharted waters could have led. Show some love and get a copy of this album while you can, it’s definitely an amazing journey and worth every penny. DOWNLOAD: “Oh Well Pt.1” “Oh Well Pt.2” “The Diamond Mine” “Killing Time” “Friends” “Fog and Steam”

Number Three Combo - “Resurfacing” (2017) review

Number Three Combo - Resurfacing (SlowBurn Records, 2017)
Multi-instrumentalist Eric Johnson has spearheaded Tucson, Arizona-based SlowBurn Records for three decades, and the label celebrates its 30th anniversary with the third and final release from Number Three Combo. Sadly, it also represents SlowBurn’s final release of original material, although Johnson promises to release archival material from label favourites like Black Sun Ensemble, Sun Zoom Spark, and many others. So fans of the label will have many new and interesting releases to anticipate, but we’ll take a few moments to rejoice and sing the praises of another fine musical biscuit from this heady quartet.
NTC has always dazzled with its eclectic mix of folk, rock, electronica, and Middle Eastern influences and the latest is no exception. ‘The Diamond Mine’ combines flute, dumbek, and Moog to place you square in the middle of an eerie desert wasteland, flying across the sands. Johnson prepares you for your trip with the encouraging admonition, “Just think how high you will fly, wide awake in endless flight”. Musically, the arrangement will please listeners who recognize elements of Johnson’s earlier work with Black Sun Ensemble throughout Number Three Combo’s discography.
‘Killing Time’ ventures towards the rockier side of NTC’s repertoire and we all know what Johnson means when he sings “It’s better to trip and fall/than not to walk at all.” [Wink wink, nudge nudge!] ‘Heavy Is The Hand’ is heavy indeed, a stomping, trawling bluesy swagger, punctuated by Joe E. Furno’s forceful flutework. Next up we have a rather surprising interpretation of Howard Blake’s ‘Walking In The Air’ from the perennial holiday favourite The Snowman. Gone are the falsetto children’s voices, as Johnson and Co. bring the song back to Earth with seering guitar solos and throbbing percussives.
‘Friends’ adds a groovy Paisley Underground vibe to the fun, fondly recalling fellow desert dwellers Green On Red, but things then settle into more reflective territory with the subtle ponderable, ‘Not For Long’, wherein Johnson likens life (and record labels, no doubt) to “simple three chord songs that only hit after [their] gone.” NTC are big fans of Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac and they turn in a blistering version of ‘Oh Well’, including its rare, more contemplative ‘Part II’ [from Then Play On], which is a virtual Johnson solo performance. The no-holds-barred arrangement (to Part I) rips the Buckingham-led rendition to shreds, with Johnson spewing the lyrics through a megaphone for full, disorienting effect.
Fans of the band’s lengthier, freeform jams will certainly welcome ‘Laziness Is Next To Godliness” to their bosom, settling down with a nice cuppa and a smooth spliff and pondering whether that really is ‘Paint It Black’ trying to elbow its way into the party! The story ends with three Johnson solo pieces, the dreamy headnodder ‘Band Blues’ and the farewell couplet ‘Let It Play To The End’ (“This side is now over; we let it play to the end/So I fall with the sunset. Yes I made it through every day/ This side is now over; there is nothing more to play” sung over a strident arena-size backing and a chorus of angelic choir voices) and the lockgroove of ‘End(less)’, which hints at more to come. Like your favourite record, everything must come to an end and for now, this side, this album, this band, and this label are over. Catch you on the flip side, Eric. Hope you resurface soon!

Number Three Combo – Solarium (released September 15, 2016)

 February 11, 2017

Jeff Fitzgerald

Number Three Combo is a trio of musicians from Tucson, Arizona consisting of Ex-Black Sun Ensemble members Eric Johnson (12 string acoustic guitar, keyboards and vocals) and Joe E. Furno (flute and vocals) along with Cobracalia’s percussionist Carl Hall (dumbek and acoustic percussion). Their 2015 album, Retrofitting, found the band creating lush Middle Eastern influenced tracks with a largely acoustic variety of instruments (guitar, flute, percussion) with the small addition of some synths and electronics for flavour. Now comes their follow up album,Solarium, but rather than repeating what they did on their debut, Number Three Combo have kept the same essential concept musically, but instead of an acoustic album, Johnson ditches the guitar in favour of an array of synths, keyboards and electronics. Furno and Hall however continue to play flute and acoustic percussion, respectively.

 Evoking the past with seminal artists such as Tangerine Dream, Future Sound of London, Nik Turner and even Spiral Realms, the Simon House/Len Del Rio project from the 90’s, but moving headstrong into the future, Number Three Combo cover many moods and styles throughout the album. The band’s previously folky vibe is replaced with spacey, pulsating (and sometimes quite heavy sounding) electronics, along with a great deal of Hammond organ. The music has both a rocking edge to it, as well as an electronica style groove going on. And while the latter may conjure up visions of pounding dance floor club tracks, the music of Number Three Combo is not as simple as that. The opening instrumental,Banana Seat, for example, sets Middle Eastern melodies to a grinding electro-industrial rhythm, and tosses in aggressive Jethro Tull style flute playing to top it off! This is matched by the slower, cinematic style instrumentals like The New Kingdom, with its glockenspiel-like tones set to evocative ethnic rhythms; the Middle Eastern sweep of Arabic Satori (a cover version of a Black Sun Ensemble tune), with its bright, infectious melodies; and the intense and driving Future Sound of Tucson, with its manic sequencing reminiscent of mid-80’s Tangerine Dream. The instrumental cuts are balanced out with a couple of terrific vocal tracks: Dive, which sounds like a particularly great, long lost 80’s synthpop track and the dark cyber rock of Superstition Machine, one of my favourite tracks on the album. It all culminates with the nearly 10-minute ambient epic The Grand Sky.

 Despite the variety, the album does not feel unfocused. Number Three Combo has their own unique sound and it shines through on every track. Had I heard it then, I’m sure Solarium would have ranked high on my top albums of 2016 list. Better late than never though, because this one is not to be missed!

 (Note: the digital download version of the album also has a number of bonus tracks, live demos, alternate mixes and studio outtakes)

Number Three Combo is a product of the versatile Tucson indie scene, with members previously recording in Black Sun Ensemble, Bread and Circus, and Cobracalia. Last year’s debut was the relaxing, contemplative trip Retrofitting, but the trio have eschewed guitars altogether to focus on electronic and keyboard-driven creations that still maintain the eastern-flavoured grooves of the debut, while upping the festive atmosphere with more strident percussion. Opener ‘Banana Seat’ sounds like Deep Purple-gone Bollywood, with Eric Johnson’s organ and Joe E. Furno’s electronically-treated flutework serpentining through Carl Hall’s flamboyant drum loops straight out of John Kongos’ solo work (‘He’s Gonna Step On You Again’, ‘Tokoloshe Man’). ‘Strangers & Enemies’ is even more festive, an electro synth dancefloor magnet that reminds of Billy Idol let loose at the Green Man Festival. In fact the whole album was originally commissioned for Number Three Combo’s performance at the 2014 All Soul’s Procession in Tucson, which saw the band supplement their basic sound with belly dancers, and fellow poets, musicians, and artists, thereby transforming the whole experience into a multi-media event. That same energy oozes from every groove of Solarium – you simply can’t sit down and listen to this happy foot request party! As in the past, the trio revisits classic Black Sun Ensemble material, this time breathing some electronic life into the golden nugget ‘Arabic Satori’, retaining the eastern-flavoured template, but adding an energetic synth swash throughout that is as uplifting as its precursor was self-reflective. ‘Vlad’ will appeal to the psychedelic electronic work of Porcupine Tree (particularly Voyage 34) and psychedelic shaman Terence McKenna’s albums with The Shamen and Spacetime Continuum, while ‘Dive’ relaxes a bit – like Bowie fronting OMD. Of course, the Future Sound of London freaks will need no further nudging to dig ‘The Future Sounds of Tucson’ (particularly if Amorphous Androgynous’ Monstrous Psychedelic Bubble Exploding In Your Mind trilogy sits at the top of your dream mix), and ‘The New Kingdom’ is almost cinematic in its expansive exploration of electro psych possibilities. This could sit quite comfortably on a Bollywood soundtrack. Finally, I enjoyed the ambient about face of ‘The Grand Sky’ – a gentle mix of sound effects (cue Roger Waters’ ‘Grantchester Meadows’), floating atmospherics a la Tangerine Dream, and hypnotic, drum-circley percussives all mixed into a heady hippie gumbo. The digital version includes 11 bonus tracks, comprised of alternate mixes, outtakes, and live-in-the-studio demos to enhance your trip

Album: Solarium

Artist: Number Three Combo

Label: Slowburn

Release Date: September 16, 2016 61vgjv1fw5l-_ss500 The Upshot: There’s something demonic and unforgiving about the sound, the combo having scraped away the previous album’s adornments and dipped the whole affair in a late afternoon blinding solar haze. BY JONATHAN LEVITT Tucson’s Number Three Combo another exponent of the Black Sun Ensemble camp are back at it with their latest project Solarium. Eric Johnson who is the doyenne behind the Slowburn label has been toiling in relative obscurity for most of his creative existence, and has managed to make himself into the Bill Laswell of the desert. Flanked by two awesome musicians namely Carl Hall on percussion and Joe E. Furno (inferno) on flute this album bears little resemblance to last year’s more muted Retrofitting. The album is devoid of guitar yet you don’t miss it, because what’s going on under the hood is so compelling. An eerie mix of Middle eastern tinged space dance head grooves, the album is a beguiling synthesis of both the modern and the ancient, the sacred and profane. Here the band reinvent the BSE tune “Arabic Satori” for the ecstasy popping set. There’s something demonic and unforgiving about the sound. Here the combo, have scraped away the adornments and dipped the whole affair in a late afternoon blinding solar haze. The only misstep in this reviewer’s ears is the track “Babylon Handcuff” which is an unhealthy amalgam of Tears for Fears and After the Fire electronics and could’ve been left off the set. Things get surprisingly weirder after this. The track “Dive” has an 80’s veneer and feels reminiscent of some of Peter Schilling’s best tunes. There’s a sadness that permeates this record. I get the sense that beyond just being an aesthetic choice of ditching the guitar Messr Johnson feels that he’s taken the guitar based stuff as far as he could and instead of being pigeonholed by Tucson Indie rock expectations has taken the more difficult next step of reinvention. The track “Future Sound of Tucson” is this moment where Johnson and band shed their skin and burn the link to their ancestry. The band are saying here that being birthed from Black Sun does not mean being hemmed in by its sonic scaffolding.  This scorched earth approach yields an album that refuses to be constrained and is a unique curveball that leaves the listener asking, where to next? “The Grand Sky” answers this and is as close to a walking out the door and setting sail for brighter ports of call that you’ll get in the space of 9 minutes. It’s a mystical world that that these three men have woven on this record. Unyielding and uncompromising, they made the hard choice so we wouldn’t have to. Enjoy the fruits of their labors. Sing while ye may. DOWNLOAD: “Banana Seat” “Arabic Satori” “Dive” “Future Sounds of Tucson” “The Grand Sky”
DCIM102GOPRONUMBER THREE COMBO – RETROFITTING CD on SlowBurn Records Prolific guitarist Eric Johnson has released a number of recordings since the demise of Black Sun Ensemble following Jesus Acedo’s death in 2013. As a member of Bread and Circus, Cobracalia, and Sundarata, he’s contributed to several albums (all on his SlowBurn imprint) of mellow, eastern-flavoured Ensemble-like music. His latest project is a trio he formed with ex-Black Sun Ensemble flautist Joe E. Furno and his Cobracalia partner, Middle Eastern master percussionist Carl Hall (featured here on dumbek). As with the previous projects, there is a contemplative, eastern vibe wafting across these recordings, but Johnson and company have upped the mellow quotient by focusing on Johnson’s 12-string acoustic, the occasional table drum loop, and Furno’s electronically-treated flute. Opener ‘The Empty Quarter’ sets the stage, with relaxing melodies and a Middle Eastern vibe. Johnson’s vocals and Furno’s flittering flute create the perfect ruminating feeling for the 70-year old daydreaming blues standard, ‘Driftin’ Blues’, while chiming acoustic guitars, laid-back percussion and soaring flute combine to lift the organic ‘Sonora’ into a shimmering dance amongst cumulous clouds floating across lazy blue skies. There’s a bizarre bazaar vibe chunnelling through ‘Citadel’ (not the Stones song) that wouldn’t be misplaced on the Stones’ track’s parent album. Another laidback navelgazer, the Black Sun pedigree is apparent, but the trio have reined in the excessive desert wanderings that occasionally dogged Acedo & Co.’s trippier artifacts. ‘Last River’ sounds like it was written as an oasis after a long, aimless stroll through the desert; it’s cool, melodic waters wash refreshingly over long day’s journeyers venturing into unchartered destinations. Relaxing…contemplative…pastoral…. These are feelings that are all-too-often missing from today’s loud and aggressive rock tunes. Thanks to Johnson and his cohorts, Number Three Combo restore peace and quiet to a breakneck-paced world, turning daydream believers into all who venture under their spell. (Jeff Penczak)  

Number Three Combo – “Retrofitting” (SlowBurn Records 2015, CD/DL)

Last year SlowBurn Records released the self-titled debut by Cobracalia, which started life as the Black Sun Ensemble album that was half-finished when BSE founder and guitarist Jesus Acedo passed away. Former BSE members plus additional musicians forged ahead and completed the swansong BSE album – Behind Purple Clouds – which was released in late 2013. The Cobracalia album was the result of the musicians who completed Behind Purple Clouds continuing to work together and consisted of a complex yet accessible brand of spacey ethnic inspired Prog-Psych orchestra. Number Three Combo is a musically related but instrumentally stripped down trio made up of former BSE members Eric Johnson on 12-string acoustic guitar and vocals and Joe E. Furno on flute, plus Cobracalia percussionist Carl Hall on ethnic percussion. Those are the principle instruments but there is also organ and electric guitar in supporting roles throughout. The album opens on a spacey, trippy, ethnic flavored note with The Empty Quarter. Arabian Nights and big production harem dance images are conjured up as the music rocks out, grooves joyously and Psychedelically swirls. The trio take on the Blues standard Driftin’ Blues, which is a vocal number and a very interesting piece which morphs and mixes a folky brand of Blues with dreamy ethnic vibes and potent soundscapes. I especially like the blend of acoustic Blues and floating flute melody. The 12-string soars on the lovely instrumental Sonora, supported by flute and percussion. From what I’ve described so far would you expect a Black Sabbath cover? There is!! Number Three Combo handle Electric Funeral with finesse as the flute takes on the main riff duties and the acoustic guitar and percussion add the expected ethnic vibe, plus organ and electric guitar adding a bit of beef to the music. Big kudos to these guys for taking a classic and totally making it their own. This may be one of the best covers I’ve heard all year. Beyond the Beyond is another vocal number with an organ, acoustic guitar, flute and ethno percussion combo that sounds really cool with Eric’s Bluesy passionate vocals. Ditto for Lonely Road, which is an Eric Johnson solo piece that puts the spotlight on his nimble acoustic guitar playing and vocals. Citadel is a power rocking Ethno-Prog instrumental that is both uplifting and intense. Last River is an equal parts acoustic guitar, flute, piano and percussion instrumental that segues smoothly into the final track, Born Too Late, which is a vocal tune that blends Eastern and Western influences and Progressive Rock elements to create a darkly intense yet hypnotic and cool grooving finale to this impressive set. In summary, there’s lots of variety here. I agree with the promo sheet that Number Three Combo will appeal to fans of Psych-Folk and Acoustic/Ethnic Rock, though I’ll add that Progheads with a taste for ethnic influences will find much to enjoy here. And of course those wishing to follow the continuing Black Sun Ensemble legacy will be delighted.
  DCIM102GOPROBLURT MAGAZINE: Tucson’s Slowburn Records has been on sort of a roll as of late, withSundarata’s Language of the Stars album and now Number Three Combo’s debut album entitled Retrofitting. The album opens up with a beautiful cyclical psych-infused Persian guitar piece called “The Empty Quarter”, augmented by Carl Hall’s tight dumbek beats, and Joe E. Furno’s subtle shape shifting flute. Once again Tucson proves the perfect backdrop for Arabic and Persian influenced music to weave its mystical spell on the musicians that call the place home. The song “Lonely Road” recalls the beauty of Roy Harper’s playing. This is also probably one of Eric Johnson’s best outings as a singer. Johnson on this track has finally let his folk influenced side find an outlet. Here the simplicity of the song, the deft assuredness of the playing and the unwavering emotional hue that Johnson’s voice lends the song make for a beautiful combination that hopefully we’ll hear more of in the future. I was surprised to see that the band decided to cover Black Sabbath’s “Electric Funeral” on the record. A head scratcher at first it actually ends up making sense. Here the song actually feels as if Ozzy and crew copped the song while on a trip to Egypt. The band here has managed to make the song into something equally as compelling as the original, which is quite a feat. “Born Too Late” closes the album with a song that manages to capture the Tucson that trails off into the desert. Here Johnson is able to convey the feeling of being between nothing and not much else, as he faces a bleak landscape ahead of him. The driving beat evokes a western dusty one-horse-town vibe about it while the lyrics hint at the mystical realm. Here Joe E. Furno’s flute adds the perfect burnished beauty to the song. The song spins down into a blurred haze as our protagonist makes his way over the last mesa on the horizon: destination unknown. Number Three Combo has on this record proved the case that less is more. The intense focus the record has doesn’t get mired in too many cooks stirring the pot, which I feel affected the Cobracalia record from 2014. Here Number Three Combo has managed to create a beautiful album that is filled with some of the best music these men have ever committed to tape. Here’s hoping this isn’t the last we’ll hear from them. DOWNLOAD: “The Empty Quarter” “Lonely Road” “Born Too Late” “Electric Funeral”  

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