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McNeal & Niles - Thrust

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Artist: McNeal & Niles

Album: Thrust

Label: Chocolate Industries

Review date: Nov. 30, 2004

The re-release of a classic LP you’ve never heard of is usually a dubious prospect. I initially approached Chocolate Industries’ championing of the 1979 one-off album by super-obscure Akron, Ohio-based funk duo McNeal & Niles with some trepidation, memories of reissues with one useable break and sixty minutes of snoozeworthy fusion doing the electric slide in my head. Suffice it to say that there will be no electric slide dancing here. Thrust is that good.

Not unlike the Herbie Hancock fusion classic of the same name, Thrust is all about the keyboards. Machelle McNeal’s synthesizer work elevates the album above mere stock instrumental funk. On tracks like “Punk Funk” (not that kind of punk funk, sorry) and the vaguely Shaft-esque “Hyper Tension,” McNeal subtly embellishes the groove, waiting to emerge into the sonic foreground with lush and mildly dissonant motives that add to the shadowy atmosphere. On “Untitled,” McNeal alternates between restrained Fender Rhodes and icy synth pads that dominate the bridge, so much so that when he goes back to the Rhodes it feels like an elephant has left the room. Some of his keyboard tones are dated, though classic keyboard fetishization has arguably brought the whole notion of datedness into question. It’s certainly not as tacky-sounding to these ears as, say, Weather Report.

This is not an album of stank jams, though some tracks are more celebratory than others. “Punk Funk,” in particular, features some joyfully blister-popping fingerboard magic from guitarist Wilbur Niles, who handles most of the album’s riffs with ease while staying firmly in the pocket. The ominously titled “One Slave, One Gun” has a real sense of velocity, even though it sounds at times like a slightly gothic Santana, while “Untitled” is more stereotypically funky and cheery. Again, Niles is an agile player who delivers simple melodic lines with a sly yet deliberate rhythmic sense.

Along with the JBs/Family Stone influences you might expect on a late-’70s funk record, Thrust is full of moody, harmonically adventurous compositions that suggest McNeal & Niles may have been slipping the occasional platter of Rush or Genesis onto the control room turntables. There’s also a sense that this album was conceived as a showcase for McNeal & Niles’ compositions rather than to promote a touring band, which might explain why some of these tracks take a turn for the weird. It’s hard to imagine “One Slave, One Gun” getting much radio play next to the aforementioned classic funk bands – like obvious kinsmen Parliament, McNeal & Niles would have been more likely to find an audience through avenues like college radio and word of mouth. That obviously didn’t happen, but with the support of people like Dante Carfagna, who’s to say that it won’t happen now?

By Dave Morris

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