Bluegrass and its roots-music cousins have always offered a sort of dance music to those keeping time.
On their new album, a pair of beloved Missouri musicians make that motion more explicit — and electric.
Pat Kay, of mid-Missouri institution The Kay Brothers, and Joplin-forged bandleader Ben Miller comprise The Spooklights, a duo the word “dynamic” was created to describe. Their October debut, “MK Ultra,” elides old-time music with 21st-century electronic sounds to propel listeners into their specific, satisfying orbit.
Album opener “Red Rocking Chair” establishes expectations; the song opens with banjo playing and inspired wailing fit for any Smithsonian anthology of American music.
Soon the underlying pulse becomes something wholly different — this isn’t stompgrass, but a true roots-music rave. Phase shifts and accent notes form a strobing undercurrent. Eventually, Kay and Miller ascend, encountering a celestial chorus which calls out to them over visceral percussion and digital tremors.
With this sound in mind, “Cluck Ol’ Hen” deepens and widens the vibe with vocals that echo and chant, and musical vibrations that seal an earthy sort of Zen.
“Outsider” doesn’t play to the edges of this inventive sound, but glides the hollow, deriving its personality from near-hypnotic rhythms and eventually finding a new sort of whir-and-wheeze as harmonica and digital sounds duet. Again, vocals soar around the song’s core, tugging Kay’s and Miller’s collars heavenward.
Later, “Greasy Coat” approximates the feel of Robert Randolph taking the Family Band to an EDM tent while “Life of Crime” infuses the Spooklights sound with crackling hip-hop grooves.
Album closer “O’ Death” stretches that American hymn into an 8-minute meditation on what keeps us and kills us, the track simmering over synth beds before becoming a fearless and unashamed dance in the shadow of our mortality.
Divorced from the dance floor, listeners might reach saturation point by the end of “MK Ultra.” But these eight songs beg and beckon a live audience to let their hair down and their digital hippie flag fly. And Kay and Miller achieve something special — and, ultimately, timeless — here. They sound out a reminder that the best way to honor an innovative music is to keep innovating from within.
Aarik Danielsen is the features and culture editor for the Tribune. Contact him at email@example.com or by calling 573-815-1731. He’s on Twitter/X @aarikdanielsen.