Eric Novak aka Dissonant Dessert
Credit: Khori Wilson

Eric Novak is a prolific Chicago multi-instrumentalist who plays with jazz quartet Whtvr Frvr and jazz-fusion sextet Cordoba. They’ve also loaned their talents to a variety of local artists, including indie-rock band the Curls and folk singer Reno Cruz, and most recently they added warm woodwinds to Portrait, the new album from rapper Davis. Novak also releases their own music under the name Dissonant Dessert, and their work feels unlimited in structure and raw emotion. The songs on their brand-new record, Absurd, Obscene!, sometimes slowly dissolve or abruptly cut into different time signatures, replicating the fleeting, shape-shifting nature of dreams or psychedelic experiences. They call this style “emo prog,” but the influence of 70s funk-rock giants Parliament-Funkadelic is obvious in its dissonant guitars, grotesque humor, and large ensemble (the album credits 43 in total, including keyboardist and singer Ayanna Woods, harpist Yomí, and Cordoba vocalist Brianna Tong). 

Novak began work on Absurd, Obscene! in June 2019 with live-tracked group recordings, but when the pandemic closed studio spaces, they relied on their collaborators to undertake overdubs and edits at home. They play electric bass, percussion, keyboards, violin, and five kinds of woodwinds across the album’s 11 tracks, but they make their greatest impression as a singer, trading off vocal styles to reflect the emotional tumult of their music. On “Ain’t Shit,” they croon about loss with melodramatic flair, and on album opener “ . . . Opened, Underneath the Static” they growl in a tone they compared to “a possessed Cookie Monster” in an April interview with music blog Music Shelf With Mustard.

Loss haunts Absurd, Obscene! in the form of decaying environments, relationship troubles, and death, all depicted with wide-eyed psychedelic clarity. “Ain’t Shit” laments the passing of Chicago musician Trey Gruber, who fronted the band Parent, while condemning coattail riders who used his death to boost their own careers with “fake-ass shrines.” On bleary-eyed ballad “Zem Boolyniff,” Novak contrasts receding tides and dried-up rivers with sparkling neon—a depiction of loss that has accrued deeper meaning over time. They recorded the core of the track on March 7, 2020, with engineer Mark “Mouse” Bruner at his Reelsounds Studio in Skokie, an experience Novak later described in a press release as “one of the warmest, most open sessions I’ve been a part of” due to Bruner’s “huge presence and personality.” Unfortunately the session was one of Bruner’s last; he passed away that October, and Novak dedicated the song to his memory.

For all its heavy subject matter, parts of Absurd, Obscene! are downright zany. “Tantric Birdbath” alternates driving rock with rim-shot grooves and marimba fills reminiscent of a cruise-ship commercial; “Huh, How?” takes a left turn midway through its syllable-dense verses to bloom into a slick disco groove that recalls Steely Dan. It’s moving to hear Novak’s contributors help bring their song to life; Nexus J adds a confident rap verse on “Hairy Sink,” taking shots at acid rain and landlords. The album concludes with the epic “ . . . Shut, Trampled Underneath the Static,” featuring contributions from six guitarists, including Reno Cruz and Cordoba’s Cam Cunningham. Despite its huge cast, Absurd, Obscene! retains the frantic, fortuitous energy of great improvisation. It feels like a long, strange trip through Novak’s ego that’s been captured for our ears.

YouTube video

Dissonant Dessert’s Absurd, Obscene! is available through Bandcamp.