Having trouble coming up with innovative or even interesting ideas in musical theater, Broadway and environs have spent a good portion of the '90s embracing pure rhythm instead of sing-along storytelling. Without question, this tactic has been successful: From Stomp to Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk to, God help us, Riverdance, tapping toes and sounds of different objects hitting each other have had a visceral appeal. But creating something rhythmic onstage that goes beyond volume and flash -- something compositional, let alone musical -- has been more difficult. For the past decade, the New York-based Blue Man Group has avoided this problem by relying on theatrics as little as possible. True, its three core members -- Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton, and Chris Wink -- do paint their bodies bright blue, and their percussion instruments use enough PVC pipe to induce a plumber's wet dream. What comes across on Audio, though, is a sense of grace and rhythmic power that has little to do with mere appearances.
The group expands to seven members for the record, and the instrumental contraptions are legion: a variety of "air poles" that create whooshing sounds, xylophone-type instruments made out of PVC pipe (one of which launches rockets), a gong with encased ball bearings, and the Big Drum, which, as you might guess, "is a really big drum that is hit with a really big mallet." The result is that throughout, Audio has a booming, cinematic sound; each of its 14 tracks could function as the opening overture to a Cecil B. DeMille epic or, even better, a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. The closing "Endless Column" lopes along slowly, a moody excursion that builds off of the drumming and is punctuated by a wash of guitar tremolo. More often, the songs are focused and display an almost pop sensibility: "Mandelgroove" throbs around an Eno-esque guitar hook, and the quivering "Synaesthetic" meshes an Eastern tone with processed polyrhythms.
In fact, Audio draws from a variety of modern musics, from electropop ("Drums and Cones") to metal ("Tension 2") to blues of a sort ("Cat Video"), which serves to reinforce the concept that all pop styles start with the drum. The idea gets a lot of lip service, to the point where it's pretty much a cliché. But even clichés need reinforcing, and Audio does just that.