A few videos of Nick Menza playing with what would be his final band, Ohm, have given me the occasion to remember how rare of a talent he was (and mourn the tragedy of his loss at such a young age). Here are a few observations of mine as I listened to this material.
One thing I've always loved about Menza's style is that it is filled with "air", that his cymbals "breathe", especially in the slow parts. This "breathe" is part, in my view, of what gives its peculiar flavor to the whole "Countdown to Extinction" album, and is also present in these pieces. It's perhaps Menza's most recognizable style feature, if I had to pick one (that, and standing up to do the tom rolls :) ). I don't know how to express it, it's like he "plays in 3D", his cymbals paint a picture for you, something that is alive and organic and evolves, like a forest. I've never seem anything nowhere near by other drummer.
Another thing I enjoy about his playing is that it is "tectonic"; it feels always very grounded, steady on the floor, like a house's main column. Even though the music can get very frantic, the hits going in all directions, he always feel "rooted", steady, like a mountain surrounded by a storm keeps being a mountain. Here's a homemade theory of mine: perhaps it has to do with the fact that he was a short guy, i.e., closer to the floor, i.e. the toms closer to the floor and providing more "rumble", and this added to his superb playing style? This is not enough to prove anything, but there is a point of contact there with Faith No More's drummer, "Puffy" Bordin, also a short guy with a tremendous power to summon elephant stampedes when the moment demands it (and at the same time, both are very nuisanced and rich drummers too).
Another thing that astounds me about Nick's style is his rolls. To me he is perhaps one of the clearest cases of a drummer who is also a musician; this sounds like a play on words, but sadly, a lot of drummers feel really "binary", like human rhythm boxes. In Nick's rolls, on the contrary, you feel, besides the punch and the impeccable execution, there is also gusto on every note. And yes, I say note, not hit. Perhaps that's the thing a lot of drummers forget: each piece of the drum kit "sings" a note. I don't know if Menza got traditional formation, but I do know that he came from a musical family; an advantage I've always regretted not having. Those who have been raised in musical families have like a different familiarity and ease with their instruments, you just can tell. And you can tell he really plays seriously, in the present moment, he's not just "going through the movements". Other drummers, even some that I really admire, feel like they were driving a high precision car or dodging bullets, rather than enjoying themselves.
I have to say one more thing, however, I noticed in these videos. Nick's style and playing was great, unique and enjoyable. But I thought it was exactly as great, as unique and as enjoyable as it was 20 years ago, when I saw him live.
This is a problem a lot of musicians have, I think, and perhaps it happens in other professions as well. Every human being needs "stretch goals" to keep them motivated. Otherwise you stagnate, and that is bad for the psyche. We need a challenge, the next sucker we're gonna get. Who knows, perhaps by playing the kind of fusion jazz Ohm does, he was looking, consciously or unconsciously, for some opening of this kind. Sadly we will never know how it would have evolved beyond these first steps...
I have a guitar and I'm gonna use it