By Bill Zaferos   Published Sep 29, 2006 at 5:20 AM
It would be unfair to categorize Roger Powell’s new CD, “Fossil Poets,” as rock or jazz or electronica or anything else for that matter. It needs to be taken on its own merits.

It’s a little of everything. “Fossil Poets” sort of meets at the intersection where Pink Floyd meets Kraftwerk meets Robert Fripp, and even, at one point -- on a number called “Miles Per Gallon” -- Miles Davis’ later work.

And it succeeds in providing a sound that is more challenging than ambient music, for the most part keeping your attention by avoiding indulgent synthesizer noodling and never lulling the listener into a torpor from too much sameness.

If you’re the type of person who gets kicks from, say, the Murder City Devils or Green Day, this one probably isn’t for you. But if you like your synth-based music with a bit of an edge, you’ll find “Fossil Poets” a real treat.

Powell, for those old enough to remember, was the member of Todd Rundgren’s Utopia who gave that band its distinctive sound back in the ‘80s. On his first release since 1980’s “Air Pocket,” Powell succeeds in providing a driving, intense dose of rhythm and color.

While Powell and local musician/producer Gary Tanin, also on synthesizer, provide the bedrock of the album, it is Milwaukee guitarist Greg Koch who makes it.

In large part “Fossil Poets” is a showcase for Koch’s masterful guitar work. Throughout, Koch weaves his licks into Powell’s and Tanin’s synths in a perfect counterpoint. No one really takes the lead on this album; it’s a coordinated effort to create lush soundscapes but never really going overboard. None of the cuts is longer than 4:55, keeping the music on point.

When Koch kicks in with one of the many guitars he employs -- a Fender Custom Shop Strat was used 90 percent of the time -- he gives the music a little warmth over the sometimes cold electronics of the synthesizers. Koch also provides the edge which makes this effort much more than a smooth jazz knock-off.

For example, the underlying synth rhythm under “Fallout Shelter” is reminiscent of Floyd’s “On the Run,” but Koch again keeps the whole exercise from becoming mere electronic puttering by providing body for the rest of the number. The synths sometimes growl ominously, as in the opening of “Delayed Reaction,” at other times they sing, and at times they simply provide the backbeat for Koch’s driving guitar work.

One piece, the funky “Peaceful Uprising,” which is anything but peaceful, seems a bit jarring following the cool sound of “Miles Per Gallon.” On the other hand, it keeps the listener from losing attention and prepares you for the final leg of the album.

On the jazzy “Test Drive,” Koch again delicately shows his chops in perfect complement to Powell and Tanin.

“Underwater City,” the longest cut at 4:55, is indeed somewhat evocative of, well, an underwater city, with melodic washes that rise and fall like ocean waves under Koch’s pointed riffs. But toward the end it leaves the listener adrift.

Still, if “Fossil Poets” could be categorized at all, it’s as great headphone music. Put this on your iPod and your head will spin. But it’s also just as good cranked on the car stereo or as a backdrop in the living room.

“Fossil Poets” is what they used to call tasty. And with this kind of taste, Powell and company would be a great addition to the lineup of next year’s “Jazz in the Park.”

Even if they’re not necessarily jazz.