No question. Just saw him tonight as part of The Sea & Cake (one of my favourite bands) on the Funktion 1 at Cargo. In no other traditional rock band have I heard a drummer play such a pivotal role in the way that he does, and often it’s with the utmost subtlety, that you’ll only pick out if you’re watching him perform it live (as often his drumming is a bit too low in the mix on recordings to really pick out all the detail without an intentional effort). Sometimes it’s just raw intensity when he’s given the focus. On other occasions the ways he fulfills his backing rhythm section role puts everyone else to shame, to the extent that I think 99% of drummers I hear are utterly rubbish, doing less than half what they should on any given track.
He has an individuated sense of timing that infects his bands unlike anyone else. His ability to eek out the tightest and closed-est hats at stupid speed hasn’t been approached by anyone that I’ve heard, and seems to be getting better as he ages. For instance they played The Argument tonight at what must’ve been about 180-200bpm. The original had an almost drum n’ bass feel to it, and was likely no more than 150bpm. He’d somehow removed almost all of the swing, but retained that slightest amount which imparted that funk of rigidity, a la Kraftwerk, but at a speed that no man should be able to introduce such subtle variation.
Something about operating within the confines of traditional rock n’ roll (as opposed to his work with Tortoise, as a producer, etc) has produced some of the most compelling rhythms I’ve heard since jazz was good. I wrote a small dissertation about this when I last saw them which maybe sums it up better.
I also love what he’s doing in Tortoise – even, and maybe especially the most recent album, but I don’t think it’s as surprising or important as what he doing within ‘normal’ rock n’ roll. I still have yet to hear The Man Who Never See’s a Pretty Girl That He Doesn’t Love Her a Little live, which would be the moment when McEntire’s head roles off and he continues to drum unabated, but I’ll look forward to that when they return this Autumn.
I know somebody’s gonna say what’s-his-fuck from Rush is better, or some speed metal fool, or some long-dead brilliant jazz dude (who won’t count because he’s dead) but you’re all super wrong in advance. John McEntire is single-handedly better than everything else on earth combined.