Inner Limits: Olem Alves, Torrey Newhart and new drummer Ryan Biesack

Pushing the Limits

Eugene-based band releases first album in five years capturing their live vibes

Usually, when I’m in Eugene guitarist Olem Alves’ basement, he’s guiding me through the world of jazz guitar legends, like a wise Jedi Master. But today, we’re watching his band’s newest music video released to promote Olem Alves and Inner Limits’ new album, Rise to the Top, out June 30. 

And the guitar lessons are still happening as Alves points out a few things in his guitar solo in “Rise to the Top,” a little chromaticism there,” he says. 

Rise to the Top is Olem Alves and Inner Limits’ first album in five years, following the 2019 Hit the Highway, which was written in honor of Alves’ guitar teacher James Thornbury, who was also in the group Canned Heat. The previous album focused on blues classics — like Muddy Waters’ “Can’t Be Satisfied” — but the new album is all original tunes that Alves hopes will reach a larger audience. The band has an album release party planned for June 30 at Junction City House Concerts. 

“Mainstream, to me, means more of a backbeat,” Alves says. “Something that people can dance and that people can connect to.” 

Alves began writing the album immediately after the COVID-19 pandemic quarantine shut down music venues, meaning that Alves and his band saw about 60 to 80 gigs canceled. “This is not an uncommon story for everybody,” Alves says. “Right away, I was just like, I gotta figure out something to do. All right, I’m just gonna, I’m going to come out with an album. I’m gonna write all new tunes.” 

As venues began re-opening in 2021 and 2022, Olem Alves and Inner Limits began playing some of these new songs at shows, molding them and deciding which tunes the band would record in the studio. Once he had the songs ready, he stepped into the studio with some of Eugene’s best jazz musicians — Ken Mastrogiovanni (drums) and Torrey Newhart (keyboard) — and began recording music. 

The idea of the album is to punch into pop music, Alves says. But that doesn’t mean he’s decided to follow the path of Taylor Swift or Beyoncé. He wants the band to reach a larger audience, and the album’s tracklist shows that. The songs run the gamut of funk, R&B, blues rock — all infused with some elements of jazz. 

But the album is more than just songs that vary in genre. It’s a taste of how Alves and his band go beyond the basic song format and pack in transitions, writing songs that meander similar to Umphrey’s McGee and Snarky Puppy. These transitions — or “Inner Limits-ing,” as Alves calls it — are what the band often includes in its performances. They make songs “pop.” 

“A New Strain” might be one of the best representations of what Alves means. The song starts with a Bo Diddley beat — a classic backbeat foundation that many know, whether it’s Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” or the Smiths’ “How Soon is Now?”— that features a few tight transitions and solos. Rather than going from verse to chorus and back and forth, the song has transitions to take the listener off the road. It ventures off to guitar licks from Alves that you’d expect from a King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, explosive drum fills from Mastrogiovanni and screaming organ chops that could be conjured by Booker T from Newhart. 

The gigging lineup of the band — Alves, Newhart and Ryan Biesack — all have master’s degrees in jazz studies. With musicians in the band that could probably also open up a School of Rock-sort of school, Alves and his band want to offer people music that isn’t just danceable, but also complex for us music nerds. 

“I want to be able to play music that’s fulfilling to me and the musicians on stage. Because we’re sort of, we’re always sort of pushing our musicianship,” Alves says. “But I also want to be able to reach a larger audience. And that’s — that’s important to me.” 

Olem Alves and Inner Limits has a release party for Rise to the Top 5 pm to 7 pm Sunday, June 30, at Junction City House Concerts. Email CycleTaylor@aol.com for event information. 

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