Day Fifty: Cursive – Burst and Bloom

Saddle Creek ■ LBJ-35

Released July 24, 2001

Produced by Mike Mogis and Cursive
Recorded by Mike Mogis
Mastered by Doug Van Sloun

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Sink to the Beat
  2. The Great Decay
  3. Tall Tales, Telltales
  1. Mothership, Mothership, Do You Hear Me?
  2. Fairy Tales Tell Tales

If one checks back, one finds that I actually stated my next item on the block would be Cursive’s Happy Hollow. However, as I sat for a moment and considered that I had a Record Store Day exclusive on coloured vinyl (marbled yellow) and that release was one that was singled out by a friend (the words “so good” in a few incarnations came up, occasionally with profane emphases) as quality in the career of the band…I considered that perhaps I could once again write about an EP released by a band from whom I also own a full-length LP. Most pertinently, I guess, my good friend Brian–one of my most reliable folks for discussing music, which can be difficult for many in light of my erratic listening habits–is the person I most strongly associated the band with.

A few years back (around 2010-2011), an FYE (I apologize if the name shoots a dart of cold through your heart, fellow music aficionados) was purging a veritable truckload of bizarre, seemingly random CDs from numerous sources. In and amongst them were both a slew of the uninteresting and small dotted points of curiosity and excitement. I walked out with stacks of albums from numerous bands, some of which I had a bit of familiarity with (like Converge), others I’d never heard of but would come to like quite a bit (Manchester Orchestra, Hot Cross, Coalesce, Boysetsfire, The Dismemberment Plan), some I’d heard of from my dad but never listened to actively (John Hiatt, Peter Case, Bruce Cockburn), and some I had heard from other sources and couldn’t assign any sound at all despite this, like The Fall of Troy and this band–Cursive.

What I found myself holding first was actually Cursive’s Happy Hollow, which seemed like a find when it jumped out at me, but became the ever more enthusiastic matching pair and then set when I found The Ugly Organ and Domestica. I was enthralled pretty quickly, and slowly gathered singles and split releases, but alongside them–and first–Burst and Bloom and Such Blinding Stars for Starving Eyes. It wasn’t until one of my most ambitious Record Store Days that I ended up finding any Cursive on vinyl though. This EP was the first one I’d picked up, one of a run of 1,500, and the last I’d grab before a chance meeting with Happy Hollow at a later date.

“Sink to the Beat” starts the album on a rather playful note, single notes sliding gently up and down guitar strings, and Tim Kasher’s voice metallicized with an electronic filter, the subject somewhat “meta” as he sings: “I’ll try to make this perfectly clear I’m so transparent I disappear/These words I lyrically defecate upon songs I boldly claim to create”. His voice stops and Clint Schnase’s drumming joins, loud but recorded as if with a single microphone and in the corner of a room. If we were unsure that it was Schnase, Kasher erases any such doubt, his voice no longer filtered and the drums no longer far off or single-mic’d: “Clint steps in to establish the beat 4/4 hip hop and you don’t stop/This unique approached to start an EP intended to shock, create a mystique/A cheap strategy, a marketing scheme building awareness for the next LP”–it’s a musical version of XTC‘s Go 2 album cover.
However, unlike that (terribly fun and clever) Hipgnosis-designed cover, Kasher is speaking for himself, and begins to wave the description of the music into the song itself. Where Hipgnosis took an intentionally neutral but confessional tone, Kasher’s is conflicted and emotionally bare (as his words and voice usually are, to be fair). He compares the group to others (Fugazi, Shudder to Think) and to a local scene (the early 90’s in my recent haunt of some years–Chapel Hill). His voice is near monotone, listing as if about to run out of breath, but it suddenly begins to gain range as he sings of the way melodies can worm their way into your head, but then questions it with the thought that they “are like a disease/They can inflame your misery/They will infect your memory they haunt me”. It blurs the lines between what he is writing (singing) now, what he has heard himself, and how each affects him and others–in fact, he transposes the use of memory and melody when he repeats the line–now memories are like infectious disease, worming their way into melodies. After that repetition, his voice is quieter, and Matt Maginn’s bass appears for the first time, the melody softening with his voice, as do Schnase’s drums: “I write these words with a motherly intuition/I shape these sounds into harmonic apparitions”. Clint speeds the beat through his words, and then leaves behind the beat Kasher first described, but he starts playing with increasing force and distorted guitar whines in. The song explodes on the force of Maginn’s booming, rhythmic bassline. The clean, sliding guitar strings are gone–in their place is the sheen of jagged splashes of distorted reverberation, reverberation that solidifies into distorted knots of mid-range lead, which disappear on a drum hit.
Stripped back to the melody of Maginn’s entrance, Kasher is quiet again, but the majority of the melody is in the newfound cello of Gretta Cohn, which rises to the speeding splash of cymbals that “Stops….and bursts under pressure…” All ride, bass-kicks and extremely restricted muted guitar chords chopping in anticipation, Kasher sings quietly: “Let it burst and bloom” and driving slashes of distorted guitar, sawing cello, pounding drums and bass roar out as Ted Stevens joins him in screaming, “Hit song!” “Let it/Burst and bloom!” Kasher yells over and over to the song’s end.

After the release of “Sink to the Beat”, we’re given reprieve in the opening moments of “The Great Decay”: forward-leaning rapid picks at single muted strings hum with potential energy, released in distorted, loud, but subdued versions of the lick, Schnase picking up a peculiar alternation of snare and bass that jerks at the song like a twitching puppeteer. “This is the bed that I have made”, Kasher cries out suddenly in punctuated monosyllables, Stevens responding, “This is the grave where I will lay,” in kind, letting Kasher finish: “These are the hands where I will bury my face”. Another set of traded lines is followed by the monotone stutter of guitar riffs and then Maginn’s bass in prominent place below a quieted Kasher, who opens his throat again before the line even ends. Cohn’s cello rides in an interesting place for a band that alternates loud and quiet like this–it’s not the sound of quiet, clean, acoustic moments, nor a simplistic expansion of the distorted guitars, it’s another thread in the overall sound, moving through the first portion of loud distortion. “Give in, give in, give up!” Stevens and Kasher scream as if coming to either climax or abrupt end, but the song continues naturally, melding the unexpected melodiousness (relatively speaking) of Kasher’s harsh voice and the crunch and dissonance of his and Stevens’ guitars.
After three minutes, the song seems to stop, but instead its taken up by piano and organ¹, the piano sounding in-room like Clint’s first drum entrance, the organ sustained on all notes and caught between the sound of a church and Vincent Price movie, electronic sounds wiggling and warping their subtle way in around the two, gradually increasing to a mild cacophony (if that’s possible) of tuning strings, squeaks and creaks.

“Tall Tales, Telltales” builds from the same sounds “The Great Decay” ended with, guitars creeping in with slightly demented singular notes that gain a palm’s mute when Clint begins to pound fervently at his snare, a near-martial sound that slowly works a bass-kick into itself. “Now and again you’ll remember the sound/Of the sails waving helplessly”, sings Kasher, and it feels like the rise of snare, cello and guitar now sounds like maybe it’s the sway and rock of a ship, threatening to completely escape a sailor’s control. The cello breaks away, mournful, and the guitars crumble, splinter and spike, increasingly distraught but calming momentarily as if broken by waves. “But they send you no sign/Hold on sailor, hold on brother/Steady the vessel” Kasher begins to sing passionately, his voice wrapping itself around the commands, as if trying to calm the sailor, though it seems like a command given from the distance of remembrance or observation, rather than direct and intimate contact. Staccato, dramatic pounding of snares and wiry guitars suggest control may soon be lost, building a tension that is eased by the second guitar, until Kasher’s voice returns, now talking about the afterlife, dead reckoning, ghosts–a sense of doom, fate, and inexorable conclusions begins to wash through it, but there’s a release, the chorus falling away slowly to rapid, muted chords, the wandering sheets of feedback, and the fade of everything else–is it relief, and what kind? We’re not too sure.

Side Two starts with “Mothership, Mothership, Do You Read Me?” the fuzzy interference of connected circuits playing across the guitar riffs Matt answers with thick, thumping bass under which Clint’s beat drops to eight notes on the hi-hat. The guitars break free of their riff and work outward from their simple beginnings and introduce Kasher’s voice back to the record, everyone continuing on their path but now joined by Cohn, whose cello slips between them to draw low notes that ache from out of the guts of the song itself. When the next lines start (“Your starving – it’s burning for the nutrient it can’t have…”), they are ended with a clatter of strikes at guitars, jarring in the otherwise light backing.  Stevens whispers his line: “Calling out to homebase, do you read me?” Kasher continues as quiet, “Emergency: we’re floating endlessly”, and Clint’s snares pound the song back up to volume.
“You’ve been created severed from life and limb/Stranded an infant/On the front step of the universe” Kasher and Stevens sing out together, and then the song shifts into a sort of cruising territory, with a delightful flourish of a hammer-on on the guitar that ends easily on Kasher’s word: “Now lost–Forever.” Schnase gallops to the zig zagged guitars, Cohn comes in with a cello part that could easily have sounded pasted in, playing such a different melody, but instead fits perfectly into a space no one else occupies, and leaves Kasher and Stevens calling out from their astral abandonment: “Mothership, mothership, do you read me?” “Does anyone…” Kasher continues, then whispers “…hear my siren song? Maybe I’ll be rescued before too long”. His efforts to be heard (“Calling out to homebase one last time”) are countered by the response of Stevens (“The signal faded out the ship is gone”), and we find ourselves back at the chorus (“You’ve been created…”). Continuing as it did before, Tim screams the final words: “Now lost–FOR-E-VER!” and the climax holds its volume and energy clattering and crashing to a sudden stop.

The last minute of the song is a rumble of bass set to a rapid drum machine, and the brittle pulls of a rapidly picked guitar, the drum machine credited to A.J. Mogis, Kasher’s words garbled and watery and incomprehensible. While it’s coded as part of the song on the CD, the distinct pause leaves the grooves implying almost a separate “interlude” of a track on the vinyl.

“Fairy Tales Tell Tales” starts with immediate drama, Clint bearing down on his toms as Ted and Tim scratch upward at their guitars. “Let’s pretend we’re not needy…” Kasher sings over nothing but hi-hat and Matt’s rumbling bass pulse, though his words are stressed by forceful punctuation from snare and distorted guitar. Those drums nearly disappear from the next lines, though the picking of guitar strings now joins him, and the guitar and snare return. Cohn enters with rueful strings, the emotion of her cello enhanced by the rock instruments “Low lives hiding in dives/There’s no feeling drinking, sleeping with strangers”, Kasher sings and the instruments crash together, Clint now bashing at drums and cymbals, guitars peeling out slicked screeches of chords, yanking back at reins momentarily. Cohn’s cello does not leave for a moment, but finds itself spotlighted with only Maginn’s guitar and the cold, cave-echo of Kasher’s quieted voice. Clint rejoins her with the propulsive pounding of toms that brings the song back to its sonic apex in volume and power. Kasher’s words vacillate between fatalistic depression, vague misanthropy, and the strangled despair of desperate pleas for some chance and hope beyond this. “So who is it that whispers in your ear?” whispers Kasher, guitars, drums and bass answering loudly with the dramatic riff they’d not yet had time to forget, “A haunting voice blows in through the window…” he continues, and the instruments do not hesitate in again blasting out a response. Kasher sings on, but the instruments drop away as he begins the line, “A needy, pleading apparation”, only a fuzzy, periodic guitar riff staying with him, and his voice and the band explode: “Crying, ‘Who am I if I’m alone? I hardly exist at all/Let’s pretend that we don’t need anything anymore from anyone./I don’t want to feel anything anymore – Let’s just pretend.'” And then it closes, brilliantly:
The band crushes down at their now-familiar riff, and “We’ll live,” he sings hopefully alone, the splash of colour that is that riff answers, “Happily,” and as it returns to crash down, he finishes–“Ever after.”

Cursive occupies a lovely spot in music, for me. I was suddenly stricken by how much they remind me of other bands in the hardcore-inflected wave of “emo” in the late 90s, the kind that tends to be more abrasive, aggressive and post-hardcore in sound–particularly heard in another band I do very much love: Piebald. There’s a sort of shared oddity to the two: Tim Kasher and Travis Shettell (Piebald’s primary vocalist) are both quite limited singers with respect to clear ranges, but both use the stretches and cracks of that limitation to wonderful effect. Similarly, they both started from a rather more basic song structure that diversified and changed over time. Of course, Piebald ended up going in a very different direction eventually, but there’s an interesting intersection somewhere around this time.

Kasher has readily woven the lyrics of this EP into a unified whole, though with neat enough movements that it can easily be split into separate components. “Sink to the Beat” inserts personal emotion into the more concrete action of songwriting, and the calculated movements of marketing that action into a career–his intentions, his reactions, his attempts to control and failures to do so. “The Great Decay” follows a thread of this, the loss of identity and the wasted time in a world that drains both, amounting to less than is expected or intended–much as intentions in songwriting may be lost, subverted or wrested away by the moment. “Tall Tales, Telltales” shifts it into metaphorical grounds–a sailor at see attempting to maintain a vessel’s course through storm, pondering absently the thought of being “lost beneath/a substance so dark, yet elementary”, and then passes the thought immediately to keep at the standing needs of the ship. “Mothership, Mothership, Do You Read Me?” is another kind of ship–a spaceship, of course–abandoning a crew member, and navels and “your mother’s loving grasp” melding it into more personal abandonments and losses. “Fairy Tales Tell Tales” is nothing but attempting to make something of a relationship when it feels as though such a thing is inherently impossible, that pretense is a necessity for it to work, pleading to the other to take this route, to keep sense and meaning in life.

There’s an overwhelming sense of inevitability in this, but it’s contrasted with the boom and crash of music that plays beauty and melody in, against, and even with dissonance, harsh sounds and abrasive moments and instruments–there’s hope, heavily oppressed by that feeling of inescapable failure, but hope nonetheless, stretching out a hand and begging for relief from this, believing it’s possible but unlikely to reach. It would be depressing, but for the fact that that hope seems to be consistent, lasting and determined, even in desperation.

I am glad I went with this EP–it hits something different from what I remember of Happy Hollow or The Ugly Organ (the two albums I’ve heard most), striking me as more personal and bare than either is, more intense in that sense, if not the musical one.

  • Next Up: Darkest Hour – ?

¹The album contains no specific credits, so it’s easy to place the band’s members into the roles of their primary instruments (and identifiable voices), but the less commonly used instruments–your guess is as good as mine. If your guess is better, I’m guessing it’s not a guess.


Day Thirty-One: Burning Airlines – Identikit

Arctic Rodeo Recordings ■ ARR044

Released May 8, 2001¹
Recorded by John Agnello with Jake Mossman; J. Robbins and Burning airlines
Mixed by John Agnello with J. Robbins, Mike Harbin, and Peter Moffett
Mastered by Alan douches
¹This expanded vinyl released 11/16/2012

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Outside the Aviary
  2. Morricone Dancehall
  3. A Lexicon
  4. The Deluxe War Baby
  5. A Song with No Words
  6. All Sincerity
  7. The Surgeon’s House
  8. Everything Here Is New
  1. Paper Crowns
  2. Blind Trial
  3. Identikit
  4. Tastykake
  5. Earthbound
  6. Election-Night Special
  7. Dear Hilary
  8. Action
Track listing note: many of the tracks are shuffled from their listed order, but the above is the order in which they actually play. “The Deluxe War Baby” is shifted to its place above from being listed between “The Surgeon’s House” and “Everything Here Is New”. “Election-Night Special” is listed between “Identikit” and “Tastykake”. The lyrics are also printed in this written order, not the order in which they play.
Out of all the polls I’ve run, I had a feeling (much like I suspected March on Electric Children would be the least acknowledged entry so far) Burning Airlines would be the most “difficult” vote to squeeze out. I pushed pretty hard on the Boomtown Rats, but I sort of gave up with Burning Airlines. Most people I know are in the wrong music generation (regardless of their actual age) and/or scene to know Burning Airlines, and I know that is the one thing that really makes people reluctant to throw out a vote. I decided to get around this in a sneaky and vaguely ridiculous way: I actually asked J. Robbins (check those credits up top) and Peter Moffett if there was an album they’d prefer me to write on. Mr. Robbins’s been nothing but kind with my intermittent fawning and questions, and said very nice things about my writing on his previous band, Jawbox. On this he suggested I flip a coin to pick the album, and that he’d be happy I was writing about either, which I can understand and respect–there’s going to be plenty tied up in these for someone involved. I asked Mr. Moffett a bit more privately, and didn’t even catch the first notification that he’d actually answered. The response was just a single word: Identikit. It was a relief, in a way; a singular vote from another fan that wandered into my question to J. and voted for Mission: Control! which would have stuck me with another tie and, well, another coin toss, actually. I wanted to have something fresh and different to break this one up, though, and so Mr. Moffett gets a gracious thanks for taking the time to answer me and break the tie–even if it was before there was a tie!
As I mentioned, I wrote a lot about Jawbox on my last blog–or, at least, I wrote one really emphatic entry about them. A commenter (one of very few I ever saw!) suggested I check out J.’s other bands, and started with Burning Airlines (to be fair, they were in chronological order). Of course, in a weird way, it was actually Burning Airlines that inspired the basic level of interest anyway–this was the band that released a split with At the Drive-In after all. But their CDs seemed to be thoroughly out of print: I tried ordering one through my local record stores, and no dice (the other was more blatantly out of print). I put a word in with the record stores that new me and bought used music from customers, but it took months before I finally stumbled into one at Schoolkids in Raleigh, NC. And as my jaw dropped (really), I looked below it to find the other. They were slightly mangled, but fully playable, and I was happy as could be when I walked out of the store that day. I enjoyed the heck out of those albums, and it wasn’t more than a few more months when the release of both albums on vinyl was announced.
While J. has been in demand as a producer and released work with a few more bands, his son Callum has been a large part of where his energy has been focused, even publicly. Callum was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) and the medical bills related to this are not the kind that are easy to deal with, so the vinyl release was announced as partly being another fundraiser for that reason. Between the excitement of the announcement–as well as the news that bonus tracks would be included–and the fact that part of each sale was going to help Callum, it was kind of a no-brainer to order up. Still, I was basically broke–between jobs, to some extent–so I worked out an advance Christmas present order from my parents to make sure I could get my hands on both, worried as I was about them disappearing.
I haven’t listened to them much, purely because they’re at the beginning of the alphabet, and I knew I’d get here soon (and that doesn’t mean I didn’t listen to the original CDs, my digital copies, my digital copies of related tracks, or the included expanded CDs!). I selected the colouring of this one out of the three available, much as I did with Mission: Control!, and settled on the colour I just didn’t have in my collection yet–the blue and white swirl. The availability of the two records from Arctic Rodeo themselves hints at something that surprised me in the album selection: Mission: Control! is the sold out album, was the first one I was told to listen to, and was the one voted for by a fan (outside the poll). It makes it interesting, then, that both Mr. Moffett and two people who did vote picked it in the end. It’s a happy sort of occurrence that I like for the very fact of its unexpected nature.
Arctic Rodeo packed the record in a resealable plastic sleeve, with the record in a plain white paper sleeve outside the actual cover to keep it from being split in transit–a nice bit of care that not even used sellers often bother with. They also allow for colour selection (though the red/black is all that’s left of Identikit, or with them at all from the band), which Dischord (the U.S. label that originally released the first two Jawbox albums, as well as the LPs from Channels and Office of Future Plans, both of them J. Robbins projects) does not provide, though they still have stock of both albums. Eventually, some more of their releases should be showing up in this blog, once they arrive (the label is in Germany, and has a smaller staff, but are very good about what they do).
Now, I said that Mission: Control! was the album that was singled out as good when I first picked up both Burning Airlines albums, but I picked up both of them at the same time. There was no intermediary period where I only had one to wear in before I heard the other, which I think is a decent part of what keeps that impression burning with fans. I mean, when an album opens with a song like “Outside the Aviary”, it’s difficult to see what anyone could see as lacking. J.’s voice comes in immediately, aggressive but not angry in sound, “Now clarity lost out to desire, and I married the madness in her eyes”, riffing rapidly behind himself on guitar in a way that brings melody but leaves the focus on voice and words. A wild bursting slide brings Moffett’s “membranophones and idiophones” in on a fill, with Harbin blurring into the background just a bit, until J.’s riffing slips down to a much quieter lick, one with a downward turn that puts that kick into the song that let’s you know it’s not like every other song you’ve heard, but is so completely organic as a move that it isn’t at all a gimmick just to be unique. Moffett doesn’t let up at all, though, rocksteady and pounding along on a seemingly simple beat, as Harbin rumbles up and down, taking control of the instrumental melody behind J.’s voice, which is suddenly harmonized by Moffett in a very pretty way, who suddenly takes off with a fill that launches the song into the air: J.’s voice regains an edge as Moffett adds a lovely series of “Woo-oo”s that would seem weird in a song like this–especially coming out of a drummer this emphatic–if they weren’t somehow just right anyway. There’s a fantastically rapid series of kicks from him as J. and Peter launch into an alternating repetition of the song’s title, before a halting beat and riffs end the song suddenly. 
“Morricone Dancehall” has a guitar sound at open that is bent just off clear and keyed, giving it a metallic edge, like two strings wobbling toward each other as a guitar is tuned, but stopping short of actually reaching the same note. Moffett enters underneath, with a much more peculiar beat than “Outside the Aviary”, that blends in a delightful way into Harbin’s burbling bassline, the both seeming to intertwine as they both hit their lowest pitches. “Damned!” J. suddenly interjects, “Is this the body you were last found living in? What you bury has a way of blossoming, all that bitterness in bloom on your skin,” his words furiously running into each other, but unslurred, though there’s just a hint that his voice is coming from a distance or through a muffling like a microphone. The guitar is no longer riffing and clanging metallically, but quavering in slightly dissonant waves. The original sound returns though, for a much more ominous bridge where Moffett joins Robbins: “And all the aces are wired, and all the forces conspire in this brutal bed” that suddenly turns to a sneer from them both: “Without the body there is no crime”. After running through this chorus a second time, a wandering series of notes ended with chords is backed by a wonderfully smooth, looping sort of bassline from Harbin. 
Staccato riffs that hold the same note for four beats at a time open “A Lexicon”, before Harbin hesitantly enters, the bass only marking a bit more time than the guitar. When Moffett enters, the stiffness of the song is suddenly released with a beat that almost shifts it toward a danceable sort of groove, a neat trick when it happens, made that much more impressive by the way that it plays with and against Harbin’s half-rhythmic, half-melodic bassline. J.’s riffing doubles then builds with Moffett, and then drops away to clean, clear single-picked guitar notes. But then both the stiff, nearly monotonic guitar and the dancing drum turn to a sound that feels more like the sound you’d expect from a rock band, despite never making apparent that it was going to turn “normal” for any reason.
The song the band contributed to the At the Drive-In split was “The Deluxe War Baby”, which appears next on the record, built on a partly muted guitar lick that lollops along with the bass to give it almost the sense of a Western-y, cowboy-type sound, until Moffett’s wild drumming carries them all into a more fully ranged period of the song that also sends Robbins’s voice up into its heights. The whole thing swings, but not swing like a swing band, more like a pendulum with a groove to its arc, bobbing just slightly, moving forward instead of standing in place. Not a song to sneeze at, and a perfectly reasonable selection for inclusion on a release usually intended to function as representative (as with Jawbox, the version appearing on the split is a different recording, so far as I can tell).
“A Song with No Words” is nothing of the kind, as J. even opens the song singing, “Here are some words…” but it most certainly could’ve survived even as an instrumental. A dissonantly melodic (yeah, figure that one out–it’s a Robbins specialty, though) opens the song, scrabbling along the strings but never losing a moment as it shifts in pitch. It disappears in favour of letting Moffett lay down a short, sharp rhythm that seems to keep the rhythm on the hi-hat (and the occasional “thing that goes ting-a-ling”, as well as the one that goes “plink”²) separate from the drum and kick. Mike is again playing a chopped up bassline, but this one sounds like going up and down a few stairs at a time, then pausing to consider. It’s the heartbeat of the song, as both J. and Peter are wandering in far more directions on either end of it. It’s a slower, more relaxed song as compared to the prior ones, and that opening lick is just fantastic.
I don’t know where J. gets to find all the cool drummers, but he seems to do so anyway. I spent a lot of my writing about Jawbox talking about the mighty Zach Barocas (which I apparently was right to do, in his eyes), and Moffett shines in this band. “All Sincerity” has enough space in it to make this apparent: tiny, wonderfully varied fills litter the song, all adding just a little bit here and there, but a simple listen sounds more like it’s just a nice rock and roll beat. This is also an opportune time to point out that when J. said in his thing with Death Cab’s Chris Walla that he agonizes over lyrics for a long time, it shows: “Let’s clarify this twist/Pin this butterfly kiss/Senseless senses sweetly simplify/We twitch like marionettes in lascivious bliss/Silhouette, silhouette, how black is your heart?” Woof. It’s not the only example on here, but working in a tongue-twisting set of words and that much alliteration without sacrificing sense or simply setting up everything around it is some kind of achievement.
The burn and brush of “The Surgeon’s House” is another highlight: that lick from J. is amazing, the way it leans you back like a friend but has a devilish sort of subtext in tone–the kind that I just cannot wait to hear again every time I hear it. Mike anchors it heavily with a tightly cadenced bassline, and Peter laying down a jazzy beat that’s more cymbal and brush than powerful kick just lets that lick shine like it should. Robbins also works out a much quieter version of his voice than we’ve heard on the album so far, letting the track seem non-threatening until the lick flexes its muscle, eventually beginning to completely overtake everything else, wandering in and out and around itself, Peter backing it with the song’s most forceful drumming. 
Strange electronic noises (I’m voting for “space sounds” by Mike here, though that phrase is subject to lots of interpretation) open “Everything Here Is New”, and a reverberating guitar joins them to create a quirk that turns mysterious. There’s a mist over the track, and what’s under it is unclear–the instruments are apparent (or, at least, clear–those noises are beyond my amateur ear’s ability to place). Harbin’s bass weaves right around Robbins’s voice, which sweeps an arm out to display this world of newness, ghosts, shell games and emptiness to the listener.
I was tempted to completely deadpan the idea that “Paper Crowns” was about a birthday party at a Burger King, but the only concession I’ll make to that idea is admitting it. On the surface, the opening of the song would be normal were it not for the skronking bend that appears at the end of each repetition. Tambourines that echo ’60s pop in sound and rhythm are hiding in here (perhaps that’s what goes “ting-a-ling”?), backing a full-bodied set of vocals from Peter and J. in unison. Peter takes some control for a later bridge, which eases the tempo of the song like an ethereal connector between the beginning and end of the song–and let’s Harbin get in a few notes in the forefront. And then it all spirals off into a glitchy electronic breakdown that kicks us right into “Blind Trial”.
At open, J. is flattened ears and questioning, guitar playing a broken jangle, quiet and muted, and Peter and Mike adding a rhythm section straight out of pop punk–1-2,1-2 drums, steady quarter notes on the bass, and then all of them go somewhere else for the chorus: a tightly wound spring of guitar and a bass free of restraint, drums no longer stuck with just snare-kick-snare-kick, yet all still absolutely controlled. Interestingly, it’s the moment the vocals are most “normal”, a nice, “simple” chorus! And then it starts to breakdwon at its second appearance: “This drug was never approved” J. sings, and the signature changes entirely, stretching and dragging as if the drug in question was affecting the song itself. It finds its feet again, though, regaining its control and returning the original chorus. Then a near drum solo turns to spacey stretching and repetition from J. and Peter’s voices.
Did I say Peter got to shine earlier? Go back and forget that. The opening of the title track is something else. Where you would think to hear a simple roll across toms, there’s an alternating in pitch that means either there’s a very deep tom, or he’s alternating toms and kicks (!)³, usually more the hallmark of long-winded drum solos, but here worked directly into the song as Robbins and Harbin join on top of it. The ringing harmonic-style sound J. uses heavily in Burning Airlines is heavy here. The chorus is almost a “breakdown”–driving, rhythmic riffing and pounding drums define the beat absolutely explicitly.
“Tastykake” is interesting: Harbin’s bass is the only instrument that sounds normal. Moffett gets to open another track with a thump-skitter sort of beat that turns to a rapid, wild solo, but sounds vaguely deadened, as does the hanging distorted effect of Robbins’ guitar. Quiet and warm, J. sings an opening line that I can only suspect refers to his wife, but could just coincidentally name someone with the same first name. Still, the song seems to have a sense that that’s the sort of relationship it would be directed at in some respects. It feels as if the instruments are crushed into a small box as it opens, but opens up when Moffett adds a shaker to his rhythms, and J,’s guitar widens its own sound, his voice opening up, too. 
Often an appropriate choice for latter ends of albums, J. sings with acoustic guitar on “Earthbound”, a thumping low string creating the only audible rhythmic anchor. The guitar has a similar “crushed” sound to “Tastykake”–a deliberately off, simple, rough recording. A wobble snakes in and out of the part, but J.s vocals, especially when joined by Peter on the chorus, are clear and pretty. 
“Election-Night Special” is the low-end gravity of the album: thumping bass, kicks and even low end riffs drive the whole thing (my inexpert ear even suspects there might be some down-tuning at play here). It’s almost fragmentary in its appearance: it’s only 2 minutes, and opens with the crescendoing snare hits that a fair number of songs do, and when it cuts off, feels more abrupt than sudden, despite no cuts in the actual playing.
Another song with multiple recordings and appearances, “Dear Hilary” is a cover (of sorts) of the band Metroschifter, and also appears on the “Metroschifter” album Encapsulated (it’s actually their then-new album, only it’s recorded by bands they chose–clever idea, really). The band worked from a demo outline to create the song. It’s a smart choice for the final song (bear with me, now, if you’re looking at the tracklist), as it’s the work of the band, but is very much not the style they’ve displayed elsewhere in the album. A clean, haunting guitar finger-picking is the core of the song, eventually doubled, then later backed with almost pure-cymbal “drums”, but for a falling set of tom beats repeated intermittently. Harbin anchors, and J. and Peter’s voices join together, the closest the song comes to aggression. J. finally repeats the opening line and throws himself at it: “Dear Hilary, how many years has it been/Since you were going off to college and you wrote me a letter?” It closes with the kind of line and sound that just hangs in the air afterward: “The hardest thing about opening up to someone is putting so much power in their hands.”
However, I mentioned this album is expanded. It now closes with a cover of Sweet’s “Action”, which the band plays quite straightforwardly–and who can blame them? This kind of infectious glam rock is just fun, and I have little doubt it’s also quite fun to play. The solo J. peels off is more in line with the kind that fits the song–not that I’m going to pretend to be familiar with the original version of “Sweet”, and it’d be disingenuous to run out now and try to compare them quickly as I write. It feels like a bonus track, in the sense of a hidden one–like the kind of thing that would “hide” at the end, instead of being right out there. A delightful addition, really.
I thanked Peter Moffett earlier for nudging me into a final decision regarding albums, but I should also thank J. Robbins who was kind enough to satisfy my pedantic desires and tell me that “Action” was actually recorded for the Japanese release of this album–as well as commenting on my Jawbox entry, and answering my request for a decision on this topic, too (even if his answer was to not choose one!). If I sound overly chummy, I don’t mean to; I just send him electronic questions here and there when I can stop fidgeting and worrying over it long enough to bite the bullet and accept that I might be obnoxious in doing so. 
Regardless, when I wrote about Big Star, I mentioned that there was actually one band I’d demand people listen to before I did Big Star, and only as relates to the comparative familiarity of the world at large. Then backpedaled a bit. That’s because I don’t have Jawbox or For Your Own Special Sweetheart on vinyl, which I think I mentioned. I’ve only got a lone single (“Absenter” b/w “Chinese Fork Tie”). If pressed, though, this is the band I’d tell people they need to hear. J.’s style on a guitar manages to simultaneously cover strange, alien, atonal, dissonant, and catchy, melodic, and irresistible. Moffett and Harbin don’t leave the band’s sound anemic outside of the most established musical voice, either, and neither fail to live up to his work, nor sit flaccid in the back and pound out boring tripe, instead adding equal and interesting parts to create a still unique sound.
One of the most bizarre things I ever read was the series of negative reviews for their two albums on Amazon that complained that they sounded like new albums from Jawbox. Why this was something to complain about is entirely beyond me–and it wasn’t even, contextually, something those reviewers saw as bad. Not even repetition–actual evolution. It boggles the mind even now. I’d kill (hyperbole, of course) for new Jawbox–to find an evolution of that sound was…indescribable. There are so many bands and sounds I wish I could get more of, instead of complete disappearance or lackluster retread. Here we have a band that actually is distinctly different, even as it ties backward. Burning Airlines have a more “upbeat” sound to them than the latter half of Jawbox: wiry tension, aggression, or semi-morose tones defined a lot of that band’s latter work. Not in a bad way (if it was a bad way, Jawbox would not be one of those albums that somehow worms its way into my regular listening all the bloody time), but in a way that just felt a part of the sound.
Burning Airlines may not be quite cheerful, I suppose, but it’s almost like melding the crashes, bangs, and clatters of Jawbox back into a more pop-like format (which should never be considered or taken as an insult, for the record, which I think my collection will show increasingly). The harmonic leanings–most definitively apparent in Mission: Control!‘s “Scissoring” even give J. a different feeling in this band.
I guess the end result is: don’t complain about good things. And certainly don’t complain about amazing things that you almost never get.
²It’s a triangle. But that’s one of the things he’s credited with on the album, alongside things that go “plonk” and “plink”–the latter I decided were the claves in “A Song with No Words”, but onomatopoeia can, oddly, mean different sounds to people. Oh, yes: also membranophones and ideophones. IE, his brand-conscious “blue drums and shiny cymbals”. Yeah, I really read all of the liner notes. An amusing parallel to J. and Mike’s usage of Schecter Guitars–“blue drums and shiny cymbals”. Ha!
³I apologize profusely to drummers who know things, including Peter Moffett himself. I’m not a drummer, I can only describe the sounds I hear–I’m not going to swear if I’m not pretty darn sure, just try to associate the sounds enough that it might make sense to someone else.
  • Next Up: Kate Bush – ?

Day Twenty-Five: The Blood Brothers – March on Electric Children

Erika Records¹ ■ ER2005

Released February 25, 2002
Produced by Matt B[ayles] and the Blood Brothers
Engineered by Matt B[ayles] (with assistance from Troy T.)
Mastered by Ed B.
¹Licensed from Three-One-G Records

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Birth Skin/Death Leather
  2. Meet Me at the Water Front after the Social
  3. March on Electric Children!
  4. New York Slave
  1. Kiss of the Octopus
  2. Siamese Gun
  3. Mr. Electric Ocean
  4. Junkyard J. Vs. the Skin Army Girlz/High Fives/LA Hives
  5. American Vultures

While I know people who frustratingly cannot seem to get a handle on entire genres like rap or metal, and, like me listening when I was younger, often take that almost as an out-of-hand, automatic cancellation of any interest in listening, there’s another barrier that’s more extreme and more difficult to deal with. There are some artists out there who get the words “difficult” and “uncompromising” thrown at them in an effort to appeal to those who see those as alluring, and sometimes as a means of quiet warning. Anyone who doesn’t already know this band, but knows me is probably filled with dread already. But the object here isn’t to scare people off–certainly, the idea of warning is one I am working with, but I own all the records I own out of interest, and most out of appreciation (and interest is generally just the predecessor of appreciation). I can’t go out blaring records at anyone and everyone, and records in particular are kind of inherently a home-listening format these days. I obviously have friends with turntables, but not many, and not many I visit and hang around the homes of. So, with all that in mind: this wasn’t an album I picked up because it means people will think or hear X, Y, or Z. I picked it up (three times now: the remastered CD from Epitaph, the original CD release from Three One G, and this picture disc) because I like the band and I like their sound–even if, yes, it’s going to be (extremely) grating to some people.

March on Electric Children is the second album The Blood Brothers released, following This Adultery Is Ripe (the only one of their albums not to receive the remastering/reissuing/expanding treatment). Some confuse Rumors Laid Waste for an album, but, of course, it’s actually a collection of their earliest 7″s, splits, unreleased, and compilation tracks. After this, they would hop labels again (this time to Second Nature Recordings), and then again (to V2 Records, who released both of their last albums). They gradually separated out their sound as time went on, from a blur of extremely hardcore-inflected origins into the aggressive but catchier sound of Crimes and Young Machetes.

Unlike some albums of the more abrasive variety, there’s not much confusion with the way the album starts: “Birth Skin/Death Leather” is semi-distant yelled vocals, a short drum beat, circling guitars–eventually expanding to add bass and expand the drums, adding a second vocalist. The distortion of the guitars and the wall of noise fades back to a guitar sound only slightly distant, but skeletal and unusual, though with bouncing bassline underneath it. Riffs open the song back up, thick slashes up and down, but dropping back to a rattling guitar with an insistent bassline that backs “Oh yeah, oh yeah!” from the second vocalist (Johnny Whitney).

“Meet Me at the Water Front after the Social” is a blur on all sides when it starts: the drums running miles ahead of the streaks of blurring guitar, climbing and then running sideways, the introduction of bass shows us the song proper, where each line of the verse is answered with part of the title (“At the waterfront after the social”) on clean guitars over bouncing bass. Cody Votolato’s playing seems like his guitar cannot make up its mind where to go–except that it stops at a moment’s notice to shift into clean, or join the rest of the instruments in pausing. Johnny and the first vocalist we heard (Jordan Blilie) trade lines, answering with the title at the beginning in unison, later repeating each other’s lines after them.

The title track hums with a dancing set of guitar notes that sounds like a cloud of insects, buzzing over the song, even after Jordan, Johnny, drummer Mark Gajadhar, and bassist Morgan Henderson enter. Mark’s drumming hits beats all over the place, as if he can face one direction for no more than a single hit. Morgan thumps only on beat, but pushes a few notes into each burst. Jordan and Johnny trade raspy yells of “Yeah!” in a rise of blurring noise until Cody is left alone to strike out short spurts of guitar alone, which are shortly joined by Mark’s intermittent bassline from earlier. “Boys, girls, suit up–” Johnny sings, “Let’s go!” Jordan yells alongside him, then takes off by himself, speaking lines over a burbling bassline and skittering, palm-muted guitar from Cody, occasionally backed by “Come on, come on, come on!” from Cody to the left and in the distance. The song opens up again, Morgan not pausing for a moment, and the sound of a pick sliding up and down a distorted neck faintly heard over a crush of riffs. Drum rolls and thorns of guitar let Johnny sing a few lines alone, a second repetition expanding Mark’s roll and adding Morgan thudding along below. Cody brings Jordan back with a spray of guitar that turns to riffs held to for a moment, then slid up or down the nect to be held at a new note. “March on, Skin Army soldiers!” the boys yell to close out the song.

With a beat that seems ready for a full hardcore song, Mark opens “New York Slave” with Cody playing a repeated riff that is just enough slower to sound as if it’s moving at a much slower pace, though still quite rapid, even as it backs down to the skeleton of sound that marks the cleaner sound he uses. A brief splash announces the arrival of Whitney and Blilie, and an electronic wash answers their first lines, Mark unrelenting, and Morgan only entering after a moment, as he matches Cody for less constant sound, Johnny singing alone with camp levels of vocal affectation. Jordan gets one of his few moments to just act as the less intelligible or simplistic backer, but the song takes right back off and gives Jordan the spotlight after this, Cody driving with the insistent and repeated riff that opens the song. It seems to joltingly start and stop at the behest of Morgan, though Mark’s relentless energy is met only with Cody’s spidery guitar for a moment, as Mark finally releases his stranglehold on speed, the tempo only a quarter of what it was: Morgan’s bass pulses below Jordan’s dark, discomforting description of a wedding: “The priest’s tongue slips out like a jackal/Every eye in the audience spinning like a drill/The groom plucks a key from the rapture tree/And opens her ribcage like a squealing armoire/Her lungs and liver screaming mercy mercy mercy/While they rearrange the wires in her heart/I now pronounce you smiling like a grave/I now pronounce you a New York Slave!” The last four words are left to be heard alone, as the song enters a sort of breakdown, everyone pounding out the beat, Johnny and Jordan swirling around each other and calling out the title of the song.

Let me pause for a moment as we end side one: this has been a total of ten minutes of music. The slow petering out of side one on vinyl is like a sudden gulp of air, like the fade, not of indiscernible noise, but that of relief from an oppressively dark, nihilistic sensibility that is somehow matched to music that is both appropriately aggressive and jagged, but also catchy and acerbic enough to avoid being absolutely depressing. Should anyone doubt the complexity of this band’s music–I was left with the urge, repeatedly, to give up on trying to describe the sounds I heard. It’s absurd to try to keep up, as they do not let up for a moment–even when there are brief moments like the slowed pace moments of “New York Slave”, they are long for their context but brief in totality. It’s breath-taking less like a moment that makes you gasp or forget you are supposed to breathe, and more like you are fighting for your breaths.

Side Two opens with “Kiss of the Octopus”, which has some of my favourite language in the album: “And the swarm of winged octopi/Fly out under the lid/Of the star studded sky singing/The flock of grinning octopi drop like tears from a varicose thigh singing…”. But the song opens with the vocal call-and-answer that tells you this is going to be one of the strange earworms of the album: “Do you wanna live forever baby? (Fuck yeah!)”–Johnny sings the line, and he and Jordan both answer it, and then they trade. A sample of “The Perfect Drug” and the vibrations of a single guitar note, running in tight repetition to sound like almost like it is just held, but with the modulations that signal it is being picked rapidly, despite not changing. After they sing those first lines I quoted, the song finds more space, but uses it for the disjointed, start-stop drumbeats of Gadjadhar and riffing of Votolato. Cody turns his riff inside out and elongates it, ending it with a slide up into dissonant notes, and the sound is thickened by Morgan’s entrance. Another vocal hook comes in: “Tug, tug, tug/The beard of the octopus/Lick, lick, lick/The kiss of the octopus”, Cody fades out, as does Morgan and then it is just Johnny singing (with Jordan operating much lower) the link to a third hook: “Sweet serum to devour the hours/Sweet serum to sweeten the sour”. The original hook returns, with the monotonic guitar note, Morgan defining the melody, and then jittering, echoed guitar turns the “Sweet serum” hook in another direction, the song gradually gaining chaotic variations that spill over and through each other as the song jumps between them after holding each for only moments, before holding to repetition of one to close out the song.

The western-tinged (!) lick that seems to be three or four times to fast for the sound it evokes, matched by a similar rapidity from Morgan’s bass, held in place by the rim-oriented playing of Gajadhar opens “Siamese Gun”, a song that reminds (in a very, very weird way) of Pink Floyd’s “The Trial”, especially as animated by Gerald Scarfe: dark, cynical, railroading–naturally, exhibited in a trial format. Jordan and Johnny start off in the song over this instrumentation unchanged, but when they start to repeat “Order (Yeah!)/Order (Yeah!)/Order in the court!”, Mark begins to move away from the rim and to the head of his snare, building to the riffing and more normal bass and drum that back the chorus: “Clik clik bang bang/Kiss the Siamese Gun”, which is incredibly catchy, and backs into the brittle, separated sound of the drum-driven, spare guitar sound that backs the most yell-like vocals of Whitney and Blilie, though the sudden bottom end of Morgan’s re entrance on this hyponotic monotone repetition, gives it the weight of a breakdown, and Cody’s guitar now fills the spaces it cut short between riffs previously. But then only brief, distant whines of guitar, intermittent bass and consistent drums back Jordan and Johnny as they become child-like and much quieter in singing, everything pausing for one breath before jumping back into the breakdown-styled riffing. An upward shift in tempo–simple and repeated drum and guitar with their vocals is suddenly cut short for an electronic hum. And then we’re back to the original western-tinged riff, the call for order, and we get to hear the phrase “piano island” that permeates their work (a song title on their first album, the title of the next album). The song explodes again, calling “Let the execution begin!”, and again we hear the catchiest hook: “Clik clik bang bang…” and they repeat “Kiss the Siamese Gun” until Jordan ends the song with the final lines: “You’re on your knees/Choking on the barrel of the Siamese Gun.”

“Mr. Electric Ocean” is the character that opens the album by name in “Birth Skin/Death Leather”, but is now the focus of an entire song. The electric ocean, it should not surprise you to learn, is the personification of electric media and the sheer breadth and depth of its influence and ability to envelop. Dry drum hits and then a jolting bass and guitar repetition start the song, seeming to push toward the most aggressive moments as the verse continues, Morgan’s bass driving, but we are suddenly starting us back at zero, the second run turning to an electronic noise that whirls upward and sets the song off completely, with everyone at full speed and volume, walling off the rest, with only a brief ring from Votolato’s guitar letting the song turn back to its initial approach, this time shifting from it to an almost (almost, mind you) relaxed sound, Johnny tossing his words out casually over an eased riff from Cody. It has the interesting effect of letting the return of full distortion not seem quite so loud or aggressive. But then it breaks for a peculiar guitar lead that wanders up and down the lowest strings casually, Jordan and Johnny carrying the song to a final yelling crescendo.

Bass thumps at the opening of “Junkyard J. vs. the Skin Army Girlz/High Fives/LA Hives”, Jordan speaking quietly with a half-singing approach, transitioning to Johnny’s singing style and the addition of Cody’s confused and seemingly distracted guitar. It opens up and Cody’s attention spans in as the two vocalists scream out the central vocal lines. Cody’s guitar begins hopping and playing around the neck as Jordan informs us we’ve moved to the “High Fives/LA Hives” portion, only to reintroduce Johnny and the original song. A midpoint is defined by a sort of chaos, some instruments sliding to a stop, others attempting to continue, Johnny and Jordan tripping over each other, but electronic noise and the slowed riffs of Votolato break the song into a new territory, the distant sound of waves turning Morgan to simple on-beat thudding as Mark thunders onward, Jordan again singing quietly. Keys and hum wash out the last of the song…

Possibly–no, undoubtedly–the most “difficult” song on the album, “American Vultures” acts as a sort of epilogue to the story March on Electric Children tells. Deliberately dissonant piano “chords” and yelling from Johnny and Jordan open the song, before it turns to Johnny playing more expertly–though muddling the final chords of each line as he and Jordan now sing instead of screaming, though still in their normal style. It’s a very odd piano piece–it’s almost like what you might hear from an elementary school play, which is only emphasized by the melody of the chorus, despite its content: “You’re married to the vultures/Ba ba ba ba ba”. There’s a long pause and we hear the second verse, which functions very like the first. They bring themselves back around to the chorus, and then Johnny closes out the song alone with a twist on the melody and a final line. But the final ending is the beginning: Jordan and Johnny screaming over deliberately horrific piano.

I can’t impress upon you quite how unusual and complicated this album is musically. It’s utterly without remorse for anything it does or says, blasting through a short story the band wrote that they say is about lives based entirely in selfish decisions and the negative consequences thereof. Shallowness as hubris permeates every song, as does the moral judgment (and associated intellectual limitation) of the rather large surroundings of the parts of society defined by shallowness, even working in the lascivious, backward, hypocritical desires that drive that moral judgment. There are no real heroes here, nor is there any prayer or hope for a “happy ending”: even if you feel pity for the protagonist–buried as she is in the clouded, stream-of-consciousness-style lyrics–there’s not enough to gather a sense of anything but sighs and shakes of head by the end. Too much awareness and lucidity in those calls of “Fuck yeah!” in response to the idea of “living forever”, no doubt in reference to media immortality. There’s no sense of duping involved, and even a sense that, whatever pain occurs, it was as a result of decisions made for selfish reasons, at best ignorant, but most likely just defiantly so.

I suppose that all sounds pretentious–and, indeed, it’s very difficult to make stream-of-consciousness sound anything but. But something in the way the Blood Brothers did what they did, there’s too much earnest desire for that. Maybe it’s the balance of five voices, or the energy and passion they brought, or maybe they just know how to write stream-of-consciousness more intentionally than the kind of person who attempts to to “mean something”–there’s a feeling of determined nature for metaphors (the reoccurring image of octopi and tentacles) without the feeling that they sat down at a chalkboard and had a meeting about what symbols to use for what ideas, or built from symbols they wanted to use into a whole idea. And when they use dark, disturbing imagery: it’s just that. It’s not where you stifle a chuckle, nor even where you gasp. And yet, somehow, it’s also not uncomfortable, even as it’s discomforting. It’s just macabre.

In the end, it’s a 24-and-a-half minute (!) piece of album that is brittle and piercing at moments and full and angry at others, never seeming forced, not even when it cannot sit still. More is worked in than you would think from 24 minutes, even if you are familiar with earlier hardcore: the material is more complicated than Black Flag ever set out to be in their early days, or certainly than the Misfits did for Earth A.D./Wolfsblood. Which isn’t a knock against either–they weren’t aiming for anything else at that point. But if that gives you the impression you might know what to expect–I can say that those, at least, give you nothing of the kind.

I realize this music is beyond “not for everyone” and very much into a semi-niche, but the band gained a lot more popularity with the albums that followed, which generally built more on the catchy hooks Johnny is capable of vocally, and an expanded range of instrumentation, past the brutal flurry of sound that defines the majority of this release.

Next Up: The Boomtown Rats – ?

Day Eleven: At the Drive-In – Vaya

Fearless Records ■  F040-1

Released July 13, 1999

Recorded and mixed by Mike Major [1,5,7], Alex Newport [2,4], and Justin Leah & Bobby Torres [6]. Tracks 3,6 produced by Sean Cummings

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Rascuache
  2. Proxima Centauri
  3. Ursa Minor
  4. Heliotrope
  1. Metronome Arthritis
  2. 300 MHz
  3. 198d

I originally decided, because I was starting with an artist that had the same split of releases in my collection, that I would leave EPs by the wayside for artists for whom I owned a full length LP. I decided to skip that “rule” on this occasion simply because I know a number of people who are big fans of this band–other than me, I mean. It also tends to come with a love that drives adamant opinions, and occasionally divides. When At the Drive-In broke up in 2001, it was the only time I really noticed or felt the loss of a band–I’d never seen them live (to be honest, even when they reunited ten years later, I did not rush out for the very distant and often festival-based events, either). It also led to the rise of two groups–they’d just released their Nevermind in popularity terms, or maybe just the hint toward it, and that was that–Sparta and the Mars Volta. When I last wrote about them, I was disinclined to make my rather well-known, passionate opinion on that split known. I’m still disinclined: too many times, I’ve seen expressed opinions on this front devolve rapidly into swearing, shouting matches, and insults. It has left me with a bad taste in my mouth a lot of the time as regards all three bands, which does not make me very happy. As a result, I tend to avoid discussing that as much as I can, even if I still occasionally feel the desire to talk about it.

Anyway, let’s set all that aside and look at what, along with Selected Ambient Works 85-92, is one of my most-played records.

At the Drive-In were a band from El Paso, TX that shifted in shape and sound a lot over the years. They started off with a handful of EPs (more in the 7″, 3-5 song variety) like Hell Paso and ¡Alfaro Vive, Carajo!, but moved on to release the full length albums Acrobatic Tenement (plagued by recording as an unintended clean-guitar release, due to confusion about rehearsal sessions) and In/Casino/Out (the full length I actually own on vinyl). Vaya followed all of these, and was the last major release before their semi-major label debut, Relationship of Command in 2000.

The wiki article on the release mentions the sentiment that seems to follow the EP regularly: “The sound of the album bridges the musical gap between In/Casino/Out and their following album, Relationship of Command.” That’s actually a relatively inappropriate declaration for Wikipedia in light of its policies (from what I can see, most of their articles on Wikipedia are actually horribly written, policy-wise, in the same way), but remains rather accurate despite that. The band was thrown various labels, from emo to punk to post-hardcore, with emo (unsurprisingly) receiving the greatest degree of vitriol. Let’s not even get into the problems with attempting to label anything emo in this day and age, and stick with the rather reasonable post-hardcore attribution, which fits well enough not to chafe.

While In/Casino/Out did see the band beginning to play more openly with possibilities beyond the basic rock band instrumentation of their prior recordings, Vaya saw a more emphatic electronic bend added to the works. This is obvious from the beginning of the album–where In/Casino/Out began with “Alpha Centauri”‘s  aggressive guitar riffs, Vaya begins with “Rascuache”, where the guitars act as echoing background flavouring and brief, intermittent strums. The focus is on a thumping electronic beat–not like a dance song, but like a pulsing set of Morse code. Tony Hajjar’s appearance is with tight, light toms, almost as if on bongos, before a quick set of taps on the rim built to by that pulsing beat increasing in speed brings us clean but more persistent guitar from Omar Rodriguez (now known as Omar Rodríguez-López), before a break in Cedric Bixler’s (now known as Cedric Bixler-Zavala) singing that lets Jim Ward¹ come in with a distorted incarnation of that same clean riff. The song eventually falls to an instrumental passage, with Rodriguez noodling about as Ward takes on a simple keyboard riff for texture, with Hajjar and bassist Pall (actually Paul, but credited “Pall” on most of their releases) Hinojos. The song ends with a veritable scream from Bixler as he sings the chorus for the final time, holding the last word until the song stops absolutely short–not cut off, but stopped–“Pacemaker pace yourself/You were slowly clawing your way out”.

“Proxima Centauri” carries things forward with drummer Tony Hajjar’s inexplicably propulsive beat, which seems to trip all over itself yet seem perfectly logical at the same time. Cedric begins to repeat the phrase, “T-Minus, 10 seconds and counting,” as Hinojos rumbles underneath him, until the guitars slide, bend and squeal in and the song builds, exploding with energy when the chorus begins, Cedric moving to his emphatic yell. The song brings back a clean, circling guitar riff reminiscent of the sound they (accidentally) carried on Acrobatic Tenement.

When “Ursa Minor” comes in, the pace is slowed, but the energy does not seem lost. It’s still a burn, but seemingly a more slow one, with partly call and response verses that move toward a tilt-a-whirl bridge that bounces low to high on the guitar, with Omar and Jim singing with Cedric at the beginning of each line until it all breaks after “They will come and get you tonight”, for Jim to whisper, “So I guess this is goodnight”, at which point the chorus itself breaks in and the riffs come along furiously and thickly, with more unified voices. There’s a momentary break, as with many songs on Vaya, that allows for distant, electronically modified voice, similar to the megaphone approach bands occasionally take but resembling more a distant, poor radio signal. The indecisive and constant movement of Omar’s approach to guitar lead into a series of drum rolls under the escalating cries of “Inertia kisses those around me” that drops back into the bridge.

Side One closes with the most frenetic track on the album, “Heliotrope”, which blasts out of the gate, not letting up for a moment, Cedric’s voice seeming to race to keep up, the monstrous riffs backing away in part to let Omar again jump from fret to fret. The bottom falls out as Paul and Tony relax, Omar lazily bending, and light chords ringing clean. A single held note and muted single string picking, rim-and-cymbal-only percussion, and a bass line that is no more than half its prior pace allows Cedric to calmly state, “It’s as if someone raised the price of dying to maximum vend again”, all instrumentation dropping out halfway through the line. It’s a signal, though, and every instrument kicks in again at full speed as soon as he finishes, his line turned to expand: “Turn slowly for maximum vend”.

Side two has some of the longer and more unusual songs on the album, opening with the ominous, lurching rhythm that defines “Metronome Arthritis” (the only song, prior to Relationship of Command, to receive a promotional music video). There’s something sinister about it, though it seems to float off with the hushed instrumentation that backs Cedric’s initial lines: “Strike this match and let loose the oven’s breath/Up the volume that floats with the UHF”. The pounding rhythm and the phasing hiss that opened the song return as Cedric’s volume returns, but it all leave on a suspenseful note, only Paul and Omar noodling and dancing around the chorus: “Quick to the throat in this ink cartridge funeral/Marble caps lock zip code affiliate/You’ve got a run on your pharmaceuticals/You better change it ‘fore the night grows old”. The feeling of criminal activity, paranoia and threat is confirmed and articulated after an isolated series of muted, clean chords brings a cymbal-heavy, staccato section behind Cedric’s full-throated yell: “What if forensics finds the answers/What if they stole my fingerprints/Where did I leave my book of matches/We’ll find you”. It’s the only song on the EP with a fadeout.

“300 Mhz”, like its followup, moves from juxtaposed words, star names and other seemingly impenetrable words to a pair of tracks that looks like alphanumeric soup at first, though it’s not difficult to un-cross one’s eyes and see they obviously aren’t random at all. It’s an odd song in many respects: the semi-megaphone vocals return instead as the focus, but are matched with a low-end heavy song where, like many At the Drive-In tracks, it feels as if the guitar is more a flavouring or accent than defining melodic aspect. A dub-like echo is added to some of Tony’s drumming for only brief moments, furthering the peculiar production choices for the song. The riff the song opens with is like a jagged strike from bottom to top, repeated a few times before that low-end feel to the song asserts its dominance, but it returns to back Jim Ward yelling “Malfunction!” in his strained vocal–there’s no other word, you can hear the effort when Jim does this, and you can see it if you see him perform–that does not last long, but when the song comes back around to it a second time, it does not return to the simmering beat, it turns, instead, to the title, as the jabbing guitars turn to a repeated roar, Cedric semi-ironically screaming out, “Whispered in the ear, three hundred megaherz,” making the pairing of volume and words all the more contradictory as the seemingly whispered phrase receives the greatest emphasis and volume of all. The song eventually falls to guitars let ring, slowing until it finally stops, as do most of the songs, on a dime.

“198d” is one of the handful of “ballad-esque” songs in the At the Drive-In catalogue, built around the insistent, muted keyboard loop from Jim that opens it. It sounds less like the keyboard it is than a distress call floating through space from a non-functional vessel, with a scattered ringing of guitar playing seeming to emphasize an image in this respect. “This is forgiven if the uniform fits/Postponed, at the first showing/This is the tension mold/Of frozen icicles, and it feels like it’s snowing” Cedric sings quietly, before a rising guitar riff brings us to Jim’s cry of “Walk away,” that is answered with Cedric’s plaintive, “Born in hearts, etched in cold.” Cedric whispers over the quietest moment on the record: an even lighter keyboard riff, lightly played guitar notes, all of it bringing us back around to the final words: “Tremors that hold us”, answered with “Nothing bleeds like”, before it circles back to the chorus, fading away with “Born in hearts”, and the instruments’ sounds for once allowed to just ring and fade naturally, away from the pattern of the rest of the album.

I was struck with a peculiar notion, on this, my billionth listen to this record: it’s silly and strange, but at moments it feels almost as if there’s a thematic, near-concept to the record. I don’t mean a strict story, per se, though I could almost hear one in it. Perhaps it was the influence of songs titled after stars and constellations, countdowns, and words like “malfunction”, and phrases like “spacesuit togas” and “Saturn’s rings”–perhaps I’m just ridiculous. It was as if it was about an attempt to colonize by space torn apart by human failings. I’m not one inclined to make any attempt at analyses like this, but the more I listened, the more I was struck by how consistent it seemed to remain. Of course, I’m inclined to think this is purely my justified perception, rather than the intention of the rather stream-of-consciousness lyrics involved. But the echoes of classical culture (“Proxima Centauri” references Caligula, the phrase “E Tu Brute”, togas, “Roman fracture”) that seem to imply a familiar (“space time cliché”) and inevitable betrayal and wresting of leadership, decadence and internal failure. “Ursa Minor” references “sleep apparatus” and new settlements, “permssion to land/all systems go…”–I don’t know, maybe it’s just an attempt to puzzle together things that I’m not able to puzzle together, or maybe it just reflects the kind of words that occur to Cedric. Still, there’s a sense of a mission launched, of infighting and betrayal and paranoia defining an attempt to reach out.

This kind of politics and cynicism isn’t outside the more openly declared lyrical content of At the Drive-In, but it could all be my imagination anyway.

While I have a soft spot for In/Casino/Out, I included a poll to determine the At the Drive-In release specifically because I suspected Vaya would be chosen. In/Casino/Out has varied reasons for my muddled preferences, most of them sentimental or reactionary, instead of respectful and “objective”. But that is often the classification of favourites, isn’t it? How boring would it be for all of us to always like the most well-recorded, well-played, “accurate”, successfully experimental records? Of course, for me: those are the aspects that define Vaya, which is why my opinion remains so muddled. I’ll take either over Relationship of Command, but I only find myself caught between the “best” and my “favourite” records when it comes to these two.

¹I admit to guessing, but from live video of the way they play and familiarity with the way each of them play, I’m making my best guess.

Next Up: At the Gates – Slaughter of the Soul