Sunday, August 23, 2009

Now Scything: Sunn 0))), Eels, Prefuse 73

Sunn 0)))
Monoliths & Dimensions
Score: 5

Monoliths & Dimensions involves a lot of spoken word --- or more precisely, words slowly croaked up from the gullet and dribbled out. It's not a common trait to Sunn 0)))'s work, especially since their standard, downtuned feedback drones recede into the background for six minutes on album opener "Aghartha," effectively granting center stage to the gutteralizing. The voice belongs to Attila Csihar of the black metal band Mayhem, and the second thing Sunn 0))) do in the liner notes, after introducing themselves, is list him and guitarist-percussionist Oren Ambarchi as "key players." The two have worked with founders Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson, in varying combinations, in other bands. In comparison to the somewhat tedious "Aghartha," "Big Church" is attention-grabbing, with a quasi-angelic choir set against the antimatter drones. Each section or set of verses is split up by the kong of tubular bells. Is this heaven vs. hell? Who's winning? Well, Csihar is back for "Hunting & Gathering (Cydonia)," but no angels. Doesn't look good. "Alice" finally retires him and brings in harp, strings, alto flute and French horn, but the potentially intriguing accents they provide are arranged in a way that doesn't make their presence felt until almost the 12-minute mark. Still, we shouldn't put too much weight on Monoliths & Dimensions, because Sunn 0))) are given to experiment. All these developments could very well be expunged before the next album.

Hombre Lobo: 12 Songs of Desire
Score: 6

Meaning "Wolfman" in English, the latest studio album by Eels chronicles feelings primal and wistful, the two almost split squarely into odds and evens. The wistful side is familiar: softly chiming guitar, simple percussion, frontman E's gentle hoarseness. But the primal part is probably where the title springs from, and the band push forth with a comparatively raw approach on songs like "What's a Fella Gotta Do" and the swaggering "Tremendous Dynamite." E unveils a convincing bluster and whoop, assimilating garage-rock characteristics pretty well, although his in-the-red vocals are overdone and showy. You can see this wistful-primal divide as man phase and wolf phase, if you like; and without some fur flying, the groveling might have become tiresome. It's recharging to hit "Fresh Blood" midway through the album, the stalking toms and the wary guitar peeps working with E's measured delivery to wind up the tension for the inevitable release. In true lupine fashion (Howlin' Wolf, Wolfman Jack, Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs), he's just howlin' for his dawlin'.

Prefuse 73
Everything She Touched Turned Ampexian
Score: 7

A mosaic of microtracks built from vocal fragments, percussive loops and brief, manipulated samples, Everything She Touched Turned Ampexian is the fruit of Guillermo Scott Herren's labors with Ampex analog tape. The 29 tracks unfold like channel-surfing dream sequences, but with their internal vignettes, you'd be forgiven for thinking the album held 40 or 50. Though beats and loops tie Ampexian to hip-hop, Herren's approach has more in common with experimental electronic music; he's on Warp, but he'd also be at home on the Ninja Tune label. The melange that Herren draws from was at one point funk, soul, jazz, rock, exotica and electronica, but the genres are so mutated and treated here that they seem more mechanized than human-created. If "Preperation's Kids Choir" was originally kids singing, it's now a helium whine. That might have been a kazoo in "No Lights Still Rock," but it's now the shrill tra-la-las of a robot gone haywire. Ever heard a piano turn into an ice cream truck? You can in "Fountains of Spring."

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Seductive shadows

Depeche Mode
Sounds of the Universe
Score: 8

Ever since 1993, Depeche Mode have been on the four-year plan when it comes to albums, and with Sounds of the Universe, it feels like they've completed a grand circle, returning to the days of Violator. Sleek, lithe and subtle, the album dispenses with the louder, more-spacious sound of 2005's Playing the Angel and indulges in synthesizers and programming. The atmosphere is shadowy and velveteen, a seductive combination that invites you to come in, sit down and soak up the secrets. Just be careful not to spill your own.

You see, for every choice, there is a consequence. The man in the opening song, "In Chains," met someone. Now he's obsessed. "The way you move / has left me burning," Dave Gahan sings. "I know you know what you're doing to me / I know my hands will never be free / I know what it's like to be / in chains." As a cymbal simulates the rhythmic cracking of whip, his vocals twist and writhe, but never in agony. Because this is an S&M song. Depeche Mode have many. They may as well control the traffic lights at the intersection of lust and power. By the album's end, in fact, Gahan is voicing the opposite side. "I could corrupt you / in a heartbeat," he boasts to a temptress over the squirmy synth line. One could imagine her taunting response and his growling rebuttal: Her: "Is that a threat?" Him: "No, it's a promise."

Gahan, of course, would never use such an overheated cliche, nor would Martin Gore, the band's chief songwriter. Both are in fine form on Sounds of the Universe, crafting melodies that massage and stimulate. The guitars are used mainly as accents; brief and often sheathed in wah-wah, they never call undue attention to themselves. The percussion moves with padded paws. And the lyrics flourish in this environment.

"Wrong," which is impressive even bare on the page, repeats that title like a rueful head shaking back and forth, as Gahan details a litany of bad choices, including, "I was marching to the wrong drum / with the wrong scum / pissing out the wrong energy." The line "The wrong questions / with the wrong replies" is befitting of a poem by Anne Sexton, "Wanting to Die," specifically these lines: "But suicides have a special language. / Like carpenters, they want to know which tools. / They never ask why build." Sexton, who might've been a Depeche Mode fan if she'd been born 40 years later, ending up taking her life. Gahan himself nearly died by his own hand in 1995, and the theme of suicide has come up in the band's work, notably in the hit "Blasphemous Rumours," wherein a 16-year-old girl slashes her wrists but survives. (The same method as Gahan, coincidentally.)

Moody creepers "Little Soul" and "Jezebel" are like a midnight rendezvous in the spirit of "Violator," the synths a jet-black sheen. "Jezebel" is a bit flowery: It's hard to imagine a place today where people would refer to anyone as a "Jezebel"; plus, it's closely followed by the phrase "wanton acts of sin." But why not err on the bookish side? Settings are harder to recognize in darkness anyway. Gore's intimate tenor handles "Jezebel," another tale of irresistible attraction. In this one, her suitor believes he knows how she really feels, despite people saying she'll never care for him. What's the consequence of his choice? The last line of the song is "Jezebel!" But it is encased in robotic processing, warping it and making it unclear whether it's the suitor's realization or just the scornful cries of the onlookers.

In other words, it's a cliffhanger.