Like every true music fan, I get all my culture news from Hipster Runoff, so I was intrigued to see the other day that NME released their list of the top 50 albums of the year. Not only had they given up trying to find a loophole to somehow give the top prize to Joy Division, they had given the honor to an album I hadn’t heard (the title of which was given away by the headline of this post). I then decided that, as a serious music critic, I would refrain from giving a blow-by-blow review of it the first time I heard it; that’s for amateurs. No, I would save this sort of unprofessional treatment for the second time I listen to it, which is mere moments away. My initial reaction to it was that it was bad, and there was no way in hell I would voluntarily give it another chance, but these are the perils of true journalism. Sacrifices must be made, and this time they are in the form of listening to unbelievably tedious “art-rock.” Before we get started, a quote from the band’s Wikipedia entry (since I surely can’t be expected to research them beyond that):
“The band has had support slots for Crystal Castles, British Sea Power, The Kills, Blood Red Shoes, Klaxons, and The xx.”
Look how unbelievably British that lineup is. Sure, you might raise the issue that Crystal Castles are technically Canadian, but who’s on Canadian money, smartass? Upon seeing this, I prepared myself for an onslaught of unfiltered Brittania, filled with moping, accents, guitars, and big words.
Track one: Time Xone (and god does it hurt to type “Xone” and know it’s not some speculated-upon Microsoft product) doesn’t disappoint (unless you are disappointed when the first song isn't a song), with an opening of some sort of mopey horn section that was probably meant to soundtrack the beginning of another Oliver Twist movie while the camera is panning around on street level to show how desolate and dirty and filthy and brown and oddly romantic everything is. This is such a tragic misuse of a horn section. Why are you doing this to me, trumpets? Why have you decided to bring neither funk nor noise? Can’t you hear your wind instrument forefathers calling you to play James Brown songs instead of this mopey bullshit?
Track two: We Want War. Suddenly the non-JBs end, as another movie soundtrack starts, this one announced by some sort of big Samurai-style drum being hit (presumably by a rather large person) as vague synth buzzing occurs. I have to give them credit for a fitting title, since I definitely want to run around Braveheart-style when I hear any sort of echoey huge-ass drum. The hero of the movie should be getting the soldiers all pumped up now, but instead we get the first vocal of the album: some incredibly vague whisper-mumbling that makes Nick Drake sound like Lil Jon. Come on, guys, announce yourselves a bit better than that, no one else in the class can hear you introduce yourself when you talk into your crotch. The drums are sounding a bit livelier now and the buzzing is coming in stronger, oooohhhh they must be trying to use dancey rhythms, in the proud British tradition of half-danceable music. “Secret recordings were made in the marsh,” he says, but that’s impossible, the goo would leak into the tape recorder and the whole thing would sound like Daniel Johnston. Now we have some sort of shimmery sound effect, like a sword getting taken out of the sheath. This must be what “immersion” in music is. Now the mumbley dude is backed by a somehow-almost-as-mumbley chorus; are these the angels taking him away to the afterlife and/or mandatory British standardized testing? Drums replaced by vague clicking of someone tapping their fingernails on the desk waiting for the song to end. This is a long song. Really, it’s two songs that keep taking turns; we have huge-drums-and-clicking song intersperced with usual-college-age-guy-being-incomprehensible-so-that-we-know-it’s-an-indie-rock-album. The horns are back with a minute left to go. They’re in a minor key, so it sounds either mournful or like the “wrong answer” horns on The Price is Right (look ‘em up). Longest song on the album now over.
Track three: Three Thousand. Big drums from the previous track have been shrunk down to fit in a box that is seemingly free to time travel between last decade’s hip hop and early-80s goth synth noodling, and the vocals definitely are more of the Bela Lugosi’s Dead variety, but without the potential to do the cool higher stuff Peter Murphy did. Instead we just get more of what sounds like the protagonist from Children of Men telling us how his day is shit. Horns again, but in the background this time, pitch-shifted to sound somewhere between “really depressing” and “farts.” Background vocals sound like the vocal preset on the keyboard I had when I was five.
Track four: Hologram. Light military-style drum greets me alongside piano bar-style tinkling, and the singer is apparently attempting to make a pop song. “Shut the doooo-ooooooor,” he sings, probably so no one will find out you’re trying to fit in with 19 year-old Brits with dyed black hair. Something tells me this is that promotional single that’s ten times more accessible than the rest of the album so that REAL fans of the band have a song they say they dislike despite it being the only well-known song the band ever made. Surprisingly, this track is so genial and nonthreatening that it could be American indie.
Track five: Attack Music. Back to drums that sound like gunshots, though to be honest I'm a much bigger fan of music that uses actual gunshots in songs. The fact that the band keeps replacing and tinkering around with their drum sounds is fairly disorienting and distracting, like using a different synonym for “said” after every line in a twelve-page conversation (he explained). Dissonant guitars inform me that FUCK you, ASSHOLE, that last song was just an anomaly, we’re not afraid to fuck some shit up, as long as it’s kept to brief portions of time because we have to spend hours setting up this prepared piano. More sad horns. Cheer up, horn section, they might do something less drear-tastic next time. The chorus-thing is back, except this time it sounds like a creepy group of children from a horror movie, I guess because horror movie children are the ones that don’t get vocal training or musical education about what a “key” is. These complaints shouldn’t be interpreted as saying that all dissonant or atonal sounds are bad; quite the contrary, they can be used well when used by people that know how to create a half-decent song. A melody that makes me involuntarily dig my fingernails into each other is probably not the best-crafted one.
Track six: Fire-Power. Oh hey, this is my favorite drumbeat: it’s Galang, this is a great song. What the hell, this isn’t how that vocal goes at all. Now he’s saying “fire, fire, fire” because he doesn’t know his Arular tracks nearly as well as I do. Do your homework next time, scrubbo, lest you attempt a cover version where you fuck up songs as simple as that. Now he’s laying over the guitar that sounds like the intro to Wipeout (the song, not the video game) and singing “my words evaporate” I assume because they were written in water? You’re supposed to write down secret messages in lemon juice, idiot, or else it just goes away but I guess you just had to find that out the hard way. Drums still clanging, this time with some keys or something added. Not piano keys, I mean literal dangling-keys-in-front-of-a-baby sound, I assume because their mother is trying to make as much racket as possible to get them out of bed. Now the track ends with Sad Horns 3: Sad Harder.
Track seven: Orion. Past the halfway point, sweet. The drum keeps kicking a couple times, wondering when the other instruments will get the cue and join it. When they do, we’re greeted by warbly backing vocals and the same ol’ leading vocals, like every other song on this album, over the same “pay attention to meeeee” style drums. Was this song on the disc already? Skipping the rest.
Track eight: Canticle. Ooh, now we get the sweeter-sounding clarinet and shit, that’s a good change. This track is only a bit over a minute long, so it doesn’t do anything at all other than let them boast that their album has a clarinet on it.
Track nine: Drum Courts - Where Corals Lie. This time, the drums are joined by a super-low Peaches-style synth bass and some Space Invaders sounds. Pew pew I bet I get a bonus score for saying the exact same things I said earlier about his whispered vocal. Skipping around this track, it seems to get all sweet and vocal and we actually have a vocal melody at three minutes in holy shit, before we get back to clatter clatter bang bang. I get the feeling these guys listened to a Liquid Liquid song and took away completely the wrong idea from it. Big drums are cool when they make me want to move my ass around, either in a dancing way or in a throw-shit-about-the-room way. This does neither. It’s so big and ever-present but it keeps me glued intently to the seat. I couldn’t even do the dishes to this, it would make me want to lie down and read about psychology or whatever. Is being unnerving its only goal? Okay, I’m unnerved. Do something else please.
Track ten: White Chords. Well, there’s some honesty in track naming, because no one of color is getting near this art school bullshit. I’m not hearing too many chords though, just some eerie notes on a keyboard/synth/obscure instrument of questionable utility. Oh, this is another one of their crossover attempts, except they’re going more directly for an early-era Cure sound, instead of just indirectly dancing around it. Sorry, not dancing, that’s impossible here, sighing around it. Crystal Castles skipped the middleman and just got Robert Smith to sing for them, can’t this band do the same but just put a Cure song on the album? Not a cover, no, they’d fuck that up, the original version of any album track, unless it’s from 17 Seconds because I hate that album.
Track eleven: 5. So close so close so close. We have some sort of multi-instrument jamboree with tinkly bells that wants me to call it “mirthful” despite the invisible timer counting down to when they’re going to come along and ruin this by trying to make it into a real song. It’s rather telling that the band has me looking forward to these time-filling interludes just to get away from the incessant banging. This must be what it’s like to be a middle-aged parent and your nine year-old son just brought home a replica of the drum set that the dude from Rush has. Oh, this song is halfway over and nothing else has happened, must be a closing non-statement that they couldn’t come up with another song, which I’m fine with. Doodley doodley doo, wordless chorus of angels taking me away to a land of milk and vodka, DAMMIT HE’S BACK. Go away, I was so close to being rid of you. Phew, gone again. Final reprise of the sadhorns brigade.
Listen number two has been accomplished. Going back to the good ol’ Wikipedia to tell me what they were thinking, the label’s press release said the following:
"Six-foot Japanese Taiko drums, a thirteen piece brass and woodwind en-semble, sub-heavy beats, prepared piano, a children’s choir, Foley recording techniques (including a melon with cream crackers attached struck by a hammer, used to simulate the sound of a human head being smashed), and the ethereal voice of Heather Marlatt from dream-pop group Salem."
I didn’t hear any heads cracking, and the music was sparse and dull enough that if something as cool as that was really on the album it would have caught my attention. The singer sounds so melancholy and British that he was probably too busy politely asking the head whether it was acceptable for it to be cracked open, if it wouldn’t be too much of a bother today (or tomorrow, doesn’t really matter that much).
I’ve never been more glad to not be a subscriber to NME. Say what you will about those bands they toured with (they are bad) but at least Klaxons could come up with a melody and a steady beat without having to resort to recording themselves falling down the stairs and using that as their drum sound.