[13 March 2008]
You might say that At War with Walls and Mazes was an album 29 years in the making. A pianist since the age of six, full-time composer Ryan Lott has literally been making music all of his life. He’s written pieces for choreography, collaborated with multimedia artists, and churns out two pieces a day for New York post-production studio Fluid. He’s won a number of prestigious awards and grants, including the 2006 Cleveland arts prize emerging artist award. Lott may have accomplished quite a bit in less than three decades, but in his mind, there was still plenty of ground left to cover. So, after three years spent collecting samples, he set out to piece together his first pop record.
The result, At War with Walls and Mazes, is a dense, meticulously crafted haze of Baroque instrumentation, electronic pulses and hip-hop beats. Overstuffed with samples, sounds and styles, Walls and Mazes seems like the very definition of “aural overload” on first blush. Lott obviously has no shortage of ideas; the downside is that it often feels like he’s trying to cram every last one into his songs. Despite this fact, there are rewards to be had here for the patient listener—the sort of person who doesn’t mind digging in his or her heels until melodies start to blossom. And Walls and Mazes’ few flashes of brilliance almost make the journey worthwhile.
Given his confidence with various instruments, it’s surprising that Lott chooses to open the album with the one instrument that he has the least experience with: his voice. “Put down / All your weapons,” the first-time vocalist commands in an expressionless, multi-tracked voice at the outset of the album’s 29-second “Prologue”. “Let me in / Through your open / Wounds”. Over the stark backdrop of bass and harmonica, the androgynous voice sounds almost alien; it’s hard to place what world Lott is from, let alone his age or gender. Sure, the cartoonishly exaggerated pitch and octave shifting a la the Knife plays an undeniable role here. But there’s also something in the delivery—cold, austere and completely devoid of any discernable emotion—that makes Lott sound anything but human.
While “Prologue” places all the emphasis on Lott’s heavily altered voice, it is, without question, the sparsest track you’ll find on Walls and Mazes. “Brake” opens with clattering snare hits, major key piano chords and what sounds like a furiously strummed unplugged electric guitar. Soon after strings, distant shouts and harmonica intrude, the drums manage to work themselves into a beat and the song starts to take off. But then, just before the one-minute mark, something unexpected happens: everything stops. Only the final harmonica note remains, lingering like the last guest at the end of a party. Just as the note is about to give out, some minor piano chords surface, setting the stage for Lott’s entrance. “Where have all the wicked gone?” he asks with that same ageless, genderless voice. “Is there no one left to break you down?”
“Weapons” picks up where the first third of “Break” leaves off, slowly piling on synths, strings and a shuffling snare beat before falling into a lethargic groove. Lott returns with the same “Weapons” couplet from the prologue, repeating it like a mantra. Before long, we start to see signs that things are on the verge of collapse; a guitar chugs, some chopped-up samples echo in the distance, buzzes of feedback momentarily interrupt the proceedings. Slowly, Lott starts tearing it all down, piece by piece, eventually arriving at a skeletal structure of clicks and beats. Soon we see why he’s cleared the way: a chopped up sample of a choir wisps out of the static, a disarmingly warm sound awash in a barren sea of noise. The voices strain to reach the cathedral’s ceiling but Lott slices and dices until there’s nothing left but a texture. It’s a sound that’s at once both ethereal and eerie.
One of the album’s more laid-back tracks, “Betray” is driven by a propulsive low-end groove, courtesy of a surprisingly bouncy bass line. “You will betray me baby and / I will be true,” Lott lethargically sings over the usual bed of static, adorned this time with occasional flourishes of flute. “I only ask may I share / Dinner with you?” It’s an odd follow-up, a line that’s pregnant with humor, desperation and a hint of self-loathing. Over the course of the next five minutes, however, the recurring line starts to wear a little thin. By the song’s close, the couplet’s previous nuances ring as hollow as Lott’s treated voice.
Obviously, Lott’s intent was to ensure that Walls and Mirrors’ lyrics and vocals didn’t upstage its music. Limit each song to a few simple lines, repeat those lines like chants, and see that they recur throughout the album’s 11 tracks. That way, the voice becomes just another texture and the songs are freed from the weight of verse/chorus/verse structure. Lott goes even further, taking a page from the Kid A playbook: he purposefully obfuscates his voice in order to curb any attempts to wring meaning or personality from his words.
Fair enough. However, the contrast between the painstakingly sequenced music and the seemingly meaningless lyrics is too great to ignore over the course of nearly 45 minutes. Eventually the vocals start to grate, the lyrics start to frustrate. You want to attach some greater meaning to the recurring couplets, but come up empty-handed. The fact of the matter is that there aren’t nearly enough clues here to allow for a satisfactory interpretation of the record’s lyrical themes. Were the vocals buried in the mix or were the lyrics somehow obscured, this shortcoming might not be quite so glaring (when have you ever heard someone complain about the lyrics on Loveless?). But given the nature of the vocals in the mix—clear, front and center on all of the album’s tracks but one—it’s a little hard to accept that Lott’s words are completely devoid of meaning.
Clearly, Ryan Lott is a man of considerable musical talent and great promise. But as At War with Walls and Mazes demonstrates, he hasn’t quite figured out how to edit his many ideas down to a final product that’s both complex and digestible. Sure, there are flashes of brilliance to be found here. But those few fleeting moments aren’t enough to hold the listener’s attention for the entire duration of the record. Once Lott learns to whittle his songs down until they’re tight, succinct and consistent, he’ll have a pop record on his hands. Until then, he’ll just sound like he’s at war with himself.