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Of the Body Prone

(Tzadik; US: 29 Sep 2009; UK: import)

To call Ahleuchatistas a punk-jazz trio—a label that has, in different permutations, been put on them often—does not prepare the listener for what they’re about to hear. Even certain PopMatters critics have compared them to the Minutemen, at least in part, and that feels in retrospect like it doesn’t quite match up to the task of describing what it is this North Carolina outfit do. Ahleuchatistas are instrumental for a reason: Words don’t enhance their sound. They wouldn’t explain the feeling, the strife, the chaotic sprawl of their sound. To string phrases together over this music would be to assign a structure that wouldn’t keep. And to do the same to give it cultural import, to evaluate it in some way, seems sort of futile.

And yet, here we are. The band’s fifth album, Of the Body Prone, gives us much to try to talk about. Or at least to approach. Just because it is difficult,  perhaps impossible, to fully capture the band’s effect doesn’t mean it’s not worth taking a shot. This is difficult stuff, but goddamn is it interesting and intricate and confusing and infuriating and beautiful all at once. And their frenetic sound— built on lean riffs exploding into distorted quakes and a rhythm section constantly and violently pulling at its restraints—is as fresh, and as brilliant as it’s ever been, now five albums in.

There are facts we can address about Of the Body Prone. This is their first album of new material for Tzadik, the label that reissued their excellent sophomore album, The Same and the Other. This also marks the first studio work for the band’s new drummer, Ryan Oslansce. But there’s hardly a learning curve for the new guy behind the kit. In fact, this is the band’s most adventurous and untethered offering yet. The structures of these songs have an intricacy that trumps anything the band has done before. The trio also explore their improvisational side here more than they ever have on record. The results, always compelling, can also be off-putting. That’s part of the point, to put you on edge and get your attention. Ahleuchatistas do that without ever falling into self-serious wanking.

The album is book-ended by two huge compositions. “2/3 Concensus on the Un-Finite Possibilities” and “Map’s Tattered Edges” both clock in around nine minutes. Both are unhinged swaths of grinding space punctuated by dense squalls of noise. The opening track starts with a cacophony of guitars and bass swirling around only to be brought to a crashing halt, over and over again, by tumbling drum fills. Eventually the band pulls it all together, guitar and drums charging with an insistent drive while the bass thunders droning notes over it, leading the song into a psychedelic haze of stringy riffs and cymbal work that crumbles into a beautiful mess.

Meanwhile “Map’s Tattered Edges” closes the record with a subtle, moody atmosphere, at least for most of its sprawling runtime. It starts with the band’s signature brash tangles of sound but quickly settles into distant hums of sound, the clanging of small bells, huge swaths of silence around it all. After an album pulled taut, to the point of snapping, it’s a beautiful and haunting coda. But it also doesn’t last. The band erupts in one last charge towards the end of the track. The guitars bust out riffs, squeal with feedback, the drums shatter cymbals and crash into the snare. And then a few vines of notes pull free of the tangle and drift off to end the album, letting the whole mess you’ve heard ripple.

In between those two tracks, there’s all kinds of surprising energy to be found. The insistent, intricate thump of the rhythm section on “Owls”. The off-time, disintegrating haze of “Why Can We Be In Jamaica?” The breakneck free-jazz explosion of “Eastside Uptight”. There’s even a glimpse at some dark humor, as “Dancing With the Stars” is five minutes of dissonant, droning noise.

Thoughout Of the Body Prone, Ahleuchatistas prove once again how surprising they can be as a band. This kind of improvised jamming is supposed to lose its element of surprise over time, not build on it. Considering the fact they’re still doing it with a simple guitar-bass-drums set-up, that they continue to expand their sonic palate and deliver great record after great record, sticking to a unique sound without ever repeating themselves, it an amazing feat. It may leave you at a loss for words. But that indefinable thing, that feeling you can’t shape into words on your lips? Make no mistake, it is there on this record, and it is powerful.


Matthew Fiander is a music critic for PopMatters and Prefix Magazine. He also writes fiction and his work has appeared in The Yalobusha Review. He received his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from UNC-Greensboro and currently teaches writing and literature at High Point University in High Point, NC. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattfiander.

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