There won’t be any other albums like Great Western Laymen this year, which is probably okay, because one is more than enough. It’s not that the album is particularly torturous or punishing. It’s just that there’s a whole lot of album here.
Glasgow’s Rudi Zygadlo bears a passing resemblance to the purplish chromatics of his peers in that city’s dubstep/wonky scene in his employment of massive wads of detonative sub-woofer rumbles and similar set of wobbly instrumental tricks, but to call this music dubstep would be a too-broad breach of the genre’s maximum capacity. Great Western Laymen’s gait is not a club step, let alone a half-step or a 2-step, and its aesthetic is geared far more toward intuitive songwriting than body movement. Most notably, a good majority of the songs feature honest-to-goodness lyrics, and the compositions are edified with careful bricklaying fortitude rather than a naturalist flow.
Opening track “Manuscripts Don’t Burn” begins with rubbery synths that sound like they are anamorphically stretching and retracting, testing the limits of the mix’s circumference. Within the span of a couple tracks, though, one begins to realize that this exponentialism does not stop. The hushed and shivery vocals and xylophone plinks of “Room to Swing”, track three, are bittersweet because one knows that they’ll be punctuated by a wallop once these soothing bridges end.
Zygadlo has apparently studied Slavic writers who worked under the iron fist of the Soviet Empire (“Manuscripts Don’t Burn” is a reference to Mikhail Bulgakov) and claims that the limitations imposed on their literary works by Communist censorship served as inspiration for him, even going so far as to tell The Fader that he likes “maxing out the possibilities of restrictions” (“Dollars to Pounds: Rudi Zygadlo”, Scott Wright, The Fader, March 24, 2010). Yet, it’s unclear where this restriction lies. These songs were no doubt laborious. They sound like they took eons to write, but it’s unclear where Zygadlo’s stop button is. Things get so intensely dense that it’d be literally impossible to squeeze anything else in, making this the anti-Basic Channel and the anti-dubstep circa 2006. At times, the vocals get overwhelmed by the synths and effects and, as a result, remain pretty indecipherable throughout, though they seem pretty interesting buried down there.
The approach is a kitchen sink-ism that one might have expected from the earliest years of Planet Mu, Zygadlo’s label, before the imprint started adopting dubstep artists. These newer groups, including many of those said to be in Zygadlo’s peer group, tend to streamline their manic energy into palatable melody lines of weird wired squelches and wavy warbles, juxtaposing these hot noises with braindead beats or epic drones. Zygadlo eliminates simplicity altogether and packs all of his punches to the nines, leaving little downtime constitutive to a narrative.
Still, while this formula proves exhaustive, it doesn’t entirely ruin Great Western Laymen. The album is such a unique work of craftsmanship that one can’t help admiring it, even if you don’t necessarily want to put it on again any time soon. A song like “Laymen’s Requiem” seems to take all the vibrant bits from ‘80s schlock (the twinkly opening of “Kyrie”, the tremolo strums of “Eye of the Tiger”, et al.) and ping-pong them against each other to turn the tropes into something frighteningly new. These bits are not sampled (nor does anything on the album seem to be), but rather reproduced and masked in wild collage assemblages.
Zygadlo insists that he’s lo-fi in his set-up, but Great Western Laymen is unmistakably well-produced, clinically so in fact. The attention to detail and the untraditional harmonics on songs like “Resealable Friendship” and “Something About Faith” recall a kind of imaginary prog whose mind was blown by the virtuality of video games, a King Crimson raised on King Koopa, a mythology that’s as much Kid Icarus as it is “Kid Charlemagne”. At the album’s best, the songs can sound like a degenerative glam-pop, a weird hybrid beast like Jamie Lidell’s “Daddy’s Car” or Max Tundra in Benedictine monk outfit. Unfortunately, none of the tunes are immaculate, even if the pitch-bending is pitch-perfect throughout—though it should be noted that none of the songs are total crap either.
Sometimes, the whole picture is so fractured on Great Western Laymen that it’s like watching scrambled porn; you’re occasionally mesmerized by the shapes and colors, but really you want to know what’s going on beyond all of it. Yet, when the pivotal moment of spectacular singularity comes, as it does in many of the songs here, it’s well worth the wait. Take the radical epilepsy of “Perfect Lust” or the electrified jazz of “Missa Per Brevis”, which is an electronic liturgy recited in Latin whose staccato recitation is chopped with bits of melisma operatics that play out like some provocative Hugo Ball incantation.
In fairness and by means of full disclosure, I find myself becoming an old man at the ripe old age of 28, noting new gray hairs in my beard all the time. Perhaps it’s future shock that prevents me from keeping up with the pace of Rudi Zygadlo’s experimentalism. Certainly, the fast editing in all these new Hollywood films makes me a bit dizzy, and Avatar 3D made me nauseous. I can perhaps qualify this critical analysis by declaring that if you can go on a tilt-a-whirl all day long without throwing up, you’ll be probably be nothing but thrilled by this record. However, some of us get beaten up by this kind of hyperstimulation and need a rest now and then. As wonderful as stretches of Great Western Laymen are, if this is the direction dubstep is heading in, I’m not sure my stomach can keep up.