Instrumental albums can be a difficult nut to crack. Without lyrics providing a guide to a record’s particular theme, your primary access point is the music itself, in all of its abstract glory. What you can hope for is that totally wordless albums somehow have a narrative arc to their construction, or engage in playful experimentation to draw you in. Well, New York City’s Wires Under Tension is a band that is able to pull both of these functions off in their music, offering string and horn based numbers that, through the album’s sequencing, tend to become even more introspective and brooding as time marches on, and gradually disintegrates into structures that go beyond the constraints of traditional rock music idioms (though it should be noted that, on Wires Under Tension’s debut album Light Science, you do get a little bit of stuff that does, indeed, rock out). While it’s not an altogether successful enterprise, listeners can walk away from Light Science feeling that they’ve engaged in something of an alternative post-rock spectacle, although one that’s a bit on the truncated side, considering that Light Science unspools itself out in the period of a half hour.
There’s a bit of an interesting back story with Wires Under Tension. Its main mastermind, violinist Christopher Tignor, had worked for 13 years in a commercial studio space in Brooklyn, where he created music with his post-rock band Slow Six. However, in 2008, all of the equipment and musical instruments had to be uprooted and moved after the local fire department got tipped off that Tignor’s three-story studio posed something of a hazard and had to be at least partially torn down. Eventually, the musician found himself calling The Bronx his new neighborhood, and there was something about the shift away from the hipster circles of Brooklyn (which he reportedly found himself uncomfortable with) to the blue-collar grit of his new surroundings that allowed him to create a batch of songs under a new side project that reflected the change of scenery. (Tignor seems to have a sense of humor about the move, though, as one of the songs on this record is called “A List of Things to Light on Fire”.)
The album kicks off with “Electricity Turns Them On”, which itself begins with a gurgling dark synth line played against a glockenspiel, before the violins swoop in with a repetitive, hypnotic hook. There’s a chimey break to prevent the song from getting too monotonous, and adds a bit of uplift to the track’s menacing strings. However, the structure of the song is one that is primordially rock-based, though there’s a touch of Pantha du Prince to be found in the proceedings. From there, “Irreversible Machines”, which follows next, continues with the sweeping majesty of its strings, though there’s a bouncy brass section which contrasts between the churning electronics of the song and the more analog, real-life non-programmed textured instrumentation, propelled headlong into the future by Slow Six drummer Theo Metz. “A List of Things to Light on Fire” is a soundtrack to a mob hit, in its sheer franticness conjured by its violins, augmented by, once again, the use of a horn section – a combination that brings a sense of melodrama to the proceedings. Fourth track “Wood, Metal, Bone” is perhaps the most rustic and folkloric thing to be found here, with its swirling strings that lead the listener down a whirlwind of pure, unadulterated emotion, and it would work as an alternative soundtrack to some grim fairy tale, like Peter and the Wolf. “Position and Hold” paints a mental picture of diving over the streets of a modern-day metropolis with buildings of concrete, steel and glass sliding by, though things take a turn for the dark about mid-track with out-of-control synths rumbling against the atonal strings. The following “Mnemonics in Motion” is a slice of darkly synthesized confectionery that simmers until its dueling violins kick in, lifting the song out of its electronic tension. Finally, “Сказал, Сказала”, the longest cut on the album at seven and a half minutes long, and also the final thing to be found here, actually begins with the ending of the preceding “Mnemonics in Motion”, and crawls along to a slowly simmering climax, as extra instruments and layers are gradually introduced.
While listening to Light Science, I found myself making mental comparisons to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, though I’m not sure if Wires Under Tension utilize any pyrotechnics in their live show or have written any Christmas themed songs. The two acts, however, share a sense of bombast, and being something larger than life. I also thought of Canadian fiddler Ashley MacIsaac, though, to be clear, Wires Under Tension certainly don’t have any Celtic aspirations to their music. However, MacIsaac writes songs for his instrument at times in a rock music context—you can imagine lyrics being placed over some of his material—and the same could certainly be said for some of Wires Under Tension’s songs on Light Science. There are parallels that you can draw between the work of Wires Under Tension and that of Owen Pallett, too, though Pallett seems to draw more on the classical and pop end of the spectrum, whereas all Wires Under Tension needs is some power chords on a guitar to become something metallic. Perhaps more aptly, Light Science is, to a degree, movie mood music, the sort of thing that would work well against the backdrop of a car chase. The press notes accompanying this album suggests Mad Max, but I think something more glossy and Hollywood-ized would fit the bill a bit better. Maybe something with Bruce Willis in a starring role?
In thinking about it, Wires Under Tension conjure up a lot of different contexts to their sound, and while some might find the wide-screen nature of the music to be admirable, I found it to be a little unfocused. Light Science, too, seems like more of a teaser than a genuine album, being only seven tracks long and only a nick over a half hour in length. Light Science is more of a mini-album than a full-length artistic statement, and for this sort of thing to work well, it needs a longer running time for the songs to sink in and become something truly grandiose. And because so many of the tracks are straight-up rock songs dressed up in a package of swooping strings and bells, the album needs to have a better sense of depth—all it really offers is a high-gloss varnished variation on the same post-rock theme. While it might seem to be a positive thing that Light Science leaves you wanting more, the shift from light, straight-up songs to darker, brooding and slightly more experimental material comes across as a bit of a gimmick—perhaps more juxtapositions between the tracks would have worked better. All in all, I wanted to become more involved and engaged with Light Science, but there’s something intangible that I can’t quite put my finger on that seems to be holding the listener back at arm’s length, making the music seem like moody window dressing to whatever activity you might have going on while listening to it. However, Light Science does offer its share of thrills and chills, and, while your mileage may vary depending on how you feel about instrumental work, it offers enough of an enigmatic listen for those who prefer their records to be long on expression and short on actual lyrics.