It’s nothing short of fitting that the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s new album carries an indefinable title. Scratch that — it’s not that Aufheben lacks a definition, but that it has too many, all of which seem to contradict one another. The German word, alternately translatable as “to abolish” or “to ascend”, among others, is perfectly suited as a banner draped across the group’s latest effort, rife as it is with experimental abstruseness.
The band has always been the baby of frontman-ring leader Anton Newcombe, and with Aufheben, he truly flexes (and strains) his creative muscle. Think of the work as a whole as towing Newcombe’s party line of Indian-brand psychedlia, but filtered by way of Germany (the album was recorded in Berlin, after all). There is a theme of deliberate confusion throughout the record’s 11 songs. Hell, even dubbing them “songs” is a bit of misnomer, as structure is largely forsaken for instrumental pastiches and all-enveloping grooves. Lyrics likewise are mostly obscured through abundant layering, marble-mouthed mutterings and an plethora of singing in other languages (Finnish, German, French). Newcombe’s voice doesn’t appear in its native tongue of English until the fifth track, “I Want to Hold Your Other Hand” (What? You thought you could get through an entire BJM album without the token Beatles reference? At this point, it’s obvious Newcombe can’t help himself). Meaning falls by the wayside in favor of mood and atmosphere, ethereal and dreamlike as the album sounds like the soundtrack to a Zazen mediation session or some New Age trip-out.
Instrumental “Panic in Babylon” opens the album with a distorted trumpet buzz, flitting about with the menace of a swarm of bees, tempered by acoustic strumming that arrives like a breeze sweeping the threat out to sea. An array of jungle sounds, carnivore growls and primate howls man the song’s backdrop, making it appropriately earthy and disorienting. The next song “Viholliseni Maalla” breezes in like a hefty sigh, languidly brushing the air as guest vocalist Eliza Karmasalo offers some Finnish intonations.
The staple BJM instruments — sitar, marimba, flutes — continue to abound, often merging with the foreign vocalizations. Take “Gaz Hilarant”, for example, in which Newcombe’s drunken zombie moans serve as just another piece of his auditory puzzle. “Face Down on the Moon” lacks vocals of any kind, yet is quite evocative in its interplay between sitar and whimsical flute. One hallmark that doesn’t falter is the underbelly of strained, Velvet Underground-esque electric guitars vibrating and twanging throughout, serving as the bedrock on most songs (see “The Clouds are Lies” and “Stairway to the Best Party in the Universe” in particular) and sounding like a nest of frenzied rodents screeching behind the walls. With this level of focus on the music itself the BJM veers a bit into Meddle-era Pink Floyd here.
Penultimate “Waking Up to Hand Grenades” opens with a downright mystical glimmer of woodwinds and dainty harpsichord notes, sounding as though it ought to accompany the scene of a fawn or satyr prancing through a glen. This proves a misdirection when a swaggering drumbeat kicks into gear. “We’re taking over / ‘Cause our time is here”, Newcombe sings amid the kaleidoscope, his indefatigable cocksureness still making its way through the haze. The album closes with the morosely optimistic “Blue Order / New Monday” (again, Newcombe and his tongue-in-cheek references), an oddly trip-hop influenced number, hypnotic in its repetitiveness. It goes on far too long at more than seven minutes, but the warm melody and Newcombe’s breathy vocals can’t help but impart you with a level of comfort.
That comfort, rather than reinvigorated excitement, is what longtime Massacre fans will find Aufheben offers. That objective seems to be exactly what Newcombe and company aimed for, the concern of appealing to new audiences long since evaporated. The work stands as one of the ensemble’s most experimental, yes, but in that sense, it might end up considered something of a novelty in their discography, an album you put on to relax to and float away with more than anything else.