The sixth album for now-veteran indie-rockers Cloud Cult predictably pushes the envelope; not in a bad way. Rather, the Minnesota group offers another dense, rigorous musical journey that uses an idea as a springboard but, crucially, not as the end-all. In the case of The Meaning of 8, it’s the number in the title. No matter what you think of numerology, Cloud Cult would have you muse on some of these concepts for an hour or so: the universality of the symbol 8, 8 as a metaphor for the confluence between life and death, the emotional aftermath of the loss of a young child, and the experience in the world of a fictional deaf girl.
Of course the other concept that has informed Cloud Cult’s swirling invention over the years has been their extremely rigorous environmentalism—just for the record, and maybe this is reason enough to invest in an otherwise relatively obscure release from a band you may not have heard of. To quote the CD sleeve:
This album was manufactured and released by Earthology Records, a not-for-profit record label founded by Cloud Cult’s Craig Minowa. It is made of 100% postconsumer recycled paper, nontoxic soyink, and nontoxic shrink-wrap. Ten trees are planted for every 1,000 albums manufactured. All energy consumed in the process of manufacturing and shipping is compensated for with the purchase of an equivalent amount of wind energy from NativeEnergy.com. All energy consumed by Cloud Cult in the touring process is greened in a similar manner
OK, enough of that: on to the music. The Meaning of 8‘s a wide-ranging collection of sounds, ideas and textures incorporating guitars, piano, glockenspiel, cello and drum machine. The songs themselves range from one-idea sketches to more straight-ahead indie-rock songs, but throughout, they’re executed with a ragged DIY sensibility that ensures interesting, and often compelling listening. Part of what Cloud Cult is about is experimentation, an attitude that is mostly manifested through form. Textures change from heavy, distorted guitars to a simple, high glockenspiel tinkle on the turn of a verse. And this tactic ensures that, even on the less memorable songs (such as “Brain Gateway”), at least close-to-full potential is reached through sheer technical prowess.
Even the seemingly simpler songs often unexpectedly blossom. The acoustic guitar-backed prayer “Thanks” relies on Craig Minowa’s conventionally angsty voice until it expants texturally with a soft shimmer of electronics and a rising drum beat. The single line that propels “Dance for the Dead” is the chanted call, “Can you hear them?” It raises the song from filler to a vital cog in this complex album’s machinery.
The middle portion of the disc suffers a little from a over-eagerness. Textures and sounds predominate, superceding structure. This results in a few songs that just seem to exist, without adding much of interest. “The Shape of 8”, for example, though you can imagine some complex musical formula fueling it, just sounds like random noise. But more often than not Cloud Cult pull these impulses back through music’s ultimate purpose, emotion. “Take Your Medicine” effectively highlights the dismissal in the title phrase, playing up the deaf girl’s plight with tremolo strings and a piano/cello background.
The Meaning of 8 is, in all, another successful outing for Cloud Cult. And for those unfamiliar with the band’s organic experimentation, this is as good an entry point as any. Take a listen to “The Deaf Girl Song” or “Chemicals Collide”, and invest in a new, eminently worthy musical interest.