There is a certain risk you take when you allow yourself to name those albums that, to you, are the best in a given year. You might find that as soon as your picks for that year are set in stone, you come across something else that absolutely, unequivocally deserves to be on that list.
For me, right now, Vertical Lines A is that album.
In one of those instances that makes two-and-a-half years feel like an eternity, I wrote of Decomposure’s debut album At Home and Unaffected that it was “the type of album that’ll have this reviewer checking release date pages until the highly anticipated follow-up album is released”. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was a lie. The release of Vertical Lines A was merely a footnote in a busy 2007, something to be checked out eventually, but far from a priority of any sort. Finding it on my desk eight full months after its release, I was certainly pleased to be able to give it a listen that went beyond the two tracks that were featured on the Decomposure MySpace page for oh so long. By the time it had finished its fifth spin in my humble little CD player, I felt like an idiot. Vertical Lines A absolutely fulfills the promise of At Home and Unaffected, and then some. Not only does it deserve a spot in the list of last year’s best albums, it might have made a run at the top, given the right circumstances.
Decomposure’s Caleb Mueller certainly doesn’t make enjoyment of his album easy. There’s the matter of the title, for one thing; Vertical Lines A sounds like the title of a chapter of the textbook for Architecture 101, and I have yet to decode exactly what that title has to do with the rest of the album. As for the music, I’ll leave it to Mueller himself to explain its construction (from the liner notes):
Each song draws its central sound source from a single 60-minute cassette, selected in chronological order from a recorded 24-hour timespan (starting at 8:30 a.m. on October 28, 2005). Tracks were selected and completed in order.
Indeed, Mueller is a devotee of song construction via found sound: specifically, the sound he found around the house. Unlike most found-sound artists, however, Mueller makes actual songs out of his sounds, equal parts Squarepusher, Doseone, and Ben Folds thrown into a blender, resulting in a smoothie laced with strawberries and steel.
If such a metaphor seems forced, it’s the effect of the lyrics, which are another barrier to immediate enjoyment of the album. It’s hard to tell how much of Mueller’s poetry is stream-of-consciousness, how much of it is purposefully meaningful, and how much of it is simply sounds strung together in service of an appealing aural structure. The first track, helpfully titled “Hour 1”, features the following quatrain: “My eyelashes froze on the forest’s edge / I don’t recall the order of events / Adrift in furrowed streaks, the snow had left / To crop the fire in framing through my hands”. It’s a wonderfully poetic set of words, even if its meaning is clear only to their writer. If nothing else, they evoke a sort of unwelcome warmth breaking through the cold of winter, the feeling of uncertain safety from the elements. Of course, we’re just as likely to get lines like, “Waxcut grey at its latitudes and longitudes twice bolted / As blackboard blood blister flop mesh course” (from “Hour 9”), impenetrable to the point of meaninglessness.
Listeners who don’t get scared off quickly by all of this are in for a hell of a ride.
It’s hard to explain exactly what makes Vertical Lines A such an incredible album, except to say that the combination of elements that Mueller has put in here works. When a Beatles-esque, melodic stanza gives way to an Anticon-inspired set of ludicrous speed spoken-word, which then gives way to a literal chorus of Muellers in a hypermelodic feat of multitracked a cappella, you expect it to crash and burn under its own weight, especially when the whole process happens twice over the course of the song. And yet it doesn’t crash and burn. Rather, it soars, pummeling the listener with cool idea after cool idea, fitting them together with taut threads that never seem to snap. If this is what “Hour 3” sounds like, I wish I was around for it…
...or, perhaps not. Vertical Lines A comes with a DVD, which comes with a 28-minute video featuring Mr. Mueller talking about his creation, process recordings, lots of random photos, pictures of what each song looks like in his editing software of choice, and so on. Among all of these extra goodies are the original, unedited cassete recordings that Mueller used for his sound sources. “Hour 3” sounds like a perfectly normal, boring hour, as you’d ever have in the time between breakfast and lunch. There’s a lot of thumping, which I imagine is a constant throughout the day given the multitude of busy, glitchy beats on display in the music; a few conversations with someone whom I can only assume is Mueller’s wife; and some shuffling around. That’s about it. That Mueller can find the inspiration to create something as ambitious as “Hour 3” out of such basically banal source material makes Vertical Lines A all the more impressive.
That, as much as the music itself, is the achievement of Vertical Lines A. It’s an album that represents unchecked ambition, one man striving to live up to his influences and the organized noise in his head. It’s the type of music that constantly makes you smile as you hear what the artist was trying for alongside what he accomplished. Perhaps most satisfyingly, it doesn’t run its good ideas into the ground. The most effective moments in Vertical Lines A happen at most twice. He is content to let a good thing be and move on, trying to find the next great moment. Fortunately, right through the end of the album, the next great moment is at most two or three minutes away.
Vertical Lines A deserves all of the accolades that could possibly be thrown at it. I can only regret that it took me this long to start throwing.