The word “Quartet” and the phrase “Freight Elevator” don’t seem to go together. The first conjures up a stately classical outfit, while the second a darker industrial group. Well, the Freight Elevator Quartet are neither, really, but they are interested in incongruities and surprises, and in joining sounds and styles that people wouldn’t necessarily expect together. More specifically, they take various strains of electronic music and add strings, ethereal vocals and random sounds to push their music into an interesting place of its own. That place is at times spooky, at times heavenly, but always riveting.
Becoming Transparent is the latest addition to the group’s discography, following two hard-to-find independent releases and File Under Futurism, a collaboration with illbient innovator DJ Spooky, aka Paul Miller, one of the more exciting musicians in any genre these days. Like Miller, Freight Elevator Quartet like to play with the invisible lines between diverse genres. In their case, it’s drum and bass, trip-hop, pop, and classical, especially any of the most atmospheric strains within those genres.
Three of the members of Freight Elevator Quartet studied at the Electronic Music Center of Columbia University, and there’s definitely an academic sense of planning to their sound. Instruments subtly come and go in ways that purposely surprise, stun and catch attention. On “Multiple Truths” electronic bursts methodically blip up and down, and then are suddenly replaced by a cello following the same pattern. Then the cello and the electronics quickly switch back and forth, becoming one while remaining two. This duality, or multiplicity, really, is present throughout the album, as straightforward pop vocals land on a bed of explosive electronic bursts, gorgeous strings play against frantic beats, and everything comes together at the same time.
It’s also not surprising to learn that the group got their start creating music for multimedia art installations, as the song titles and the music together showcase an air for using music as conceptual art. A track like “Connection You Didn’t Think Possible”, where the instruments go in all sorts of bizarre, surprising directions while remaining cohesive and affecting, isn’t called that for no reason. Titles like “Techniques for a Disposable Army” and “Downtime Is Becoming Less of an Option” similarly call for interpretation, while titles like “Duplicity” and “Multiple Truths” highlight the multifaceted nature of their music. In one sense, Freight Elevator Quartet’s music is all bout the question mark. Nothing here is uniform, everything is shifting, and everything is begging for you to think seriously about it, to figure it out.