Ethereal plus gothic equals “gothereal?” Ambient plus tribal equals trambient? Gauzy 4AD throwback style plus trip-hop equals Dead Can Attack? Okay, perhaps that’s unnecessarily facetious, but this admittedly courageous self-release by Chicago, Illinois band Jute invites a certain level of both skepticism and guarded admiration for its unconventional yet transparent rocktronic borrowings. Elements of deadly earnest estro-goth brush sensuously against more beat-driven electronic grooves, and when it works it pretty much works, but when it doesn’t . . . it can be precious or even (sorry to say) boring.
Jute are Julie Axis (voice, flute), Joe Axis (guitar, bass, vocals, keys, programming), Robb Shakespeare (guitar, keys, programming), and Michael Dobkowski (bass), plus friends, all of whom have lent their talents to sundry local acts including My Scarlet Life, Is-U-Is, ShadowTribe, and Glitch.
This is deeply subcultural music. Access must be earned. Hypnotic whorls of angelic vocal vapours swirl around nocturnal, or at least twilit, bass-heavy columns of heartbeat and blood-rhythm. Middle Eastern microtonic scales dance with (and beckon and flirt with) Western pop sensibilities, both subtly alien and subliminally enticing, placing a far greater emphasis on the “narcotic” of the title than on the “violent”. Chants vie with dance; studio beats with transient bleats and narcoleptic sleep. If it doesn’t always blend into something cohesive (and it doesn’t), you have to admire the audacity of the attempt, at least.
Most of the songs share a kind of relentless downtempo uniformity. Most feature diaphanous voices—wispy, meandering and female or whispery, threatening and male—barely heard above the swirling maelstrom. Most sound defeated and passive, with many of the titles alone providing more than mere covert hints (“Ephemeral”, “Darksand”, “Invertebrate”, “Narcotic”, and “Opium”). There are moments, however, when the album bids for attention, when something leaps from the mix like a solar flare from the roiling gaseous surface of the sun. These moments often occur near the slow arrested ends of songs, after the beats have played out, like unfinished afterthoughts more intriguing than the full thoughts which preceded them: small burblings (“Southern Exposure”); sparse piano icicle drips (“Free”); evocative birdsong (“Clay”) and rainfall (“Opium”). With melodies not quite compelling enough, and rhythmic structures too similar throughout, the bulk of these songs fall just shy of something profound and gorgeous (which does bode well, at least, for future releases).
However, let’s not forget those solar flare exceptions.
“Free” features a viscous bass melting behind a crisp backwards hiss of beats. A simple piano motif repeats alongside Julie Axis’s enervated banshee drift (“free-ee-eee” over and over) while Charles Stevens’s susurrant spoken word guest vocals rove across this tentative landscape like an indistinct predator looking for victims. “Advent of Zero” reads like a millennial clash of worldviews (check out the dense cultural layers packed into the simple words “advent” and “zero”, for instance), tinkling pseudo Christmas bells retreating before the rise of Islam suggested by both mideastern tones and tabla-like beats. Unspeakable industrial clanking sounds come in and out of focus, like a counter-threat. Near the end, sudden keen guitar wails emanate from within all these uneasy and discordant juxtapositions like a preemptive fuchsia sunset over desert twilight. “Vow” is like a thwarted escape, crystalline guitar wings trying to soar but finally broken and dragged back earthwards by the gravity of a shapeshifting rhythm. And the last song, “Opium”, is ripe and strange with its evocative pattering of heavy rainfall on hard ground, its hollow hushed storm’s-eye expectancy, and its interplay between a sinewy bejeweled-midriff sway and a rickety traveling snake-oil circus beat.
Otherwise, Jute’s influences are too distractingly apparent. The Massive Attack of Mezzanine is summoned all too clearly by the doom and gloom sub-rapped male vocals of “Rising of Reason”, which really ought to be renamed “Rising (of rea) Son” (although to be fair, Jute manage to transcend similar indebtedness on the far superior “Invertebrate”). Both Liz Fraser’s hoarse early-Cocteau warble and Lisa Gerrard’s seraphic wails are referenced too often for comfort, with Julie Axis only suffering in the comparison, and edging closer to New Age-isms than anyone could reasonably wish for.
A Violent Narcotic is content to wallow in the honeyed embrace of its own opium den haze at the expense of dynamism. A little more violence to counter the soporific trippiness would go a long way.