It could be a sign of my age, or my inherent dorkiness, or both, but I must admit that it’s a little bit unnerving to find a do-it-yourself indie rocker that names his band after an old 8-bit Nintendo game that I absolutely loved as a child. The name? Kid Icarus. To those unfamiliar with the game, the name will evoke the tragic figure of the boy who flew too high, but it is the figure of the game that likely plays closer to vocalist/songwriter/primary instrumentalist Eric Schlittler’s idea of the band. You see, as with many games of that day, the protagonist of Kid Icarus packs a big punch in a small package, persevering against seemingly insurmountable odds, against all manner of monsters and assorted baddies. This sort of metaphor, where a single figure can carry on in the face of extreme adversity, is surely an appealing one to a largely bedroom-bound independent artist.
The Metal West is actually Schlittler’s third full-length CD of material as Kid Icarus, and he has released a number of self-produced cassettes of his material as well. The difference between The Metal West and everything that came before it, however, is that the good Kid has finally decided to step up into the world of modern-day recording techniques, giving him his best shot thus far at being heard outside of his close friends and too-hip-for-school blogs.
The end result of this upgrade to “hi-fi” is still something that sounds decidedly “lo-fi” when compared to much of the modern musical landscape. We can hear fingers move upon fret boards, the vocals aren’t always on-pitch, and the instrumental palette is often as limited as one would expect from an entity that is largely a one-man-band. The sound is nothing special. What Schlittler has going for him is an obvious enthusiasm for his trade, as he’s someone who obviously has a lot of love for his music, someone who’s willing to take it into places both familiar and unknown. Can such love sustain a whole album?
Schlittler opens The Metal West with a full-band number called “Beekeepers on the Edge of Town”, which is a rockin’ little number that he plays with his buddies Ted Baird (bass) and Thad Moyer (drums). This song is the most obvious choice for a possible hit, as it’s got an overbearing garage sound to it with a simultaneously infectious and obnoxious guitar riff driving it forward—something along the lines of what the Hives would sound like if Howlin’ Pelle was Dronin’ Pelle. The second track, “A Retail Hell”, is a nice two-guitar acoustic tune about the mundane routine of everyday life that would sound a bit like Bright Eyes if Conor Oberst sang more than he emoted. After those two fairly normal tracks, however, Schlittler goes off on an experimental tangent, and it’s in the experimental work that he starts to lose his listeners.
It’s not that being experimental is necessarily a bad thing; on the contrary, experimentalism and the willingness to muck around a bit with a known formula is the key to most great art. In this case, however, it seems that most of the experiments would have been better served as permanent residents of Schlittler’s head, never to see the light of day. For one, he tries to incorporate other instruments such as the piano, courtesy of one Chuck Keller. Keller’s piano lines are both simplistic and mixed way too loud in songs like “My Anthracite Headache” and “Her Song for Beth and the Sideshow”, turning them into distracting focal points rather than pleasing background filler. Likewise, the harmonicas in the title track are nice enough, but they are quickly ditched in favor of seven minutes of acoustic strumming and Neil Young-style washes of distorted guitar. “Perils of Dating in 1999” even references the Cars a bit with its staccato guitar riff and poppy feel, but the hook’s not catchy enough for a proper homage, and the sloppy guitars never would have gotten past Ric Ocasek’s quality control sensor.
Aside from a few tight, solid tunes, the rest of the album veers toward those attempts to expand the basic rock sound, and as such, The Metal West is a frustrating listen. For all of Schlittler’s noodling, it doesn’t come off as terribly different from any other “indie rock” album out there. For all of the obvious high aspirations of the artists involved, the music of Kid Icarus is only truly necessary for one of those forced moments of media synchronicity; that is, using The Metal West as a soundtrack while playing the Nintendo version of Kid Icarus. Even so, expecting anyone to buy it for such purposes is a bit of a stretch.