An album like Emissaries presents an essentially critic-proof veneer. Although the name Radio Massacre International may conjure numerous images, they couldn’t be further from, say, agitprop punk. Despite the unlikely name, RMI play improvisational ambient electronic music, otherwise known as “space music”. If you’re having trouble envisioning what I’m describing, think of Brian Eno. Think of Eno’s collaborations with Robert Fripp. Think of Eno’s instrumental collaborations with David Bowie on Bowie’s late ‘70s “Berlin trilogy”. Think of folks like Hawkwind and Tangerine Dream. That might give you some idea what RMI are up to.
The problem is that while these guys can be interesting, their music is essentially impossible to gauge. As you might have gathered from the “improvisational” part, there is no real structure to these compositions. There are no beats or words or hooks. There are burbling sounds and whooshing sounds and anxious sounds and dangerous sounds. Sometimes the tracks begin slowly and become progressively involved, sometimes they start slow and end slow. Some of it sounds rather cheesey, occasionally it can be inspired.
But it is something that is best consumed in high dosages, the better to get a more complete picture of this ominously weird music. These guys don’t operate in bite-sized chunks: the average track on Emissaries is a little over 10 minutes long. There’s one dinky little three-minute snub of a sketch, but two tracks stretch over 16 minutes in length. RMI have released literally dozens of albums since their inception in 1993. They even formed their own boutique label to handle the massive amount of material being produced—which is something not even Guided By Voices’ Robert Pollard, the crown prince of compulsive recording, ever felt the need to do.
The music on Emissaries was recorded in two bursts. The first disc was recorded in the studio in the fall of 2004, while the second disc presents an abridged recording of a performance for WXPN, Philadelphia, in the wee hours of the night on 9 May 2004. Listening to the second disc gives you a fairly favorable impression of RMI’s output. Mountains of frenetic, constantly morphing synthesizer noise clash against strange, echoey percussion and some flashes of heavy metal guitar. Strangely sampled and reconfigured noises appear and glide over the audience. It’s an odd place to be.
Radio Massacre International are the kind of band who give songs names like “Seeds Crossing the Interstellar Void” and “Sympathy For the Bedeviled”. The sci-fi trappings are nowhere near as disconcerting as they are merely jarring: it’s been so long since anyone in music dared create sci-fi concept albums (ah, Tarkas, we hardly knew ye) that I have to applaud their absolute willingness to flount even the most basic conventions in the name of pursuing their muse with a single-minded dedication. Whether or not it’s any good is beyond my ability to discern. I’ve listened to both of these discs quite a bit and still find my opinion vacillating between intriguing and maddeningly indulgent. You might want to hear these guys for yourself—I can honestly say that they are like little else on the scene as of now. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is probably in the eye of the beholder.