Being totally honest with myself, I have to admit that in my heart of hearts, I’m simply a pop fan, to the point that finding pop at the core of some rock, some dance, some techno, some country, etc. is the most pleasurable aspect of music for me. I’m willing to suspend my pop tendencies long enough to give any music the chance to transport me to a place beyond pop, but it has to be powerfully motivating to succeed.
To that end, I’m not the best candidate to get into full discussions on art rock, post-rock, or avant noise. It also means that I’ve never been too interested in bands like Hovercraft, and only marginally so in bands like Stereolab (although they cross over into pop territory enough to have a place on my map). Since Schema is an act that cares intimately about these genres of music, and its members are simply the members of Hovercraft with Mary Hansen of Stereolab in to lay down some ambient vocals, this was certainly an odd match of recording to reviewer.
Because I know that this is outside my territory to a large degree, and wanting to be fair, I took a lot of time listening to this disc (at 36 minutes of total playing time, it’s not hard to have listened to it a dozen or so times) before committing myself to a stance on it. Admittedly, the first time I spun this disc, I pretty much had no use for it. All guitar static with bad drum machine beats and ambient programmed keyboard tones. Song structure thrown out the window for effect. Not much pop here, in other words.
But then I picked it again and listened a couple of months later. I pulled new sounds out of the atmospheric noise, made new connections, and discovered a little more texture than the first few runs through. Then I set it aside, still baffled at how to approach a review of the disc, picked up it still later and discovered more. And that’s what Schema is ostensibly all about.
The media kit speaks to the bands name being a sort of challenge to find patterns in sound. These definitely exist within the five tracks on this album, in spite of the loose, and sometimes nonexistent, structures. Or, maybe it would be better stated that the structures of each song are there, being tightly controlled, but hidden in a place that requires an active listening engagement to reach.
The first time I tried to write this review, I was tempted to just give up and give a play-by-play account of how each song moves and changes before becoming the next, but that read like that person who gives you the overly complicated version of a simple movie’s plot. The changes in sound and texture are too numerable to recount, and even if attempted, gives little to no real sense of how they fit together or even what they really sound like. Translating music like this into words is just plain difficult.
As the songs themselves go, there are a few moments of solid chunks to hold onto and appreciate. The most straightforward track is “We Think We’re Sane”, which finds Hansen chanting dreamily a litany of rhyming words that after a while begin to feel like a story in the sense of traditional lyrics, but this schema itself is a ruse. It’s as if the title of the song suggests that what we think we hear in the word patterns is an illusion to mask our own insanity in the face of language’s essentially insurmountable walls. It doesn’t take an education in semiotics to feel the impasse created between traditional songcraft and the song presented here. In what might be an unintentional accident of the effects laden vocals, at times Hansen’s chorus, which repeats the title of the song sounds like “we think the same”, which is interestingly fitting in the song’s context.
“Far From Where We Began” also plays with the idea of songs in relation to one another. The repetitious guitar warblings are similar in tone and feedback to the guitars that drench the opening track, “Unde”, yet the “la la la” vocals of Hansen and the steady drone that plays underneath the song suggests a progression from the opening moments of the album to a new place in the overall sound. These patterns are also evident in the structuring of the song order itself. At only five tracks in length, the album begins with “Unde”, then moves to “We Think We’re Sane”. After this is the full-fledged aural assault of “Echolalia…Curvilinear”. With feedback and distortion played to a fever pitch, followed by an near-silence break sewn together with lightly audible ambient noises, and then moving back up to a frenetic pace with slippery sounds of keys and guitar, the song embodies its title perfectly, including the ellipses. After the exhausting nearly 12 minutes of “Echolalia”, the album moves on to “Far From Where We Began”, extending the drone into a dying moment as it transforms into the sparse beats and spacey beeps of “Getting Smarter”, which closes the album on a dying note. In their quest for a pattern, Schema have put together a singularly coherent cycle which is complete in its total composition.
After all of this, I’m still not sure what I think of the album. It’s certainly grown on me, and I still find little bits that I missed before in previous listenings (such as faintly recorded phrases that sound like some sort of factory training tape with lines like “the manipulator arm” and “there are large areas that still exist in the control axis” but which are deliberately obscured by a double-recording of what sounds like the same sample played backwards on top of the original), but it’s not the kind of thing I’d hurriedly recommend to a friend or thrown on at the end of a long day on the job to relax. Music should make you work sometimes, engage a thinking and active part of the brain, and too much of pop never does that, but the values of feedback, distortion, and drawn out pretention are few and far between as well. If Hovercraft is your bag, then I’m sure Schema is sure to satisfy. If you’d rather engage with the radio than art rockers, then you might not like this at first, but if you give it a moment, you’ll find that there’s more depth in this work than the surface admits.