Earlier this year Low uproariously invaded critics’ hearts with their exceptionally un-uproarious release Things We Lost in the Fire. Featuring quiet vocals and soothing, lazy guitars, Things We Lost in the Fire is like a silent desert island in the middle of a tumultuous storm. Seattle’s Tagging Satellites follow in this tradition, favoring the subtle over the obvious, the discreet over the bombastic. Risk of Flight EP is aptly titled—in a recording awash with clean guitars, simple drum patterns, and warm keyboards, there is a definite fear of taking off and riding the music into the sunset on a wave of distortion. The result is a grounded record—one content to win you over with tenderness rather than aggression.
This is quite a change for a band that has previously explored a more Sonic Youth-like sound, bolstered by atonal guitar textures, lazy, restrained vocals, and looped experimental blips and buzzes. There are lingering reminders of the old Tagging Satellites on this record—“Perfect Dream” and “Church on Sunday” erupt from quiet, static ambience into vicious, bitter distorted swirls of fury and noise. Lead singer Zera Marvel does her best PJ Harvey, spitting out words in a voracious piss of emotion. On “Church on Sunday”, Marvel is positively livid with resentment, bellowing out in her low, masculine tenor, “You just stood by . . . and laughed.”
But those tracks are not the real pleasures of this EP. It is when guitarist/producer Graig Markel packs up his distortion pedal that this record really takes off (by not taking off). On the tracks “Circles”, “Glow”, and “Break and Dive”, Tagging Satellites weave an intricate, moody texture of guitars, keys, strings, and dreamy vocals. Recalling the soft sweetness of Low, these anti-noise tracks create a rich tapestry of claustrophobia, sucking you into their sterile vacuum where the air is still and your voice disappears as soon as it has left your throat. In this way, Tagging Satellites are direct heirs to the best work done by Brian Eno and Joy Division rather than Sonic Youth or the Pixies.
The opener “Circles” begins with a simple, arpegiated guitar line before a dizzy keyboard wobble dances around the melody, held together by Shea Bliss’s simple, understated drum line. Whereas on the noise tracks Marvel was vicious and animalistic, on these softer songs she is languorous and lazy, softly crooning the chorus’ simple hook, “Oooooh . . . go down, Oooooh . . . go down.”
This minimalist impulse finds its fruition on the wonderfully sparse “Glow”. Held in check by Bliss’s staccato drumbeat, Marvel sings a simple, repeated three-note-incantation “Aaaah . . . Aaaah . . . Aaaah.” A subtle, mesmerizing track, “Glow” stops midway, leaving Markel’s clean electric guitar and low, grumbling cello to gently, sleepily escalate to a superbly understated climax. Whereas the noise guitar opuses come off as generic and unoriginal (in fact, this sub-genre of nouveau Sonic Youth was already perfected earlier this year by the Twigs’ on their record Epicure), these quiet keyboard-guitar vignettes are amazingly well-crafted, masterfully produced, and exude a calm air of true, simple musical expertise and style.
This all-too-short twenty-two minute EP winds to a close with the wonderfully simple instrumental “Break and Dive”. Clean electric guitars circle around a warm bed of synths and cellos while a sparse tambourine holds the simple 4/4 beat in check. The track perfectly encapsulates the new musical avenues Tagging Satellites have explored with this release. The hour is late, maybe 2 or 3 a.m. The lights are low. You hear voices murmuring but your eyelids are too heavy to allow you to look around. You simply fall asleep, hypnotized by the warm, comforting repetition of your own chest slowly rising up and down as you breathe. The somnambulistic Risk of Flight EP is the gentle, silent sound in your ears as you drift off to sleep.