Depending on its context, the music of the Eternals is either a blessing or bane for music critics. The band’s sound is practically tailor-made for accolades. It is fresh, skillful, interesting, complex, unique, and, as critics love to say, it “rewards repeated listens”. Ironically, these qualities are not always positive for reviewers. Writing about an album usually requires classifying it, and the work of the Eternals defies such an endeavor. Even repeated listens will fail to yield adjectives that capture the essence of the band’s sound. The Chicago-based musicians described their own music with the title of their 2004 album, The Rawar Sound. On their latest album, they chose a simpler title, but one that is no less fitting for the group’s sound. Heavy International is ponderous, eclectic, and not to be missed by fans of experimental music.
Most critics describe an album by comparing it to other well-known music. The problem with Heavy International is that it is both overwhelmingly eclectic and completely original. The album’s mix of funk, dub, punk, ska, jazz, techno, and experimental rock brings a host of bands to mind. Heavy International might draw comparisons with everyone from Gang of Four and Talking Heads to Lee “Scratch” Perry and Ui; however, the Eternals don’t really sound like any other musicians. Attempting to find adequate comparisons for Heavy International is as futile as searching for a needle in a haystack and naming every piece of straw you encounter along the way.
Heavy International kicks off with “The Mix Is So Bizarre”, a song which encapsulates the entire album. The title could be a spoken reaction of an average person listening to the album. Behind the music’s apparent weirdness, however, is real craftsmanship and musical skill. The band establishes its modus operandi at the beginning of the first track when a bouncing bassline begins and a tight, funk horn lick soon joins it. Throughout the album, there is interplay between the loose repetition of the danceable bassline and the overlying rhythmic complexity of the other instruments. The first track also demonstrates vocalist Damon Locks’s unique lyrical style. At times, his words seem almost arbitrarily chosen, yet they demonstrate a keen sense of assonance and internal rhyme that make them more musical. Oftentimes, the lyrics seem like just another piece of the larger sonic fabric.
Heavy International does not lend itself well to a review focused on highlights. Each track is a unique listening experience that could support several written pages of commentary. Nevertheless, a handful of tracks do stand out as being particularly interesting. “Patch of Blue” is a percussion-driven track with harsh electronic samples and off-key falsetto harmonies. “Beware the Swordbat”, with its dub bassline, perky horns, and female backup singers who could either be singing backup for a Latin pop tune or a Bollywood soundtrack, is a tropical club hit filtered through a nightmare. “Crime” will bore its way into listeners’ heads with an elaborate bassline, spacy samples, lazy psychedelic vocal melodies, and acrobatic lyrical turns. “Too Many People (Do the Wrong Thing)” has a delicious jazzy vibe part that moves in serpentine counterpoint to the bobbing bass.
Ironically, the aspect of Heavy International that will make it impossible for mainstream listeners to swallow is what makes it most successful. The album serves no other purpose but its own musical ends. It is neither catchy nor singable, and even though it uses dance styles, it is unlikely to infiltrate a club playlist. It’s not even, as some experimental soundscapes can be, good background music. Heavy International is music that only yields its musical treasures to attentive listeners. These people will be astonished at the skill of the Eternals, who subtly manipulate the rhythmic texture of each piece to create satisfying development. They will also be impressed with the way the group creates an improvisational feel within a context of careful arrangement. The album will alienate the impatient and confound those who refuse to encounter the music on its own terms. In other words, Heavy International is a work of art.
Some critics might call Heavy International futuristic, but the reality is that the album fits well into an established tradition of experimental music. The Eternals’ latest release hearkens back to a time when a trip to the studio was a time to explore the limits of recording technology, pay homage to the sounds of the past, and create an enduring artistic statement. Whether or not Heavy International is a truly great album is, of course, a matter for future generations to decide. All today’s listeners can do is seek out the album, tell their friends, listen with open ears, and help the music survive until a final judgment can be made.