[14 April 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Life coaches are trendy. You hire one if you need someone to get in your corner and rah-rah you all the way to making positive and affirmative personal and professional choices in your life. I should know. I actually hired one at a point in my life when I was stuck in a job with an abusive boss and was trying to light my literary career on fire. The move more or less worked: I dropped the job and started writing again, but the best piece of advice I ever got from my coach was to stop being such a worry wart about what other people thought of me, and only try to control the outgoing message—not what came back as received feedback. This seems to be a message that has gotten through to Phil Manley, a founding member of Trans Am, as well as being associated with acts such as the (pardon me) Fucking Champs, Oneida, and Jonas Reinhardt. Manley released a solo album two years ago called Life Coach, but found that he needed additional bodies to help properly play the music live. Thus, Life Coach, the band, was born, and to listen to the full group’s first album, Alphawaves, they really don’t care what you think. Written as a singular piece, with some songs crashing into each other—so much so that you wouldn’t know where one song ended and another began unless you were looking at the track counter of your CD player—Alphawaves is an album that embraces multiple genres ranging from drone music to psychedelia to sludge rock to krautrock. Or, imagine if Battles had been more influenced by a cross between Sunn O))) and Black Sabbath, and you’d start to get a clear picture of what Life Coach has to offer.
The band is actually a two-piece, with Manley being joined by drummer Jon Theodore of the Mars Volta and One Day as a Lion, with “guest appearances” by sometimes lead guitarist Isaiah Mitchell (Earthless, Golden Void) and Michael Enrod (Date Palms, the Alps). Overall, the eight tracks that comprise Alphawaves are instrumentals, save for a couple songs. And, as alluded to above, it is a stylistic hodgepodge—more of a mixed salad than a melting pot. One song in particular, the aptly named “Into the Unknown”, feels loosely improvised, and it may just as well have been, considering that Theodore’s drums were said to be recorded on the first take with no revisions or overdubs added to the mix. That lends Alphawaves a rather organic and propulsive feel, as though the players were playing without a net (and it seems like they were), and on tenterhooks to boot. As well, the band is content to ride out a feeling as long as they feel necessary at times: the title track jettisons itself into the void for nearly seven minutes, and final song “Ohm” goes on for almost eight. Even the opener, “Sunrise”, a drone piece that clocks in at just more than three minutes, seems to go on much longer than that.
However, there’s a great deal to take in here, with songs and sounds folding into each other: the chime that introduces “Sunrise” appears again briefly on “Alphawaves” and is the very last thing you hear on “Ohm”. But what makes the album particularly magnificent is Mitchell’s heavy metal shredding, which shapes songs like “Alphawaves” and “Mind’s Eye”, the latter of which is a blissful dose of fuzzed-out guitars, drenched in Southern rock traditions. Elsewhere, “Fireball” is the kind of song that could have only come out of ‘70s rock, with echo-y, spacey vocals that give the piece a rather Black Mountain-like feel. Still, the record isn’t all about scuzzy, down-and-dirty rock: “Limitless Possibilities” starts out with ‘80s-style synth of the sort you might hear on a John Hughes movie soundtrack, and a crystalline guitar part playing broken chord progressions. That’s all before the drums kick in and the piece turns into something soaring and anthemic—post-rock that doesn’t quite feel post-rock. So there’s a lot going on with this record, which helps it bear the brunt of repeated listens. There’s always something new to discover, a new sound right around the bend.
That all said, even at just eight songs long, Alphawaves could have used a judicious prune. In particular, “Ohm” tends to go nowhere fast in its drone-y almost eight minutes, and “Into the Unknown”, at a tick more than five minutes, could have cut down some of its more improve-influenced passages. In other words, Alphawaves might have been more successful with an emphasis on focus and craft, rather than just meandering nearly endlessly down whatever garden path the band felt like wandering down. In fact, it should come as no surprise that the songs with vocals, “Fireball” and “Mind’s Eye”, are among the most successful things on the album with an easy-to-parse song structure. Still, Alphawaves is an interesting concept piece, and one worthy of hearing, and there’s plenty of stuff here for those who prefer their music to be a tad unconventional and loose-fitting. And by embracing so many diverse and seemingly at-odds musical styles, Alphawaves is a collection that seeks so much as to not quite emulate past sounds, but make a pastiche out of them. All in all, this is a nearly terrific effort.
The only thing Life Coach, as a band, need to do is actually go against some of that great advice I got a few years ago: its members should actually listen to their critics, and employ the services of an editor or an outside producer better suited to further hone the group’s attack and purpose. There’s some brilliant ideas that this band has; it just needs to refine them and make them so precise that a rocket could be launched and successfully detonate on target to such concepts. As it stands now, Alphawaves is a great first attempt as a full band, one worthy of your paycheque, but it lands the odd dud or two. Refining their sound will help the band immensely in the future, and it should be an intriguing one for this duo-cum-quartet based on what they’ve put together here.