[8 March 2009]
To say Amateur Dramatics, the fourth LP from Minotaur Shock, the electronic mouthpiece of David Edwards, wants you to pay close attention to it classifies as a bit of an understatement. Rather, with its grandiose tangents, meticulous attention to texture and deliberate, pseudo-classical development, this record often seems as though it wants you to sit down with pencil and paper and start taking notes. And while an album that begs a schoolwork analogy might not seem like the most appetizing thing in the world, Amateur Dramatics buoys by a consistently playful air—a class taught by the wacky, bow-tied science professor cool enough to let you perform the occasional experiment involving a small explosion.
While Edwards does seem serious about wanting you to, ideally, sit down and inspect his work through a pair of opera glasses, at least he’s good natured about it. The sound of Amateur Dramatics is, for all its progressive IDM conceits, uncompromisingly gentle, congregating at some crossroads between Selected Ambient Works, Another Green World and Battles-esque whimsy. Even the glitches—things that should, by its very nature, introduce some edge— pepper the album subtly, forming just another light sprinkling of texture in Edwards’ half-electronic, half-organic orchestra.
That’s perhaps the most interesting aspect of Amateur Dramatics: The way Edwards’ numerous traditional instruments rub up against his pixilated synths and still manage to form a perfectly cohesive whole. One particularly beautiful moment occurs in “This Plane is Going to Fall”: Just shy of the three-minute mark, the beats break down to reveal sunset-drenched strings that weave in and out of the various peripheral synths, occasionally glitching out and becoming one with them, before the beats come back in and the sole (female) vocal sample on the album brings us back to the song proper—all in around 20 seconds.
Amateur Dramatics has several such moments buried in the folds of its songs, and it’s a shame most listeners won’t be moved to seek them out thanks to Edwards’ pastoral-meets-synthetic aesthetic (yeah, call it “folktronica” if you feel like being that irritating), which might be too gentle and restrained for its own good. As intelligently constructed as these songs are—even the slightest of them, the brief “Two Magpies”, has more musical intricacies than all but the most complex piece of conventional pop—each could stand to be a bit more aggressive in grabbing the listener.
This is an album filled with “hooks”, not hooks. Sure, lots of repetition occurs throughout, and Edwards will often (as in the near-baroque opener “Zoo Keeper”) hang with a single motif for a long time, stretching it and compacting it and layering it until it becomes something else entirely, but such aural laser-light shows risk falling on deaf ears when the raw material one works with proves uninteresting in the first place. The horn lead of “AmDram” and the synth arpeggio that serves as the backbone of “My Burr” all seem like fine hooks on paper: Each classifies as compact and recognizably melodic, begging for peripheral instruments to soldier around them—but run them through your head a few times, and one finds each lack the elusive alchemy that makes a musical phrase infectious. Each consistently fails to find a cozy place to settle in one’s mind, which ultimately makes one appreciate how tightly crafted that riff from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” really is.
What one takes from Amateur Dramatics will stem directly from what one wants out of his or her albums. If you’re looking for something that dives straight for the pleasure receptors of your mind, then you’re probably out of luck. If you don’t mind music that makes you work a bit before it surrenders its rewards, then you’ll certainly find several things to like here, though it’s doubtful you’ll find any to cherish. For the rest of us who are too lazy to pick up a pencil when Edwards asks us to take notes but too polite to tune him out entirely, we’ve got some nice, avant-garde dinner music on our hands.