[7 May 2009]
Following Guillermo Scott Herren’s career is a bit like witnessing your dog do a triple lutz without precedent, falling backwards out of your chair, and then watching him fervently for several years to see if he’ll do it again. Rover, meanwhile, doesn’t budge. Were you able to read his doggie thoughts, you might hear, “Look, I’m a busy guy and I can’t do the same thing again and again just to satisfy my easily amused owner.” Or, “Want to see some of my new tricks instead? I’ve got one where I run really far away from you and stare in your direction for a while, then I’ve got one where I—.” Or, “What do you mean you don’t like any of my new tricks? This is classic stuff!” But you aren’t having any of it. You know the lutz is in that dog and that he could probably give you a repeat performance if he were only so inclined to do it.
The triple lutz is One Word Extinguisher, Herren’s 2003 glitch-hop album recorded under his flagship moniker Prefuse 73, and enough years have passed that I think we can now safely call it a classic. So many descriptions have been given to it and so much reverence has been showered upon it that, for the sake of brevity, I’ll just say that its balance of B-boyisms, groove, levity, breaks, IDM wibbliness and sensitivity was nothing less than a miracle. Tom Friedman once wrote in his New York Times column that wildly successful products don’t fulfill existing needs; they provide what people don’t think they need but, after consuming the products, wonder how they ever lived without them. He was referring to what General Motors has to do to remove itself from its current ditch, but he might as well have been talking about this record. For one of Herren’s first times at bat (he had previously released two Prefuse 73 records and some standard-issue IDM as Delarosa & Asora, although he wasn’t much of a name yet), One Word Extinguisher established him as one of the few geniuses in current popular music, the fulfiller of needs we listeners never imagined we had.
So what to do when our purveyor of pitch-perfect glitch-hop wants to try other things and none of them even come close? Because Herren is an artist for whom the word “prolific” insults his output pace, it isn’t surprising that he wouldn’t stay in the same spot for long. Yet his experimentation has yielded little more than pleasant diversions and pale self-imitations since his breakthrough in 2003, and that is surprising. I mean, does genius ever really go away, or even diminish? His career’s equivalent of the dog’s new tricks, which include side projects (Savath + Savalas, Piano Overlord), collaborations (the underrated A Cloud Mireya) and recent Prefuse, are hard to criticize even as they fail to astound. Each novel venture sounds like a labor of love, and the idea that Herren is listening to his own muse—who, if I had to guess, has the same honeyed Spanish purr of his Savath + Savalas vocalist Eva Puyuelo Muns—instead of trying to be everything to everyone is respectable. Still, I can’t help thinking that the reason a throng of us have followed him so closely for so long is because we’ve been holding out for the next time one of his albums knocks the blocks out from under our feet.
Diamond Watch Wrists’ Ice Capped at Both Ends is not that album, but then, it wasn’t really meant to be. Which is strange, because the personnel involved suggests exactly the opposite. Herren manages all of the instruments himself except for the drum kit, which is given over to none other than Hella’s Zach Hill, a musician who never met a drum he couldn’t beat the shit out of. Nimbler than John Stanier (who was actually supposed to be the drummer for this project before he and Herren couldn’t line up their schedules) and wilder than Damon Che, Hill is a Tasmanian devil after 1000 drum lessons who seems to be the perfect match for Herren’s schizophrenic tendencies. Battles’ Tyondai Braxton also contributes his voice to one song, and this is the guy who was responsible for the most famous vocals of 2007. It’s all very exciting, you see. But the nature of the project doesn’t allow for anyone to get too worked up in the studio. Ice Capped at Both Ends, in flagrant contrast to its whip-sexy cover art, is meant to be a set of personal meditations that explore everyday happenings and the contents of Herren’s own headspace. They began as simple acoustic songs, and then he and Hill augmented them with skittering drums and layers of dizzying live and programmed instrumentation. What’s more, Herren verily sings, far more clearly than he has at any point in his career.
The Diamond Watch Wrists sound isn’t completely novel. Traces of it can be found in Herren’s own work, from the pastoral laptop folk of Savath + Savalas to the vague exoticism of A Cloud Mireya to the Native American-tinged melodies of his collaborations with School of Seven Bells. So if Diamond Watch Wrists feels more like another installment from one of Herren’s 82 alter egos instead of an entirely new project, that could be why. It’s significant, though, that the referenced sources are among Herren’s most slight. His output has become somewhat more anemic as of late, including the Prefuse material prior to the newly released Everything She Touched Turned Ampexian, and Ice Capped at Both Ends continues the trend in understandable (if not entirely expected) fashion. There’s great potential and an interesting concept here, in its supposed clash between the psychological introversion that inspired the project and the extraverted instrumentalists bringing it into being, but the personnel haven’t quite figured out how to turn this into good music. The songs flounder in tepid keys and rarely burst out of the mid range, perhaps because they can’t help but sag under Diamond Watch Wrists’ conceptual weight.
It’s tricky to tease apart the individual musicians’ intentions and what they actually came up with, but from simply listening to them do their thing, their results are a decidedly mixed bag. Herren still proves he’s an expert on the computer who knows his way around complex software; from strictly a production standpoint, Ice Capped at Both Ends sounds as though it took a couple years, a cool million dollars and a deft hand to make. But since the equipment isn’t used in the service of anything terrifically exciting, it’s mostly for naught. His vocals only add another middling component, as they don’t complement the music so much as sink into it. Yet they ring with too much clarity to simply be a sound source, as with shoegaze. And still, they wouldn’t have been such an issue if they belonged to songs that allowed them to shine. The way these songs are written, as sets of unbroken, undifferentiated phrases, the lyrics just sit there without grabbing our attention. The biggest surprise on Ice Capped at Both Ends, however, is that Hill doesn’t command our attention either. He sounds utterly lost inside Herren’s constructions, too often resorting to a skitter-skitter-skitter-skitter-skitter-skitter-skitter-THWACK drum pattern that grows tiresome. And Braxton? His vocals aren’t even treated. Whatever.
Taken on their own, certain songs show signs of a rewarding album in the midst of what Diamond Watch Wrists have largely given us. The beginning of the first track, “My Last Time in This Place”, even provides a glimpse into what a Prefuse 73-plus-Hella project might truly look like: a hailstorm of drumbeats from a caffeinated octopus, bolting down julienned acoustic guitars both straightly played and backmasked. It’s a red herring, of course; it lasts one minute, and then Herren croons weakly over blah guitar strums, “This is the last time I leave this place,” so beginning the journey we take to the finish line 11 tracks later. “Polite Passage” sports an interesting melodic fabric and some metallic growls that I’ve never before heard in Herren’s music, but at a minute and a half it’s way too short. “One Second Early Late” and “Epidemic Episodes of Epidemics” are dreamier and more layered than the average Diamond Watch Wrists song, bringing the surrealism inherent in the project further to the fore. Mostly, though, these tracks all sound the same, and if you asked me to recall the melody from virtually any of them while I’m sitting in the dunk tank and you’re three feet away with a softball, I’d be a goner. The track titles are a duller and more random assemblage of words than is usually Herren’s wont, and that’s a pretty accurate way to analogize Ice Capped at Both Ends without actually having to play it.
Not that I would suggest that you don’t play it; I wouldn’t. For Ice Capped at Both Ends, and the Diamond Watch Wrists venture by extension, is one of Guillermo Scott Herren’s most fascinating flops. Of Herren’s three albums released during the months of April and May (one as Prefuse 73 and another as Savath + Savalas), this is by far the most unrealized, partly, I think, because we had the least idea about what this album was actually supposed to resemble. The descriptors I surmise the public expects to correspond with a project like this—edgy, thrilling, sensual, tender, controversial—are nowhere to be found, although it’s worth considering that perhaps Herren willed it to turn out this way. We could go absolutely berserk imagining all that Ice Capped at Both Ends could have been, but from the perspective of someone pushing for Herren to do a second triple lutz, all that matters is that, this time, he didn’t. Oh well. Still, Diamond Watch Wrists possesses a very welcome idea (Herren is one of the most interesting personalities in electronica, and I’d love to see him reveal more peepholes into his psyche), a sweet combination of musicians, and yes, the potential for greatness. With any luck, it will live to skate another day.