This album was meant to be a “rock ’n’ roll chamber of magic", but, in truth, the end result is more like a distorted hall of mirrors that render an otherwise skinny person into something fat and ugly.
Back in 2006, I was ecstatic about the self-titled debut album from Norway’s Serena-Maneesh. Even though I did think the record tapered off somewhat after the astounding first four tracks into an indistinguishable din, I put the song “Selina’s Melodie Fountain” on a number of mix CDs for friends, and that song was in constant rotation in my CD player for a time as well. To me, that song made the album, and I would eagerly solicit feedback from my friends on my selection of choice. One of the more memorable comments I got back went something like, “You know, that song is alright, but if I wanted to listen to My Bloody Valentine, I’d listen to My Bloody Valentine.” Dejected as I was at that comment, my friend did have a point. Serena-Maneesh weren’t exactly reinventing the wheel. They were a clone-like shoegazer band that displayed their primary influence quite proudly, right down to the angelic female vocals. However, they did what they did really well, at least on “Selina’s Melodie Fountain”, which merged a killer guitar hook in its intro and verses that seemed to float by on vapour trails.
Flash-forward four years and the long-overdue follow-up album called, rather clumsily, S-M 2: Abyss in B Minor is finally here. It’s titled like a sequel, and for those like my friend who wrote Serena-Maneesh off as a copycat band, they won’t find a lot here to change their impression. Abyss in B Minor is notable in that it took two years to record, and roughly two months to mix. With that kind of laborious production history, Serena-Maneesh seems to have not wanted listeners to forget about My Bloody Valentine. Recall that Loveless had a similarly lengthy (and troubled) recording process.
Well, I hate to break it listeners, but Loveless this ain’t. The thing with My Bloody Valentine is that, despite all of the processing they put on their sound, and the nifty trick with the guitar tremolo bar employed by Kevin Shields, they had ethereal hooks and melodies pushed to the front and center. All of their adornments were exactly that, and they never got in the way of a good song.
Serena-Maneesh, on the other hand, have approached S-M 2: Abyss In B Minor as an exercise not in song craft, but as an experiment to see how many sound effects, overdubs, edits, and random licks they could cram into a tune. The band even went so far as to record some of the basic tracks for the album in a cave outside of Oslo. The press release from Serena-Maneesh’s new record label, 4AD, quotes band leader Emil Nikolaisen as saying this album was meant to be a “rock ’n’ roll chamber of magic,” but, in truth, the end result is more like a distorted hall of mirrors that render an otherwise skinny person into something fat and ugly.
For instance, while the album’s two-minute long high water-mark “I Just Want to See Your Face” features lovely kitten-like female vocals and practically radiates sunshine out of the speakers, it feels claustrophobic with its heavily reverbed (and low in the mix) wah-wah guitar competing with a muddy bass line. The ending is also spliced up by a heavy metal guitar lick that is out of place. The nearly eight-minute long opening track “Ayisha Abyss” is similarly jam-packed to the gills with all sorts of atmospheric guitar and keyboard flourishes and some backwards tape looping.
That said, the new album finds the band, on the surface, seemingly expanding their musical horizons a bit in “Ayisha Abyss”, as it sounds to these ears like a rewrite of Primal Scream’s “Kill All Hippies” from 2000’s XTRMNTR with the drum-and-bass beats of “Swastika Eyes” swiped in. The only difference being that the loopy movie sampled dialogue of “Kill All Hippies” is replaced with whispered, barely-there vocals.
The comparison to XTRMNTR is one that Serena-Maneesh is all too happy to make, as the press notes for S-M 2: Abyss in B Minor talk about that album as an influence, and it’s one that has been picked up on by at least one other Web-based music media related outlet in examining the merits of this record (cough, cough, Pitchfork, cough). That’s notwithstanding that the mixer for Abyss was Nick Terry, who has worked Primal Scream. And let’s not overlook the fact that XTRMNTR was mixed by none other than the one and only Kevin Shields. In a roundabout way, it seems that putting a new band to emulate into the mix just led Serena-Maneesh back to the original article.
Like its predecessor before it, S-M 2: Abyss in B Minor experiences a tapering-off after the opening salvo of the first few songs -- in this case, three. A particularly noteworthy (and cringe-worthy) contender is the hard riffage of “Honeyjinx”, which is the aural equivalent of a cow being slowly stretched apart by the two core members of Sunn O))) at opposing ends. Metallic flourishes flit in and out of this record, which is not surprising considering that Nikolaisen was a member of Extol, a heavy metal band.
It’s not that the band doesn’t try: album closer “Magdalena (Symphony #8)” has an almost Thievery Corporation kind of feel, with its foray into flute-y lite-jazz. Even there, though, Serena-Maneesh attempt too hard to create a sonic sculpture by cramming in all sorts of instrumentation, most notably wavering keyboards and guitars that threaten at points to swallow the song whole. Meanwhile, the overly-repetitive “Melody for Jaana” is the band at their most My Bloody Valentine-like, with a distorted fuzzed-out guitar backing up plaintive acoustic strumming that goes on, at six minutes, at least five minutes too long.
S-M 2: Abyss in B Minor is thus a difficult record, but one not in the same canon of difficult as, say, the Fiery Furnaces’ Blueberry Boat, which also had snippets of grandiose melodies that crept up in its flotsam and jetsam of song snippets. Listening to Abyss takes patience and elbow grease on the part of the listener, but the record offers up limited rewards for the effort. At 37 minutes, it feels too short to be epic, at least on the level that Serena-Maneesh is shooting for. It also lacks catchy, listenable songs.
One of the good things that could be said about S-M 2: Abyss in B Minor is that the album doesn’t have the bloat of the debut, which was nearly an hour long and boasted a 12-minute long droning closing track. However, Abyss feels like a plunge into a cavern that is more nightmarish than exhilarating. Honestly, your money and time would be better spent buying a second copy of Loveless than enduring this unendurable attempt at sonic collage.