Before plugging away at this review, a car alarm went off somewhere in the city streets outside of my apartment. Being the annoying nature of a car alarm, the thing went on for a few minutes, a horn honking in a steady, rhythmic beat that seemingly never would stop. It eventually did, much to the relief of my sanity, but the experience made me wonder: could this be a new form of rock music? There was an underlying, traditional structure to the alarm: one beat on, one beat off, upbeat, downbeat. It was also “experimental” and “boundary pushing” in that it went on for an indeterminate length of time – there was certainly an expectation of continuity, but I was on the edge of my seat waiting for the thing to stop and for the structured regularity of silence (or relative silence as being a resident of a bustling downtown core can muster) to seep back in. It was a weird feeling to experience this alarm before sitting down to review the rather out-there British band Volcano the Bear’s latest album. In many respects, Golden Rhythm / Ink Music, the first studio album from the group in five years, is the musical equivalent of a car alarm – both familiar and punishing at the same time.
The group clearly has a rock based rhythmic structure down pat, but there are tunes on this eight track long album that push well beyond the boundaries of rock music, incorporating elements of Middle Eastern music, American freak folk, jazz, and Dadaist literary absurdity. There’s both a sense of the well known here, and the sense of exploring weird new territories in equal measure. That shouldn’t be a huge surprise to followers of this quartet, which has been around since 1995, as many reviewers bandy about comparisons to the likes of This Heat and the Residents, among others, when tackling this band head on. I’d like to add one more: I think Volcano the Bear shares an odd similarity to Pere Ubu around their The Modern Dance days. True, Pere Ubu were playing what was essentially punk music in new, experimental ways, and Volcano the Bear tends to come to the table through the opposite end of that equation, but both bands are plying both the familiar and unfamiliar, and use vocals as a means of expression – another instrument or colouring, rather than as a straight-forward guide through narrative.
When it comes to Golden Rhythm / Ink Music, Volcano the Bear is essentially operating in either of one of two modes. They’re either playing music in an expansive and elongated way – a few of the songs hover around the six and seven minute marks, with one track, “Fireman Show”, being 10 minutes long – or things are short and compact and generally pretty weird, particularly in the mid-section of the record – “Bravo” runs for a mere 43 seconds. Generally speaking, the longer tracks are far more the much more engaging ones, and you can get lost in them as they unspool their loopy sonic narratives. “Buffalo Shoulder”, which opens the disc, starts off with a single keyboard chord depressed, against a buzzing sound and the fluttering of either recorded birds or manipulated tapes. But then it launches into an actual streamlined song, complete with vocals that recall that of a Gregorian chant, with some instrumental noodling that seems reminiscent of ’70s-style prog rock. It’s a bewildering track, but doesn’t even approach the oddity of the follow-up song, “Baby Photos”, which opens up with ghostly keyboards that feel dialed in from another planet altogether, before the song finally takes form and shape as regular rock instrumentation – guitars, vibes and organ – slowly get added to the mix. It’s pretty strange a first, but then when you get to the chorus, with its sitars and screams of “baby photos” practically wailed, the weird turns pretty pro.
The weirdness quotient really gets ramped up on the aforementioned short mid-point of the record. “Bravo” just features that singular word chanted over and over against all sorts of tape loops, and you have to wonder if the band might have been better served putting it at the end of the album to emphasize the self-congratulatory nature of the track. The jazzy-meets-avant-garde two-minute “Quiet Salad” features trumpets that sound like braying elephants, harps or some kind of other stringed instrumentation being plucked against all sorts of slurping tape sounds. It’s on this section of the album that things get pretty far out, but before Golden Rhythm / Ink Music threatens to lose its way, things get longer and a little bit more structured again. The six-minutes-plus of “Spurius Ruga” features that trumpet and a section of plucked instruments against the menacing sounds of held keyboard notes and drones, sounding almost exotic and otherworldly – but after about a minute-and-a-half of jazzing around, addictive hand claps enter the fore before, at the 2:34 mark, the song takes another sonic detour into something that might have come out of Ravi Shankar’s discography. What’s really of note is final track, and arguable album highlight, “Fireman Show”, which features a repeated guitar line over two bars of music that are generally repeated throughout the song as a motif, until things turn almost free-jazzy with the presence of that golden trumpet yet again and yelped vocals.
Let’s be frank: a band like Volcano the Bear isn’t going to be to everyone’s tastes, and there are certainly some “clear the room” elements to be found on Golden Rhythm / Ink Music. However, whatis surprising about the album is just how musical it can be at times, and how warm, inviting and invigorating it can be. Golden Rhythm / Ink Music isn’t a groundbreaking release or will necessarily have the listener experience new music in resoundingly different ways all of the time, but it’s musical enough to be enjoyable to some who are willing to come along for the ride over some uneven and experimental-for-the-sake-of-experimental tendencies that the band tends to take on. If anything Golden Rhythm / Ink Music really lacks, it’s focus, though that might be expected considering the rather long gestation for the album: certain “songs” (if you want to call them that) were initially recorded in October 2008, and “Spurius Ruga” dates back all the way to August 2006, so there are times when the record feels very piece-meal in how it was put together.
However, Golden Rhythm / Ink Music is a record that offers rewards upon repeated listens to it. There’s enough structure here to offer those who enjoy music to be as unchallenging as possible something to chew on, and there’s enough freak out moments for those who want music to be more like a cheese grater being dragged repeatedly across one’s face to shake a stick at. This has me questioning any comparisons of this music to car alarms: the latter is annoying and repetitive for the sake of scaring away would-be criminals and thieves, and the other is, well, repetitive to be sure. However, when you listen to Golden Rhythm / Ink Music, the feeling you get isn’t of hoping that the record ends as soon as humanly possible: you might find yourself wanting to listen to it all over again, to tease out some of the surprises lying in wait that you might have missed the first time around. And there are lots of surprises to be had here. The only real non-surprise about the record lies in the fact that, like a repetitively honking horn, it eventually stops and, to those who don’t like to be challenged at least, relative normalcy is restored.