Drums and guitar duo No Age strip out the drums and guitar. What remains feels underdeveloped, but always interesting.
After a brief chiming intro, the first track on No Age's new album opens with the kind of blistering, bare bones guitar riffing that fans of the band's previous, tumultuously energetic albums would expect. But about a minute into "No Ground" – just as you're readying yourself for the kind of fractured, frantic chorus the band excels at – something else happens. The song dissolves into a brief, blurry patch of guitar static, then cuts straight into the next verse. The drums, which you are waiting to kick in... don't. Just before the abrupt end of the song the little fragment of static resolves into a piece of fiddly guitar work, and that's it. That chorus never arrives.
It's a sign of the philosophy that seems to underlie the album as a whole. Not so much in the sonic approach, for most of the rest of the An Object is quieter than "No Ground", but in the willful undermining of expectations. An Object feels on several levels like an attempt to get back to the band's unpredictable, DIY spirit of it's early underground days – so much so that the whole album was made by the band in every possible way, right down to the printing of the sleeve.
To a large extent, An Object does at least succeed in its pursuit of unpredictability. "C'mon Stimmung", all pummeling drums, grinding guitars and bad attitude, plays the same bait and switch trick as “No Ground”, with a brief burst of queasy effects standing in for a conventional chorus. Other tracks drift and drift and then fade out, leaving you none the wiser. "An Impression", which might be the first song about painting from any band linked to the hardcore scene, features what sounds like an accordion. "My Hands, Birch and Steel" and final track "Commerce, Comment, Commence" are so vague as to be virtually ambient.
In a way, it's no mean feat for a duo that was already known for its independent spirit and sonically experimental approach (at least by the standards of the punk scene, from where the band had its roots) to remain unpredictable. But that unpredictability and refusal to bow to genre expectations comes at a cost. Previous records had an underlying California punk ethos holding the band's experimental impulses together and giving energy and excitement to their music. Back then they sounded like a Yo La Tengo or Sonic Youth that had a bunch of Fugazi mixed in with their Velvet Underground records.
With An Object, though, No Age have pretty much dispensed with any pretense that they're any kind of hardcore band. That being the case, it's not quite clear yet whether No Age really know what kind of music they want to make, or how to make it. The album veers wildly between tracks that determinedly resist the temptation to rock out, and end up feeling disengaged - a first for this band - and others that consist of little more than fairly rudimentary thrashing. Neither style feels fully developed, and nor does the album as a whole – at around half an hour long, that's perhaps not surprising.
A band as good as this, though, can't help but produce interesting music even in what sounds like a transitional phase. "I Won't Be Your Generator" manages to skirt the edges of a conventional pop song while remaining true to the band's unadorned ethos, and "C'mon Stimmung" is a enjoyably loopy kick of energy. But "Running from A-Go-Go" is the album's most affecting moment – a bleak, unhappy picture of the downsides of life on the road ("No escaping when it pays your way") that delivers its simple sentiment from the heart. That track is proof enough that this more deliberate, slower-paced side of No Age is worth persevering with. No matter what, No Age have made it clear that they're a band that refuses to look backwards; that alone makes them more than worth watching.