With its reliance on minimal beats to build up its sound, the album is less something destined for the dance floor than something you can appreciate on the hi-fi in your living room.
What can be said about Death After Life, the debut LP by Chicago-by-way-of-Denver’s Thug Entrancer aka Ryan McRyhew? If you look around online, you may get the indication that this is a noir-ish, dark album of throwback electronica, indicative of the Chicago Juke scene and full of 808 rhythms. However, it is really one that can only be determined for as much as its avowal of celestial sounds as much as it throws off the shackles of its netherworld ones. It exists, in a word, in purgatory. That’s not to say that the album isn’t well crafted: it is presented in a suite of eight numbered songs, giving the album a classical music (or death metal, take your pick) feel.
There’s much that is remarkable about this album, though it does throw the odd curveball into the mix that brings it down a few notches on the ol’ critical score pegs, as it creates an otherworldly landscape reminiscent of the electronica of the 1980s. As much as the press release wants you to believe that this album was created organically on the fly, if you listen closely and hard enough, it becomes apparent that Death After Life is a weaving of sonic collage. Songs shift subtly, giving the album a propulsive force and a sense of technique that seems relatively unrivaled.
It is, however, easier to talk about the deficiencies of the record first, because they tend to stick out like a sore thumb. Not to be negative, but Death After Life could have been an even stronger and more cohesive work if some of its excesses were dialed down a bit. For instance, track “III” is pleasant enough throughout most of its nine-and-a-half minute runtime, but the final “movement”, if you want to call it such, of the song is full of garish sound effects that would have seemed more at home on Space Invaders run amok rather than the jumpy feel of the track that it is a part of. This is a part of the record, and perhaps the only major part, where listeners might feel inclined to hit the skip button. It could have easily been excised, an indulgence that just feels much too much.
Opening track “I”, meanwhile, enters a little abrupt, and doesn’t feel like an album starter, without building to something that might seem like a crescendo. As well, the CD and digital versions of the album are appended by two bonus tracks called “Ready to Live Pt. 1” and “Ready to Live Pt. 2” that even the press materials can’t seem to suss out whether or not these two tracks work best at the beginning of the material or, in its current incarnation, at the very end, although “Ready to Live Pt. 2” feels more like an album ender than the proper closing track “VII”.
So what we have with Death After Life is a muddled and confusing affair, but that doesn’t mean that the individual moments of the album aren’t good. When this album hits the mark, it really does well, and, aside from the missteps outlined above, this album does feel like a grand artistic statement that just barely exceeded the grasp of its creator. “II” enters on a hi-hat and dropping beats, with a hint of vinyl scratchiness, before getting militant in sound. “III”, before its sonic detour into the abyss, is built on ping-pongy beats that thud and give the track a rather Blade Runner cadence. “VI” might be the most memorable thing on the album, with its reliance on divergent synth stabs that are icy cool. “VII” is glitchy and a pure cascade of sound, and though it doesn’t seem to end well, or at least in a memorable, way, is a good fit for the material – if it had been repositioned and repurposed and perhaps placed elsewhere. And “Ready to Live Pt. 1” gradually builds and builds into something that comes down hard on the other side of the electro fence, before transforming into something that might make for background carnival or circus music.
When all is said and done, Death After Life is an intriguing, if somewhat flawed listen. With its reliance on minimal beats to build up its sound, the album is less something destined for the dance floor than something you can appreciate on the hi-fi in your living room. There’s a real subtlety at work here, the way that many of these songs sneak up on the listener, and offer something of real value and worth to those who appreciate the sonics of electronic music from some 30 odd years ago. While the album is cold, it never comes off as completely glacial, which lands it the purgatory tag bestowed upon it earlier. If anything, the disc is a statement of intent, and might be more of a taster of a direction that the artist might be embarking in over the long haul, rather than something individual and marked on its own. By the time you reach the haunting bonus track “Ready to Live Pt. 2”, a reason to buy this album on compact disc or digitally, there’s a sense of profound lingering. But, taken individually, the album is full of moments of tiny decadence, and though it never really coheres as a whole, there’s a sense of being taken aback by this album. Perhaps there’s more to Death After Life than the atheists would have us believe. This album, as good and as slightly disappointing as it is, is proof of that.