Oh yes, the 1990s. I remember having the following conversation with a friend or two as another person was trying to hang the de rigueur Pulp Fiction poster on a wall right on top of a massive PC monitor:
– Do you think we’ll ever look back and celebrate this decade in music?
– No, not really. After all, what has come out that will be worth our time and attention in 10 years’ time?
We were serious. Seriously sober, seriously reflective, seriously convinced that almost nothing would be worth a revival in the incoming years. And who needed a revival in the future? After all, who cared about the 1980s in 1999?
Yes, we were wrong, but so is nostalgia. Foundering in a saccharine sea of wistfulness is a delightful and all-too-easy custom. It is a cheap albeit rewarding medium that toys with the reassuring idea that memories can’t be wrong. But the question I can hear you posing is: are these Londoners any different? And why should we bother? One thing at a time. The main discriminant between a bluff and the worthwhile is quality, and smallgang have plenty of it. Listen to “Dust” and that snare drum taking that bass for a ride, for instance, and let me know if the likes of Dianogah, Superchunk, and their clean approach to noise don’t cause your thoughts to stir in a maelstrom of hair gel and teenage aches. This is the 1990s condensed and reverted to their liquid state; atomic clusters danced, reshuffled, and became this song, this sound, and precisely this album.
If there’s a method behind this apparent delusion, it is a mechanism devoid of toadyism: a spontaneous combustion of attributes reassembled to become unique and definitely interesting. Brothers Simon and Toshi Kobayashi, together with good friend Matt Atkins, have a minimalist approach to making a song round and flowing. You single out the guitar and you can hear echoes of David Pajo’s Aerial M. But when those strings accompany the drums, a special hybrid takes shape somewhere between June of 44 and early (not too early: let’s say Futureworld kind of era) Trans Am. San (a mere reference to the number 3 in Japanese – and smallgang are a trio, yes, you got it) retains a dark approach which envelopes the overall opus, even when the sound comes to terms with a somehow more accessible (“Cards”, “Into Night”) flow. Still, we are light years away from the banality of evil music and well into the complex normality of post-post-rock.
Energetic? Yes. Powerful? Not quite. Nobody in their right mind will ever condemn smallgang for not being Big Black, but it is also true that San would have benefited from a more generous dose of intensity and volatility. Moreover, hints here and there suggest that the band’s quest for originality is successful whenever it aims to re-elaborate old entities and new actors like Arcade Fire (“Hibernation”) or Editors (“A Wolf or a Portal”), but the problem here is that such an abundance of excellent tunes translate into an apparent loss of direction, which is a perfectly excusable dearth considering that the band has dropped its entire back catalog in favor of this new direction. Will it pay in the end? It might. We’ll wait and see. We’re safe until time is on our side. And nostalgia remains on the other.