This is an album that works best when you sit down and think about it afterward, so the appeal is not necessarily apparent upon casual listening.
Toronto’s Absolutely Free was born of the ashes of defunct art punk band DD/MM/YYYY, and has been patient in leading up to the release of the band's debut full-length disc, Absolutely Free.. During the past two years, the group has just released two singles as a primer for the direction of this eight-song collection. However, the trio -- comprising Matt King (drums/vocals), Moshe Rozenberg (synths/drums) and Mike Claxton (synths/bass) -- hasn’t been resting on its laurels. The band is currently working on three things: a feature-length film score, commissioned remixes, and the third installment in the group's singles series. Apt, about that first point in the preceding sentence, as Absolutely Free. is light and airy, and has a certain panoramic feel to it. Heck, even the animated video for "Beneath the Air" has cinematic ambition as it is mostly comprised of some 3,500 painstakingly hand-painted frames. So, yes, Absolutely Free is a group with lofty goals, but the band hardly comes across as pretentious. Indeed, the album the trio is unleashing has accessible entry points, drawing from sounds as diverse as krautrock, neo-psychedelia, and electronic music. It’s quite the stew, quite the concoction.
Despite that, some patience is required to reap the benefits of this group’s style. You might need to listen to this record a number of times to really let it all sink in. The eight songs here work as a kind of suite, and, in fact, the material does bleed together. However, where you might find your patience really being tested is on the opening track, "Window of Time". It lasts all of three minutes and serves as an introductory volley. The thing is, there’s not much there, at least on the surface. So, yes, it’s just a sustained keyboard chord and vocals, when you hear it initially. But bring your ears closer to the speakers or put on a pair of really, really good headphones. Then, you’ll hear bird song, what sounds like wind through a microphone, and sampled television programs. The song is an onion that you have to peel back. So, if you were just casually listening to the tune, you might think there’s nothing to it. In fact, you may believe that it is kind of boring. It’s just that you have to work at it, to understand its meaning and how it fits into the larger context of the album. Samples show up in a different guise later on in the disc, for instance. Still, if you’re not into this stab at being arty, there’s still enough that’s pleasurable to be found. The aforementioned "Beneath the Air", for instance, reminds me a lot of Stereolab, just without the female vocals. It’s psychedelic. It’s pop. It’s peppy. It may be perfection.
"Striped Light" continues in that vein with a memorable, staccato keyboard riff and layered, multi-tracked vocals. It boasts an African percussive beat to it, making it seem tribal in a sense. It’s memorable on its own, in its glitchy glory, and, should there be a second single from the album, my bet is that this is it. The only other song on the record that is of single length is "My Dim Age" (and I say that fairly offhandedly as these songs are all in the slightly-too-long-for-radio four-and-a-half minute range), which is interesting in that it sounds like a Brian Wilson outtake from the late ‘60s, just as the artist was descending into madness. It has a squiggly Flaming Lips-like keyboard sound, along with a country and western influenced guitar, and the juxtaposition of these elements makes it attention-grabbing and out of the ordinary. And, fascinatingly enough, the song leads into the next track with samples of old-timey country songs, creating a harrowing, haunting effect. However, the longer songs offer a bounty, too. "Vision’s" is the album’s defining krautrock moment, with a propulsive motorik beat that’s fast and furious, along with violins cascading around. If the track could be edited down into a more manageable three-and-a-half minutes from being a slight tick more than five, Absolutely Free might have a trippy alternative radio hit on their hands. So, yes, there is an element of commerciality to the record.
There are other moments of clarity: the eight-minute "Spiral Jetty", which closes things off, is hallucinatory and gripping, waiting nearly three minutes before the drums kick in. It’s quite interstellar, thanks to its pulsing keyboards and effects. The seven-minute "Burred Lens" also slithers along with a dippy, unhurried motion, giving those into "that sort of thing" an excuse to pass the bong pipe around to. Only the more than five minute "Earth II", which is sort of the centerpiece of the LP, coming about smack-dab in the middle, feels a bit slight as it meanders without a lot of direction, though it is remarkable in that it gives the listener a pretty good idea of where modern-day Wilco might go if they ever made a disco song.
Overall, Absolutely Free. is an absorbing and somewhat mesmerizing listen, even when it appears that the group is making missteps, which turn out to be, sometimes, not mistakes or filler at all. Not all of it is immediate; this is an album that works best when you sit down and think about it afterward, so the appeal is not necessarily apparent upon casual listening. There’s a word that we critics bandy about -- grower -- and that may be applicable to this collection of songs, but it isn’t really a matter of letting the knottiness or angularity of the material catch hold inside of your cranium. It’s more an issue of letting your brain figure out what’s going on here, and viewing this album as less of a listening experience and more of one that engages other senses. You may see colours, for instance. All in all, Absolutely Free. is art. Hang this on your wall if you will. Though not inaccessible, it just requires a slightly different appreciation of music than you may be used to, and one wonders how this Toronto trio will build upon the canvass it has meticulously constructed on this alluring, even if it is sometimes puzzling, outing.