“For me, the cat is symbolic of the concept of ‘the state’, of this kind of surveillance mechanism; something that doesn’t blink.”
That quote is from visual artist David Hartt, speaking about one of the images from his recent video installation, The Republic, which was featured at the David Nolan Gallery in New York in the early spring of 2014. The cat photograph he speaks of is the same one that graces the cover of Sam Prekop’s latest solo album, which shares its name with Hartt’s installation. And here you thought Prekop might simply be appealing to people’s endless appetite for cat pictures.
Prekop conceived the first half of The Republic — “The Republic” parts one through nine — as the score for Hartt’s work. Taking its cue from proposed revitalization plans for Detroit and Athens, Greece, that Greek urban planner Constantinos Doxiadis came up with following World War II, The Republic combines footage that Hartt took in both cities to “create a fictional hybrid city-state.” Without being able to view the installation along with it, the listener has to do the heavy lifting with their imagination to guess how the two might have functioned symbiotically. Even removed from the work it was designed to accompany, however, The Republic is still an intriguing sequence of all-instrumental music on its own.
In between the subterranean static that opens “The Republic 1” and the descending tones of “The Republic 9”, side A is continuously in flux, restless and wary of confinement. “The Republic 5” buzzes in like a swarm of cicadas before cutting off abruptly in the middle and drifting out in a completely different mode, whizzing and clanging like a sci-fi machine shop. Some of the sections hold up fine on their own (“The Republic 3”), while others are more dependent on what surrounds them (“The Republic 7”), typically depending on their length and complexity. Each is an intriguing piece of a whole, but, at times, the knowledge that there is a visual context out there can lead to a nagging feeling that the full experience is being missed.
Not so for the other half of The Republic, which kicks off with “Weather Vane”, nothing short of a dance floor anthem by the typically reposed standards of Prekop’s main band, The Sea and Cake. Both sides of The Republic are a continuation of Prekop’s experimentation with a modular synthesizer that he has painstakingly pieced together himself. He diverged on to this path in 2010 with his last solo album, Old Punch Card. It was a pronounced departure from his norm. Prekop’s two solo albums before Old Punch Card, Sam Prekop in 1999 and Who’s Your New Professor in 2005, could both easily be mistaken for The Sea and Cake albums. John McEntire’s dexterous drumming might have been absent from those Prekop records, but that was the era where The Sea and Cake’s mellow got even mellower (Oui and One Bedroom), before their third-act reinvigoration, so the difference was not as pronounced as it might have been.
Obviously, as of late there is no mistaking the difference. The sparking wires and splintered edges of Old Punch Card have largely been smothered and sanded, but “Ghost” and “Music in Pairs” carry over some of that record’s ADD ambience. The Republic may not completely throw caution to the wind, but there is still an audible joyful liberation from structure and expectation in “Invisible” and “A Geometric”. Prekop’s touch brings warmth to pulsating Vangelis-style environments, as if reimagining the soundtrack to a Blade Runner set in a future where things are generally okay. On “Weather Vane”, his conception of this conflated, half-dreamed Republic could hardly sound more optimistic. As much as consistency has forever been The Sea and Cake’s stock in trade, doing away with it has served Prekop’s own progression well.