On its new album, the band delivers a masterpiece while ranging from pastoral ditties to noise-laden freak-outs.
Even before their arrival with Young God Records in 2005, Akron/Family was deep into the experiments. The self-titled debut was relatively placid, highlighting harmonies and the band's ability to play with folk traditions (and philosophy slogans). On a follow-up split with Angels of Light (where they backed Michael Gira) the band became rowdier, peaking with "Raising the Sparks". As the band released its next couple albums, it became spacier, moving more toward free jazz. Both Meek Warrior and Love Is Simple are strong albums, but there's a sense of unfulfillment in them -- Akron/Family seems to be testing itself in new areas rather than completing a task. On new album Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free, though, that changes, as the band delivers a masterpiece.
The new album, wisely, is no more accessible than recent work, but it manages to integrate the wide range of styles the band has always touched on, even while keeping a cohesive feel (not an easy task if you're going to take in both pastoral ditties and noise-laden freak-outs). Throughout this disc, the group reveals the side that loves the precise, unexpected harmonies as well as the side that loves to destroy a crowd. It's hard to now whether to cite the Byrds, Sonic Youth, or Ornette Coleman as a primary touchpoint.
"Gravelly Mountains of the Moon" provides a small example of how the larger album works. The track opens with a flute, creating almost a woodland feel with the piping. The band brings in more instruments, shifting into a moody, strained-key atmosphere. As the singer asks, "Prove me real", the music turns more raucous, connecting the elemental urge to feel a true existence with a sonic volatility. From there, the band connects its harmonies with a tense, rowdy music, staying just in control until the final minutes, when the pieces start to break apart around a "Manic Depression"-like riff. The vocals struggle for primacy before finally taking over with "Put me in, let me run with the ball ... ha", as if awareness has been converted to action, but only in the post-rowdy calmness. (A few tracks later we'll get the noise/metal side fighting back.)
But the album's not so impressive simply because of the way the styles are merged. There's also a thematic course here that builds well to the final hope that fits the band's open optimism. The heavy funk opener "Everyone Is Guilty" delivers not only a blanket indictment, but a description of the strictures we facing in finding our individual paths. The album covers change and loss without giving in, ultimately finding release in "Sun Will Shine (Warmth of the Sunship Version)", which closes in the best (and most fitting) rock version of "Auld Lang Syne" since Garth Hudson gave us "The Genetic Method".
Closer "Last Year" is really just a simple refrain: "Last year was a hard year / For such a long time / This year's gonna be ours". The three band members sing over a basic piano part. The track might be the simplest thing the group's ever recorded, but it's a perfect way to close a chaotic album. The mantra serves as a fine reward in a world that opens with the knowledge that "You cannot even see / Others already looked / And they have seen what they want you to see". What started in limitation ends in self-determination and the realization of an open future. While Akron/Family might be at their peak right now, there's no doubt that there's nothing circumscribed about what might come next.