Underground folk's least dysfunctional Family finds another way to one-up itself.
Akron/Family has, since the start of its career (which, in recorded terms, was a mere 18 months ago), always been a study in contrasts. Never quite willing to rest on any of their many strengths, their quiet moments have always been soon followed by loud ones, their most chaotic moments soon followed by complete and utter peace. This is a big part of what makes them unique, setting them apart from their mostly-content-to-be-quiet-and-strange contemporaries from last year's so-called "freak-folk" explosion -- they have an innocence and naïveté about them that allows them to explore the entire spectrum of their thoughts and emotions rather than simply the innermost.
Meek Warrior, a 35-minute, seven-track "special album" (as per Young God label head Michael Gira), spends its first two tracks taking Akron/Family's proclivity for contrasting moods to its logical extreme. Naturally, these two songs are the high points of what is otherwise still an incredible little release from this mind-numbingly talented (and prolific) four-piece.
The disc starts with an extended, difficult splat (a term I use in the nicest posible way) in the nine-minute-plus "Blessing Force", pummeling the listener up and down with at least five distinct movements: It starts with a rhythmic movement that centers around the 3-against-2 polyrhythm punctuated by random vocal noises and general wackiness, and then very suddenly segues into a completely a cappella section that's one part gospel choir and one part Reichian phasing experiment, followed quickly by segues into stoner-prog soloing, vaguely eastern repetition, and free-form pseudo-jazz. The closest rock-music comparison I can come up with for the climactic ending to this particular journey is to take the end of Radiohead's "The National Anthem" and stretch it out for a few extra minutes. It's the sound of Akron/Family deciding, as a group, to go their own separate ways, except to go there together. It's completely intentional barely-controlled chaos, whose presence without a sense of context would seem superfluous and overindulgent; yet, by butting that chaos up against "Gone Beyond", they magnify the power of both tracks tenfold. It's the chaotic ambulance ride followed by the quietly poetic upward exit of the spirit, where the latter doesn't necessarily erase the memory of the former, but at least allows it a sense of raison d'être. The only lyrics of the song are "Gone, gone, gone beyond / Gone completely beyond", backed by acoustic guitars, acoustic percussion, and eventually ethereal four-part harmonies. It is gorgeous, fulfilling, and the perfect companion piece for a beast like "Blessing Force".
Ultimately, it is the relative peace of "Gone Beyond" that wins the battle of Akron/Family's dueling sensibilities for the rest of Meek Warrior. The title track is something of a mellower version of Animal Collective, while "No Space in This Realm" gets its words out of the way early so that it can concentrate on an extended improvisational passage that happily never loses its tunefulness or poignancy. "The Lightning Bolt of Compassion" is merely an arpeggiated acoustic guitar, a bass, and a voice (it seems that one of Akron/Family's members gets to take a break during this particular song), singing in a language I don't recognize, but singing whatever he's singing very, very beautifully. Finally, there's "Love and Space", a hymn-like live favorite that translates very well to CD, perhaps because it sounds completely live. All four members get to solo-sing the song's single stanza of lyrics, while the rest of the group harmonizes on the words "Love and space" in the background, eventually culminating in the strangely transcendent, once again a cappella repetition of the phrase, over and over, into oblivion. It's a beautiful way to finish the disc, throwing a treat like this to the fans who have had the immense pleasure of experiencing the live act.
This leaves only "The Rider (Dolphin Song)" to try to live up to the chaos of "Blessing Force", and despite lots of group unison and a challenging, rhythmic guitar motif (not to mention occasional blasts of noise and another chaotic epilogue), it doesn't quite live up to the quieter moments of Meek Warrior. That's not to say it's without merit, just a little bit more conventionally odd by Akron/Family standards.
Even so, such an observation only serves to underscore just how high a bar Akron/Family continues to set for itself, a bar that is once again raised by this little too-long-for-an-EP but too-short-for-an-album disc. Every song has a unique feel, every song sounds meaningful, and every song is absolutely worth hearing. Members of Broken Social Scene and Do Make Say Think are along for the ride, as is drummer Hamid Drake, but even their collective presence takes a pretty distant backseat to the songs themselves. On Meek Warrior, they are merely honorary members of the Family, giving in to the AK-AK songwriting philosophy, becoming part of a whole rather than simply special guests. Most full-lengths don't have this much solid material -- this Meek Warrior is nearly as strong as they come.