“I think Blonde Redhead is the greatest rock band ever”
— Omar Chavez, AM Syndicate
Empire, AM Syndicate’s blistering debut, sounds like Arcade Fire by way of Animal Collective and Blonde Redhead, with a dose of Tom Waits, and a Tim Burton-esque Gothic romanticism to round out the mix. The band contains members of the Rhythm of Black Lines, Knife in the Water, the Rise, and Trail of the Dead, but this is no part-time project: AMS has emerged with a fully-formed sound that demands attention. Another “first great album of 2006”? Possibly so, possibly so.
The album opens with a short overture, a slow-sawed string prelude of the harmony that forms the backbone of the first real song, “Kicking a Sailor in the Teeth”. The chord progression is reminiscent of O Night Divine, strangely; but it’s no Christmas carol. Instead, we get an eerie, beautiful composition, the long-held violin melody given substance with soft splashes of electronic noise and dissonating-resolving keys. As the melody repeats, a guitar softly enters and tension builds into a busy-signal bleep-bleep-bleep…
…and the album has begun. “Kicking a Sailor in the Teeth”: the same melody, turned down behind drums and spacey (first verse) or harder-hitting (second verse) guitars, while Chavez wavers softly over the top, his voice crackling with distortion.
Throughout, the vocals are de-emphasized in the way Radiohead de-emphasizes their vocals, creating a voice-as-instrument aesthetic. And it’s fine, because Chavez’s voice is sharp-edged, made more so through the distortion added to it. Think of it as a reedier Win Butler. He’s got the deliberately ugly quality of some punk front-men, but his tunes are less melodic, more insightful; you have to work harder to understand, but there’s much more than love/lovelessness here.
In fact, there’s a strong political element to many of AMS’s songs. I suppose Empire refers to America’s position world-wise. Song titles “Obey Though Trembling Creature”, “Those Who Wave Flags”, and “Democracy for the World” clearly show an outward-looking sensibility you wouldn’t necessarily apprehend from listening just to the music, with its academic, insular shifts in tone and structure. The most obvious example is “Those Who Wave Flags”, with its menacing “Wash away the blood from these hands / Now the children will die” chorus.
There are certainly elements of prog/art-rock here in the music’s preoccupation with releasing hidden resonance in the subtleties of guitar melody/harmony, only recognized through repetition-breakdown, but not every song has the staying-power to grab your attention and hold it. Seven-and-a-half minute “Democracy for the World”, for instance, is all start-stop guitar repetitions, hovering around the same harmonies nervously, not going anywhere.
Songs like that are exceptions, though. The light-footed guitar arpeggio in “Hear! Hear!” is a wonderful, Spanish-sounding lick, perfectly accompanied by bongo drums. “Textura Aspero” is a kind of space-filled birdcall reminiscent of Animal Collective’s breathless jangle. And the album’s two twisted waltzes, “Those Who Wave Flags” and “Love Dumpster”, sit as perfect appropriations of the most conservative of Classical dances to modern-world disillusion.
Though they don’t have the cathartic, shout-out-loud tunefulness of the Arcade Fire, it’s sustenance of mood that ranks as one of AM Syndicate’s biggest triumphs on Empire. Eeriness, disillusion, desolation; they’re created and re-created with each broken guitar line. The guitars go all this way and that, with moderate distortion that somehow avoids any feeling of weight. Instead, a guitar arpeggio will fade into the background while a string melody rises up, producing texture and space. This happens, for instance, one minute into the haunting instrumental “Ode to the Office Goat”, when a simple major triad/6-3-2-3 oscillation motif is repeated and repeated, growing more desperate as guitar and electronic flourishes slowly crescendo.
In all, AM Syndicate have made a confident, intelligent debut that isn’t afraid to carve its own stories out of played and over-played guitar notes. It’s Animal Collective drained of all the upward-looking optimism; it’s the density of Blonde Redhead without the tinkling romanticism. Failing wholeheartedly on the comparisons, I think in a few months we’ll just say it’s AM Syndicate. Give it a listen — Empire deserves a lot of attention.