Don’t be confused by this album’s appearance of being a split disc. While technically two bands perform here, the Angels of Light in this instance are Michael Gira (the former Swans member and Angels of Light primary figure) backed by Akron/Family. That combination worked well on the last Angels album, this spring’s Other People, and Gira and Akron/Family have toured enough together that this further collaboration isn’t surprising. Everything else about the disc just might be.
Akron/Family gets the first seven of these 12 tracks, and they do their best to cram in every trick and sound they know. I’ve written glowingly of their live show before, and this album only further establishes their (my) claim to (their) greatness. This album takes the energy from the live show and mixes it with the creativity of their stunning self-titled debut from earlier this year. Are you counting? This is disc three for the quartet in 2005, with no stumbles along the line.
The album opens with gothic Byrdsian harmonies over a simple guitar line, before melting into noise before turning into heavy vocal rock mixed with spaz-rock soloing. That’s kind of what Akron/Family do, heading in every direction almost at once and matching four-part harmonies to guitar screeches as well as to beautiful folk music. They do it far more fluently than you’d think. This record has more jarring moments than the first album, but that’s the intended; it’s more chaotic and less restrained, but only mildly less artful.
Let me give you the cliché now: the varied textures and nuances of this music makes me return to it — what, wide-eyed? afresh? virginally? (no, they’ve had me) — on each listen. “Dylan Pt. 2” has this melody line that I never tire of. The lead vocalist here (I think it’s Seth Olinsky) sings “Found what you’re looking for” with a jump on the first syllable of “looking” that’s a third higher than you’re anticipating. Along with the unique and challenging vocal line, we get a voice that occasionally rasps, making it sound as if the band is purely willing themselves to be so good.
And that, of course, is not the case. The band members play with great technical skill. I don’t know how much they’ve studied music, but they’ve clearly spent some time rehearsing. The vocal arrangements also surpass anything going on in rock these days (and in most vocal music that I’m aware of) in terms of beauty and originality. The performances, however, completely bury any sense that you’re watching professionals at work — they recapture the energy that I can only assume rock ‘n’ roll had when it was (at least as remembered) about amateurs expressing themselves.
Poor Michael Gira, who discovered them (or at least had the good sense to sign them to his label when they sent him tapes and he saw their live show) and deserves at least some credit for their studio successes, doesn’t stack up next to them. He’s an artist in his own right, constantly involved in a slew of projects as well as producing most of Young God’s bands. His songs here are good — weird, intriguing — and he employs Akron/Family well, allowing them to form the backdrop for his moods and stories.
Gira creates music that draws on tradition, but constantly strives to be challenging, and in this album, as on Other People he reaches a good balance between the accessible and the haunted stop sign. The only true failing, really, is placing it after Akron/Family’s insanely energetic series. The Angels of Light open this section by covering Bob Dylan’s “I Pity the Poor Immigrant”, which brings the focus to Gira’s warm and creepy baritone. The cover works as a fine demarcation, but it also sounds more radical as a shift than something like the suite “The Provider”.
With very good songs, the second half really can’t be faulted. Instead, we should just blame the last of Akron/Family’s songs for ruining everything you hear after it (for days). “Raising the Sparks” starts out with a steady on-the-beat snare and adds a psychedelic guitar line before the band joins in to place the song somewhere between blues-rock and prog. We’ll sloppily call it art-rock and leave it at that. Assuming something’s arty if it relies heavily on people repeating “Ya yayaya yaya” and “Oohoohoohooh Oh Oh”. The tempo hasn’t actually changed, but the revolving structures make it feel as if it has. Then all the music stops except the bass drum, now carrying the beat the snare started. The vocalists wail. I fall out of my chair and quit typing for a bit.
Akron/Family is that good, and this isn’t even their best record.