About 400 miles from both Iceland and Greenland, to the northeast, is an island called Jan Mayen. Although it now has a Norwegian navigation radio and meteorological station, it has been predominantly uninhabited since its discovery four centuries ago by a Dutch whaling captain. Jan Mayen is glacier-covered and mostly barren, frequently enveloped in storms and fog, and offers no natural resources to the world. In fact, its one distinguishing feature is its active volcano, the northernmost on the map, which last erupted in 1985. Evidence of the volcano’s ongoing activity includes vapor, steam, and minor earthquakes. The obvious metaphor here, relating Jan Mayen to this review, would be to state that Askeleton is that distinctive, churning volcano, lacking in lava flow, but mustering up the occasional gust of hot air or ground rumbling while still holding its unique position in the world.
Unfortunately, such is not the case for Askeleton, one of the hundreds of indie pop bands who, since that last eruption, have secretly infested the lava tunnels below the surface of a Jan Mayen-like musical landscape, blissfully unaware of anything beyond the multitudes of other indie pop bands sharing their habitat. Each band is fronted by a principal singer/songwriter with a guitar and a laptop. They make cassettes for one another, sometimes play shows together, and infrequently actually have brothers who belong to more established indie pop bands on larger, less remote islands. Their discographies usually have some continuity in theme, such as each record being about a different state of the union, or a handful of songs about various cities, each entitled “Going to…” followed by that particular city. They write individual songs to act as sequels to entire previous albums, and they namedrop their friends’ bands as much as possible. All of these in-jokes tend to obscure the occasional moments of stunning, undeniable brilliance that, more often than not, are only appreciated by the die-hard fans they happen to collect along the way.
Askeleton is Knol Tate, and Angry Album -or- Psychic Songs is the follow-up to 2002’s Sad Album. (Happy Album will be released later this year; it must be important for Askeleton to keep its emotional levels palatable to first-graders.) Since that time, Tate has expanded the band from his one-man bedroom studio project to a live extravaganza, featuring members of End Transmission, Valet, Arsonwelles, Monarques, Vox Vermillion, and Motion City Soundtrack. Most of those bands are absolutely huge in their homeland of Jan Mayen. The expansion has helped develop the sound of Askeleton, which now emphasizes live instrumentation (including occasional drums by his brother Erin, a member of Minus the Bear) more than the Pro Tools renderings of yore. Still, the songs feel machine-made; now he uses the Garageband approach to songwriting, where all the separate tracks, some sampled and some live, fit geometrically together into common patterns. Each song feels like a finished work, with developing parts, appropriate dynamics, electronic details to fill the spaces, and background vocals that actually enhance the song. “Untitled No. 4”, which borders on lovely, is the best example of this, and may be one of Askeleton’s rare brilliant moments. But, while Tate is a master at imitating pop song structure, he does not deliver in the melody department. The unabashedly poppy “Birdman” is catchy and clever, but too simple. Other uptempo numbers like “Queenie” and “Ghosts” have no melody at all. Even in cases where the music is attractively tuneful, such as the familiar, piano-dominated “A Secret”, Tate’s processed vocal deflates it. He fares somewhat better with lyrics, which run the gamut from strange and refreshing (“It takes a pillow to put over a face”) to deep (“This is the deniance of god / While I wipe myself from existence”) to unnatural and clumsy (“Goodbye to shapelessness / Goodbye to unhappiness / Goodbye to everyone / Goodbye to complacentness [sic]”) to completely inane, such as the unfathomable repetition of “doo doo doo doo doo” in the six-minute “$ vs. Entertainment”.
The title Angry Album says a lot, because the material isn’t all that angry. Some of the songs reflect bitter sentiments, but the album contains no more of these than any other average pop record. The psychic aspect of the subtitle, also unapparent as a running concept throughout, is most likely an afterthought to justify the lack of anger, in spite of the thematic intention. Perhaps the record, not the band, is like that volcano on Jan Mayen: constantly blowing smoke and releasing overheated gas, yet never truly threatening to erupt and remaining safely dormant.