Most bands don't become horrible overnight, just uninteresting over time, fading until you realize that you've missed a whole album and that you don't even really care.
I recently found myself in a conversation with a few friends about musical turning points, the moments at which bands are irrevocably done producing good albums. It came up with Pearl Jam, though it seems like no one can really agree whether things became completely hopeless with Binaural, or Yield, or Ten, and moved on to clearer (at least within our discussion) cases like R.E.M.'s (Up) and The Smashing Pumpkins (Adore). After a while, it got me thinking about why we were only really discussing pretty big, popular bands in this way, when clearly lesser-known bands become irrelevant every day as well. It could be that we're more willing to give smaller acts the benefit of the doubt, that they'll come back stronger. Or that, outside of the harsh spotlight of extreme popularity, they actually are more able to rebound from a weaker release. Probably it's just that most bands tend to wax and wane, or wane and wane, in shallower curves, while it takes an unusually huge, popular (and ungainly) band to really climb to a pinnacle and tumble off in one lurching instant.
In any event, most bands don't plummet straight to oblivion, they gradually float down, perhaps catching an updraft here and there, until you lose sight of them. They don't become horrible overnight, just uninteresting over time, fading until you realize that you've missed a whole album by a band you used to compulsively follow, and that you don't even really care. But is that entirely their fault, or yours too?
Take Banco de Gaia. I first came across the band in the late 90s via the original mp3.com (speaking of long, slow declines), and worked quickly back through the catalogue to 1995's Last Train to Lhasa, an eclectic, passionate electronic concept album about the railroad that China was building into Tibet in order to hasten the influx of Chinese settlers and dispersion of actual Tibetan culture. At the time, I'd not heard much like it's careful combination of electronic music and traditional instrumentation and was immediately drawn in, describing it to a friend as "like the Chemical Brothers, if they drew their samples from all over the world at the same time, and had a cause". At the time, this passed for high praise. Now, ten years have passed since that (seminal?) album, and we've both changed.
After the up-tempo Last Train to Lhasa and the slower but exquisitely textured Big Men Cry, Banco de Gaia's Toby Marks seemed to run out of new directions to run with his work. The next couple releases were competently arranged, and each had notable moments, but they were increasingly hard to spot amid drawn-out compositions with diminishing striking features. Also notably, the early political fervor seemed to fade away with time. His last release, 2004's You Are Here was a departure, certainly, but its pop song approach fell on mostly disinterested critical and public ears. Which brings us to the latest, Farewell Ferengistan, an album that, though not actively bad, reminds me that it's going to take a pretty strong correction to pull up Banco de Gaia back up out of completely unremarkable world fusion fare. Had they always been headed this way? Where was the tipping point, or is there still time?
The press sheet this time around indicates vague thematic underpinnings ("Ferengistan" apparently refers to the western world, with accompanying greed and materialism) and explains the significance behind each song, but such efforts seem irrelevant: virtually none of this is reflected by the songs themselves. Instead, we get the ten minute "Saturn Rising", which reitierates slow-build procedures which were fresh and exciting (and better executed) ten years ago on "887", but here are only eerily atmospheric for a few minutes before fading to a background warble that reminds me more of an 80s new-age Kitaro tape my parents bought in some moment of poor judgment (which I for years misheard and mispronounced as "Guitaro", a name I should perhaps re-deploy when I finally get my 80s new age cover rock band together). Just after, we get "Flow My Dreams", which for all of its being based on a piece by 16th century composer John Dowland, sounds more like electronically-choired Christmas piece; something by Mannheim Steamroller perhaps. Especially telling is the fact that the best the album has to offer, the mournful title track -- complete with dirge-like piano arpeggios, south-asian vocal lines, and a bit of actually quite lovely bagpipish instrumentation -- is mostly just overlong and blandly pretty. And the only vaguely interesting concept piece, "The Harmonious G8", in which vocalists from each of the G8 Summit countries sang parts ending in the same note without hearing each other's contributions, is about what you'd expect: the tracks almost-but-don't-quite sit comfortably together, with occasional dissonance building into cacophony. Perhaps a good metaphor for the conference, but not an especially compelling experiment in sound.
It's a shame, but this is really pretty toothless material, stripped of fire and purpose, or even many of the strong, catchy rhythms and interesting cultural juxtaposition of most past Banco de Gaia efforts. Fans will undoubtedly find things to like, but nothing they can't already find throughout the rest of their collections. Yes, my interest in Banco de Gaia has waned a bit since the 90s, but it seems like Toby Marks' has as well, allowing him to release new albums that feel more obligatory than passionate. It's been a slow process, and one that likely isn't over, but a sudden rush back to relevance and excitement is seeming increasingly unlikely with each successive album. In the end, spared an apparent point-of-no-return on the order of, for instance Maladroit, Banco de Gaia is nonetheless deep in a slow fade. I do still hope for another upswing, but Farewell Ferengistan, for all its posturing for significance, isn't it.