Formed 20 years ago as a side project for Mission of Burma members Roger Miller and Martin Swope, the Birdsongs of the Mesozoic have touched on just about every experimental and intentionally esoteric musical approach dreamed up in the 20th century, whether it be Phillip Glass-like minimalist monotony, bleating Ornette Coleman-style free-jazz, the schizophrenic spazzery of John Zorn, or the mincing intricacies of Bela Fleck. Neither Miller and Swope are around anymore as full-time members, though Miller does make a piano-playing appearance on The Iridium Conspiracy, on a re-recording of "The Beat of the Mesozoic" from their 1986 EP of the same name. But Birdsongs have never sounded anything like Mission of Burma, anyway, and those coming to this from that angle should immediately turn back, as they are sure to be disappointed.
As will be those fans of prog-rock who might be sucked in by some of the album's accoutrements. With a cover drawn by Roger Dean and a title suitable for a Robert Ludlum novel, you'd expect The Iridium Conspiracy to be a blast of old-school art rock, with all the accompanying pretensions in place even as they are handled with a gentle, self-conscious irony. If only it were so. There is a sense of humor hinted at in titles like "Sherpas on Parade" and "Tectonic Melange", but they all seem to be inside jokes. And any irony operating on this carefully orchestrated but egregiously annoying collection is at the level that only conservatory fugitives, music-store employees, and art-school narcissists can understand and appreciate as they gloat to themselves about how ignorant the average plebian rock fan is.
It's not like '70s prog rock was ever cool, but at least it was often hysterically funny, as anyone who has ever heard ELP's Tarkus, Rick Wakeman's Journey to the Center of the Earth, or Yes's Tales from Topographic Oceans can attest. Egomaniacal pretension joined with ersatz comic-book mysticism is as sure-fire a comedic combination as Will Ferrell and his ass-crack. But the all-instrumental Iridium Conspiracy is like all the lamest moments of King Crimson strung together, with all of the monstrous, skull-crushing riffs removed. All that's left, for the most part, are brief atonal sequences in jaunty, intricate rhythms, punctuated frequently by insistent, nagging staccato piano taps. It's art rock minus the rock.
The opening "Primordial Sludge" establishes the method that's repeated throughout the disc: an alto sax, a heavily processed guitar (yielding a puke-worthy Satriani-esque tone), and a piano playing complicated phrases in unison, switching defiantly to something jarringly different whenever they threaten to establish a pleasing groove. Frequently it sounds like the soundtrack to an Errol Morris film grown horribly aggressive and even more distracting. While on "100 Years of Excellence" this method yields something resembling an outtake from Queen's Flash Gordon soundtrack, generally the results are less engaging.
Occasionally, as on "This Way Out" and "Lost in the B-Zone", some textural blurps, buzzes, and gurgling beats are borrowed from the laptop electronica style, but, thankfully, Birdsongs never assumes a soporific chill-out style and they never make you feel like you need to be several miles further down the K-hole to comprehend their aesthetic. Still, as much as I admire their refusal to make background music, the demands The Iridium Conspiracy makes on your attention don't seem to be compensated by any sort of culminating reward. Though the complexity and instrumental prowess deployed on tracks like "The Iridium Conspiracy: Before" and "Centrifuge" is cowing, and many passages evoke vague emotions more unsettling than they are pleasurable, it still seems that, like cryptic crosswords or several of my ex-girlfriends, the Birdsongs' compositions are difficult for the mere sake of it. I don't know about you, but I don't need the aggravation.