Music

Decomposure: Vertical Lines A

Vertical Lines A absolutely fulfills the promise of At Home and Unaffected, and then some.


Decomposure

Vertical Lines A

Label: Blank Squirrel
US Release Date: 2007-05-01
UK Release Date: Available as import
Amazon
iTunes

There is a certain risk you take when you allow yourself to name those albums that, to you, are the best in a given year. You might find that as soon as your picks for that year are set in stone, you come across something else that absolutely, unequivocally deserves to be on that list.

For me, right now, Vertical Lines A is that album.

In one of those instances that makes two-and-a-half years feel like an eternity, I wrote of Decomposure's debut album At Home and Unaffected that it was "the type of album that'll have this reviewer checking release date pages until the highly anticipated follow-up album is released". I didn't know it at the time, but that was a lie. The release of Vertical Lines A was merely a footnote in a busy 2007, something to be checked out eventually, but far from a priority of any sort. Finding it on my desk eight full months after its release, I was certainly pleased to be able to give it a listen that went beyond the two tracks that were featured on the Decomposure MySpace page for oh so long. By the time it had finished its fifth spin in my humble little CD player, I felt like an idiot. Vertical Lines A absolutely fulfills the promise of At Home and Unaffected, and then some. Not only does it deserve a spot in the list of last year's best albums, it might have made a run at the top, given the right circumstances.

Decomposure's Caleb Mueller certainly doesn't make enjoyment of his album easy. There's the matter of the title, for one thing; Vertical Lines A sounds like the title of a chapter of the textbook for Architecture 101, and I have yet to decode exactly what that title has to do with the rest of the album. As for the music, I'll leave it to Mueller himself to explain its construction (from the liner notes):

Each song draws its central sound source from a single 60-minute cassette, selected in chronological order from a recorded 24-hour timespan (starting at 8:30 a.m. on October 28, 2005). Tracks were selected and completed in order.

Indeed, Mueller is a devotee of song construction via found sound: specifically, the sound he found around the house. Unlike most found-sound artists, however, Mueller makes actual songs out of his sounds, equal parts Squarepusher, Doseone, and Ben Folds thrown into a blender, resulting in a smoothie laced with strawberries and steel.

If such a metaphor seems forced, it's the effect of the lyrics, which are another barrier to immediate enjoyment of the album. It's hard to tell how much of Mueller's poetry is stream-of-consciousness, how much of it is purposefully meaningful, and how much of it is simply sounds strung together in service of an appealing aural structure. The first track, helpfully titled "Hour 1", features the following quatrain: "My eyelashes froze on the forest's edge / I don't recall the order of events / Adrift in furrowed streaks, the snow had left / To crop the fire in framing through my hands". It's a wonderfully poetic set of words, even if its meaning is clear only to their writer. If nothing else, they evoke a sort of unwelcome warmth breaking through the cold of winter, the feeling of uncertain safety from the elements. Of course, we're just as likely to get lines like, "Waxcut grey at its latitudes and longitudes twice bolted / As blackboard blood blister flop mesh course" (from "Hour 9"), impenetrable to the point of meaninglessness.

Listeners who don’t get scared off quickly by all of this are in for a hell of a ride.

It's hard to explain exactly what makes Vertical Lines A such an incredible album, except to say that the combination of elements that Mueller has put in here works. When a Beatles-esque, melodic stanza gives way to an Anticon-inspired set of ludicrous speed spoken-word, which then gives way to a literal chorus of Muellers in a hypermelodic feat of multitracked a cappella, you expect it to crash and burn under its own weight, especially when the whole process happens twice over the course of the song. And yet it doesn't crash and burn. Rather, it soars, pummeling the listener with cool idea after cool idea, fitting them together with taut threads that never seem to snap. If this is what "Hour 3" sounds like, I wish I was around for it...

...or, perhaps not. Vertical Lines A comes with a DVD, which comes with a 28-minute video featuring Mr. Mueller talking about his creation, process recordings, lots of random photos, pictures of what each song looks like in his editing software of choice, and so on. Among all of these extra goodies are the original, unedited cassete recordings that Mueller used for his sound sources. "Hour 3" sounds like a perfectly normal, boring hour, as you'd ever have in the time between breakfast and lunch. There's a lot of thumping, which I imagine is a constant throughout the day given the multitude of busy, glitchy beats on display in the music; a few conversations with someone whom I can only assume is Mueller's wife; and some shuffling around. That's about it. That Mueller can find the inspiration to create something as ambitious as "Hour 3" out of such basically banal source material makes Vertical Lines A all the more impressive.

That, as much as the music itself, is the achievement of Vertical Lines A. It's an album that represents unchecked ambition, one man striving to live up to his influences and the organized noise in his head. It's the type of music that constantly makes you smile as you hear what the artist was trying for alongside what he accomplished. Perhaps most satisfyingly, it doesn't run its good ideas into the ground. The most effective moments in Vertical Lines A happen at most twice. He is content to let a good thing be and move on, trying to find the next great moment. Fortunately, right through the end of the album, the next great moment is at most two or three minutes away.

Vertical Lines A deserves all of the accolades that could possibly be thrown at it. I can only regret that it took me this long to start throwing.

8

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

Related Articles Around the Web

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image