Enon: Believo / Grass Geysers… Carbon Clouds

Touch and Go

Believo may be one of those would-be classic albums that just missed its target musical era by a few years. With the receding tide of grunge threatening to beach the still-young modern rock radio format in the mid-’90s, there was an unprecedented casting about by programmers for the next big thing. Apparently guesses as to what this would be were vague at best, and for a time the airwaves were flung open to fresh ideas from across the rock spectrum, allowing both larger camps like Britpop, third-wave ska, and eventually big beat to gain ephemeral popularity.

At the same time, and more importantly for our purposes, esoteric bands and producers like the Eels, Soul Coughing, and, most prominently, Beck, actually enjoyed radio hits and lasting careers. This post-grunge period could almost be viewed as another generation’s post-punk: a rapid genre-radiation in the aftermath of the mainstream rise and collapse of a seemingly-fringe movement. Enon, with their quirky arrangements of atypical percussion, strange sampled voice, and inventively applied instrumental clips — all coupled with a surprisingly sound pop-sense — would have fit perfectly into this exciting time. Unfortunately, by the release of their debut, Believo, in 2000, modern rock radio’s sights had been trained, instead, on rap-rock and nu-metal, taking most chance of mainstream success with them.

Original Enon, through the combined efforts of the founding team of Brainiac’s John Schmersal and Skeleton Key’s Rick Lee and Steve Calhoun, was an excellent and unpredictable rock confection. Lee assembled clanking breakbeat loops from kits of propane tanks and hub caps, while Schmersal and Calhoun layed down layers of chugging bass, distorted guitar, shrieking organ, spastic synth blurts, and an apparent kitchen sink of samples. There’s a lot going on, and it could have been a horrible mess, but somehow everything is adhered tightly together by solid pop songwriting. Verses, choruses, and bridges are concise and quick-moving, always leading the listener naturally on to the next hook and variation. The lyrics tend to fly by in cryptic love-torn bursts, but never embarrass themselves and hint at interpretation often enough to keep them interesting.

Witness Believo‘s opening track “Rubber Car”, with its ominous opening of heavy bass guitar rumble and and near-industrial clatter giving way to lighter synth shadings and Schmersal’s falsetto vocals. Trace violin lilts across the backdrop, and then the bassline returns and the vocals drop to pitched-down growl. The bridge blasts a hole straight through the center of the track with a couple bars of key variations overlayed with a squealing, somehow-always-in-pitch synth feedback effect. Chorus back in and we’re done in less than two and a half minutes. Just hit the repeat button and bask in the song as long as you need to, it can survive plenty of mileage.

The remainder of the disc lacks any pop songs quite so simultaneously bizarre and stick-in-your-head listenable, but the key elements appear again and again. “Conjugate the Verbs”, “Come Into”, and “Get the Letter Off” form a triumvirate of tracks building timeless alt-rock from catchy guitar riffs (alternately restrained and gnashing) with a signature selection of clicks, blips, glass crashes, unintelligible vocal fragments, spirals of electronic arpeggio, buzzy saw waves, and possible Wurlitzer organ. Others, like “For the Sum of It”, skirt such designation out of sheer esotericness of arrangement choices (long breaks of chopped rhythm and blurting electronics), but are all the more intriguing for it. “Cruel” impresses for its sudden about-face: exhausted down-pitched drums, heavily echoed guitar chords, and Schmersal’s most mournful, low-key vocal efforts of the disc, blended perfectly to melancholic effect.

Today, listening to the new reissue again after the interceding vacuum of years, it’s hard not to imagine Believo as a lost hit record, one of those discs that yields three or four successive singles and hums in your ear for a month or two unceasingly. However, that never actually happened (again, timing), and Enon seems to have responded with several years cleaning up, moving their songwriting tendencies into ever sparser, crisper applications, while Lee and Calhoun drifted away in turn, replaced by bassist/singer Toko Yasuda and drummer Matt Schulz.

2002’s High Society saw Yasuda adding her voice to Schmersal’s, an excellent broadening of Enon’s pop potential that was still unable to completely make up for that album’s curtailing of the noisier rock elements and weirder studio-tinkering aspects of Believo. Hocus Pocus followed in 2003 with a set of sleek, smoothed over pop songs that, while still highly listenable and still more original than most competitors, noticeably limited the band’s original unpredictability and sense of free-wheeling invention.

Somehow, even as the albums were growing ever more sterilized, the live Enon shows were as vibrant and noise-infused as always, mussing up previously conventional arrangements with satisfying distortion and loose, natural momentum. When I ran into Schmersal, who was DJing at an Ace Fu records party sometime in late 2004, I commented on the visceral appeal of the live sets, and he assured me that they were working to get that aspect back into the studio recordings for the next album. Sure enough, three years later, here it is.

Grass Geysers… Carbon Clouds peels back the intervening years and, as promised, and restores Enon’s more jagged punk-rock edges act once again, perhaps even surpassing the noisiest bits of the earlier catalogue, which only ever flirted with punk as an influence. Check out track two, “Colette”, where we get about a second of familiar Enon bass hook before it’s near-completely overwhelmed by a surge of overdriven guitar, white hot and buzzing with electricity. These guitar blasts go on to form a fitting balance against Yasuda’s melodious voice, in a way that no Enon track has accomplished since she joined. Likewise, let’s just marvel for a moment at the seething, skipping haze of the solo forming the bridge of peculiar initial single, “Mirror on You”. Enon hasn’t dared sound this raw on record since, well, since before they were Enon and Schmersal was a member of Brainiac.

There’ve been a couple other gratifying shifts since the last album. Yasuda’s voice, always pleasant, here seems stronger and fuller than at any point in the past. Nowhere is this so evident than in “Pigeneration” which spends its verses on solid new-Enon guitar stabs and lashes of drums, before cranking into the chorus and revealing, on a single drawn-out word, that she’s really got pipes! In the past, Yasuda has tended to pose more as a foil to Schmersal’s more manic moments, but at last it’s revealed that she’s in possession of an intensity all her own. Other evidence is seeded throughout her vocal performances across the disc, in tracks like “Sabina” and the afore-mentioned “Collete”. At other points, as in the lovely closer “Ashish”, the guitar takes on a character of shoegaze sheen, a new influence that could be viewed as either timely or contrived depending on your thoughts on the shoegaze revival, but which works beautifully here either way.

Grass Geysers… Carbon Clouds is probably the solidest Enon effort since Believo, and in some ways comes full circle to that release. Where it falls slightly short, it’s mostly just in the the thrilling, now lost early-Enon tendencies towards constant, crazed sample indulgence and haphazard experimentation, which seem to have faded with the line-up changes and pop-tightening over the years. Somewhere in the same process, the band seems to have moved from their past use of found-sound rhythm loops to a current reliance on Schulz’s live percussion, which, though always sound, is of an inherently more restricted sound palette. Still, in returning to feedback and fuzz, some of those inventive early production flourishes have crept back in as well, lurching about the background to shade the other sounds with texture. and occasionally poking up into the foreground.

Together, Grass Geysers… and Believo bookend an-ever evolving career, which even at its most relatively conventional points has produced a consistent stream of memorable pop singles. Both albums are united by a certain loose noisiness, however, that makes them inherently more involving than those of the intervening years. If Enon’s spirit of invention has faded a bit over that time, that seems to be just one of those side effects of “maturing” and they’ve still got a refreshingly original sound in the larger picture of Rock Music in 2007. With any luck we won’t have to wait until 2011 for the next installment.

RATING 8 / 10