At what point does a piece of music turn from artful homage to unintentional parody?
Much is made of the idea that the "mysterious" Lansing-Dreiden is a collective of artistes, a group of metaphorically masked men who, through a number of artistic endeavors including sculpture, video, and the written word, manage to say an awful lot while revealing little about themselves. The entirety of their artistic vision is expressed in black and white, whether it be printed letters on paper, video productions resembling films from the '40s, or the stark mechanical feel of their art gallery installations. The use of black and white allows Lansing-Dreiden two things: For one, it allows a sense of detachment from the majority of modern media, in which 'more' typically equals 'better' when it comes to the number of colors in the palette. For two, and more subtly, it allows for easy portrayal of the most basic of conflicts -- the dark against the light, good against evil -- without actually having to rely on literal explanations of that conflict.
It is in this conflict that The Dividing Island finds its footing.
The Dividing Island is an exploration of dichotomy, a meditation on the diametric, along with some exploration of just what the divide between the opposition is made of. At least, that's what I think it's about. While occasionally the idea of two opposing ideas pops up in a musical sense as in the two distinct themes of album opener "Dividing Island", the theme is most often relayed lyrically. In fact, the subject of Lansing-Dreiden's exploration is made plain even by the mere titles of the songs on the album; "A Line You Can Cross", "Two Extremes", and "Symbol of Symmetry" are the names of three of the ten songs. What is not so clear is what exactly is trying to be said about this topic. But then, I suppose, it wouldn't be a Lansing-Dreiden album without intentional impenetrability. I mean, we're not even supposed to know the names of the band members, much less what the songs are about.
"You've given your purpose, now they've taken your dream / But you can't hide behind the two extremes", they say in "Two Extremes". "Reveal your reasoning / Might be wrong to presume / It's too tough to pretend / So please heed these regrets / It's been too long to agree", they tell us in "Our Next Breath". "You can walk back and forward from every angle / All you want is to chase it", says "A Line You Can Cross". And all of it adds up to what? I think there's some statement on the conflict inherent in having to choose sides, and how it all adds up to nothing anyway, and maybe even the absurdity of a war rooted in opposing ideologies. But maybe not. It all adds up to prose for the sake of adding words to music which together make art.
And I could buy that, if I could take it seriously.
That's the kicker with The Dividing Island -- the music itself takes itself so seriously as to veer into parody. The closest comparison I keep coming up with is Ween, whose homages/piss-takes on other genres are at least intentionally a bit absurd. The album starts out like Pink Floyd, moves into Tears for Fears territory, touches (if briefly) on things like Styx and Rush, and stays pretty firmly in late '70s to early '80s keyboard-enhanced rock. This includes a spoken interlude that, even now, I can't believe was even included, on the quiet thinker "Two Extremes", and some metal flourishes (via a highly distorted bass guitar, if I'm not mistaken) on the laughably titled closing track "Dethroning the Optimyth". Occasionally, little bits of indie-rock make their way into the mix, but for the most part, I'm hearing an art-rock album from 25-ish years ago, complete with copious amounts of reverb on everything, creating a soupy mix that both dulls the impact of the sounds we're hearing and (perhaps wisely) hides some of the words that are being sung. This, obviously, adds to the "mystery".
All of that said, it's not an awful album at face value. A few songs have some catchy melodies, and you're bound to secretly love at least one of the styles the band presents here. Catchy tunes or not, however, I can't imagine anyone picking this up and taking it seriously, and when that's said for a band/collective/whatever that appears to take itself very, very seriously, the album has to be considered something of a failure.