It's going to take more than a simple return to the clearer song forms of One Word Extinguisher to get anyone all that excited at this point.
Let's cut right the chase. You loved the first two Prefuse 73 records, could care less about the last two, but somehow you're really hoping this is the one that will win you back. Will it? Well, the good news is that Preparations is undeniably the strongest Prefuse outing we've heard since the seminal One Word Extinguisher. It's not all lazy backing beats for guests like Surrounded by Silence and it's not the jittery, half-formed cast-off of Security Screenings. So what’s the bad news? Prefuse in 2007 has nothing like the incredible freshness of Prefuse in 2003, and it's going to take a lot more than a simple return to the clearer song forms of Extinguisher to get anyone excited at this point. Does Scott Herren, then, have anything actually fresh to add to the mix?
While Preparations resembles One Word Extinguisher in its greater sense of feeling and more cohesive structuring, Prefuse's Scott Herren also doesn't seem have anything to say so vital or visionary as "The End of Biters - International", or as elegantly true to his hip-hop roots as his production for Diverse's MCing on "Plastic". (Surrounded by Silence seems to have left Herren with a lasting disinterest in rap guest spots). Instead, he has been honing his melody work, drawing notably from jazz and classical in his new arrangements. Incidentally, he's produced an entire all-orchestral album, Interregnums, set to ship with Preparations, but this intriguing break with beat-driven tradition, potentially the most refreshing side of current Prefuse 73, was sadly not included in the press release, leaving my thoughts in that direction hopefully speculative at best.
The melodies on Preparations are uniformly stronger than they've been in quite some time and they approach the task of engaging the listener in a number of different ways. Most striking are those tracks that toy with modern classical. "Prog Version Slowly Crushed", simultaneously one of the album's strangest and most approachable tracks, is built simply of a classic, shifting Prefuse hand-clap beat as the skeleton across which retro-future bass synths and a clean, clear string section are stretched. This is well-worn, if likable, territory, but the song really excels through its foreground melodic feature, a tangled sproinging like meticulously pitched bed springs that recalls the nearly atonal sounds of minimalist classical composer John Cage.
Cage's "Three Dances for Two Prepared Pianos" likewise leaps to mind in the demented jack-in-the-box of semi-tonal notes in "Aborted Hugs", serving as a more inventive backdrop to now-familiar noisy synth and bass parts (if intentional, this could be the title's reference point). Classical minimalism references come through a final time in the excellent, pulsing restraint of closer "Preparation Outro Version", which sees a simple click beat and syncopated single-note repetitions forming a stable stage across which all manner of sampled noise and subtle melody motifs are allowed to caper.
The other album highlight, "Smoking Red", draws on the noisier moments of Security Screenings, but its flurry of blips and static washes are reformatted with sampled bits of horn, drawn out keyboard chords, and loose, limber rhythms from drummer John Stanier, formerly of Helmet, currently of Battles. The resulting concoction has something of free jazz's haphazard rigor, densely structured but with an improvisational flexibility. It's also one of the tracks most representative of the album's clearer tone and atmosphere. Any questions about the frantic, claustrophobic composition are settled by the central sample.
Over the remainder of the album, Herren sticks closer to past successes. "Nor’easter Cheer", running pleasantly enough on lo-fi buzz synth bass and oooh-ooh vocal clips, sounds overly familiar and fails to stand out from the rest of the album's mostly unremarkable latter half. Earlier on, "Beaten Thursdays", driven simply by crisp bell loops, chopped horn phrases, and occasional spoken words, sounds like a decent Extinguisher b-side, as does the instrumentation of the other collaboration, "The Class of 73 Bells" with School of Seven Bells, whose Alejandra and Claudia Deheza also appeared on Surrounded By Silence. "Class" sounds best when Herren steps back and exposes a beat less polyphony of bells and slow-moving strings for the song's final minute, lending further plausibility to the orchestral experiments on Interregnums. The rest of the song sounds good until you realize that it's really just a remix, pulling its vocal line directly from the (much superior) noise-vs. -harmony tension of School of Seven Bells' "Iamundernodisguise".
Occasional less inspired stretches aside, Preparations is a more consistent and more invitingly listenable album than Security Screenings and, with its more adventurous classical motifs, a far more interesting one than Surrounded By Silence. Of course, recalling the press surrounding those discs, it seems that Herren never intended either to be a true follow-up to One Word Extinguisher. Which leaves, I suppose, Preparations to fall somewhat short as its successor and imitator. Even so, it's a definite step back towards Herren's former strengths, and even pushes forward into new territory at times. It's regrettable that Interregnums wasn't available for review. With the melodies of Preparations displaying the most striking progress, it's the beat less bonus disc that stands to be the most exciting part of the package.