Nintendo-era synths, rocking guitars, and drums that sound like they're being played by a talented chimpanzee. Spencer Seim of Hella serves up an interesting mix as sBach.
When you leave all of the songs on an album untitled, it seems likely that you're either pretentious or lazy. When Sigur Rós did it on ( ), it was pretentious. Especially since most of those songs had been performed live and had titles before the band decided to remove them. But it was Sigur Rós, and despite the pretentiousness, ( ) was still a pretty amazing album. Spencer Seim of sBach, on the other hand, just gives the impression of being lazy. This self-titled debut has 13 songs, all of them instrumental and most of them distinct-sounding, but it's sort of like he said, "Eh, they're all instrumentals anyway. Why bother giving them titles?" Of course, he might tell you differently, saying something like "The music is supposed to speak for itself without the preconceived notions that a title would bring." In that case, I'm totally wrong and sBach is definitely pretentious.
sBach is a Seim solo project. He serves as the drummer for nostalgic video game music cover band the Advantage, and the guitarist for punky noisemakers Hella. Unsurprisingly, sBach sort of splits the difference. It's filled with rock guitars, synth sounds straight out of '80s video games, and insane drumming. The name is taken, apparently, from a combination of Sebastian Bach and Star Trek's Spock. Whether Seim was referring to the former Skid Row frontman or the middle and last name of 17th century composer Johann Sebastian Bach is unclear. What is clear is that this is a collection of hyperactive, noisy songs perfect for short attention spans. Only two of the 13 tracks get over the three-minute mark, which is a good choice from Seim, considering that those two tracks both get draggy.
The album opens with a heavy, slow riff from drums and guitar that builds effectively for about 25 seconds, before stopping cold and switching to something that sounds sort of like an electrified hoedown. Two or three banjo-esque guitar lines intertwine over a variety of electronic effects before petering out about 90 seconds later. Track 2 begins with high-pitched synth chords and drum rolls before finding a groove and bouncing along like music from a lost level of Mega Man 2. Anyone who remembers that NES classic will know that that statement is meant to be high praise. Track 3 has a nice guitar riff, but it gets buried underneath a barrage of squealing sound effects. And then there's Track 4. Trying something different, Seim comes up with a creepy-sounding keyboard riff and complements it nicely with an accompanying guitar line. Then he undermines the whole song with out-of-control drumming. Seim is certainly a skilled percussionist, but this is the first of several tracks where he sounds more like a talented chimpanzee behind the kit than a human who knows what he's doing. Yes, he can keep the beat going, but the nonstop fills that have him banging away every part of the drumset overwhelm and ruin the cool, creepy feel of the track.
Along with Tracks 1 and 2, sBach does manage some strong moments on the album. Tracks 7 and 8 both start off interestingly, although they end up wearing out their welcome. Track 6 is probably the album's best moment. It's two minutes and thirty seconds of pure ear candy. Seim holds back on the drums just enough to let the catchy electro-bassline, fluttering keyboard accompaniment, and triumphant synth melody take center stage. It's a beautifully constructed piece of music that's reminiscent of the best of Nintendo-era themes and comes close to pop bliss.
Unfortunately, the frenetic drumming isn't sBach's only weakness. Seim seems to have a real ear for catchy melodies, but he has a tendency to bury those melodies in avalanches of noise, as on Track 3. Track 7 rides a Mozart-via-Mario vibe for about 80 seconds before it gets swallowed up by another 80 seconds of ear-assaulting synth noise. Track 11's entire point seems to be a fight between a mediocre melody and the encroaching noise, but it's far less interesting than that description sounds. Then there are the bits that drag. Track 8 reboots the heavy riff from the album's opening and expands it into a song that lasts for 4:25. While Seim's over-the-top drumming works well with the feel of this song, the whole thing wears out its welcome by about 2:30, with two full minutes left to sit through. And Track 12 seemingly brings all the problems of the record together in a single place. The 1:37 of schizophrenic themes, repetitive bits, crazy drums, and bizarre noise makes little sense. Listening to it, I feel like I'm in the middle of a particularly intense action sequence on an old school video game, gaining and losing power-ups while fighting a boss. But without any visual context to put these sonic elements together, it just sounds like a mess.
Seim has a knack for recreating those video game sounds of yesteryear and punching them up with distorted guitars and live drums. But too much of sBach is self-indulgent for my taste. Okay, of course solo projects tend to be self-indulgent by nature, but Seim's tendency to hold onto melodies for too long or to subsume them underneath noise and don't-know-when-to-quit drumming got on my nerves. The handful of times he pulls back on the drums and the effects a little bit, the songs really take off. It makes for a frustrating listen, because it sounds like sBach is about this far away from being great.