Music

Son Lux: At War With Walls and Mazes

Mehan Jayasuriya

There are rewards to be had here for the patient listener -- the sort of person who doesn't mind digging in his or her heels until melodies start to blossom.


Son Lux

At War With Walls and Mazes

Label: Anticon
US Release Date: 2008-03-11
UK Release Date: Available as import
Amazon
iTunes

You might say that At War with Walls and Mazes was an album 29 years in the making. A pianist since the age of six, full-time composer Ryan Lott has literally been making music all of his life. He's written pieces for choreography, collaborated with multimedia artists, and churns out two pieces a day for New York post-production studio Fluid. He's won a number of prestigious awards and grants, including the 2006 Cleveland arts prize emerging artist award. Lott may have accomplished quite a bit in less than three decades, but in his mind, there was still plenty of ground left to cover. So, after three years spent collecting samples, he set out to piece together his first pop record.

The result, At War with Walls and Mazes, is a dense, meticulously crafted haze of Baroque instrumentation, electronic pulses and hip-hop beats. Overstuffed with samples, sounds and styles, Walls and Mazes seems like the very definition of "aural overload" on first blush. Lott obviously has no shortage of ideas; the downside is that it often feels like he's trying to cram every last one into his songs. Despite this fact, there are rewards to be had here for the patient listener -- the sort of person who doesn't mind digging in his or her heels until melodies start to blossom. And Walls and Mazes' few flashes of brilliance almost make the journey worthwhile.

Given his confidence with various instruments, it's surprising that Lott chooses to open the album with the one instrument that he has the least experience with: his voice. "Put down / All your weapons," the first-time vocalist commands in an expressionless, multi-tracked voice at the outset of the album's 29-second "Prologue". "Let me in / Through your open / Wounds". Over the stark backdrop of bass and harmonica, the androgynous voice sounds almost alien; it's hard to place what world Lott is from, let alone his age or gender. Sure, the cartoonishly exaggerated pitch and octave shifting a la the Knife plays an undeniable role here. But there's also something in the delivery -- cold, austere and completely devoid of any discernable emotion -- that makes Lott sound anything but human.

While "Prologue" places all the emphasis on Lott's heavily altered voice, it is, without question, the sparsest track you'll find on Walls and Mazes. "Brake" opens with clattering snare hits, major key piano chords and what sounds like a furiously strummed unplugged electric guitar. Soon after strings, distant shouts and harmonica intrude, the drums manage to work themselves into a beat and the song starts to take off. But then, just before the one-minute mark, something unexpected happens: everything stops. Only the final harmonica note remains, lingering like the last guest at the end of a party. Just as the note is about to give out, some minor piano chords surface, setting the stage for Lott's entrance. "Where have all the wicked gone?" he asks with that same ageless, genderless voice. "Is there no one left to break you down?"

"Weapons" picks up where the first third of "Break" leaves off, slowly piling on synths, strings and a shuffling snare beat before falling into a lethargic groove. Lott returns with the same "Weapons" couplet from the prologue, repeating it like a mantra. Before long, we start to see signs that things are on the verge of collapse; a guitar chugs, some chopped-up samples echo in the distance, buzzes of feedback momentarily interrupt the proceedings. Slowly, Lott starts tearing it all down, piece by piece, eventually arriving at a skeletal structure of clicks and beats. Soon we see why he's cleared the way: a chopped up sample of a choir wisps out of the static, a disarmingly warm sound awash in a barren sea of noise. The voices strain to reach the cathedral's ceiling but Lott slices and dices until there's nothing left but a texture. It's a sound that's at once both ethereal and eerie.

One of the album's more laid-back tracks, "Betray" is driven by a propulsive low-end groove, courtesy of a surprisingly bouncy bass line. "You will betray me baby and / I will be true," Lott lethargically sings over the usual bed of static, adorned this time with occasional flourishes of flute. "I only ask may I share / Dinner with you?" It's an odd follow-up, a line that's pregnant with humor, desperation and a hint of self-loathing. Over the course of the next five minutes, however, the recurring line starts to wear a little thin. By the song's close, the couplet's previous nuances ring as hollow as Lott's treated voice.

Obviously, Lott's intent was to ensure that Walls and Mirrors' lyrics and vocals didn't upstage its music. Limit each song to a few simple lines, repeat those lines like chants, and see that they recur throughout the album's 11 tracks. That way, the voice becomes just another texture and the songs are freed from the weight of verse/chorus/verse structure. Lott goes even further, taking a page from the Kid A playbook: he purposefully obfuscates his voice in order to curb any attempts to wring meaning or personality from his words.

Fair enough. However, the contrast between the painstakingly sequenced music and the seemingly meaningless lyrics is too great to ignore over the course of nearly 45 minutes. Eventually the vocals start to grate, the lyrics start to frustrate. You want to attach some greater meaning to the recurring couplets, but come up empty-handed. The fact of the matter is that there aren't nearly enough clues here to allow for a satisfactory interpretation of the record's lyrical themes. Were the vocals buried in the mix or were the lyrics somehow obscured, this shortcoming might not be quite so glaring (when have you ever heard someone complain about the lyrics on Loveless?). But given the nature of the vocals in the mix -- clear, front and center on all of the album's tracks but one -- it's a little hard to accept that Lott's words are completely devoid of meaning.

Clearly, Ryan Lott is a man of considerable musical talent and great promise. But as At War with Walls and Mazes demonstrates, he hasn't quite figured out how to edit his many ideas down to a final product that's both complex and digestible. Sure, there are flashes of brilliance to be found here. But those few fleeting moments aren't enough to hold the listener's attention for the entire duration of the record. Once Lott learns to whittle his songs down until they're tight, succinct and consistent, he'll have a pop record on his hands. Until then, he'll just sound like he's at war with himself.

6

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less
10

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

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