Tarantula A.D.: Book of Sand
Tarantula A.D. are best when they're not trying to be avant- anything. They underestimate classical music's power... it's not the bursts of noise we remember, it's the pulsing, haunting string melodies.
Classical music in rock generally gets a bad rap. We associate soaring violins with soft-rock pop songs or worse, the fiddle-playing guy in Yellowcard. So hearing the Tarantula A.D.-related buzz -- that here was a band who melded classical techniques of composition with rock and heavy metal elements -- really worried me. The band's full-length debut, Book of Sand, only assuages some of those fears.
You can't fault Tarantula A.D. for talent. Each of the group's three members -- Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans, and Gregory Rogove -- play multiple instruments passionately if not always virtuosically. The songs on the album combine chamber-music sounds of cello, violin and piano with the more familiar rock sounds of guitar, bass, and drums in multi-tracked layers, with complex interplay of instrumentation and thematic elaboration, so that it's rare the music sounds as thin as a trio. Most of the material here is instrumental, with a few familiar guests providing the occasional wordless, warbling groan or chant: Sierra Casady from CoCoRosie, Alexander and Damon McMahon from Inouk, and Devendra Banhart.
So how do the songs measure up? Ironically, the most genre-specific moments are the most appealing: after "Who Took Berlin (Part i)" settles into its skin, we get a Radiohead-like slow-jazz drawl reminiscent of "Wolf at the Door", and it's great. The vocals from Alexander and Damon McMahon drip with raw emotion, about the only time on the whole album that vocal work adds to the music. And in fact this is what Tarantula AD can do well: complex weariness communicated through guitar, drums, and a keening, wordless vocal. "The Lost Waltz" is another highlight, but it's a composition for solo piano (if you can ignore the yoga-peaceful bird-calls, which are always a mistake). No heaviness of metal, just plain piano: and, surprise surprise, it's just as effective at conveying the clash of classicism and chaos of Tarantula A.D.'s 'empire'.
When the band decides to sprinkle in a dash of metal here, a touch of folk there, is when the problems inherent to metal-classical genre-melding become most apparent. True, it's thrilling when the opening of "Empire" groans with Black Sabbath guitars. But move into "Prelude to the Fall" and the lilting melodies feel disingenuous, almost like the band is having a joke, which is not the impression they want to convey, I suspect.
Most difficult to come to terms with is the way the disparate elements interrupt the compositional flow. This is perhaps best illustrated in the opening track, "The Century Trilogy I: Conquest". The cello theme that emerges four minutes in is a wonderful, romantic theme, contrasting nicely with the downward motion of the main subject. But it's obscured at the worst possible moment by a wail of distorted guitars. This doesn't add anything to the underlying classical structure of the piece; unfortunately it detracts.
And it's clear that we are meant to approach this album with the critical and intellectual seriousness that we afford a classical composition. From the track titles alone (three tracks form a trilogy, two others a set with parts i and ii) we're meant to understand Book of Sand as a cohesive whole, with themes that are repeated, elaborated, and developed. But in the end, the album doesn't work like this, because the group has tried to incorporate too many styles without enough discernable cohesion. And I'm not dismissing out-of-hand the theory here, the idea of value in the genre-clash, but they haven't got the ratio of classical:rock:electronic quite right.
In the end the balance probably tips slightly in Tarantula A.D.'s favor, because Book of Sand is a debut, and because they are obviously ambitious -- the ideas and feeling here are all big gestures, written in heavy strokes. But, despite this, Tarantula A.D. are best when they're not trying to be avant- anything. They underestimate classical music's power; because after the final chords of "The Fall" have faded away, it's not the bursts of noise we remember, it's the pulsing, haunting string melodies.