Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Pain of Sub-Par Releases: Thom Yorke's The Eraser and The Mars Volta's Amputechture

DISCLAIMER: The Author acknowledges the two albums reviewed in this piece are both Good Albums. The Author's point is simply that in both cases 'good' is not good enough.

Know the old Hindu saying, “There are many paths up the mountain”?

Well guess what, there are twice as many paths straight back down right into the chasm.

The Eraser and Amputechture stumble over two totally different, and nearly opposite snags, and yet both records land side-by-side in a frustratingly similar pit.

For the duo of Yorke and Godrich their product seems to have been starved of creative nourishment behind self imposed walls of traditional song structure that have been (ironically) erected with non-traditional bricks.

On an absolutely inverted plane: the duo of Cedric and Omar have aimed their cannon at the walls of traditional structure and refused to leave any two stones upon one another. Oddly enough the cannon-shot they use is comprised entirely of classical rock, jazz and soul propellant.

Still, in an equally disappointing display, both albums suffer not only from inherent weaknesses, but also from an even more menacing foe: hopelessly lofty standards set by the pedigrees of their creators.

Certainly the lineage of both groups is not within the realms of sane debate.

The Eraser is a playful culmination of a decade’s worth of electronic music. The record is helmed by two of the most notorious men in the indie-rock universe: Thom Yorke- whose voice has made droning delivery and artistic ambiguity into one of the most recognizable and poetic sounds in the 21st century, and of course Nigel Godrich-Radiohead’s mad scientist producer, whose craftsmanship has served to temper and transform the British bands’ experimental and progressive pop-rock into a small series of modern masterpieces.

And then there is Amputechture, the third full length release from Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez; who were not only two of the most prominent members of At the Drive In, but are currently the prog-rock demigods that form the epicenter of The Mars Volta. Each man has a nearly supernatural mastery of his craft. Omar is the kind of guitarist whose skill provides a standard of measurement for young aspiring guitar prodigies in their soul-bartering with Satan. And as lead singer Cedric threatens to be a frontman worthy of a legend in keeping with Jim Morrison’s poetic nonsensical daring while being armed with a voice that could have made Freddie Mercury grab his balls and wince.

So where did The Eraser and Amputechture go awry with such prestige?

Well, from across the pond Yorke and Godrich have recorded an album that takes a few steps back before it charges rabidly at an end product of cleverly constructed brilliance, however at the last second, when that conclusion seems not only forgone, but glorious- the dash falls short.

There is no axiom in art truer than, “less is more.” And yet within the digital halls of The Eraser, less is not more, its, well… less. It’s easy to speculate at the cause. The album’s song length and format are strictly traditional. Now, why two men, who have built their entire careers by deftly forcing ‘traditional’ out of the goddamn window, would confine themselves to such a limited canvas is beyond me. But their work suffers for it. Every song on The Eraser promises to explode at any second into a symphony of transcendental genre-bending sonic delight- but it never happens. The storm clouds slowly gather and thicken overhead until you can almost run your hand through their layers, and yet the rain never comes. And maybe that’s where the other four members of Radiohead have always triumphed. Sure, Yorke and Godrich are talented visionaries, but without the right toolset they are only two shades of a painting that’s nothing but a black and white snapshot in contrast to Radiohead’s mural of a thousand colors.

And if The Eraser is a release that wanes in its grey-scale composition, back on U.S. soil Cedric and Omar have just launched a savage campaign of prismatic overload. Where The Eraser is spare, Amputechture has enough color to cinder your retinas. Now complexity is the silver bullet of music: too little and you’ve got a yawn inducer, too much and you lose coherence and definition, but the right balance will birth a work that can not only defy the passage of time, but possibly redefine the standards of sound for the rest of the planet.

Unfortunately that careful balance is utterly absent on Amputechture. The boys of Volta desperately lack just a touch of the structure and definition that chokes The Eraser into sterility. Instead, Cedric and Omar stepped up to a paint-by-numbers canvas with a small squadron of fire hoses, each swollen with a rainbow’s array of paint and then they closed their eyes and brought the storm.

And rage the storm does. And rage. And rage.

Amputechture rages until there is nothing left but a thick morass of sound and concepts that wander from minute to minute like stoned rock-stars stumbling back and forth, from one masturbatory performance to the next. And somewhere into your listening task, when you’ve lost track of the myriad of bridges, intros, outros, solos, refrains, pre-choruses, choruses, crescendios, diminuendos and endless ambling and noodling-effect-drunken sound, you’ll be begging for one of these:

Or at least you’ll be begging for the War on Drugs to finally win a victory or two, anything to sober these guys up long enough for them to ask each other ‘what the fuck are we really doing here?’

But as anyone, with half an honest bone in their body will tell you, if there is any real shame to these two sub par releases it is the simple fact that both of them regularly toy with absolute goddamn genius.

The moments when The Eraser and Amputechture manage to work, they really, really work. Yorke’s voice has never been stronger and more versatile, and when his tracks dare towards their full creative and epic potential there is no mistaking the fingerprints of brilliance. Equally, during the sustained and tempered instances of clarity and control on Amputechture, the album achieves breathtaking heights of sonic majesty. And on both records, it is these brief flashes of intense and soaring musical mastery that make the dismal depths of their accompanying mediocrity so viciously hard to bare.

The Eraser and Amputechture are albums that should have been not only the best releases of 2006, but possibly this decade, if not longer. However while both LPs will certainly hold zealously defended high-ranking positions on many music fans’ ‘best-of-lists’, for many others the albums will remain an example of overwhelming potential gone good, but not great.


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