Friday, May 16, 2008

at war with walls and mazes

i got excited about son lux back in the day (february) and then didn't really do a whole lot about it, because, frankly, i thought the single "break" was significantly better than the rest of the album. i listened to at war with walls and mazes for a couple weeks without getting hooked, and it eventually got retired to the pile of "what could've been" records without me really noticing it. but i woke up today, with exciting plans about riding my new bike to the olafur eliasson exhibit at moma, and of course it was fucking raining. goddamnit. so, wallowing in my own self-pity, and with my music player pointed at the "S"s, i kinda accidentally found myself listening to at war with walls and mazes for the first time in a long time, and i've realized it's definitely a better album than i originally gave it credit for.

the major issue i had with it originally was how indistinguishable the music is, the songs often identifiable only when maestro ryan lott's lyrics change. assembled from his library of aural scraps and fragments, the album is cohesive to the point of nearly being interchangeable - though each song is uniquely constructed, they, as a whole, lose their individual character and blend together into a sonic haze. when i saw son lux open for why? in march, i had been listening to his album for several weeks, yet i couldn't identify a single song until he started singing verses. the problem stems, i think, from lott's graveyard of sounds, which are all different notes, or noises, or whatever, but all have the same aural integrity, the same neologic, electronic quality. his sounds have the same effect, so their nuances are like a tree in a forest - their very sameness makes them universally reductable. and even when lott uses organic sounds, like violins or pianos ("war," "stand"), they can are so disembodied that these snippets don't transmit the inherent atmosphere of such instruments. this problem, however, has been reconciled through ignorance though - since regaling it to the bench, so to speak, my ear is less anxious and more content to absorb than critique. so even though i find at war with walls and mazes's sameness occasionally oppressive, now that it's unhitched from the playing cycle i finally appreciate son lux.

the singular tonal hue of at war with walls and mazes can be jostling, as it was for me, accustomed to constant musical variety as my ear is. but then i started to perceive the album as a whole symphonic work, and the one-word songs as movements within the piece. every movement on at war with walls and mazes is titled by one evocative word ("betray," "wither"), lending the album a conceptual feel, and, for a while, i tried closely concentrating on lott's lyrics to see if it was. certainly, themes of doubt and unfaithfulness and revenge run through the work (and are evident in lott's vocal croak), but it's unclear what he is referencing, and it seems far too pedantic for lott to have written an album of love and loss. whatever its meanings, at war with walls and mazes is certainly a more successful work as a whole, a song's individual vagaries taking on greater meaning and significance. at war with walls and mazes's uni-hued tones are not recycled limiters, but an overarching stylistic choice, emblematic and representative of lott's fundamental message. and while i'm not 100% on what that message is, maybe it's not a verbal one at all, and merely a forceful reminder of the polarity of albums wholly conceived.

at war with walls and mazes has lots of good moments, some of which are songs and others which span songs. i think the second half of "raise" (starts at 3:27) is the single most compelling section of the album, a sizzling crescendo into a theme that could soundtrack a hollywood explosion. my personal preference is for son lux's most damaging tracks, the chaotic escalation and freak outs, epitomized by "weapons" and "wither," though it is the mellower songs that endure longer. "betray" and "stand" are twins here, easy and, at times, more conventional fare in a work that simultaneously provokes and soothes (in its defense, "stand" has an incredible mid-song choral eruption). however, i maintain that at war with walls and mazes shouldn't just be boiled down to its "best" songs - it's not the type of thing to listen to piecemeal. it is unified by an excellent cadence, lott's sound collages dipping and rising (without drifting) regularly, climaxing in the middle of songs or not at all with impunity; at war with walls and mazes tests new ground, defying and reigniting the stagnant expectation of the album in independent music.

"break" & "raise"

buy at war with walls and mazes from anticon.

son lux has been getting a lot of press lately for his remixes. stereogum just published his vocal-only remix of jamie lidell's "little bit of feel good," his remix of radiohead's "nude" is popular, and my brightest diamond is selling his remix of "inside a boy."

also, don't forget that there's a free unreleased track called "do" available from anticon as well.

1 comment:

SON LUX said...

sir mammoth,

hello again! i was at moma yesterday (train/walking/umbrella). but i'm glad you didn't go now, given your newfound hope for awwwm. :) very well written and thoughtful post! it's interesting to read how you perceive my music. those of us who create music are often so close to the screen we can only see pixels.

one note about the why? show. the reason you didn't recognize any of the songs is b/c my live arrangements are ALWAYS different than the recorded ones, and ever-shifting. b/c none of my "songs" are songs in the definitive sense, in that they have no verses or choruses, the arrangement possibilities are endless (last weekend i played a show as chamber sextet at monkeytown). i'm charting new territory here i think, in that i don't know of anyone else completely reinventing their songs live, only modifying them. hmmm. i don't know.

i'm trying to create in a "new" format in which the pieces are inherently so open-ended that they can exist successfully in polar arrangements, even to the extent that the meaning of the simple chants can be turned on their heads. i haven't mastered it yet, of course, as i've only played 7 shows to date. but i'm getting better i think.

what do you think about the idea? is it stupid? is it glorious?

by the way, the olafur eliasson exhibit was really good. hopefully next friday from 4-8 will be sunny. cheers! - r