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Wolf Parade - At Mount Zoomer Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 July 2008
ImageThe notion of subjective artificial intelligence doesn’t seem like a very threatening or near-term possibility, considering that subjective individuals continue to emphasize the rigid categorization of something as nebulous and diverse as music.  We’d do well to initiate ourselves with Robert Anton Wilson’s term “sombunall” (some but not all), as we’re not even to the point where our metaphysical machinery can claim to possess subjectivity.  Take a look at indie music’s currently embedded calibration device, the Scene Machine.  It requires only one unit of data input (a geographical location) to summate with lusty, borderline-sexual incantations about the cosmic importance of every band in a given area.  That’s right, our cognitive labeling machinery evolved sexuality before it evolved subjectivity – you don’t need the ability to reason when you’re in a blind rut.  This leaves machine-harvested bands that harbor post-debut album aspirations to stagger doe-eyed, like a newborn fawn rushed with the significant and all too conflicting burdens of panicked urgency (i.e., the need to capitalize) and appreciation (i.e., the desire to maximize the leisurely pursuits associated with apexing overnight).  The breathless reviews might feel great right now, but the clock ticks as information stacks on itself at light-speed.  The next bit of data has already been prepped for input. 

Side-projects have become an agile defense mechanism against this brutal turnover.  They can build anticipation by lengthening the amount of time between main project releases, they can buy time for a righteous, trendy follow-up, they’re a testament to an artist’s prolificacy and restless creativity, thereby increasing artistic credibility, and they abolish the need for a desperate victory lap in the form of alternate-take EPs and annoying remix albums.

Enter Wolf Parade, Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner’s most visible incarnation, and North America’s poster-child for “see also” bands.  See also: Sunset Rubdown, Frog Eyes, Swan Lake, Handsome Furs, etc.  This has helped to deflect some of the ridiculous hype that led up to their excellent 2005 debut Apologies to the Queen Mary.  It’s a legitimate, erstwhile buffer against hyperbolic instant analysis and the seemingly saturated indie market, the latter of which has been known to cause Arctic Monkeys Syndrome.  A.M. Syndrome is good news to anyone who feels frightened by the prospects of career longevity for Vampire Weekend.  The number of bands whose entire catalogues are considered “required listening” seems to be receding inversely to the rapid explosion of bands that have only one “required listening” album.  There’s no time to succeed in a standard, linear progression when your audience is a group of well-informed trend-chasers, claiming fewer loyalties and suddenly into disco and dubstep.  After an album or two, they’re familiar with your perceived limitations. This might be why Wolf Parade made the dubious declaration to Sub Pop that their new album, At Mount Zoomer, would contain no singles.  It’s an artsy, reactionary lash-back to the reactionary backlash of being hyped to holy hell, of Apologies being Modest Mouse produced, of getting pulled out of the gate by Arcade Fire, of releasing a debut album in Montreal at the genesis/peak of the Montreal Scene Machine rapture. 

But Wolf Parade has the depth to pull off this kind of maneuver.  Krug and Boeckner are unique vocal presences and obscenely capable songwriters.  They split the songwriting duties, sing their own material, and the band collaborates to create the music around them.  The two songwriters working independently adds to the abstraction of At Mount Zoomer.  Thematically it’s all over the place, but ideas of making a run for the desert, being tired and worn down in a crowded space, and drifting through the night, seem to float through and connect an otherwise discursive collage of an album. 

On Apologies, Krug and Boeckner traded vocal duties virtually track for track.  Zoomer keeps the rotation going for the most part.  Boeckner opens the album with a vocal rush that feels an inch away from going off the rails.  His voice has a weary, aged depth; it’s the clinically stronger of the two voices and never has a problem out-muscling Wolf Parade’s full-band sound.  Boeckner may have the more legible voice, but that doesn’t necessarily make it the better of the two.   Krug floats in on follow-up “Call it a Ritual” to remind us of his unique vocal style, and the deserved Bowie references that are attached to it.  His thinner, high-pitched, ghostly sound and strange syllabic emphasis seem to echo off each other and provide a perfectly specter-ish front to the choppy piano and guitar squall on that track.

Likely the best example of Wolf Parade nailing the anti-single concept is album standout “Language City.”  The different parts are grin-inducing as they reveal themselves unexpectedly.  The track opens to standard guitar and drum rhythms, gets blown away by fuzzed-out synth, keeps percussive transitional time over the bridge, layers the vocals, drops some cool word patterns, gets a little frantic, and then gallops and stomps its way to the finish.  The close is reminiscent of Arcade Fire’s perfect “Wake Up”; Wolf Parade drummer Arlen Thompson played on that track and apparently took good notes.  It’s difficult to create a pop song that keeps your interest for five minutes, and harder still to seamlessly incorporate moving parts that don’t interfere with a listener’s passive enjoyment.  It’s pop with a bullet.

Not all of the tracks function so effortlessly in this scope.  “California Dreamer” has too much room to dream; you feel like it’s going to flame out at the two and a half minute mark before riding an organ blast over and over again for three and a half minutes more.  It’s a strange, standalone track that doesn’t feel like it should have been left to stand alone anywhere, but especially not at the album’s crucial midpoint. 

“The Grey Estates” and “Bang the Drum” are two of the breezier tracks, and feel like they should be a lot more fun than they actually are.  Zoomer was so close to mirroring Spoon’s 2007 classic GaGaGaGaGa at points, but Wolf Parade goes out of their way to withhold pleasure on the promise of payoffs that they don’t often deliver.  “Fine Young Cannibals” opens nicely with a slinky, groovy guitar rhythm that recalls Bowie’s “Sound and Vision.”  Boeckner nails the high and low registers on “FYC,” as Bowie did on his track.  The song has some fascinating guitar interplay that’s heightened by Boeckner’s ability to move fluidly in between, but the track ultimately fizzles; it’s repetitive, doesn’t go anywhere and continues for too long. 

My brain was mush and my face was tense by the time the big payoff finally arrived.  As expected, closer “Kissing the Beehive” was way too much to handle.  I suspect it will either be immediately adored, or routinely stopped midway to put something else on.  It depends upon the listener’s tolerance for something difficult pinned to the back-end of something exhausting.  The guitar takes cues from a mesh of organs, then chanting, then vocal-less skittish laser-noodling, some tempo changes, some feral vocals, and a live-sounding, moderately compelling jammy finish.  It’s a worthy effort to close the album out properly, but it’s also an 11-minute, manic suite that throws every piece that came before right up in your face.

At Mount Zoomer feels righteous and well-intentioned.  Even if some of the pieces were forced together, you can tell that a lot of thought went into how the songs would unfold.  But it’s also one of the more confusing rock albums I’ve experienced in some time, running the gamut of pattern-less tracks that alternately crest, drag, shape-shift, mix and separate.  As with Apologies to the Queen Mary, I remember liking Band of Horses’ 2006 debut Everything All the Time because it was familiar yet inspired.  At Mount Zoomer feels inspired to be anything but familiar, right on down to the album name and cover art.  Maybe it would have worked better as a proggy, acid-soaked side-project.

The album was recorded at the Quebec church owned by the Arcade Fire, and produced by drummer Arlen Thompson.  It’s strange how thin the group sounds – the album lacks an orchestral feel despite the omnipresence of synth, keys and laptop wizardry.  The guitars feel like they’re missing a dimension, and the organs and synth sound tinny and distant, almost like a live recording.  I can see how Thompson would have fallen in love with the vocals; they are after all the face of the band.  But that’s just not enough to rely on when your tracks are extending past the six-minute mark.

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