There are four people in a room. There is a light and there are shadows, too. Everything that happens next is almost supernatural in its steely intensity, its grave conviction. ACKER is a group of four people playing instruments together. That’s all that EP 1 is, on the face of it. What they have done with those instruments, however, is quite fantastic, unsettling, stirring, and dark as hell.
Music, popular and otherwise, has a broad range of darkness. There is the kitschy darkness of Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson, or the earnest and substantial darkness of folk artist Damien Youth. There’s also the explorative darkness of Einsturzende Neubauten and the spirit-decimating darkness of Red Death-era Diamanda Galas.
ACKER, on the other hand, has conjured their own unique darkness, taking the indie-rock intensity of bands like Trans Am with the focus and deliberateness of King Crimson — and an element that I think is, in part, critical to the identity of ACKER: its cello. Or is that viola? (Shit.) I know almost nothing about stringed instruments, except to say I know what I like to hear.
How the cello interfaces with the plain, natural, and small sonic space these instruments inhabit evokes its own aesthetic which is both elegant and raw. The cello sounds like it’s being played by a human being, tracked simply and with whatever feeling was available at the time to the player. The sound of the band, as a whole, is honest and credible. Any liberties taken with the mix, editing, use of effects or otherwise are tasteful and driven at a feeling, not for novelty. For all the careening guitar and washy drums, there’s a solid strategy between each instrument, from one passage to the next.
Throughout this 5-track, 20 minute record, the guitars are tasteful and supportive: there’s no ego. The guitars are accountable to the arrangement, not master of it. They provide support to melody, they swell in unison with the band, and they are played both with deep consideration and ferocity. I don’t usually give a damn about guitars. That being said, I find ACKER’s guitars impressive in that they have made themselves indispensible to each arrangement by serving them with the utmost loyalty. With a sound as nuanced and purposeful as ACKER’s, it would have been all too easy to bulldoze the shit out of certain passages.
However, if you were to judge this band by the first 42 seconds of “Trinidad,” it would be hard to know what to think. The guitar is a little sloppy, the cello a bit pitchy, the drums fighting to establish tempo. This looseness is, as you begin to wade further into the record, part of the feeling and are not a detractor. This is the combined personality of the band; four people who are not going to pretend to be the same person with the same ideas and the same exact sense of timing. And it’s not sloppiness, either. It is what it sounds like: working this feeling out in a room, just us. As the progression continues, and the sound opens up, you will begin to get it. This stuff is beautiful, and articulate – and huge, in it’s own microcosmic way.
By the time you arrive at “Trinidad’s” lull around the minute-thirty mark, the cello plucks out a careful and intriguing sequence. Building the song from that point is a lesson in flying, because at three minutes thirty the track begins to soar. I’m 12 years old, riding my bike through fall leaves, pissed off at someone – wanting some sense of freedom. My feelings are real; the memory is powerful, if fragmented. Whether ACKER meant to or not, they led me there.
“Norilsk” is far more aggressive, and better shows off the progressive abilities of the band. Polyrhythms and mathy-phrases line a path extending into the horizon. Everything is in flux, drums gently ushering the band along one side-street and down another. At three minutes-twenty, a ghostly reverberation of the guitar gathers in the distance, a brief glimpse at something awesome in its scope and effect.
“~” follows, a bit of soundscape on the heels of “Norilsk” and its insistent march forward. It’s a lovely, if cold place to float before diving into the fiery narrative of “The Mid-Atlantic Waste.” Thus far, the band has demonstrated an ability for evoking feelings of fear, sadness, rage, reflection. “Waste” is panic. I see someone lost and confused, thrown this way and that while the circumstances of life supersede individual choice and free will. The guitar “solo” at a minute-thirty is not standard or forced; it feels like a necessary expression of pain – necessary to tell this story, whatever that may be. This band can rock, too. They make a great noise, building a mountain of thrash to two minutes-forty and then expertly reverting to the song’s initial size.
In the end, “Vrangelya” begins appropriately with a solemn and contemplative vibe, bells ringing through a vast darkness; memories trying to break through. There is somewhat of a sonic similarity with King Crimson’s Islands record. I can feel the ocean behind this track and others. Great, sweeping waves and dull, grey skies. This dark and lonely world. Too much time spent in my own head. Regrets brush past, sting like nettles. She and I, waltzing beneath the tress. Suddenly, it’s the three minute-forty-five mark, and I’m pouring over old pages; yellowed leaves falling out of one journal after another onto the dust-coated floor of an abandoned library. Scouring, desperately. Her picture. I can see her face, in my head, but it’s fading. What is that memory? Is it mine or someone else’s? A light. Slowly, my iris expands; I begin to see. The way the song lifts itself and rises up into the sky at the five minute-ten second mark is the most satisfying moment on this record. And it just keeps going, right into the sun, to burn. To extinguish itself.
Instrumental music is dangerous. Without a voice and lyrics, bands run the risk of having their music heard and interpreted in a way that was not intended. This can get out of control: the record can take on a life of it’s own, each note and beat communicating false messages feeding one big lie. People are going to hear this record in their own way, and believe their own lies about. But I love that, really. I love my own experience of this record – what it does to my mind – as much as I enjoy the record itself. ACKER, and it’s four members, will never know of the immense and eternal mental empires they have helped to build.
It makes me mad that this band and this record are not better, or more widely, known.