Modern indie rock is marked by some ubiquitous sonic items. Over the last two decades, we’ve witnessed the slow infection of indie rock with electronic sounds; the thoughtful studio-degradation of sounds; raucous, sputtering drumbeats; mournful and idiosyncratic electric piano. Radiohead has had a large hand in shaping the landscape, clearing the way for groups like France’s AaRON, New York’s TV On The Radio, England’s Elbow, and – curiously enough – Massive Attack has begun to slide that direction as well.
I can understand why: in the same way that Flying Lotus and has ilk have captured the zeitgeist of turn-of-the-century electronic music listeners, Radiohead presented the world with an open-ended and inspiring outlook on the very extremes of indie rock music. They – along with The Flaming Lips, Beck, and a handful of others – built the foundation for much of what we’ve heard in the last few years. It’s reassuring to hear the natural progression of these things take their course, tracing clear lines to a noble origin.
The real magic, however, lies in the unforeseen mutations along the way. Bands who emerge from a clear sense of the past have the important task of taking the audience further than we’ve been before. Some bands rise to the occasion, and others fail. Supercomputer, and their self-titled album, is a sharp and earnest group of musicians, with a peculiar mix of stability and chaos. The album is filled with high-tensile songwriting and performances. The lead singer has his particular range of delivery, but he nails his parts by accurately reading the song’s energy from one passage to the next.
The guitars are surprisingly “vanilla.” I wouldn’t count this aspect against any record that includes wobbly synths and vocoders peppered about where you least expect them. They keep the listener rooted firmly in the universe of rock music, shunning most overly-processed effects (the exception of some minor delay use) or cryptic patterns. The guitars are impeccably played, recorded with mix-appropriate tones and distortions (there are one or two pleasant surprises along the way.) The bass guitar, on the other hand, was slightly quieter than I preferred but it was still audible. The reduced attack on the bass notes at the start of “Lebanon” are perfect in feeling, groaning beneath a filter-sequenced synth and clean, open vocals before the drums roll in.
The drums explore several different styles throughout the record, given over to the feel of the song or sometimes fighting the song openly. On “Lebanon,” they’re slippery and jazzy, tumbling this way and that with broken fills. They have a wonderful sense of timing, colliding with the band on a rhythmic tight rope throughout the track. The drum sound, to me, is always a solid indicator of the strength of the overall mix.
Nothing can upset the balance between instruments more than the drums, and while they have excellent presence on this record they rarely ever overshadow the guitar, which in turn allows just enough room for bass and vocals. “Movers and Shakers” exemplifies this perfectly. The band chooses to overwhelm with spaced-out reverb guitar towards the end, dwindling to a buzz and setting the stage for “Echo Well” nicely.
With “Echo Well,” the delay-effected guitars bring to mind Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes,” pre-empting the shuffling march of the drums. The song starts out fairly straightforward, caught in a pleasant loop. After some time, however, the drums begin to switch up, dropping hits and delaying phrases as shimmering synth gently flits about. As we close-in on the last minute of the song, we hear our old friend, the Korg Kaoss Pad. Although it’s not used in quite the same way that Radiohead or others have used it, I was proud of myself for picking it out. More than that, I thought it added a wonderful, non-melodic element of chaos and even “emotion” to the song as it degenerated.
If you that found that passage odd, “Last Gasp” arrives just in time to demonstrate a clear talent for conventional songwriting and production. But it’s a ruse: the song undergoes a strange and sudden transformation halfway-through, dropping down into a scattered synth suspended in the darkness. Then, out of nowhere, the song remerges in a crushed, distorted box; slowly winding back up into the original sonic space of the song. We’ve been thrown for a very weird little loop, but it’s a welcome shake-up: this band is not afraid to break out of what they are doing in pursuit of the most interesting sound it can muster.
“The Sun” begins with an introspective guitar strumming underneath the vocalist. The band comes crashing in after a few bars, stabs of synth pads and intermittent clouds of vocoder remind me of Pink Floyd to a small extent. There are some great moments of texture and space underneath the song: the clean, broad strum at two minutes-twenty seven; the abrupt shift to chugging, in-your-face guitars dropping like pillars on either side of the stereo-field. Gradually, those guitars relent and the song reverts to its acoustic guitar strum under the refrain “You saw right through me…” The build begins once more, reaching higher and higher… and then the fade. I would have waited a few more seconds – we were just arriving at the summit of this mountain, and I wanted to look around a bit longer.
We move on to “Take It Down,” which is slightly reminiscent of Radiohead’s “Jigsaws Falling Into Place.” But then, who knows from what previous artist Radiohead lifted its influences. Despite the passing resemblance these songs share with one another, one cannot ignore the pronounced “American” quality to Supercomputer when juxtaposed with Radiohead. Radiohead sounds uptight and dour; whereas Supercomputer sounds free-wheeling and capable. I’ve realized that just because I’m reminded of other artists only means that this band has managed to port into music I’ve absorbed in my young adulthood, music that has seeped into my subconscious. I feel as though I’m on the record’s wavelength, and the sensation is affirming in a way.
Even more so when considering the rustic, insistent waltz of “I’m Still The Same,” which serves as a segueway between first and second halves of the record. It has a bright, room-mic quality, like a cut from Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk experiments jammed out to its logical conclusion. It has a mysterious way of preparing you for the smooth, open, and dynamic “10,000 Stories Tall.” This song, slower and packed with extreme depth, is both challenging and gorgeous. It is comprised of bits and pieces, roughly the same sketch of a chord progression, spilling over different spaces and riding solemn electric piano. It crumbles into the bramble of quick acoustic guitar strums, flecks of golden light over the deep waters of the bass, fenced in by the tall green reeds of a pump organ.
“Lebanon (Revisited)” leads us back to the beginning through the atmospherics of the album’s opening track, with the notable exception of some lovely, distant guitars and a frenetic, sparkling arpeggiator. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about this record, it’s that there is a recurring desire to surprise the listener and blast a few thousand light years beyond audience expectation. At the one minute mark, the song erupts a la The Flaming Lips with thunderous drums and the soft cacophony of wild guitars electrifying the background. It is, perhaps, my favorite song on the record.
Supercomputer closes with “Two Timer,” parts one and two. Part one begins with a spare, jazzy atmosphere. I continue to be impressed by the drum performance and mix – they are exceptional. The natural “woodiness” of the piano carries through, spread nicely across the stereo field. Sprinklings of electric piano and bells bring out the wistful, wintery character of this song – streetlights in a snowy, northern city.
We’re dropped directly into the ascending synth sting chords of “Two Timer Part Two,” which feels part of the same universe of the previous song but assumes a new energy – a quicker pace and something darker about it in general, as though looking at the previous song from the other side and revealing something close to menacing or disconcerting. The breakdown and buildup in this song rides the echoing vocals to great effect. The build continues and lets out in fragments and shreds.
This album properly demonstrates a band’s power over its influences. What did artists of the past get wrong, and what did they get right? What can I add to the pantheon of this musical genre – what am I driven to say and how shall I say it? Supercomputer has created an album that competently answers those questions, and defines itself quite clearly as a unique entity. No one else could have made this record, not with its twists and turns and penchant for sonic risk. As I’ve said before, the stable and sober guitar work keeps the band from spinning off axis altogether and allows the effects and experimental elements to run freely. The execution was new and good. This is an album that needs a second or third listen before you can begin to really ‘get’ what’s happening, but when you do get it, that magic will stay with you.