[This is the first album review I had ever written, back in February of 2010 on a now defunct site. I decided to share it here for posterity. It is presented as it was originally published.]
I have to be honest with you all and say now that I’ve never formally sat down and written a review of an album. Undoubtedly, I’ve had many discussions about this record or that, but in an increasingly fragmented culture I find it hard to have these discussions about artists I actually like. So while everyone is discussing what Lady Gaga is wearing, it’s made the open contemplation of music a lonely business.
With this in mind, I’d like to talk about a band from Texas called Instrument of Karma – or IOK. I first ran into them on ReverbNation, a wonderful social networking site that is literally all about the music. They’ve made it easy for artists to connect with each other and to offer mutual support (and, point in fact, your visibility and rank is entirely dependent on what the website refers to as “Band Equity.” Quite a concept, huh?
As a user of ReverbNation, I began to seek out other users in the hopes of improving my standing within this given community. At first, the process seemed laborious – tedious, even – as I searched through page after page and became a fan of hundreds of different artists and bands. In the early days, I would not have expected to discover all the great music that I now enjoy. But paramount to all others, IOK is my absolute favorite.
Plenty of artists have been supportive and complimentary of my own work, but I have not felt the same appreciation for any other band than I do IOK. To be sure, IOK is perhaps my favorite band of the last decade – mainstream or otherwise. To illustrate why this is the case, I will discuss their album “Teleport.”
IOK is comprised of Jim Moon and Matt Spear. They don’t exactly have defined roles in the band, but Jim Moon is the principle lyricist. From what I’ve seen, they both play synthesizers, they both program, and both share the task of singing. Matt Spear incorporates guitars on certain songs – but we aren’t talking some industrial rock noise as though they were a throwback to 1996. Rather, I find them more akin to bands like Radiohead, T.V. on the Radio, and perhaps VNV Nation.
But to constrain any concept of what IOK sounds like based off the work of others is a disservice to both the band and to my reasons for appreciating them. As it happens, they really don’t sound like anyone I’ve ever heard – which is dangerously exhilarating.
I find that our culture is readily dismissive of electronic music – and why not, after years of trance/techno/house glut that have obscured the truly innovative and fearless artists who use electronic sound. Even intelligent dance music (IDM) has run its course, and used record bins in franchised book stores can be used to note the high-water mark of that particular genre. For artists like David Bowie or Peter Gabriel, the use of electronics were novelties – not inextricable elements of their art.
The current sound of IOK is different. It is steeped in electronically-produced environments, cascading with digital textures and flickering bursts of color. The digital warble of pitch and time effects, the wash of white noise, the drone and sizzle of electric guitar within impossible, cavernous spaces – each of these elements are only part of the world of IOK. The truth goes much further.
“Teleport,” the record in question, is a complete sonic experience. There is literally nothing missing, no lapse in judgment, no preclusion of structure or purpose. The record begins as though the record itself was aware that you were listening to the news not a few minutes before. As I experienced the record, it presupposes that you were leading your life normally beforehand, and an adjustment must be made gradually to swallow you up in the world of “Teleport.”
The first song, “Art, machine vs. Miliscary” opens with cyclic political sound bytes, echoing and drifting in the ether. Voices are pitched down, looped, broken. The content is obviously referencing Bush-era politics, and already the lacerating smugness of those times and those people rush back to fill you with dread, perhaps even a sense of self-righteous indignation. A stuttering, marching beat enters, punctuating the progress of sour ideals. But then a forwards/backwards guitar seeps into this mix, and it is as though you are watching the sunrise for the first time in a decade. Within no time, and I assure you, this song will provide you with the sensation of being free – in all senses of the word.
Jim Moon’s vocals are misleading. He calls out through immense reverbs and delays, cluttered with computer-generated harmonies, resonating within the music and not sitting on top of it. Some of his words appear to be lost, but closer listening reveals something I believe is integral about this band: they are highly literary and supremely thoughtful. And though his contemplations aren’t whispered directly into your ear, they do instill a sense of what is being said. Content and delivery are matched appropriately, and you learn to allow the sound of “Teleport” to consume the vocals as though swathed in an infinite blanket.
The use of drum machine-style loops is also misleading. Breaks and changes recur under the translucent skin of the synthesizer and guitar, but the surface repetition feels more like pulses of energy than dance-floor absurdity. This should not suggest that IOK’s music is without movement, or rising and falling energy. Just the opposite: “Teleport” is entirely about energy. It just so happens to also be about the coupling of sound with ideas – which is not a common trait of dance music.
After the first three songs you begin to understand the style with which IOK approaches the arrangement and choice of sounds. There are surprises even here, with your toe in the water. After “Leeches” – a bright, bristling song – the song “Deadly Aria” is perfectly juxtaposed. A piano ballad with bells and mounting layers, “Deadly Aria” visits a darkened and reflective space. It is, among the plentiful variety of “Teleport,” perhaps the song most likely to hit indie-rock radio waves. But the short echo and warble of the piano is unsettling – and although beautiful, it evokes despair.
Two songs will catch your attention in the midst of “Teleport” for the solitary reason that they are principally acoustic guitar songs. “Teleport Part One” is the first to occur, and although augmented within the fractal and digital world of IOK – it is beautiful and complete. The other is perhaps my favorite song off of this record. “Someone” is a burdened, somber piece that seems to drift through the real world in slow motion. For myself, it creates a deep impression of solitude and longing – but more so foreboding and distrust. Perhaps I am projecting these feelings from myself, but great music dictates nothing to the listener – great music provides the mental tools with which the listener can tangibly identify his own emotions.
“Teleport” runs the gamut of what I would describe as “implied competency.” Certain songs like “Info War” and “Plight of an Iraqi” strip away what the listener may or may not have understood about the album and drags them into repetitious spaces of an almost childlike familiarity. We are a generation of children who grow up playing with novelty toys (and even books) that made strange and bit-crushed sounds – as such, it was inevitable that we would grow up to address these childhood experiences in our adult music.
The motifs of marching beats, pulsing energy, and textural shifting remain in place throughout these songs, however. Especially on tracks like “Teleport Part Two” and “Windmills on Mars” – where undoubtedly the music places its full attention on the musical environment that the album creates as a whole. It allows the listener to drift and understand what they are hearing in the sense that they are listening to an augmented reality – just a little further beyond what they knew.
Lastly, “Energy” and “Books not Bombs” pull the listener’s head above water for a moment. “Energy” allows you to hear the vocal and lyrical content with some well-timed clarity in the middle of the record, whereas “Books not Bombs” demonstrates IOK’s enormous capacity for creating the sensation of luminescence and not just color or texture.
In closing, IOK has achieved the sense of overwhelming cacophony without having actually created it. Each element, given appropriate attention, can be distinguished from the rest. Every sound is discernable, but the music relies on you to do the detective work – to pay attention. The downside is that we live in a culture where listening to Lady Gaga requires absolutely no effort. The upside is that if you should learn to listen, this record will reward you for years to come.