CHARMS – Human Error

Human Error is the new album from CHARMS – a towering inferno of 10 bristling-hot songs deep in the pitch-black vein of darkest rock.  Full of torn, jagged textures, seering drones, and glorious, glorious noise – this is a guided tour of hell.  Right off the bat, there’s a lot of lovely sonic torture going on – beginning with “C.O.D.,” which erupts from a flatlining guitar thrum into a propulsive, crushed drum lead-in.  This in turn collides with the main thrust of the song – a thrashing, primal scream in the darkness, before dropping lower into a verse.  The voice – indie-rock incantations at the alter of horror.  It builds in desperation and terror as the song closes in on the end, the band lifting up this powerful voodoo to its double hit conclusion.

CHARMS’ new record represents a dramatic evolution from what they were up to a few years ago.  Human Error is dark, heavy – brimming with winding progressive passages, supernatural textures, earnestly hair-raising moments, and freaky dissonance.  Oh, and energy – copious amounts of dark energy.  It doesn’t just scorch; it shimmers.  In a way this violent mutation reminds me of The Flaming Lips’ Embryonic – with its in-your-face, crunched, and decidedly more ferocious tack.  Human Error, on the other hand, isn’t playing cute in the shadows; this is not a picnic in the graveyard.  This is The Rite of Spring for the 21st century.

“Sirens” is an excellent example of this – leading off with a surf-zombie tumultuousness.  The rising synth appears out from under the vocals, seemingly from the ether.  The song empties into a new chasm, an arch of voices in harmony rising just above the yawning mouth of oblivion.  We land back on our feet for precious moments, until “We don’t care if it’s the same siren” dumps us into a deranged waltz.  This isn’t at all meandering – there’s a subversive logic underpinning it all, like the grand scheme of some omnipresent villain.  Rather, it’s incredibly mesmerizing.  Even if the words are lost on you, you won’t be able to deny the band’s ability to tell a story through arrangement and performance alone.

The bleed from “Sirens” into “Kill Data” drives this continuous – perhaps even “conceptual” – aspect of the album.  “Kill Data” breathes new life into the pacing of the record, with greater attention to high-contrast dynamics, dunking down into a swinging, plinky synth pattern that belies the sprawling hellscape that lies ahead.  Even there, in the darkness, there is still so much “color” and “vibe” to explore.  While this album may be bent on conjuring demons, it doesn’t detract from the band’s ability to weave illustrious frameworks for their songs – beautiful megastructures that are then set alight like a funeral pyre for the world.  

“Coco Flash” rises from the grave in a slow pitch-bend upward, revealing itself in bursts as a synthesizer and not, in actual fact, the call of Cthulhu.  The reason why this warlock rock hasn’t lost its steam 4 songs deep into the album is because it continues to surprise in little moments along the way.  Oftentimes I felt lost in the mazes the band laid out, but always morbidly fascinated with where I was at any given time, especially “Coco Flash”s squelchy, gloomy clearing from 2 minute 15 second until 3 minutes 48.  The variety present on this record is immense, but rather than depicting a band not sure of where to go, it feels like they know precisely where to go – and more importantly, when to go there.  The start/stop chant pulls to a power-drained halt, the perfect segue to “Gold Statue.”

Throughout the album, the drums have this rolling momentum, trudging through rigid marches into iron-fisted thrashes like a machine that knows someone is trying to drown it.  It pulls us into the lair of “Gold Statue” with might, set against a blank canvas eventually imbued by a Dead Rider-like push-and-pull in the rhythm between each instrument as they begin to stack, smeared across guitar work slightly reminiscent of Mirrors-era BATTLES.  However, the band also knows when to simplify – when to hold back and drop the feeling down.  It is, from one end to the next, an overwhelming record.  And then moments like 1 minute 40 seconds to 3 minutes 10 – this lovely clarity presents itself in a woeful, descending synth line – a shady respite from the burning sky.  This too shall pass.

“Only Is Gone” is like the nightmare chase scene of the album, with it’s urgent energy-builds and insistent beat – whereas “Dream Fever” is a massacre in a small, closed room; running into walls and getting blood everywhere.  “Ana Ko” doesn’t feel like we’re getting any closer to the devil at the heart of this thing, but it is easy to bob your head along to than most of the other tracks.  In that way, it’s a welcome break from what is fast-becoming routine evil – it’s windiness is circular, pointing us back to familiar moments within the song in a way that is, in this context, more approachable.  The synth collapse at the end is superb.  “Separator” has considerably more punk in its blood, dragging angels into the mosh pit.  Throughout the record, the sometimes subtle and sometimes overt uses of synthesizers really drive home the occult feeling of the record – they are incredibly tasteful, challenging, unnatural, and perfectly situated in the mix at any given time.

“Telesnow” closes Human Error in a somewhat predictable way – calmer, cooler, more atmospheric and less driven outright.  Black sludge leaking through the walls; the howling of wind down an empty, filthy corridor; the thunderous clanging of an approaching abomination.  Surely, we are at the center of the pentagram now.  The guitars have a hollow heaviness, both weighing them down and sending them crashing against the wall.  Cut-off filters drag the synth in and out like a red tide.  The voice banishes the stars.  The hum of untethered guitar travels, lonely, across the wilderness.  It climbs steadily toward the peak, just in time to watch the sun die.

Human Error is a Lemarchand’s box of an album.  Gorgeous, intricate, mysterious, enthralling, and – at its core – deeply disturbing, perhaps even horrifying.  And in that way, quite enjoyable.  Whether that combination gives you the warm-and-fuzzies or shivers, the masterfulness with which this record was written, performed, and produced is incontrovertible.  It is a singular listening experience, rooted in a dark dimension with its own set of cruel elements.  It delivers emotion, intelligence, and terror with some hyper-competent rock ’n’ roll.  Short of being produced by Satan, this album could not have been a better ride into sweet, sweet damnation.  Fantastic.

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New Politicians – Room 101

Room 101, more so than New Politicians’ other releases I’ve reviewed, seems far more shameless about how it exploits our pining for yesteryear – the guitars of “Disarmer” and “Newspeak” point straight at The Cure like the accusatory finger of a zealot.  The title track – with it’s mournful chord progression and heart-broken lullaby waltz – has ripped its essence and vibe from Muse at their lowest volume or Radiohead at their most wistful and lovesick.

Let me be clear: New Politicians are master songwriters; the presentational quality of their music on record is superb; and they can create a compelling arch – from song-to-song and overall – in the span of a 5-track EP.  Don’t mistake my targeting of their musical references and homages – and desire for belonging –  as being critical in the strictly “negative” sense – I just feel the need to be aware of it, and to share that awareness in my review.  It does eat into where they might score on originality, but not in a self-crippling way.

I fought myself over this review.  I wanted – perhaps needed – a shock to my system.  I needed a reason to come back and put pen to paper.  This record wasn’t what I was expecting, in that sense.  It did nothing to disband the sense of urgency I felt about examining a new record and exploring every skin cell and follicle. It did not satisfy my craving to immerse myself in a sonic environment I could spend years unraveling.  I learned to love this record on its own merits, not those I was searching for.

The problem is that Room 101, from beginning to end, is a deeply pleasant listening experience – not a visceral one.  Marginally sharper, more matured ideas flowing out from an increasingly capable band, fast becoming veterans in their own right.  The problem is that New Politicians demonstrate a reassuring and consistent competency in each facet of their music – lyrics, production, “moments” – they are not short of ear-worming hooks, either.  But there is no audible risk of failure.

At the time of this review, I have listened through Room 101 ten times – including a few times in my car.  I study the now-foreign streets of Seattle in the ripening end of Spring with suspicion and smugness.  Even in my crankiness, it’s a fantastic record for the road.  It rolls with you, not over you.  The harmonies are a joy to follow, especially the vocal layering on “Darkhorse.” The cynical, winding, Placebo-esque lyrical flow of “Pyromantic” situated against an appropriately heavy arrangement.

Beyond the faithful word-smithing of the record, the vocal delivery is similarly confident and familiar.  “Room 101” begins to take on a drunken, seasick chant that unravels the song with its profane refrain – welcome edginess.

Musically, everything is frustratingly as it should be: the drums sound exactly right – open, bright, and airy.  Even the filtered drum intro that emerges from the tuning of a radio dial at the head of “Newspeak” is impeccable in it’s quality, character, and sonic footprint.

The lead guitars, with an emphasis on their flawless, neon color and presence (for the first three songs) lend little to texture, saving that level of nuance for the processed lead vocal.  “Pyromantic” is a notable exception, placing the guitar work inside of a larger environment and at a greater distance, with a more distinct chance of a noise-wash threatening the melodic substance of the guitar’s sound in an exciting way.

“Room 101” itself requires the solemn acoustic guitar strum and clean, descending lead.  Everything, including the reverse guitars threading in and out of the bridges, is right where it ought to be.  Throughout, Room 101’s bass guitar holds down with a firm grip of timing and support – only getting a little extra room to shine in “Pyromantic.”

I hate guessing at the messages behind songs or the broader statements behind entire records – but the general sense I get is that lyrically – and in a backward sort of way, musically – Room 101 as a record intends to invoke a near-post-apocalyptic, melancholic reflectiveness on personal and societal carnage and decay.  Without reading too far into the lyrics, I glean particles of indignation, despair, isolation, and a touch of paranoia.  Surely, a sober reflection on this time in American history without the sickly, sticky-sweet mess of any overt politics.  A sanitary gloom.

Room 101 is as much a feeling as it is a record – strapped down tightly in some ways and freed up in others.  It’s a new record, to be sure, but not wildly dissimilar from New Politicians’ previous work.  Even so, I certainly find myself enjoying this record the more I listen to it, perhaps more than the others I’ve heard from them.  They remain largely unchanged in those most critical of ways… making for a lovely record, even if few risks were taken.