Review Summary: They Don't Listen At All to the Government. Tsk. Tsk.
The last few years have proven a very prosperous time for the music scene of the mighty Outback. The place that seemed doomed for so long to bear the curses of AC/DC, Jet, and the Vines has finally broken out of the mold and done some pretty interesting things. Among these more creative groups is Bondi's Cog, an art rock band that made big waves a few years ago with their fantastic full length debut, The New Normal. The album was full of marvelous hooks, unique riffs, and a sense of wonder and ambition that was only comparable to that of Tool. At the helm of the group was, vocalist/guitarist, Flynn Gower who possessed such a one-of-a-kind voice that it at times made his lyrics (which were also quite good) and even the rest of the music just feel like gravy. The group definitely had their work cut out for them in attempting to top or even live up to such a diesel work, and unfortunately it was ultimately too great a task for them to handle. Fastforward to Spring 2008 and we are finally graced with their hulking new opus, which words like "hulking" and "opus" don't even begin to describe. Coming in at a "clear your schedule-ing" seventy-two minutes, Sharing Space is a valiant stab on the band's part at continuing their recently forged legacy of greatness, that just comes up a little short.
As a person who generally loves lengthy, progressive songs I found myself delighted upon seeing the track lengths with the prospect that Cog had not streamlined their approach and had continued in the direction of The New Normal. Unfortunately, this was a bit of miscalculation on my part. With Sharing Space, Cog have kept all the length of their esteemed debut, but axed many of the things that originally made them interesting to listen to. It is a sizable risk for any band, regardless of how skilled, to open an album with a nearly ten minute song, but to open with ten minute-ish track that barely changes throughout it's duration and never arrives at any sort of climax is like a racehorse right out of the gate tripping over a twig and falling flat on it's very large face. Such are my feelings on "No Other Way," a song that boils down to a four or five minute intro that was painfully drawn out to a nine minute-fifty-five-second run time. It's hardly a bad song, in fact it sets the mood and tone for the album quite effectively, but for what it is, it really has no business being as long as it is.
Despite such a misstep, the true destination of the song, the uproarious "Are You Interested," does a killer job getting the album off the ground. It erupts with the same defiant urgency and groove that made songs like "Real Life" and "Charades" such kickers. In just over three and a half minutes the tune does what "No Other Way" couldn't: hold my interest. Flynn totes his heart-on-a-sleeve" delivery more confidently than ever before and tackles the issue of excessive government terror regulations with ease (something rare on this album, but more on that later.) From there things only get better with the beautiful "The Movies Over" which displays some very cool drum chops from skinsman, Luscius Borich, as well as wild tribal-tongue-twisters from Flynn, and the surprisingly optimistic rocker, "What If." In the context of the rest of the album it's an oddly hopeful song, and also one of the few that brings the band's mathy roots back, but with all the negativity in music these days it's not so bad to hear someone say "what if in the future people just decided- no more leaders fighting to control us...I know you want it- well we've come to start it with you all."
From there, the second single, "Bird of Feather" caps off a pretty damn solid opening section to the record with one of the groups most mature and emotionally-charged songs to date. Upon hearing Cog's single for The New Normal, "My Enemy," I was almost convinced that listening to them might be a waste of time. The song was so blatantly mainstream oriented and annoyingly repetitive, it nearly kept me from listening to the whole album. Fortunately i gave the rest a chance and was delighted. With "Bird of Feather" though, Cog has clearly learned their lesson about writing singles which is: simply don't try to make them singles! Unlike "My Enemy," the song is plenty dark and frustratingly confrontational. The cut is instrumentally simple, but vocally and lyrically very complex with the desperate cries of a lone person who wishes to change and help the world, but is so overwhelmed by the hate and apathy of the people around him that he ultimately feels powerless.
But I'm only trying to make it better
Is there no other way
No other way to go
And I'm only trying to make it better
Is there no other way
When you're so far away
I feel I'm paralyzed
A very relevant and top notch tune that should by all means be dominating the radio waves (but, oddly isn't.) Unfortunately, it's just after "Bird of Feather" that the album really begins to nose-dive. Part of what made The New Normal and even Cog's best songs in general great, was their heir of subtlety. The New Normal was a very socially conscious record that took the perspective of a person struggling to be an individual in an environment that was very toxic to such a goal. However, for the most part, Sharing Space takes nearly all of this cerebral nuance and pitches it, with "Swamp" being one of the key offenders. "I don't listen at all to the government-I just say no do you hear-I don't listen at all to the government-the government has got to go!" proclaims Flynn over a nearly tribal beat. Forgetting for a moment that such fish-in-a-barrel attacks have become immensely cliché in modern rock, such a direct approach is nearly insulting to any mildly intelligent person. I can't say I'm exactly thrilled with the U.S. government either, but just what exactly is he getting at; anarchy? Not listening "at all" to the government can also have some pretty harsh ramifications; case and point the last episode of Seinfeld- had Jerry and crew only paid the govt. a little attention they could have found out about the newly inacted "Good Samaritan" law and avoided one of the most utterly silly and anti-climatic series endings in television history. But I digress, this is really a major problem for much of the album; It's just far too much to the point and while I don't pretend to be an expert on Australian foreign affairs, so many of his grievances seem almost entirely directed toward American politics which further adds a sense of disingenuiness to his his woes.
Another thing that really drags down the rest of the album is the substantial lack of substance to it all. As I mentioned, Cog made Sharing Space significantly less complex and softer than The New Normal while still keeping it pretty damn long. For me to knock the band for getting softer would be more of a cop-out on my part than it would be their's as plenty of groups have written very successful records that have been quieter than their past works, but the clincher is that in lieu of such crunch they generally add something else to keep things interesting. With White Pony Deftones added keys and trip-hop ambiance, and Tool with 10,000 Days put a greater emphasis on solos and electronics, unfortunately, Cog makes no such additions to Sharing Space, other than perhaps the occasional string part, which in itself is hardly considered risqué in rock anymore (thanks Nickelback!) That said, flashes of greatness do pop toward the end like the beautiful Spanish guitar outro of "Bitter Pills," the stunning vocal pathos of the title track, and the closer, "Problem, Reaction, Solution" where the group actually does the long song thing right with a grand Andrew Copland-esque percussion section and epic Tool like riffing. But sadly most of the album's latter parts just blur together into a pleasant auditory mush.
Reviewing an album like Sharing Space is one of the most frustrating things for a person like myself; it certainly isn't great, but it has too many redeeming values for me to simply call it bad- it's just okay. Cog are clearly a very talented band and their potential definitely shows here, but there just isn't enough of it present to make wading through such a lengthy beast really worthwhile. I sincerely hope Cog gets their act together on their next outing, because they're far too good to fall into the abyss of mediocrity; these guys definitely have more than a few great records left in them, lets just hope they can bring one of em' out next time. I do recommend Cog fans hear this, if for no other reason than to check out the prime cuts, but to anyone else, approach with caution.