Extra Life
Secular Works


3.5
great

Review

by Nick Greer EMERITUS
September 5th, 2008 | 46 replies | 12,355 views


Release Date: 2008 | Tracklist

Review Summary: The most confounding and challenging album of the year that wasn't written by Toby Driver.

Extra Life - Secular Works

A sign of truly transcendent, challenging music is a critic's inability to explain, judge, and critique it. In the case of Extra Life's Secular Works, I can hardly listen to it without being confounded. Stringing together a concise narrative expounding the pros and cons of the album is a product of stringing together basic thoughts or at the very least an emotional reaction, which is a little bit of a problem with this album. The reviews that have tackled the album so far suggest that other reviewers have had a similarly difficult time. The tinymixtapes review's opening paragraph is a collection of both astute and muddled observations about the album's musical approaches (my favorite being "juxtapositions between silence and drone") that conceals the complexities of the album in a list of aesthetic binaries. My favorite review for the album came from Dusted Magazine, which despite its really awesome descriptions and categorizations of the music at hand, was only able to back up their opinion that Secular Works is "so accomplished that it makes most albums of its type sound ridiculous" by talking about how Extra Life are more math rock than math rock because of their lack of irony and self-conscious complexity. The review that best sums up how confounding this album can be came from the otherwise awful Delusions of Adequacy review who's first sentence is "OK, so this is an odd one."

Secular Works is an album of sounds that have previously been incongruous to my ears. It's an album of progressive sensibilities and aspirations, with no prog influence. It's an album that is highly versed in the music history of antiquity, yet could only be a product of the 20th century's post-tonal tradition and the 21st century's escalation of math rock. It's one of the most muscular albums of the year in terms of the density of the textures and the dynamic heights it can reach, but its melodies are light and melismatic. And here I am, resorting to binaries to show how paradoxical the album is for me to tackle, when Extra Life are more matter-of-fact and straight-shooting than their variety of influences would have you believe. Their style is paradoxical and difficult, but unlike the A+B=C recombinations of other genre-blending artists, Extra Life's influences are ground so fine that you can only see the entire beach despite all of the sand you're desperately sifting through, looking for little chunks of math rock mica or shards of "chamber pop" quartz.

Their overall sound, as inscrutable as it is, is not best described as genre influences but as compositional ones. Taking cues from Extra Life's claimed influences on myspace, it would appear as if Secular Works was one man's bizarre take on all of the component parts (Swans, Arthur Russell, Guillame de Machaut, John Coltrane, Jean Genet, Dead Can Dance, Luigi Nono
). It actually makes sense when breaking down the intent behind all of the influences. Swans was a band that combined elements of industrial, post-punk, and even some tinges of metal, and were highly concerned with dynamics and playing simple, repetitive figures expressively. Though I'd be going out on a limb to say Swans and Extra Life sound similar, they both have similar concerns when it comes to dynamics and repetition. Dead Can Dance also sound shockingly different from Extra Life but their influence makes sense in the context of Secular Works. Their penchant for creating thick, genre-fusing grooves and folk-inspired vocal melodies is shared by Extra Life, though with different genres (math rock, modern classical, pop, etc.) and different folk traditions (Western European). Maybe the strangest but most apt is Guillame de Machaut, a Medieval composer famous for his work on the mass, lais, and motet forms, who makes a few notable appearances in pre-tonal music history. His influence has led some reviewers to claim that singer Charlie Looker's vocal layerings are "relatively straightforward Renaissance-style polyphony." Though I'm not going to promise that Looker has avoided parallel fifths in his polyphony, the angularity of his melodic contours and some of his jauntier melodic rhythms speak to a pre-tonal, modal sense of melody that belies his post-tonal sense of harmony. The two overlap in sensational ways, effectively bookending 250 years of relatively comfortable sounding music of the tonal traditional. This atonal sensibility was explored by Machaut, who made a point of one-upping the progressive music of the time (the prog of the mid-14th century was Ars Nova) while also respecting some traditional compositional techniques. In addition, he was notable for developing both new and old genres, as well as sacred and secular works.

Extra Life are that exact phenomenon; they are both status quo and avant garde. All of their most notable traits can be placed in something familiar as well as something distant or aloof. Looker's quavering vocal timbre immediately invokes Dave Longstreth's (Dirty Projectors) singing style, but the rest of the music couldn't be more different from the Dirty Projectors'. The violin against the dense modern classical harmonies is straight out of Toby Driver's book, but the contemporary influences are strikingly different, departing from Driver's penchant for metal and jazz. Overall, the sound feels like a pastiche of a wide range of current "progressive" musical movements, from soundscapes that are indie, metal, and beyond.

However, when we actually look at Secular Works as an album, the challenge is no longer placing together all of the influences and sounds, but seeing if those disparate elements can come together to form a cohesive listening experience. While Extra Life get tons of brownie points their daring creativity, they lose points on execution. The songwriting just isn't fully realized right now. The album's layout and sprawling song lengths suggests some kind of conceptual arc to the album, but the variety from song to song chops up that unity, almost purposefully subverting it. Moving from a meditative jam like "See You at the Show" to a jaunty solo-vocal folk tune like "Bled White" is frustrating. The best part of "See You at the Show" is the way homophony exchanges with polyphony. The vocals and guitar align in strange staccato melodies throughout a lot of the song, but that lockstep is balanced beautifully by the ominous wailing ambience in the background. The fact that "Bled White" is just a sung melody undoes a lot of the merits of the previous song, creating a jutting, unwanted transition. Not that strange contrasts can't exist successfully in music, but rather these specific ones don't always work. Some of the songs don't feel challenging as much as just weird. "The Refrain" is a pop song filtered through Extra Life's idiosyncratic oddities; Looker's flighty and cagey vocals coupled with the constant violin is a sweet and sour vision for a relatively straight forward track. And why are there such bland tracks among the epics? Secular Works may as well be five minutes shorter and ten times as cohesive and aurally manageable.

But maybe that's the beauty of Extra Life; they really are that inscrutable. They have the most singular release of 2008 and toss in a few moonballs on top of all the curves and knuckleballs as if to vex the aspiring aficionado. Regardless of how unsatisfying the album is as a holistic compositional unit, there are shockingly beautiful and original moments throughout that more than make up for the dissolute structure. The aforementioned balance on "See You at the Show," when interrupted by the free breakdowns that happen throughout the track are unsettling and fresh. "This Time" builds off of simple arpeggios into a haunting crescendo. Its vocal refrain, "I know what I know / But what I know won't stop me," despite its unassuming phrasing is the cornerstone of the strange self-loathing that permeates the album. "I'll Burn" is an exercise in self-restraint, spending its first three quarters setting the melodic pretext for the complex polyphony that ends the track. By the time the contrapuntal vocal lines are fading out, the listener has been so intertwined with the melodies that he or she may feel carried away too (I know I did).

Secular Works is not an album for everyone. In fact, it's not really an album. Its tastes and conventions defy all idioms - pop, avant garde; classical, contemporary; melodic, harmonic - regardless of how the sounds and ideas may clash and yield disappointing results. If anything Extra Life should be lauded for their cavalier originality and praised for their best moments. Secular Works is a hard dose to swallow and is as constructive as it is deconstructive, but is a must-listen for anybody who considers themselves a true music fan. Let's just hope that Extra Life continues to put out releases that confound and trouble even the most self-assured and jaded listeners.



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user ratings (39)
Chart.
3.6
great

Comments:Add a Comment 
StreetlightRock
Emeritus
September 5th 2008



3762 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

I jotted this down on my 'to listen' to list recently, but I'm not sure where from, I'm guessing a blog somewhere. So i'll get round to it eventually, nice to see a good review of it here too.

Digging: Towers - Bel Air Highrise Plantation

Mendigo
September 5th 2008



2299 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

I began writing a review for this some weeks ago, but gave up soon. It's outright impossible to describe their sound and what they're all about. So though I enjoyed reading your review I guess it won't say much to anyone who hasn't heard the album before.
one of the greatest albums of 2008 imo, every of the songs is a haunting piece able to stand on its own (the greatest of them maybe being See You at the Show and the opener). though I do agree that the overall flow of the album isn't exactly the best, it's good enough not to destroy the music's impact for me.
I wonder which direction the band will take from here?

istaros
September 5th 2008



310 Comments


"Blackmail Blues" is fucking incredible. jaunty, moody, darkwave... man. it's so easy to hear Dead Can Dance, Meshuggah, Kayo Dot, Menomena, and endless other names in the sounds. but there's definitely more to it, as you said. if the whole album were like that song this would be a five-star record for sure

awesome review, by the way. very professional and accurate. something you didn't mention, though: some of the threads in both "I'll Burn" and "This Time" are so similar that, although they still can't be said to be "basically the same song," they *do* both serve the same purpose on the album. which goes a long way towards creating the overall imbalance. if they had kept only one of those two, or at least meshed them, or at least made them more distinct from each other, i think it would have been a great improvement on the record's overall qualityThis Message Edited On 09.05.08This Message Edited On 09.05.08

pixiesfanyo
September 5th 2008



1222 Comments


i enjoy this record. the singing took awhile to grow on me.

DFelon204409
Emeritus
September 5th 2008



3995 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Ya, I was already on board with the singing because I'm a big fan of the Dirty Projectors, and hey, I've listened to a fair number of Machaut vocal motets in my time.

metaldude666
September 5th 2008



111 Comments


vocalist is insane

Bleak123
September 5th 2008



1902 Comments


I really want to get this actually, hopefully won't be long before I get my dirty little paws on it.

br3ad_man
Emeritus
September 5th 2008



2125 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

I've heard good things about this and will check it out.

KritikalMotion
September 6th 2008



2261 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

this is amazing

willfellmarsy
September 6th 2008



3849 Comments


I shall check this out

timothyzha
September 7th 2008



23 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

good review. this is a really interesting album, but i find some tracks get really tiresome (this time). although i guess further listenign is required at the moment... i definately dig i don't see it that way.

P13
September 8th 2008



1327 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

the indie mixed with indian vocals is excellent.

DFelon204409
Emeritus
September 8th 2008



3995 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Ya, more like not that but they're still good.

Bleak123
September 9th 2008



1902 Comments


Can't stop listening to this now I have it. Amazing stuff, may even raise my rating for this in the future. We'll see how it goes.

"OK, so this is an odd one."


This is the only way to sum up this album really.

EDIT: I'm raising my rating already for sure.This Message Edited On 09.09.08

Mendigo
September 10th 2008



2299 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

you sure as hell should.
This Time is my favorite by now.

jimay333
September 10th 2008



433 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Interesting.

PushTheTempo
September 11th 2008



37 Comments


This sounds amazing... cheers

Bleak123
September 11th 2008



1902 Comments


Yeah, this album pretty much rules.

DFelon204409
Emeritus
September 11th 2008



3995 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Pretty much, ya. Has anybody listened to other project Looker is associated with?

Bleak123
September 11th 2008



1902 Comments


what's the other band?



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