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."
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).
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.