Review Summary: The mad scientist is back with his most experimental record yet.12 of 12 thought this review was well written
At the age of 42 and having accomplished more in the world of music than most artists could even dream of, John Frusciante could be forgiven for putting his feet up. Resting on his laurels. Maybe even retiring. Indeed, for a time it seemed likely that he'd done just that. After the release of his psychedelic concept album The Empyrean
in 2009, he confirmed his second departure from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and all but vanished from the public eye. There was much rumour and speculation surrounding his activities since then, but no word from John himself. For a man who once put out six records in six months, three years without news is a very long time. Eventually however, John popped up again, revealing in blog posts earlier this year that he has been working consistently in his home studio. Searching, experimenting, discovering. Learning how to create various types of electronic music, namely acid house and drum ‘n’ bass, and eventually getting back into recording. The EP Letur-Lefr
released in July this year was a good indicator of the direction he was heading with what he called 'Progressive Synth Pop' - the synthesisers were more prominent and there was one hip-hop track, but overall wasn’t a huge departure from his previous work. Now, the psychedelic acid trip known as PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone
is here, and it’s like nothing he’s ever done before.
While electronic elements in Frusciante’s music are nothing new – he has dabbled with synths as far back as 2001’s To Record Only Water for Ten Days
– they have almost always been used in a supporting role, either as embellishment or manipulation of the other instruments. Letur-Lefr
was his first record where the guitars took a back seat to the synths, and on PBX
he pushes this idea much further. Frusciante has always been vocal about his love for all kinds of electronic music, particularly artists such as Aphex Twin and Autechre, and he wears his influences on his sleeve all over this album. Here it is the synthesisers and percussion that drive the music with guitars taking the supporting role. For the recording of PBX
Frusciante left his collection of vintage Fenders in the rack in favour of an overdriven Yamaha SG that gives a much harder bite to his tone. In doing so he has thrown most of his old playing tendencies out the window and approached the guitar from a completely different direction only previously hinted at on the track 'Enough of Me' from The Empyrean
. Gone are the simple riffs, chords and solos of old. The guitar parts on PBX
are incredibly intricate and decidedly un-guitar like, acting almost like another synth layer as they dance and weave their way through the chaotic playground created by the other instruments. His new style is exemplified by the brilliant and aptly-titled instrumental ‘Guitar’, which sits somewhere near the top among the many instrumental gems in his discography. While John is best known for his phenomenal guitar abilities, his true gift lies with song writing and arrangement.
Despite this, PBX
gets off to something of a false start. The short instrumental piece ‘Intro/Sabam’ serves its purpose as a mood setter and nothing more, and the underwhelming ‘Hear Say’ fails to leave much of an impression. The record doesn’t truly hit its stride until the delightfully strange third track ‘Bike’, and from there the quality never stops coming. The first truly great song of the album is ‘Ratiug’, which features an undeniably groovy bass line and incredibly uplifting chorus, rounded out by a mellow outro with a verse from guest rapper Kinetic 9 and some gorgeous guitar playing. From ‘Ratiug’ onwards PBX
goes from strength to strength, with the aforementioned ‘Guitar’, infectious 80’s pop stylings of ‘Mistakes’ and the beautifully melancholic ‘Uprane’. ‘Mistakes’ in particular is one of a few standout songs on the record. It starts off as a mellow poppy number that wouldn’t be out of place in an 8-bit videogame, before layer upon layer of synths, guitars and drums are stacked on, culminating in a powerful climax of screamed vocals. On that topic, John’s vocal performance on the record is nothing short of stellar. He has gotten progressively better with age as a singer and has reached the point where he has total control over his impressively wide range. He isn’t afraid to push himself either, spanning deep throaty growls to his trademark soaring falsetto and everything inbetween. In addition to this, he has an incredible knack for multitracking his own voice to create beautiful vocal harmonies.
As the only song on the album with no guitar, ‘Uprane’ really shows how far John has come with his abilities to create gorgeous multi-layered soundscapes with just simple synth equipment and a drum machine. It is evident that he has put in the hard yards to gain a high level of ability with electronics, working night and day over the past few years to master his equipment. In particular, percussion plays a very prominent role throughout the entire record. There are no live drums – everything has been painstakingly programmed on a drum machine – and the beats are in a near constant state of flux, always morphing and evolving into something else to keep driving the songs forward. Frusciante’s love of drum ’n’ bass music shines through here, as does his friendship with Aaron Funk (aka Venetian Snares), which appears to have rubbed off on him in a big way. This schizophrenic approach does create moments where the whole thing feels a split second away from going over the edge, but is almost always pulled back just in time.
The album closes with two songs that are essentially polar opposites. ‘Sam’ is hands down the heaviest track Frusciante has ever put to tape with its heavily distorted downtuned guitar riffing, frantic beat and snarled vocals. The flipside of ‘Sam’ is the stunningly beautiful love song ‘Sum’. The calm after the storm, newlywed Frusciante sings ‘there’s no one but you in the world I’d choose… nothing disconnects us/not silence or time
’ amidst an ocean of emotive guitars in one of the finest songs he has ever written. ‘Sum’ is the perfect comedown from such an intense album and leaves the feeling that all is right with the world.
is by no means a perfect album, and there are a couple of missteps throughout. The first half of ‘Sam’ sounds something like ‘Moby Dick’ with a CD skipping in the background, and the entirety of ‘Hear Say’ comes across as a failed experiment that should probably have been scrapped altogether. It is without doubt one of the most challenging records in Frusciante’s widely varied discography, but it is also one of the most pure and passionate pieces of music he has created. It can be incredibly jarring at first, a clusterfuck of crazy synths and unhinged drumbeats, but with repeated listenings the beauty of this music reveals itself amid the chaos. Frusciante’s keen sense of melody and songwriting remains intact and the entire thing simply oozes passion. This is the sound of a man following his heart, living in a world of his own creation - and what a world it must be. At its core, PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone
is simply John being John, and that’s all we could ever ask for.