Review Summary: Akron/Family shoot for bigger and more streamlined, only losing a little spirit in the process.
Any fan of contemporary psychedelic rock will surely know the name “Akron/Family.” Michael Gira of Swans once described them in the following manner: “There are no inverted commas in the world of Akron. They’re inside the music, grinding it, fighting it, chewing it, digesting it, then spewing it up to the sky in a multicoloured spray of endless sound and love.”
In a nutshell, an intrinsic part of Akron/Family's sound has always been chaos. Since their inception they have been hurling diverse influences at each other (everything from the acid-drenched grooves of 13th Floor Elevators to the soaring vocal harmonies of Animal Collective) into wild melees of sound, from which they gradually build to intensely melodic climaxes. It's always a while before these transcendental moments of clarity occur, but the serpentine path you take to get there makes them all the more satisfying. It comes as no shock then that their lengthier, more segmented tracks ('Blessing Force', 'Ed Is A Portal', 'Gravelly Mountains Of The Moon') are among their most beloved.
And now, two years since the release of 'Akron/Family II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT' (try saying that ten times quickly), we have 'Sub Verses'. Just as we were growing comfortable in the way we listen to and digest Akron/Family's music, the band's sixth studio album has come along and pulled the carpet out from beneath our feet. From the first few bars of rippling percussion that open the album, it is obvious that 'Sub Verses' will be unlike anything the band has done before.
Opener 'No-Room' builds gently and efficiently into a repetitive math rock groove, suggesting Battles hanging out in the desert. Native American-influenced vocals weave their way into the mix, adding another layer to this seemingly stationary groove. For three minutes Akron fans will be stunned at how clear and immediate everything is, pattering away with little tension or drastic progression. And then, without warning, the band vanishes beneath an ominous drone. Suddenly, you're standing on a desert plateau staring up at Mufasa, Darth Vader and company in the clouds above. “We held fast, we held strong, we held on” they repeat in their colossal voices. It's as close to a religious experience as you're going to get from a song in 2013.
Because of how airbrushed and precise the songs on 'Sub Verses' are, they can be pushed, pulled and stretched further than ever before. A drop as vivid and intense as the one in 'No-Room' simply wouldn't work in an earlier Akron/Family song. The crystalline production and generous use of reverb make many of these songs feel very open, often evoking the massive, unknown spaces of another planet. It's hard to read about the huge influence of Frank Herbert's Dune on the band when recording the album and not envision the guitars echoing from the top of unexplored sierras, or the vocals soaring down alien canyons.
But how polished and streamlined 'Sub Verses' is is both a strength and a bit of a weakness. Despite the many upsides of the simpler, more direct nature of this album, it simply doesn't convey the sense of mayhem or community that used to define the band; they fail this time around to provide their trademark, freeform lunacy or fulfil the “Family” half of their name. If, like Animal Collective with 'Merriweather Post Pavilion', making their most fully-realised and accessible record comes at the cost of a little of their heart, that's just a compromise we're going to have to make.
Despite lacking a little in pandemonium and in spirit, 'Sub Verses' is easily the most epic, immediate and sonically breathtaking Akron/Family album yet.