Review Summary: An unparalleled, unrecognised 2005 masterpiece. Clattering electronica, complex song structure and waves upon waves of distortion from guitars and vocals alike are impeccably combined for one hour long 'Fuck You'.
Miocene's A Perfect Life With A View Of The Swamp
is a nightmare to review; it ties me in knots with its diversity, its scope, its structure, its lyrical depth and its immaculate craft. Crudely caricatured, its a collision of IDM-style and downbeat electronica, cyclical, droning guitars weaving complex, knotted structures, and punk disobedience recalling Rage Against the Machine and Refused. It rejects contextualisation, even in terms of the band's earlier efforts with neither of the 2000 and 2003 EPs Refining the Theory
and Cellular Memory
attempting the same coherence that is essential here. Nor was it followed - the band disbanded almost immediately after the release of this album, not even touring it first. But it is deep, challenging and expertly realised. It is socially aware and engaged and seems to have something important to say. It feels unjust that it resides in near-obscurity and now that its on Spotify it seems unnecessary that it should. It’s no word of exaggeration that no other album has remained so consistently close to the top of my playlist since.
In his superb book This Is Your Brain On Music
, Daniel Levitin suggests that much of the enjoyment of listening to music comes from subtle subversions of our anticipation that surprise and delight us, and that our anticipation is shaped largely by patterns of tension and release. A Perfect Life With A View Of The Swamp
shapes our anticipation at a fundamental, emotional level, painting in broad strokes - loud, soft, loud again - just like rock music should do, providing an accessible catharsis, and yet it entirely rejects hackneyed tropes that limit the possibilities for the subversion that gives music its depth and interest. Whereas pop music leads us through tension to release by a restrictive pattern of verse-of-multiple-of-eight-bars building to chorus and repeat, structurally A Perfect Life With A View Of The Swamp
develops linearly, like prog or IDM. 'The Fall' and 'Dionysus' start relatively straightforwardly, a 'chorus' seemingly standing clear between verses but on repetition this notional chorus is moved on and in keeping with the general movement of each track both introduce multiple new ideas before plateauing with extended outros. Within phrases riffs elude hooks, rolling on and on as in 'Autopia', and staccato stabs pepper bars unevenly, refusing to fall into predictable patterns, as in the instrumental 'Sympathy for Gordon Comstock'. Nor does it at any point becoming tiring to listen to, as I find some 'prog' music; I can find no fat here, no indulgent wankery. Rather, there is enough textural and instrumental scope and diversity that the album avoids becoming a predictable, endless cycle of simplistic tension and release wrought of the same sounds and tired ideas. More straightforwardly metal moments are broken up by IDM and Downbeat sections and track 7, ‘Misogyny vs The Common Rules of Misconception’ even rages in mangled 4/4 Hip-Hop, drums fighting to escape from the one and rap doused in fuzz.
Refreshingly, for all its diversity the album doesn't ever veer from its tonal core or burst its seams for guilt of being sown together by gimmick and superficiality. The disparate influences play from the same fake book and with from the emotional root, just with new instrumentation and emphasis. The sparse, cold soundscapes populated by thin pads, and winding, slowly grinding guitars alike share the same feeling of anxiety. Drums crackling and juddering in increasing pandemonium respond to that anxiety with the same defiance as the stabs of heavy distortion and guttural screams that constitute the band opening out and letting rip. These are knitted together with a subtle care that makes the album a cohesive whole. Take, for example, the opener, ‘A Message From Our Sponsors’, retching with guitar distortion for 1:41, and its successor, ‘Colloquial Drug Terminology’, half programmed beats chattering away impatiently, half downbeat live drums and keys sketching fluid melody. The same tonic note is carried between the two tracks, harmony rarely venturing far in both, and the same intensity is maintained from track 1 to track 2 by their similarities; glitching drums become the machine cousins of their precursory angled guitars by inhabiting the same rhythmic tics but this movement means that the drop into a spacious half-time pocket is entirely natural despite the polarity of the start of track 1 to the end of track 2.
There are exceptional moments to be had here; this is not a Jack of all genres, master of none. The 11 minute, four-part ‘i) Youth ii) Zenith iii) Harvest iv) Dissolution’ is highlight. 'Youth' opens, rolling, progressive, vocalist Ben Edwards recalling Maynard in beautiful, elusive melodies slurred between bars - a little tension -, and then it dissolves into 'Zenith'; minimalist, half-time drums and clean guitars - release. 'Harvest' finds a new, propelling tempo - snare, snare, snare and rapped vocals. A choral two-tone drone is snuck in under the grinding guitars and Edwards demands breaking point - “I’m past caring about how loud I shout, or who shouts me down” - before finally splintering into a cacophony of distortion and release, a scream an octave above the drone cutting through the anger beneath. Think the final verse in ‘Ashes in the Fall’ where Morello’s opening riff, originally sounding like some cold, mechanistic factory call, explodes into full, unabashed life. But here the release has been delicately foreshadowed for all of six and a half minutes, via numerous subtle tones, and is all the more satisfying for it. It's the kind of moment that you want to keep hold of or re-experience again and again.
Two criticisms can perhaps be made of the album but I'll swallow both entirely on account of the context within which they lie and a greater point that I take the album to be making. The first is that the perfect moments like the beautiful peak of ‘i) Youth ii) Zenith iii) Harvest iv) Dissolution' are too fleeting. The medicine tastes so good it feels unfair for it to be rationed so. The second, relatedly, as we shall see, is that the lyrics at times begin to feel a little crude in their social and political indignation. There are "corporate thugs", a "brave new world of propaganda", and higher echelons "drunk with power" aplenty and we are angry. But in their sweet song, rich in sound off the tongue and picture painted, metaphors quietly hide a superficiality. Where is the subject in: "Lost in the distance/ Fate placed between us/ Feeding the demons/ Fear put between us"" So, our contemporaries are "the peddlers of self-parody and intellectual cowardice", but how are they or are these just names we call" Are we the erudite revolutionary with a direction and a purpose or are we but a little in love with the romance of being anti-establishment for its own sake" Then again, perhaps this is what music, rock music especially, should be. Perhaps it is for the essayists to craft an argument and a theory and for songs to simply feel; who am I to demand that they say
anything" "[...]we've had a little too much/ Sweet fucking reason." And so I wonder if the fleeting peaks and the pure, left-unjustified anger are precisely the point; the release is pure and necessary after so much tension wrought by the world but it is unsustainable, will not stand to reason, a release, not the status quo. There is an interview with the band that I'm sure I've read but can't find with a line about skinny middle-class white kids who go to gigs finding a release in music like this. The juxtaposition between middle-class comfort and anarchic outrage is striking. Then there's the title - 'A Perfect Life With A View Of The Swamp'; because we want to be close enough to see, smell and taste the pure, nihilistic stench of freedom bought of saying 'fuck it' - we want a view of the swamp - but we would rather not live it. The album is a picture of despair at a modern life that is always impatiently demanding, suffocating, unethical and dulled by soulless corporations and capitalism. We need a release and this is what rock music gives us (and my God it feels good to shout and scream at the world once in a while). And yet you'd be a fool to throw everything away for the freedom nothing buys. Instead we content ourselves with a release for just long enough, and then on Monday morning we return to work, a little less tense than before. Not that this will last either. This is modern life, always demanding our attentions and testing our morality. The album ends promising a retreat from the angst and anxiety borne of an hour's expectations stretched, allowed to rest and then stretched again, a simple root-fifth acoustic guitar refrain accompanying the blues sang with nostalgia. Mangled machines burst into frame one final time just a fraction before resolution to the tonic. The fifth of the final chord, though unplayed on this final occasion, is the D that the album opens with and that is the drone throughout much of the album; just as anger must recede into reality, new affront is never far from calm. Tension and release works in cycles, in music as in our lives as we try to resolve our indignation at the system with our need to operate within it.
This is an album to be listened to as an album, start to finish, loudly and preferably in headphones, again, again and again. It consumes me on every listen, a thick, engulfing storm of clattering electronica and distorted guitars, punctuated by spat disobedience, building to gross catharsis and then falling away to nothingness, insistently chopping between time signatures and accents, surprising and challenging but remaining always whole. Lyrically it is frequently gorgeously poetic and its thematic repetition and occasional over-abstraction can surely be forgiven for its implied self-awareness of the sufficiency and importance of base release as rock music's raison d'être. Ironically given the claim made in 'Calliope', that it is the free improvising musician who escapes the demands of the cultural and commercial system that denies the worker their freedom, the album finds wonderful freedom from context by virtue of the care given to its composition. Eight years later it is, to my mind, still unparalleled in its marriage of electronica and metal so naturally into a cohesive, maddened whole. Surely its worth a listen.