Review Summary: Inexpressible noise? Apparently not.
Blonde Redhead have never been a particularly casual band. Leaving aside their well-placed Rick and Morty tie-in and the various occasions of lip service afforded to their (excellent) 00s run of albums, they have never gone out of their artsy, concerted way to make any iteration of their sound overtly accessible or effusive. Noise rock, post-hardcore, alt-rock, chamber pop, dream pop, shoegaze etcetc. - they’ve made it all sound great
, but there’s always been a sense that the end goal was the process of craft in and of itself rather than ease of consumption. Despite their vast stylistic differences, a common trait to every single Blonde Redhead album is the overtone of coolness and aloofness that at its best affords their music an anxious, emotionally compelling quality, but at its worst can come across as indulgent arthouse navel-glazing. They’re as easy to respect as craftful practitioners as they are to write off as self-satisfied artistes, and as a result it took a long process of slow familiarisation to their ethos and gradual drawing of the dots between their various stylistic sidesteps before I developed anything close to a personal level of attachment to their sound. It’s as though the essence of their sound(s) is buried beneath so many layers of intertext, emotional aloofness, and aesthetic and/or genre manipulation that it can be hard to see the wood for the trees.
This is especially pertinent to their earlier, dissonant series of releases, partially because noise rock was a less inviting ballpark to begin with and partially because of how unhelpful the body of Blonde Redhead criticism from this time can be. Reviews about the band from their 90s days are prone to degenerating into bouts of “how much Sonic Youth influence can you
spot, bet you I found more” and generally end up far more indulgent than any appropriative or arthouse qualities the band were accused of to begin. It took a colossal volte-face into the morose alternative stylings of Melody Of Certain Damaged Lemons
to shake this attitude, and while this was all very well in the long run, it left the tail end of their noise rock era (Fake Can Be Just As Good
and this album) in something of an impasse of reception. This one in particular seems unfortunately overlooked: while its time (1998), place (NYC) and producer (Mr. Guy Piciotto himself) could hardly be more obvious, there’s an evasive but very much present creative spark on In an Expression of the Inexpressible
that has never really been keenly acknowledged before, in my opinion. Part of this, I think, comes from the fact that this was their first album as a true trio (the previous two albums had one-time bassists); there’s a sense of the band stepping into their craft here that seemed to affirm the chemistry and adventurous songcraft that has so often been foregrounded on the albums that followed from it.
The short of this is that In an Expression of the Inexpressible
brings us a Blonde Redhead take on noise rock that, contrary to conventional wisdom, feels decisively theirs. Kazu Makino and Amadeo Pace balance guitar and bass duties between themselves comfortably and trot out confident, engaging vocal performances that show considerable growth from their earlier Gordon/Moore impressions; Makino had found her trademark iciness by this point, while Amadeo Meanwhile, drummer Simone Pace is on absolutely top form throughout this album, constantly finding tasteful and inventive ways to develop his craft. Simone in general is an underrated drummer, never extravagant but deceptively creative and full of a natural sense of groove not even vaguely suggested by the core components of these tracks. It’s something of an overdue compliment to the band that if Steve Shelley, for instance, had filled in on drums for whatever reason, the majority of the album would have felt insufferably stale and stilted. Simone, on the other hand, provides a highly engaging undercurrent that elevates the album considerably in sections that might otherwise have bogged it down (give Luv Machine
a drum-centric listen and you’ll get exactly what I mean). In any case, the band seem to have established an excellent creative and performative equilibrium at this point: what’s the catch？
As tends to go for any band this fond of stubborn self-fashioning, there is of course a catch - and it’s a simple one: In an Expression of the Inexpressible
is one of the least melodic albums I’ve heard in my life. It’s not without hooks per se, but from the first piercing note to the final sluggish cacophony there’s a sense that at some point in the rehearsal process, Kazu and Amadeo shared a spontaneous sidelong look at every potentially appealing vocal line or guitar styling, thought “nah, fuck it”, and doused the whole lot in paint stripper:
“Eh Kazu, cara - those melodies in the tracks we did before？ That guitar line at the start of Violent Life？ That syrupy dolcezza
feel on Swing Pool？ Those bass riffs graziosi Vern from Unwound played on our last album…te li ricordi？”
“So, what do you say we don’t do that this time？”
“What, we just…drop melody？ ぜんぜん？”
“すごい, sounds cool. Let’s ditch it.”
And so, whereas in the past Blonde Redhead had somewhat tempered their dissonant leanings, on this one they came up with as unrelenting an outing of cold, scorched earth and formalist bleakness as anyone could hope to hear. To reiterate (because it really does bear reiterating), there are
hooks here but they come almost exclusively by way of abrasive vocal inflections or chromatic dipping and weaving. In other words, a first-time listen is likely to yield a respectable range of memorable moments but without any of the instant appeal that most bands would imbue their hooks with. Early touchstones for me included the opening mantra of Uh, uh, uh, luv machine
’s caustic thread of mid-tempo urgency, and Suimasen
’s brutal imitation of waltz time; all of these hung around my head with a stubbornly grating memorability that I couldn’t help but respect despite the fact that I didn’t find any of them particularly gratifying. A few listens on and these moments have not only become more infectious, but have also developed into the most conspicuous contours of a evasively engaging sound that only gets more edgy and opaque under scrutiny. In this sense, the cover art is incredibly fitting, with its translucent bodies passing through a concrete trench structure standing as a reflection of the album’s halfway house between looming brutalism and the ambiguously personal imprint of human presences as inscrutable in their placement as they are physically present. To this end, Makino and Pace’s vocal performances are as full of character and inflection as they are lyrically and melodically uninviting; tracks like This Is For Me And I Know Everyone Knows
and, again, Distilled
are sharp and spikey in a way that seems to nurture the impression of this album’s essence lying entirely within its greyscale delivery. This is developed to such an extent that when the album teases other qualities, such as on the airier Led Zep
or the comparatively effusive jam Futurism Vs. Passéism Part 2
, they feel perfectly placed as stepping stones towards a further sense of intrigue.
One quality on this album that will likely split the pack in terms of preference is the degree to which it is a fiercely engaged with the listener’s headspace rather than any of their bouncier, more corporal functions in the way that punkier contemporaries delivered. While it’s as aesthetically bleached as any 90s noise rock/early post-hardcore, the accompanying raw energy that one would associate with comparable albums (say, Red Medicine
or The Future of What
) is nowhere to be found on this album. This Is For Me And I Know Everyone Knows
takes things into more upbeat territory and spits a few sparks around, but that’s as far as it goes. Where most bands of their ilk harnessed the harsher end of the rock spectrum as a vehicle to make their audience jump around just as much as they scratched their heads, In an Expression of the Inexpressible
is almost entirely distant and calculated. While this will likely be an insurmountable stumbling block for some listeners, the band embrace it on this album in particular in a way that feels far more creative and distinctive than they are generally given credit for, and the results are rich with intrigue and staying power as a result.
To this end, the tracks here display a structural and tonal versatility that goes far further than their aesthetic unity would suggest. Unlike on their Sonic Youth-inspired debut or or the cerebral rhythms and textures of La Mia Via Violenta
, Blonde Redhead land every track as an entirely distinct idea on this album. Each track has a slightly different ethos and texture, whether it’s 10
’s hellishly methodical enactment of a chromatic carnival from the depths of purgatory or Luv Machine
’s obsessive fixation on all things piercing and angular, too discordant to be properly sexy but with all the swagger necessary for a healthy disposition. The sequencing is largely on point to back this up, with the first three tracks scrambling to follow on from each other as separate elements of the same dizzying powerhouse that holds the album in top gear just long enough for its cold edge to ring out over the clamour - and consequentially when the ultra-laconic Missile++
drops in to unwind things somewhat, it feels like an entirely sensible progression as well as a convenient pause for breath. Futurism Vs. Passéism Part 2
follows on as a still more digestible payoff, and at this point the listener hopefully feels confident in tackling whatever the rest of the album throws their way.
I say ‘hopefully’ because it’s at this point that Blonde Redhead really go off the deep end. Speed X Distance = Time
is a a nails-on-chalkboard ballad with the gain turned up; it’s full of haunting melodies of the kind that an artist like PJ Harvey or even Portishead would have boiled down to something discreet and enticing, but Kazu Makino pulls it off in such an actively unrefined manner that it almost feels as though the listener’s discomfort is as essential to the listening experience as the horror show of macabre arpeggios through which the song is strung together. Not content to leave things here, the band made the delightfully ballsy decision to follow on from this track with perhaps the most wayward track in their canon. In An Expression Of The Inexpressible
is a monolith of starched noise built around one of Makino’s most violently unintelligible vocal performances and a single two-bar rhythm, half stuttering march half syncopated lurch. The song slogs out three minutes in this vein before introducing a disgustingly sludgy approximation of a one-note guitar riff that is gradually modulated through to the song’s eventual close. It’s the kind of song that could easily serve as a potentially irreversible turn-off to anyone with unresolved scepticism for any 90s rock with a melodic value south of Nirvana (the kind of people whom you can only plead to ‘check Fugazi’ so many times before you start to flog a dead horse). However, after a few listens it becomes clear that Blonde Redhead run the gauntlet with the perfect balance of artsy rigour and punk sneer to put it on par with any of Unwound or Drive Like Jehu’s most extended noise outings (think Side Effects of Being Tired
), and so it ends up as a surprise highlight. Unfortunately, instrumental Justin Joyous
seems to push for a similar ethos but ends up rounding things off in an unfortunate dull style; its repetitious amelodic drabness feel like twice the slog in half the time of the title track and the album consequentially ends on a lacklustre note (especially given how the fiery shrapnel thrown all over the shop by This Is For Me And I Know Everyone Knows
in the penultimate slot).
In any case, as far as unapologetically unwelcoming albums from notoriously cold shouldered bands go, In An Expression Of The Inexpressible
has enough substance and craft to offer an increasingly rewarding series of listens to anyone prepared to invest a few rotations’ worth of time. It’s an overlooked and worthwhile pick for anyone partial to the band’s other work, but (more importantly) it’s a very interesting part of the conversation of angular, dissonant guitar rock that was in full swing by the late 90s. Blonde Redhead are often treated as secondary evidence that this conversation occurred in the first place, so I suppose it’s apt that their strongest refutation against this claim comes in the form of their most overlooked album. Anyone still tuned in, it’s not going anywhere fast.