Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Album: Sightings - City of Straw

City of Straw (Sightings)
Album: City of Straw
Brah, 2010
Rating: ******** (8/10)

I'm not one to put up with inaccessible crap that poses as art so from the start, I had my doubts about Sightings. The band's music is based on melodiless drones, harsh guitar noise and fragmented pulses. However, in the several live shows I've seen, Sightings prove their noise and drone is crafted and focused, smart, emotive and riveting. City of Straw is my first taste of Sightings on record and it's as much a controlled burn as the live show.

City of Straw opens with a crackling, shallow rhythm that seems to encrypt sheer horror in a broken morse code. A minute into the track, the popping and clicking is supplemented by heavy, relentless thud that has all of the inhuman finality of gunshots. A guitar scrapes hissing sheets of noise. Mark Morgan's vocals sound traumatized, their unemotional monotone a hinting at melody. Not that there is potential for melody but rather that there still stand some charred ruins where a melody once was.

The more challenging "Jabber Queens" follows, shuddering to life with a bass positively vomiting notes - far more notes than could fit comfortably in the space - while Morgan's rant slurs, consonants stretched unnaturally over pealing guitar like the vocal track had been jumbled by slow-attack and delay effects (but I don't think there are any effects on the vocals here).

The tightness established in the first track, however, doesn't completely unravel until the title track, a sprawling nine minutes of stuttering noise and murk with erratic, muttering vocal narration and metallic guitar effects that devolve into a sound like post-apocalyptic bowed strings. But just when the album risks losing us, it crashes back into focus with the concise rage of "Saccharine Traps." Morgan actually yells here, his voice laden with distortion and mixed far too low to permit any attempt to decipher lyrics. A short, asymmetrical beat loops as feedbacking guitar lines careen and clash in mid air. The bass knots into itself, a quiet, restless, cold-blooded rumble.

"We All Amplify" follows in the vein of the title track but with somewhat less success. While "City of Straw" seems pointed and controlled, "We All Amplify" becomes unspooled to the extent that it really does border on monotonous. Like "Saccharine Traps," "Weehawken" takes a more direct approach, but again falls short of the earlier track. Its noise fails to find its rhythmic underpinning, looping through a short circuit that is clearly not random, but honestly might as well be.

Unfortunately, the album never quite recovers. "Hush" does not have the urgency of earlier tracks while "Sky Above Mud Below" lacks emotional depth. That's not to say they are bad tracks - they aren't - but the opening half of the album sets a high bar, making the weaker points glaringly disappointing.

However, despite these shortcomings, City of Straw is richly satisfying and heck of a lot better than most of what's getting put on record today. Bold and original, engaging and masterful, City of Straw is what experimental music should be. There's no bullshit here. Every sound serves a purpose. Taken as a whole, City of Straw is the kind of record that should be remembered ten and twenty years from now. Born not only of sincerity but also necessity and crafted with artistic intelligence, it tastes like fresh air in the stale indie world. [myspace]

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