Extra Life - Dream Seeds
Lately I've been really impressed with young Brooklyn label Northern Spy's releases. Home to Neptune, whose newest album I recently reviewed here, they first came to my attention for their involvement with the recent Zs album "33," and they're starting to release a number of "Zs family" projects such as last fall's Hubble Drums and an upcoming full-length from Diamond Terrifier. So I was pleased to see them handling "Dream Seeds," the latest LP from Extra Life, currently a main project of Zs co-founder Charlie Looker.
It's my hope that some of these longish reviews can transcend the smarmier consumer-culture exigencies of "record reviews," and I suspect the subject matter involved here raises those odds. You see, I find it difficult to think of Extra Life as a "band." I find myself drawn to describing their music in sacerdotal, rather than musical, terms. There are extraordinary riches to explore in this music from intellectual and aesthetic perspectives, but at its best moments, the music consumes you from within, transcending language: a powerful experience, but a perplexing state from which to write a review!
Before we explore Dream Seeds, I want to draw your attention to two earlier Charlie Looker compositions that have been paradigm-shifting for me. The first is "Nobody Wants to Be Had," from the 2007 Zs release, "Arms," and the second is "I Don't See It That Way" from the debut Extra Life full-length, "Secular Works." In hindsight, I hear "Nobody Wants" as the conceptual beginning of Extra Life, and "I Don't" seems to be its companion. At first, they seem to be musical antipodes: "Nobody Wants" is sharp and pointillistic, expanding on the idea of recitativo secco, while "I Don't" is rich with melismatic passages and the lyricism of early music. But as they both rail against the conditions of modern life in their lyrics (conspicuous consumption, homogenized culture, shallow relationships and the like), they perfectly avoid the obvious cliches of turning into abrasive metal screaming sessions, leaving much more unique--and powerful--impressions instead. I still find it difficult to articulate my feelings and thoughts about this music, but as luck would have it, I think Looker did a good job describing the breadth and depth of his own work in a review he wrote of Little Women:
"Like all of the music which I find profoundly revealing, the music of Little Women embraces and consolidates vibes which are normally considered in opposition. The band renders these vibes non-dual, non-opposing, returning to the original place where they are one to begin with. This is the basis of magick in both the East and West, from the Tao to the Hermetic and alchemical traditions."
So it is with Extra Life as well. This music has plenty of value in terms of entertainment and aesthetics, but for me it especially shines as a catalyst for heavy contemplation, a series of musical sigils that open difficult doors and embody their hidden contents.
Onto Dream Seeds proper. The third full-length effort from Extra Life, Dream Seeds finds the band working in a trio configuration continued from last year's Ripped Heart EP: Tony Gedrich (bass) and Travis Laplante (synth, sax) are gone, Caley Monahon-Ward has moved over to guitar from violin, and Charlie Looker is playing synth instead of guitar, with a focus on covering bass duties. The other major difference is the compositional approach, which is collaborative this time instead of Looker writing everything. The singular Extra Life sound remains--I think that spinning a minute of any of these songs would be enough to know what band you're hearing--but the project continues to be refined toward generally more traditional song forms.
I must admit that I miss Looker's baritone guitar playing. His angular, tense riffage on earlier Extra Life records, blended with delicate arpeggios, was totally unique. But his left hand covers similar riffs on Dream Seeds with a frequently metallic-tinged bass sound. Guitar parts have generally taken a more supportive role, with Monahon-Ward filling in spaces with chord work and Lynchian atmospheric flourishes, though there are times when the synth and guitar parts interact rhythmically to create riffs, such as the verse playing on "First Song."
There is some truly beautiful songwriting on display in Dream Seeds. No stranger to evocative melodies on previous albums with songs like "I'll Burn" and "Black Hoodie," "First Song" is the newest gorgeous and mostly gentle offering, and the violin/piano arrangements in the last half of "Little One" are breathtaking. But my favorite moments continue to include a lot of muscular, more rhythmically active writing: "Discipline for Edwin" repeatedly builds to an explosive chorus, "Righteous Seed" is a propulsive, high energy workout, and there are some crazy, disturbing moments in the center of the album closer, "Ten Year Teardrop," which build to almost impossibly beautiful melodic passages at the record's end.
The last two tracks are exceptions to the move toward pop songforms--and maybe "exception" isn't the best word, since they occupy half of the album's playing time. "Blinded Beast" is a plodding dirge that builds slowly, eventually adding some very interesting countermelodies and twisting riffs, like a kind of avant-prog Swans. It would be a great album closer by itself, but "Ten Year Teardrop" takes the band into an even more expansive drama. Like the Beast, the first half of the piece is a slow dirge, but without percussion. The center of the piece is a nightmarish collage of reversed sounds, metallic textures and dissonant synth tones, gated reverbs, and intense singing, followed by a brief spoken soliloquy. Once the drums enter the piece, it rises to a wonderful, redemptive end as mentioned above.
Nick Podgurski's drum work with Extra Life deserves a special mention. It's difficult to stand out in a band with a songwriter/leader so distinct as Charlie Looker, but Podgurski's creative approach to drums is a major component of the unique sound of Extra Life. He rarely plays anything approaching a generic pop or rock drum beat, and he lays out a lot of time. But his parts are critical to building tension in all of the right moments in this music, and when he settles into part playing, he emphasizes all of the interesting interactions between melodic and harmonic parts instead of pushing a particular beat. We're supposed to be big boys and girls--we can find the "one" all by ourselves.
In addition to guitar and other instrumental duties, Monahon-Ward did an exquisite job recording Dream Seeds. This music covers such a vast range of feels, from intimate to anthemic, that it can be difficult to capture on record, but everything is very clear. In particular, the vocals seem to be mixed a little higher and recorded with a little more detail than previous Extra Life albums to my ears, and it's a lot easier to make out the lyrics.
Speaking of lyrics, I don't want to attempt a full exposition of the lyrical concepts behind this album, but there is more of an album-length concept behind these songs than previous Extra Life LPs. There are moments of black humor and sometimes quite disturbing imagery, this time focused largely on issues of childhood and dreams. Mostly presented from the perspective of adulthood, simultaneously coveting and fearing the innocence and depth of emotional experience possible in the young (before social conditioning dulls our senses), we re-experience these acute highs and lows as they're born and buried in our dreams. This doesn't form a linear narrative, as it flows through the wild terrain of dream logic, but I get vibes of various confrontations with the Jungian "shadow," terrifying as they occur but offering the potential of powerful transcendence. Many choose to ignore or retreat from stuff this heavy, but Looker doesn't back down. He's already done so much of the Work for us that you can simply buy the album and watch the battle from a safe distance. Or you can consider these lyrics and this music to be a fragment of the map into your own unexplored territory--what will you find if you go further into yourself? More light, more darkness, more light.
--also published at Killed in Cars