Neptune - msg rcvd
My first spin through "msg rcvd" filled me with regret and dread--regret that I missed out on hearing this band's work over the last 15 years, and dread at how much money I'm likely to spend tracking down Neptune's voluminous back catalog. I don't know how I've been out of the loop on this amazing band, but enjoying revelatory moments like my first time listening to this album are precisely why I've gotten into the "record review game."
For those of you arriving to the work of Neptune as late as me, a touch of background: this band started around 1994 as an outgrowth of a sculpture project by bandleader Jason Sanford. Discogs.com indicates at least seven folks have contributed their efforts to the band over the course of 16 releases. As one might expect, the discography on the Neptune website is more comprehensive, listing 23 previous releases (not including either of their most recent efforts for Northern Spy). Their website also includes a "listen" button I'd recommend checking out, which will launch a player featuring tracks from older releases (check out "Thorns" and "Paris Green"). I'm digging the tracks on "msg rcvd" even more than the music in this sampler, but there are a lot of compositional/orchestrational similarities that will get you into the proper state of mind to rcv yr msg.
The most unique aspect of Neptune is surely its sculptural pedigree: the band continues to design and construct their own instruments. Their guitar designs are visually striking, with wide rectangular or square metal bodies and skeletal metal-frame necks with just enough structure to support fretwork. They're a fascinating contrast of positive and negative space, or something like Ghost of Future Bo Diddley guitars, if you're feeling more whimsical. There are homemade electric kalimbas with guitar pickups mounted on their wood block bases. Drum hardware is made to fit around discarded trash bins. And they use many other mysterious homemade metal boxes with various knobs, switches, meters, and jacks--perhaps a few of these are the "new 'feedback-organ' machines" mentioned in the album's promo literature.
But don't equate Neptune's devotion to instrument design with novelty. Ordinarily, I might wonder if compositional focus would be compromised with so much thought invested in the instruments themselves, but this music is created with a similarly sculptural--or ritualistic--attention to detail. In fact, "msg rcvd" exudes a unique kind of compositional integrity that is probably only possible when the musicians' hands are creating both their medium and their message as an integrated whole. I am reminded of the "Crafting A Drum" section toward the end of Rhythmajik, in which Z'EV describes several methods by which a person can consecrate an instrument during its construction: everything from personal sigils, symbols, prayers, songs, and bodily fluids can be focused together at the "birth" of a new instrument. Such instruments easily become extensions of their owner/creators. In the case of Neptune, whose music and lyrics explore connections between cultural disguises and cultural detritus, there is an impressive amount of emotional power in giving voice to "junk."
Musically, I think anyone who is into the early 80s confluence of industrial/pop/goth music (think early Cabaret Voltaire, Suicide, PTV) will fall in love with "msg rcvd." Another obvious influence is Einsturzende Neubauten, for some musical connections as well as instrument design/modification, but Neptune has a distinct voice all its own. Compositionally, this is mostly minimalist work--Neptune has the ability to make a LOT of sound, but they're masters of patience. Tension builds very gradually, even gently, and usually works itself out through repetition of musical sections with variations in orchestration or rhythm. And I really like the vocals, which are mostly spoken and occasionally sung--but there is no screaming. There are moments where screamed/yelled vocals might have been the obvious choice for many bands, but singer/guitarist/etc Mark Pearson's vocal restraint really pays off, in my opinion, creating even more tension by not falling into aggro vocal cliches.
I really love the blend of sounds: "natural" instruments of plucked strings, plucked metal tines, drums, etc, are electrified and amplified to great effect among other kinds of oscillating ephemera. I'm not sure what a "feedback organ" or an "oscillator organ" would be, structurally, but I do hear controlled feedback or self-oscillation sounds being used frequently. It's all very structured--this is by no means a "noise" album, nor do I get the impression that improvisation plays a significant role. Sounds one might associate with "noise" are used, but they're deployed for very specific textural or rhythmic effects. Again, that sense of thoughtful patience permeates the work at every level: instrument design, sound design, compositional permutation, vocal approach, lyrical/thematic motifs. The result, at least for me, is a well-defined and very addictive record.
also published at Killed in Cars