2 from George Korein and the Spleen

I first heard George Korein's earlier project Infidel?/Castro! with bassist Colin Marston on a split with Friendly Bears quite some time ago. I?/C! was vaguely on the metal/industrial tip, but with a very identifiable style of electronic mangling, rich with layers of feedback and droning metallic sounds at their densest moments that were always handled with an orchestral sense of space and proportion. Since I?C! became inactive, I've been very aware of Marston's work, both as a producer of many of my favorite albums of the last decade and as a performer in great bands like Dysrhythmia and Behold... the Arctopus, but what happened to Korein?

Bandcamp has the answers. I don't recall that Korein's late-oughts band, Art Jerks, had national distribution, but there's a killing no-wave album from them just waiting for your ears. And over the last couple of years, Korein has dropped two full-length solo jams as "George Korein and the Spleen," which expand into even more stylistic directions.

Condition of Air (2012)

The opening title track to "Condition of Air" starts with gnarly fuzz guitar that wouldn't be out of place on a classic no wave record, but over the next few minutes, it becomes clear that Korein's focus on this album is informed more by pop idioms/songwriting than the harsher edges of his previous work. Generally, these are "songs" in the conventional sense, with lead vocals high and distinct in the mixes, though most songs still use more complex forms than a typical pop tune. Synths and drum machines form the basic framework of the music, while guitar work generally takes a supporting role, evoking particular musical eras like the bits of dub guitar on offbeats in the verses of "The Sky Heaved," or blending almost seamlessly with sawtoothy-synth tones in tunes like "Sobriety I Decided." Most synth sounds are aggressive and metallic, and a lot of the guitar and synth sounds throughout the record are treated with ring modulation and envelope filters to an extent that it can be difficult to tease out what sounds might come from synths versus guitar, an approach I particularly like.

I've not often thought of the relationship between no-wave and new-wave music (actually, I haven't thought much about new-wave at all), but the minor key balladry found in a lot of these tunes makes a fascinating connection between the styles. Take one of the more straightforward tunes, "You'd Have To Be in My Dream," for example: the vocals have a touch of vocoder added in the background, and the vocal harmonies, synth pads, drum programming, and reverb treatment make me think of the darker side of late new wave, but there's still a kind of looseness in the vocal approach and a musical disaffection that linger closer to the no-wave camp. Some of my favorite pieces, though, like "I Was Entertained," are just plain weirdly defiant of genre-specific description, with a playful melody that could work in a Tin Pan Alley tune over a trudging synth line that wouldn't be out of place on a Residents album.

My favorite pieces on "Condition of Air" fall toward the middle of the record: "Dreamnose" is built on a vaguely funerary bass/organ riff with a gently repeated vocal fragment: "Don't snatch it before I love it," and the chorus section has a short but incredibly memorable melody, occurring only once in the song but casting a shadow over the whole piece. The outro has lots of heavily tweaked, appropriately dreamlike clouds of upper-octave piano tinkling, drenched in delays and reverb. Beautiful. Immediately following "Dreamnose," "The Sky Heaved" is a lyrically appropriate tune for the end of this brutal winter, opening with a Residents-ish theme that moves into great contrasting sections of pensive, slightly wet verses against comparatively dry overdriven choruses propelled by kick drum-heavy drum programming. The outro of this piece brings back the kind of electronic/tape manipulation sounds that point all the way back to intense moments in I?/C! pieces--a satisfying and nuanced ride that leads perfectly into the creepy, heavily panned microtonal guitars of "Dark Trees Dark Skies."

Brain Problems (2013)

 Last year's "Brain Problems" gets off to a weird start right away with spooky string stabs, ominous repeated vocals, and delays that stack up in nervous claustrophobia. But once the song form "proper" kicks in, you get a refreshing new/no-wave tune with smart guitar playing that sounds like Eno-era Talking Heads figuring out how to work with compound time signatures. While this record is very much an extension of the general approaches in "Condition of Air," these tunes seem to breathe a little better, maybe because there are fewer harsh/metallic sounds competing for similar spaces in the mix. The vocals sound more confident, and there's more of a hi-fi vibe throughout.

My favorite tune here is "Neutral Evil," which has a great riff and some fun shreddy guitar lines playing just behind the vocals in the verse sections, and a kind of "tough guy" vocal approach that I really dig. In the middle, there's a menacing breakdown with just synths and vocals that creates a satisfying contrast to the first half of the piece. And I love the relentless dancefloor propulsion of "Pleasure of Food," which frequently gets stuck in my head. But those lyrics...

I do have some lyrical difficulties with this album. While I laughed out loud the first time I heard the opening lines of "Pleasure of Food," for example, by the end it made me super uncomfortable, like an accidental voyeur at a pretty dismal Overeaters Anonymous meeting. That tune is followed by three huge lyrical downers whose names will give you the basic idea: "Why Stand Up," "I Can't Go On, I'll go Bananas," and "Forced to Live." And the closing tune, "The Miracle of Humiliation," is a conceptual dirge in the spirit of King Missile's "Failure" or something, but it doesn't feel as obviously funny. While I imagine most of these are intended as narrative songs, there's something about the delivery that feels really confessional in a way that's awkward for me as a listener. Normally, I don't even pay a lot of attention to song lyrics, but these vocals are mixed really high, and Korein's diction is all too clear, so I can't help but feel a little queasy at most of these tunes lyrically.

Lyrics aside, the music itself is very thoughtfully arranged, and I really dig Korein's compositional style.  Word on the street is that another George Korein and the Spleen album will be dropping in the near future, and I'm excited to hear the project evolve some more.

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