Friday, December 12, 2014

Pitchfork on Anatomy of Habit

Anatomy of Habit

Ciphers + Axioms

Relapse; 2014

By Grayson Haver Currin; December 11, 2014


For the noise musician Mark Solotroff, Ciphers + Axioms ends in very familiar territory. For eight minutes, amplifiers and instruments scream the sort of feedback, static, and clipped tones that are endemic both to his caterwauling power-electronics band Bloodyminded and his long-running extreme experimental imprint, Bloodlust! The sounds grow evermore dense, ultimately forming a thicket of prevailing hiss. But beneath and around the din, a repetitive guitar riff—just a few notes, really, folding into each other via delay and reverb—illuminate the abrasion, flickering like the light of a warm cabin spotted through a snowstorm. It’s not an accessibility concession that the wonderfully barbaric Bloodyminded would dare make.

Ciphers + Axioms is, instead, the intriguing second album from Solotroff’s Chicago supergroup Anatomy of Habit. The album's dual tracks each clock in around 20 minutes, as did the paired cuts from their self-titled 2011 debut; a subsequent EP split those times into a still not-quite-concise half. Despite the lengths, though, Anatomy of Habit is Solotroff’s relative pop band. He speaks and sings instead of screams, and he moves in lockstep time to guitars, drums and bass, all sharing intentions beyond aural obliteration. Each of these songs has at least one hook you’ll be able to hum, as Solotroff’s strange and droll monotone echoes in your head. During Within the Walls, Bloodyminded’s most recent LP, Solotroff yelled lines like, "mounds of bodies lying unburied" and "air so fouled by the pungent stench of millions of dead children." If you encounter temporary cognitive dissonance while singing along to songs about science and seasons with his Mark Mothersbaugh-meets-They Might Be Giants intonation, just trust that you’re not the only one.

Solotroff has long been a very busy and involved collaborator, but in recent years, his partnership has added unexpected elements to pre-existing projects. He supplied, for instance, essential blasts of abrasion to From All Purity, the latest and best record from Chicago metal act Indian. And there’s Wrekmeister Harmonies, the slow-moving and cinematic collective that works between poles of orchestral splendor and doom furor. Aside from founder J.R. Robinson, Solotroff is one of the project’s sole stable and necessary elements. Such integration is key to Ciphers + Axioms. Only Solotroff and Kenny Rasmussen return from Anatomy of Habit’s earlier iteration, but the new members are copacetic by any standard: Will Lindsay, whose brawny riffs lead the aforementioned Indian, commandeers guitar, while indispensable Tortoise and session drummer John McEntire takes the kit. Joan of Arc’s Theo Katsaounis accents the beats with auxiliary percussion. Chicago metal stalwart Sanford Parker engineered the sessions in McEntire’s Soma Electronic Music Studios. This is an enviable cast of contributors.

Together, they are excellent. In particular, the rhythm section of McEntire, Katsaounis, and Rasmussen’s burly and distorted bass works as one of the record’s great assets. During "Radiate and Recede", they power ahead like a seasoned but smart doom band. They pull back in the perfect places, allowing Lindsay’s gnarled riffs and Solotroff’s enigmatic words to cut through their rests. After introducing "Then Window" with an unstable shock of feedback, Lindsay cycles subtly through a series of strong-arm riffs and phantom countermelodies. Katsaounis and McEntire match him in the background, adding touches of bells and woodblocks to drums that suggest an incoming infantry.

The occasional nature of Anatomy of Habit—in particular, this first-time lineup—cuts both ways. There’s a sense of discovery to Ciphers + Axioms, as the members seem to be negotiating their way through domains of post-rock and doom, math rock and post punk collectively. By record’s end, you want them to keep navigating. During the album, though, the nebulous configuration can produce frustrating results. "Radiate and Recede" depends too much on its start-and-stop, quiet-loud-and-louder structure, as the band flips again and again between loaded metal lurch, eerie ambient crawl, and mid-paced art-rock shuffle. A veteran group might get much the same result with an editing overhaul. That symptom also coincides with how Solotroff sounds a touch uncomfortable, or at least not fluid, in his new role as an enunciating frontman. The speak-sing spans of "Radiate and Recede" are forced and stiff, as if he were trying to raise his voice without screaming. He is more at ease and more convincing when he’s actually singing, as when he repeats the title phrase near the middle of the smoldering "Then Window". He airs those words as if to himself, a writer contemplating his own elliptical poetry aloud. And then the band drops into that long, droning finale, its squall wired by Lindsay’s alluring guitar line. You’re left with the suggestion of future possibilities for this take on Anatomy of Habit.