By: Sam Birkett
Group of the Altos | website | facebook | twitter |
Released on February 23, 2015 via Mini50 Records
Group of the Altos are a twelve-piece avant-garde rock group from Milwaukee, and r u person or not, their debut full-length, displays the breadth you would expect from such a large and seemingly leaderless group. The quantity of genres to be heard on this LP is a testimony to the issues of the categorisation of music, but unfortunately also to the benefits of the focus those limits can provide – this album feels very much like an exercise in communal music, with every one of the twelve musicians pitching in equally, but whatever freedom it gains is countered by an almost complete lack of direction.
With opener Learning to Share, the album begins on a Mogwai-esque note, with moody and distorted layers of guitars. Once the horns join the fray, it makes for a fairly pleasing listen. The instrumental then backs off for the vocals to come in, which are similarly okay, before a leering guitar lead picks up, all the other pieces soon follow and… Taper off. The song invests itself in slow layering and build, only to never bring itself to a satisfying end. Simply put, it is just too short, making for frustrating listening as it could work wonderfully as the opening section of a longer, richer song. This would be alright if the album as a whole had the structure for it to act as the lead into the following tracks, but there isn’t any coherent transition into to: Savior, the sudden bluesy shift being fairly jarring. News from Wino, however, is an improvement on both. It is the first point in the album at which it really feels like it’s up and running, after the sputtering start of the first two tracks: each instrument and voice feels well-placed and confident in the greater sonic whole, and the lyrics are well-crafted, justifying their place on this album for the first time. At this point the album picks up some vigour, following up with Gun’s St Vincent weirdness (with vocals by either Annie Clark herself or some top casino impersonator) and it doesn’t suffer from its shortness – it skips out the build, dishing out a satsifying two and a half minutes of avant-stuff.
The gem in the patchy hat of r u person or not’s catchall approach is, by a head and shoulders, Fucks with Us. Helmed by an authoritative MC with engaging lyrics and a nimble flow, this is the tightest and most immediate Altos get. The track is driven and vibrant and is one of the moments when the band feel most in sync, but it is gone almost as soon as it arrives, and once it gives way to the glum and uninspired faux-doom rock of On Wreck it almost feels like a wonderful daydream. Fortunately, another peak lies behind that particular trough: Coplight is the essence of everything good about this project. Six minutes long, it leaves room for steady layering upon a foundation of warm distortion: fuzzed guitars twitch underneath woodwind and brass, and drums and piano kick in around subdued and harmonious vocals. It is a stunning demonstration of what this group can do, which makes the unnecessary, vibe-killing placement of the final track all the more frustrating. Forgiveness Rules is not a bad song by any means – its jagged, weird punk would be great on a different record – but after the beauty of its predecessor it becomes, unfairly, an annoying jolt of an ending.
r u person or not is a strange record. It is oddly short for an experimental rock LP, it has a bewildering number of equal contributors, and it surges, rudderless, through a soup of genres. It has excellent highs and disappointing lows, but all of this makes for an undeniably interesting listen.