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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Pretty Monsters (Public Eyesore, 2012) ****½

By Stef  

It doesn't happen often that you listen to an album wondering what the hell is happening here. Pretty Monster's debut album is one of those albums. You hear lots of familiar stuff, some jazz, some rock, some classical even, but then everything is stretched and mangled to fit another sound purpose, something strange, unique and compelling, covered with a sauce of noise, and all that without losing a coherent sense of lyricism that ties the entire album together.

The band offering you this wonderful stew are Katherine Young on bassoon and electronics, Erica Dicker on violin, Owen Stewart-Robertson on guitar and electronics, and Mike Pride on drums and percussion.

I have expressed my appreciation for Katherine Young in previous reviews, and on this album she pushes her own personal vision even further, and the description of her music she puts in her bio is actually quite accurate : "creates acoustic and electro-acoustic music that uses curious timbres, expressive noises, and kinetic structures to explore the dramatic materiality of sound, constantly shifting ensemble energies, and the tension between the familiar and the strange". Young and Dicker have both studied at the Oberlin College and Conservatory and have worked with Anthony Braxton.

The first track, "Relief", sets the tone for the album. A single simple phrase from the bassoon is thrown in the air for violin and guitar to repeat and change as and when they see fit, yet the sounds then move towards a tuneless floating drone, out of which the initial phrase resurrects.  It's not complex, it's quite effective.

"Patricia Highsmith" offers the musical equivalent of the American author's novels, full of changes, odd twists and turns, halting rhythms, suspenseful uncertainty and destroyed lives.

"Feldspar" is more rockish, and could be a King Crimson tune, full of stubborn and wayward violence.

"Crushed" starts with a  repetitive violin phrase, with minor alterations in the way of Philip Glass, mesmerizing and unnerving, increasingly moving into noisy screaches, while the guitar starts playing a beautiful arpeggiated chord progression, more rock than jazz, with chimes adding sweet touches, until out of nowhere a tsunami of noise arises, muting all other sounds, and when the wave has passed, only mutilated memories of the theme remain.

"For Astronauts And Travellers" offers shimmering sounds, floating somewhere, unattached to anything, with the bassoon leading the way through galaxies of crackling noise and spacy tones, strangely interrupted at the end by the drums playing a military march.

On "Deuterium", a slow and raw metallic chord progression of the guitar is joined by the beautiful and sweet repetitive phrases of the violin, seemingly going nowhere until halfway through the track Mike Pride starts adding small percussive effects, then the whole thing stops when the low bassoon sounds act as an intruder, creating some chaos into the action, until slowly and obstinately, the guitar and violin recover from the shock and continue their bizarre dance, yet with a little less enthusiasm, with a little more sadness.

"Entropy" starts with heavy drum beats full of dramatic effect, rather than rhythmic, attracting nightmarish sounds from guitar violin bassoon electronics, which coalesce then the guitar chooses sides with the drums joining the same beat while bassoon and violin fade away in horror.

The whole thing is beyond categorization, but it shows something else, a new sound that is as eclectic as it is creative and compelling. The musicianship is excellent, but their skill, and even their active participation, is totally functional for the musical vision, which offers something like short stories, with instruments like characters moving through a plot, with changing perspectives, different psychologies, conflicting interests and developing into unexpected endings and resolutions.

Surely a major contender for this year's Happy New Ears award.

. © stef


Richard said...

This really is an astonishing album, the way it jumps genre to genre, and mood to mood. I think this will require many listens to absorb. But it's also just a lot of fun to listen to. My favorite tune is the long Deuterium, although that could change on the next listen.

Here's a great fact: The drummer has an amazing resume, including having played with one of the great pioneering hardcore punk bands, MDC. Here's his website:

Richard said...

This is really, really good. I like the way it jumps genres and tempos with ease. It always leaves you wondering what will be coming next. My favorite tune for the moment is the long "Deuterium" but that could easily change the next time I listen.

Great fact: The drummer, Mike Pride, used to play in the pioneering hardcore punk band MDC. So this is like two of my favorite things hooking up. Very successfully.