27 November 2008

Akimbo – Jersey Shores

(2008, Neurot)

There was a time when quiet-loud dynamics were enough. You had a quiet bit, a loud bit, and everyone was happy. It’s getting a bit stale now, though. I blame Isis, and why not? Other than the fact they don’t seem to have any particularly loud bits these days. It would be nice if a band offered some context – perhaps lyrical – to quite why their music is so violently swinging from one extreme to another.

As if by chance, along comes Akimbo, with an album doing just that. Not only is the music very well constructed, with eclectic song lengths, impressive performance and killer riffs, but it all means something.

There are two terms most rock writers try to avoid: ‘prog’ and ‘concept’. If they do use them, it’s always in the context of ‘this is a concept album. But not like that. Hey, come back!’ Well this is not a prog album, though there are similarities with one, notably the journey the longer songs take the listener on.

Jersey Shores is, however, a concept album. The songs are lyrically connected by one theme, which carries through into the artwork and even the music itself. This is where it gets really interesting. The album is about a spate of shark attacks in New Jersey in the first world war era. While the music is strong on its own, it is when reading the lyrics (and very helpful prose elaboration) that the overall quality hits you.

Last year, Phantom Limb, by Pig Destroyer, was the album it paid to read the lyric sheet to. Its stream-of-consciousness narrative about psychotic thoughts was so well-constructed that it made the explosive audio almost secondary.

Jersey Shores’ lyrics don’t have quite the same effect. Rather, they go beyond augmenting the sound, into ostensibly shaping what the music does. During the quieter moments, the listener can visualise the ominously still waters. Every time the aural tumult kicks in, you know those enormous, tooth-filled jaws are ripping into an unwitting swimmer, be it Charles Bruder or young Lester Stillwell.

The latter gives his name to the biggest musical triumph on the album, an eleven-minute epic with numerous kick-ins and break-downs. It would ordinarily be a work of dynamic ferocity that most post-metal bands could only dream of. With the concept attached, you know the first explosion coincides with the shark attacking the boy, who was out swimming with friends. It all comes crashing in again when Stanley Fisher dives into the water in an attempt to save him. Riffs savage the ears as gnashing teeth mutilate his thigh. His wounds would prove fatal.

While this marriage of concept and music elevates Jersey Shores clear above the majority of Akimbo’s contemporaries, the music stands strong in isolation. ‘Great White Bull’s maniacal, lumbering thrash is heightened by its relative brevity. The title track, which closes the album, explodes with the impotent rage of the human when confronted with such attacks of nature. After the attack subsides, we are left with the sound of the shallows, still once more, as a lone guitar picks out a melody of contemplation.

Every sequence on this album means something. The introduction creates that Jaws false sense of security. The vocals are primal, but massively effective, as vocalist/bassist Jon Weisnewski reaches high notes with a ferocity usually reserved for panic attacks. The reference points are all present and correct: the raw riffery of peak Neurosis. The near-Krautrock bass pulse extravaganza that inexplicably breaks out at one point. The period of calm in ‘Lester Stillwell’ that make you almost expect Henry Rollins to begin delivering. The sheer drops off the peaks of bludgeon into thin air, on a scale comparable to Botch’s majestic ‘Man the Ramparts’.

More than any of that, though, is the clear sense that here is a band turning its influences into mere ingredients. Jersey Shores is not about sounding like this band or that scene. It is merely three men – Akimbo – at the top of their game. And whether you call it post-metal, sludge or noise-rock, Akimbo is at the top of the game.

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