May 20, 2006

The Dividing Island

Lansing-Dreiden (2006, Kemado)
The Dividing Island

I’ve written in the past about my struggle to reconcile my enjoyment of Lansing-Dreiden’s music with the utter pretentiousness of their whole image as a band/art collective. On the one hand, I fall in love with their sound everytime I hear the way they blend so many styles that I like — e.g., shoegazer, synth-pop, post-punk — in way that’s so seamless it borders on preternatural. But on the other hand, such high-minded artspeak as “in the world depicted by Lansing-Dreiden, division and duality are not necessarily states of distinct sides. Progression and regression intermingle, ascension and descension flip-flop” gets a little tedious, only driving home the artifice of their music.

So, for The Dividing Island, I decided that I would just try to ignore the artspeak and pretense, and my consternations concerning them, and just enjoy the music for what it is. It might not be the most critical or literate of approaches, but it is a more enjoyable one. Unfortunately, trying to enjoy Lansing-Dreiden’s chimerical music this time around proved rather difficult.

When compared to the effortlessness of their previous albums, The Dividing Island feels schizophrenic, awkward, and even klutzy in places.

All of the elements are still there, of course. The core component of Lansing-Dreiden’s music is a skewed take on the dreamy, romantic synthesizer pop of the early 80s. It’s the sound of The Thompson Twins, Depeche Mode, Erasure, and Information Society, all rolled into one and put to tape after being astrally-projected from a parallel universe. Add to that some nice goth flavorings, some slinky R&B, and some hair metal for good measure. On paper, it just shouldn’t work, but in Lansing-Dreiden’s art collective world, it does.

Or rather, it did, before The Dividing Island.

There are some flashes of absolute brilliance that tempt me to ignore the remainder of the album. “A Line You Can Cross”, the first single, is easily the album’s high point, a song that the Pet Shop Boys would’ve have given anything to write at the height of their powers. Some might find it cheesy, what with all of the cliched synth patches and programming, the melodramatic vocals, the bouncy bassline, and whatnot.

But I can’t help but smile everytime I hear the soaring crescendo of synth vocals at the song’s end. Yes, I know I can get the same effect on any Casio keyboard from K-Mart, but that’s really besides the point, isn’t it?

The next several songs continue on this high note. “One For All” is the closest that Lansing-Dreiden has come to writing a slow jam, with sleek n’ sexy synth melodies sidling up next to a shuffling beat and slightly psychedelic guitars. Meanwhile, the dreamily distant vocals — another one of the appeals that Lansing-Dreiden’s music has for me — sing/intone “And much before the sword’s satisfied/You can make the whole thing right/Leaving all you despise”.

“Two Extremes” continues on the mellow tip, with sparse, moody keyboards soaring above a pulsing rhythm. The song is one of the warmer, more “human” songs in the band’s repertoire. The vocals are warmer, more dreamy, mixed in with whispered spoken word bits. Which makes for a rather beguiling effect, and one of the more unusual geography lessons I’ve ever had (The shore slides/Creating the island’s lines).

Unfortunately, these three tracks are bookended by tracks where Lansing-Dreiden’s deconstructionist take on music breaks down, tracks that work half the time and stumble the rest. The album begins on just such a clumsy note. The titular opening track opens with metallic drums and lethargic swells of sound that sound like My Bloody Valentine’s “Loomer” being remized in a steel foundry. It’s a murky bit of music, but quite fascinating as the various layers of synths unfold in some rather magificent ways.

But then the song’s second half kicks in with ragged guitars turned up to eleven. And while it’s not a bad part, it’s so at odds with the first half, and so less interesting, that the song as a whole suffers. And “Cement To Stone” just coasts by on autopilot, even with some gorgeous shoegazer-ish guitar swells. But if you’ve listened to the album more than once, you know “A Line You Can Cross” is coming up next, which makes “Cement To Stone” seem like rather a moot point.

The album’s second half is no better. The same synth voice cascade that appeared on “A Line You Can Cross” also appears here, but such a gratuitous manner that it sound rather silly. And one of the things that I’ve always enjoyed about Lansing-Dreiden’s music is the way that they infer other artists, such as the ones I mentioned earlier, without ever sounding like they’re actually copying them. Which makes the blatant rip-off of Pete Townsend’s guitar stylings on “Our Next Breath” all the more obvious.

A lot of people have talked about the “Dethroning The Optimyth”, the band’s take on epic metal. With a name like that, you might expect something like Megadeth channelled through a Nintendo 8-bit system, and you wouldn’t too far off. Which works just fine, if you’re looking for something that would serve well as a Final Fantasy battle theme, complete with church bells and angelic choirs. It’s a fun track, albeit in a fairly cheesy and obvious manner, but compared to the band’s previous efforts at throwing metal into the mix (see “The Advancing Flags” from The Incomplete Triangle), it falls a little short in virtually every other way.

So I’ve got a divided reaction to The Dividing Island, which, knowing Lansing-Dreiden’s obtuse tendencies, might just be the goal. Maybe it’s an attempt to get me thinking about the opposites contained within the artistic process, the part of the “Other”, the conflict contained within the artist living within the capitalistic society.

No, on second though, I’m not going down that road again. I’m not going to second-guess myself just because Lansing-Dreiden can’t seem to make a straight statement about their art, but instead seem content to slip into platitudes and inanities. It’s unfortunate that the music on their latest album can’t rise above such things to stand on its own.