March 20, 2004

The Incomplete Triangle

Lansing-Dreiden (2004, Kemado)
The Incomplete Triangle

Just when I think I have this music reviewing gig figured out — after all, I’ve been doing it 6 or 7 years now — along comes Lansing-Dreiden’s The Incomplete Triangle, an album that leaves me feeling perplexed, fascinated, and woefully inadequate. Taking a quick glance through the minimal sleeve artwork and acommpanying press materials, all of which are quite cryptic and, for all of their eloquent writing, don’t really say anything, I chalked Lansing-Dreiden up as a conceptual/performance art troupe. The minimal artwork had me thinking Supersilent (not a bad thing), while the corporate-speak of the press materials had me expecting some heavyhanded socio-political agitpop (possibly a very bad thing).

Whatever I was expecting, it certainly wasn’t the big, swaggering guitar riffs, crazed rhythms, and hiss-heavy production that came barrelling out of the stereo with “Metal On A Gun”. Here, I thought, was yet another band obviously jumping onto the New York revival — they just decided to wrap it all up in psuedo-intellectual mumbo-jumbo. And yet, even that description proved woefully inadequate once I heard the vocals.

Rather than The Strokes’ disinterested sneer or Interpol’s icy detachedness, Lansing-Dreiden present something far more enigmatic and haunting. Separated from the listener by the lo-fi production that blankets the album in a veil of static and fuzz, the voices often sound as if they’re being channelled in from distant decades, picking up all sorts of characteristics along the way. As hard as this might be to swallow, I swear I’ve heard Ride, Joy Division, The Association, Scott Walker, Death In June, and even monastic chants all wrapped up in Lansing-Dreiden’s mercurial vocals.

It makes for an interesting dichotomy, considering the music that often houses them. For example, while the guitars and drums of “The Eternal Lie” seem content to swagger and preen, or the choppy guitars of “An Uncut Diamond” suggest The Jesus & Mary Chain doing the Ramones, the vocals are perfectly content to do their own thing — detached from the songs by recording technique and time it seems, and yet haunting and shaping them in almost preternatural ways.

And the fact that the band’s lyrics are either cryptic (“A polygon at forty-five degrees/Precision’s introduced a mark of quality” — “Metal On A Gun”), anti-consumerist (“Weekends seem to pass us by with a flash/Paychecks lead to cars that lead to a crash” — “The Eternal Lie”), existential angst-ridden, or any combination thereof only adds to that feeling.

As I was getting used to this, the band pulled another surprise on me. “The Advancing Flags” starts off at a gallop, riding on blazing, machine gun metal riffs so obvious they’d make The Darkness ashamed. But then the synths come in, adding sparse melodies and Autobahn-inspired atmospheres like something from Kraftwerk’s discography, along with clattering, off-kilter drumming that threatens to derail the song whenver it appears. It shouldn’t work, and yet it does so brilliantly. Everytime I listen to the track, I can’t help but think that this what The Faint might sound like if guitarist Dapose took over the band and set them on a cock-rock bender.

And still, there’s more to come. Just as “The Missing Message”, which puts to shame everything The Cure recorded during the Bloodflowers sessions, comes to end, the chiming, bell-like synths and echoing percussion of “A Silent Agreement” come wafting over the speakers in marked contrast to the hard-driving sounds that came earlier. Change is still in the air, and “A Silent Agreement” signals yet another shift in the band’s sound. Moving away from the rock sounds of the first half, the latter portion of the disc finds the band embracing a much more electronic, atmospheric sound, with ‘nary a hot riff in sight.

But even in this shift, there’s a stunning amount of variety on parade. “A Silent Agreement” sounds like Air finally fessing up to a sordid love affair with David Bowie’s “Low” album. Along the same lines, “An Effect Of The Night” is the most atmospheric song on the album, with celestial analog textures and gentle vibes anchored by deeper, bell-like tones. It’d could almost be a relic from Kraftwerk’s catalog a la “Hall Of Mirrors” — but only if you replaced Ralf Hütter’s mechanical voice with something much more seductive.

The last 4 tracks contains some of the most surprising and engaging material on the disc. Here, Lansing-Dreiden reveal a love for early 80s electro/dance-pop, be it New Order (“Glass Corridor”), Information Society (“I.C.U.”), or the Pet Shop Boys (“Disenchanted”). All of the trademarks are there, from high-energy synth programming and sequencer lines to all of those classic keyboard cliches (handclaps, orchestral hits, drumpads). In fact, the band delves so much into the sound that they almost border on parody. But if that’s the case, it’s some of the truest and most heartfelt parody I’ve ever heard. Lansing-Dreiden captures the sounds so perfectly I swear I stumbled across some mixtape I got in junior high.

It’s a far, far, far cry from the album’s beginnings. So much so that it’s tempting to believe the CD was actually a split, and only one of the bands got put on the liner notes. At first, these sudden and dramatic shifts in sound make for a rather uneven listen. But after awhile, it ceases being an issue simply because the band doesn’t make it an issue at all.

Lansing-Dreiden, whoever they might be, simply refuse to explain themselves, and it works to their advantage. The closest I’ve found to an explanation is “[The Incomplete Triangle]’s songs invoke the oft-beseeched themes of warwork, rest and celebration.” There’s no mention of influence or artistic direction aside from such pseudo-mystical pronouncements as “We believe in the Six Sides, in Three Kinds, Four Corners, shallow spaces, seasonal changes, reflecting surfaces and the many effects of smoke, like and night”.

Turning to the band’s labyrithine website doesn’t help either. The band seems intent on remaining completely anonymous. The most I’ve been able to glean is that they’re an artistic collective based out of Miami, and dabble in music, painting, video, photography, newspapers, and interior design. And yet this enigmatic approach, this complete denial by the band to explain their music forces the listener to accept the songs at face value.

And doing so, at least for me, is a humbling experience. A friend recently told me that she loved the way I described music, mainly because I used a lot of obscure comparisons and hyphenated words like “post-rock” (or in the case of this review, “pseudo-mystical”). And yet those all feel woefully inadequate in describing this album. I can throw out all of sorts of obscure comparisons and references, and yet many of them would sound completely ludicrous (like mentioning The Association, Death In June, and Information Society in the same review).

Listening to this album makes me realize just how small my musical vocabulary is. Perhaps if I was more familiar with Suicide, or had bought that Television disc when I had a chance, I’d be on better footing. Maybe I should have looked into that MC5 collection, or that Josef K reissue. And sure, I know all about Kraftwerk, but what about their contemporaries and peers? Maybe looking into some of them might shed some light on this CD. I suppose that while I’m at it, I should brush up on my Bowie, New York Dolls, Virgin Prunes, and a host of other bands.

As the old saying goes, “The more you know, the more you know how little you know.” And I’m realizing that I know very little… expect for the fact that The Incomplete Triangle is one of the most original and compelling albums, all artistic obscurity and nonsensical double-speak aside, that I’ve heard in a long time.