September 11, 2005

The Ministry of Archers

Joy Electric (2005, Tooth & Nail Records)
The Ministry of Archers

I realize that at this point, it’s pretty much impossible for me to talk about Ronnie Martin’s music with even the slightest shred of objectivity. I’ve been a fan of Ronnie Martin for well over a decade, ever since I first heard Dance House Children’s “Sea Breeze” on Blonde Vinyl’s Radioactive Hits compilation. And as I mentioned in my review of Starflyer 59’s Talking Voice vs. Singing Voice, there are certain artists that leave me absolutely compelled to pick up everything they release, and leave me predisposed to find each release, if not brilliant, than at least pretty freakin’ great. Joy Electric is just one such artist.

I haven’t been as vocal in my praise of Joy Electric’s last couple of full-lengths, 2003’s The Tick-Tock Treasury and 2004’s Hello Mannequin (which Martin considers to be one of his best works), despite both albums receiving fairly heavy rotations round these parts. Which leaves me feeling doubly obligated to write something about The Ministry of Archers.

Although there’s always been something to Martin’s music that feels out of step with time — after all, this is a man who, in this day and age of computers and Pro Tools, staunchly avoids such trinkets, instead opting to create his music with nothing more than his breathy vocals, a Moog, and an analog sequencer — The Ministry of Archers feels like a throwback to past Joy Electric efforts like We Are The Music Makers and Five Stars For Failures.

Joy Electric’s music has, ironically enough, had a rather melancholy bent to it, there’s a much darker tone to The Ministry of Archers, similar to those aforementioned discs. Martin employs the same fantastical imagery that he always has, but I don’t think he’s ever written lyrics quite as, well, twisted as “I cannot pretend or try/Watching as your blood bursts inside” (“Become As Murderers”), “Butchered to be left in parts/Disregard, labeled odd/Brain preserved in testing jars, then forgot” (“A Hatchet, A Hatchet”), or the torture imagery of “Rickety Trickery”.

Likewise, the sounds Martin uses here feel a bit darker and more abstract, with Martin’s knob twiddlings growing more off-kilter (all of the disc’s solos are played live, adding a spontaneous feel to tracks) and the “beats” packing a bit more of a kick than before; the programming on the title track has an almost industrial feel to it, for example. At times, the synth sounds do get away from Martin, resulting in moments where the song seems to be going nowhere, but rather is lost in a whirl of analog gibberish before the melody kicks back in and gets the song back on track.

But there is always at least one song on every Joy Electric album that proves Ronnie Martin is a pop songwriter of the highest caliber. On The Ministry of Archers, that song would have to be “Quite Quieter Than Spiders”, the clearest throwback to We Are The Music Makers on here. Emerging from a kaleidoscope of analog groans, whistles, and bloops, Martin’s “la la”‘s prance across a ping-pong rhythm that sounds half-Autechre in the way it twists and bends electronic signals. “A Hatchet, A Hatchet” might be a close second, with atmospheric bridges providing a temporary relief from driving rhythms that sound like huge metal sheets buckling under their own weight.

However, the disc clocks in at right around 30 minutes. And given that 3 of the songs are instrumentals and segues, the album does contain a fair amount of filler. Martin, as always, has a wealth of ideas on the record, and I find myself wishing that some of them had been fleshed out a bit more, or that some of the most leftfield elements had been reined in here and there. The result might have been a slightly more cohesive disc. But when the album works, as it does on “Quite Quieter Than Spiders” and “A Hatchet, A Hatchet”, well, that’s plenty enough for me.

However, if you find The Ministry of Archers too short, too weird (it’s one of the most experimental Joy Electric albums to date), too dark (but is there a Joy Electric album that isn’t dark in some way?), or too uneven, the good news is that there are at least 3 more Joy Electric releases in the pipeline: 2 EPs that Martin claims will be more “uplifting” a la “The Cobbler” (a true Joy Electric “classic”) and “The Phonograph Plays”, and a new album titled The Memory of Alpha.

Suffice to say, I’ll be getting all of them. After all, it’s Joy Electric. What other reason do I need?