Moogs for Moderns

Jun 9, 1999 at 4:00 am
Add N to (X)
Avant Hard (Mute)

Is the Moog synthesizer, that blustery prehistoric '60s electronic instrument, inherently cheesy? Once it appears in a song or, in the case of Avant Hard, covers an entire album, must we assume that what follows should be taken with a giggle and a wink? Not if it's accompanied by a sampled horse whinny and a grand choral epiphany; if you paid attention in your logic class you know that a bluster, a whinny and an epiphany equal earnest examination.

Ignore the stupid title of Add N to (X)'s third full-length, because that's the only thing stupid about it, even though on the surface the music is one long burst of instrumental whimsy. Underneath is a concrete humanity, one in stark contrast to the present-day electro-musical world that often prides itself on its lack of emotion. Unlike many of their fellow London music makers, Add N to (X) don't make computer music; they create in real time, or at least seem to, with real-life drummers (two of 'em) and instruments that they plug in rather than boot up. At times they sound like proto-electronica wizards Suicide, at others like a Moog Devo, but they always seem to sound like they're operating with ungrounded wires and unlimited possibility.

Where last year's On the Wires of Our Nerves contained songs that were either melodious or aggressive and divided the record between the two approaches, Avant Hard is more of a merger, an attempt to reconcile the philosophies, and it's a fantastic success. It hums and bounces with a confusing subtlety, floats as often as it growls and, on the whole, paints a unique futuristic vision while relying on instruments retrieved from the dustbin of history. Don't get me wrong -- there's a load of irreverence within, lots of references to robots and machines ("Machine Is Bored with Love," "Metal Fingers in My Body" -- about sex with a robot -- and "Robot New York"), and they've got a great sense of humor. But to dismiss Avant Hard as a novelty record is to miss the subtleties within and to overlook the emotional soul at its heart.

-- Randall Roberts

Architechnology (3-2-1 Records)

Rubberoom meld hip-hop's past and future as seamlessly as they connect the two words in their name. On Architechnology, they aim to construct the next level of hip-hop, sculpting the mud and toxins of real life with the hands of artisans. But they construct this future by using hip-hop's sturdy foundations, and the result is a solid portrayal of their experiences in the depths of Chicago that transcends labels like "industrial" and "dark," though they occasionally are both.

The Opus, the production team comprising the Isle of Weight and Fanum, sprinkles ethereal horn or piano loops over windy backgrounds to create ancient yet futuristic landscapes, while a procession of old-school boom-kack drum patterns and tribal rhythms quake below. The words are carried by Lumba's fierce legato and Meta Mo's frantic, thick-voiced staccato. Because of the elaborate atmosphere of the music, many would assume that Meta and Lumba would follow the current overly-complex-vocabulary trend plaguing many underground lyricists, but the two emcees embellish their microphone skills, reprimand weak rappers and articulate with undecorated precision and furious honesty the disorder in which they exist. Rubberoom's goal is permanence, to be the next classic icons of hip-hop.

Thirteen Chicago turntablists are represented on the LP, including Rubberoom's own DJ, Stizo. Each adds his individual style to sustain the higher level of creativity. The album is pure expression; nothing is pop-chart-friendly. The average commercial-hip-hop listener may dismiss this album as some crazy hardcore music because of its distorted, raw style, and the uniform production may be repetitive in the present-day atmosphere in which hip-hop artists juggle a few different styles on their LPs (e.g. bouncy, slow and dramatic, up-tempo, etc.). Architechnology is not for those looking for party background music or something to dance to. For those looking for genuine hip-hop, pick it up, especially if you're a DJ. Don't sleep on this; it grows on you. And if you're looking for a dope mix tape, keep an eye out for Stizo's "Midwest Medley," featuring his Vinyl Addicts crew.

-- April Park

Trans Am
Futureworld (Thrill Jockey)

Like a moth to light, I am inextricably drawn to electronic music, and I freely admit to giving most electronica the benefit of the doubt. So when Trans Am's latest release, Futureworld, arrived, the reflex inclination was to like it. Little did I know that instead of getting a sweet taste of trailblazing techno, I had just purchased a one-way ticket to electro-prog hell.

The Washington, D.C., trio started out in the early '90s as a post-rock band that took humorous license in remodeling the overwrought sounds of '70s and '80s groups like BTO, Boston and Yes. Later in their career, they toned down the guitar onslaught and added a heaping scoop of retro-techno. That move garnered some undeserved comparisons to early New Order, but Trans Am never completely abandoned its prog leanings, as the overuse of computerized vocals and unconvincing crescendos on Futureworld clearly shows.

Synthesized vocals really only sounded good once, and that was on Kraftwerk's Trans Europe Express back in the '70s, when the technique was still a novelty. Now we're all aware of the possibilities -- and, in this case, pitfalls -- of technology, so on Futureworld, the "synging" goes beyond cliche to become downright annoying. Take "Television Eyes": It starts out as a thumping tribute to Joy Division, but it's horribly mangled by vocoders and ends up as pure schlock. Not only are the HAL 9000 vocals irritating, on this album they're damn near omnipresent. And when Trans Am ditches the vocals altogether, as on "Futureworld II" and "Positron," the hookless and primitivistic droning that's left is about as exciting as another Yes reunion.

What's even more infuriating is to hear a song like "Sad and Young," which shows that Trans Am is capable of catchy, shoe-gazing pop. But that's the last track on the album, and you will have my heartfelt admiration if you make it that far before ripping this CD out of your player. If you do slog through the first nine tracks without losing your sanity, I've got some GTR albums you can have.

-- Matthew Hilburn