self released, 2012, CD & DD album, 49m 46s
$10 DD $12 CD
This album is enigmatic from the start, or even earlier in fact. Who is this skinny, elfin featured, uncomfortably hunched girl with smoke in her mouth and a triangle drawn on her sternum? What do they mean by saying ‘there is no teenage love’? As a statement, it is true in some senses, and untrue in many others, depending on your own valuation of its terms. When the music begins, it is entirely unclear what it’s going to mean; several minutes into the first tune we are still wondering what’s going to happen, what we should be feeling, when the threads are going to come together into an audible utterance, when the tension is going to unravel and release us. Around the fourth minute meaningful sequences of harmonic material begin to emerge like currents in liquid, but we are a way further in before anything that resembles a moment of arrival can be heard, and that is no more than the briefest of visits before ‘White Flag’ continues on its ambiguous way.
There Is No Teenage Love continue being enigmatic on their website. They do offer a description of their music that gives more or less the right impression, but they don’t tell us much about themselves or their working procedures. Erik Tokle is a guitarist with a history of making ambient and drone noises, with a great deal of sonic complexity and creativity; he has an album out on Auraltone which I reviewed here; David J Dowling, his collaborator for this project, I know nothing about. There are good reasons for this sense of mystery; this is not the sort of music that hangs itself off the (real or fictional) biography of its authors, and I don’t believe there is any deliberate pursuit of obscurity involved, just a reluctance to offer false narrative explications that might distract listeners from attending directly to the sound itself. Because that is what this music is about, most of all; just as much modern dance abandons traditional dramatic narrative in favour of a concern with its practitioners’ bodies and the materiality of their movement, There Is No Teenage Love is primarily an expression of its own aural substance.
I can’t be certain, since the timbres are as enigmatic as everything else, but I would imagine these sounds are mostly, if not all, made by guitars. In a lot of cases they are unmistakeable, but even the most diffuse and continuous of the harmonic washes employed here could easily have electric guitars as their sources, given the wide range of processing options available to musicians today. Some of the pieces are rhythmically formless, and others tread steadily forward on rhythmic increments, for example ‘Four Ghost’s slowly arpeggiated chords, or ‘Old Ghosts’ glitchy percussion; broad, atmospheric textures are adorned by twinkling, upper-register ornaments, or allowed to find their own way into the listener’s brain; some sounds are conventionally musical, while others resemble environmental noises, chattering like rainforest birds, or dripping like water in a cave.
The elements of the music are arranged into coherent, and generally consonant entities; although the organising logic of song structure, or other musical narratives, is absent, There Is No Teenage Love is not a chaos of randomly assembled sounds, but a sequence of carefully crafted soundscapes. Although there is virtually no sense of harmonic progression within each piece, it’s still easy enough to imagine a mid-tempo rock rhythm section supporting it; this is the second band I’ve reviewed recently (the other being Helicopter Quartet) to use the term ‘post-everything’ in their publicity materials, and in both cases it seems to imply a post-rock practice extended to (or beyond) its logical conclusion. These textures are a soundtrack to unknowable subjective dramas, the atmospheres of some resonant aspects of twenty-first century experience, and they conclude post-rock’s project to re-value atmosphere by abandoning everything else, finding their way back around to ambient music almost by the back door.
Much ambient music resists a conventional musical parsing of its harmonic content, or at best rewards such listening with cold and unsettling feelings. There Is No Teenage Love rarely allow a note of tension to persist for more than a few seconds before it is re-absorbed into the music’s enveloping consonance. This is not to say that the music is devoid of challenge, but that its primary mission seems to be to offer the listener a place, to bring them trusting into the space where its textures will do their work; and challenging the listener is certainly not a central aim of this work. To simply float off and absorb the shifting affective eddies of the sound is to do it justice as a listener, but those eddies would sound trite if they didn’t contain more than simple affirmation. This is not an era where human subjects can exist satisfactorily without asking questions, and the ambiguities at the core of this music are precisely what make it so accessible and absorbing.
There is a certain humanity and warmth to There Is No Teenage Love, which derives as much as anything from the clear traces of performance that permeate it. This is music played by human musicians, and although it avoids any obvious discursive, linear tokens of self-expression, it still sounds like the work of human hands and hearts. There is care and effort in every moment, an understanding of physical instrumental resources without which this music could be nothing like as nuanced and precisely judged. As it is, there is a fine emotional balance established early on, and consistently maintained; it’s a calm album, made for calm listening, but it’s always clearly that calm that lies between moments of intensity, not the anaesthetic calm of the alienated or disconnected. It sounds as though it could slip to either side at any moment, into grief or into joy, but the musicians maintain their equilibrium throughout with the discipline and strength of tightrope walkers. That point between is the location of a potential which is somehow far more beautiful than the chest-beating moment of emotional actuation that it promises, and it depends entirely on the music’s ambiguity for its power.