self released 2015, DD & CD album, 55m 17s
$8+ DD $10+ CD $15+ CD limited edition
The physical presentation of a release is an interesting issue. There are some who would argue that it’s irrelevant, that the only interesting thing is the sound on the recording, that the packaging is an aspect of nasty, dirty, anti-art marketing, or so superficial that authentic music fans shouldn’t care about it. Context is definitely not irrelevant, however, and cover art or packaging are part of a release’s context, I would argue an important part. Without context the sounds on a recording are literally just noise: we might detect some patterning (with an album like The Messiah Is Back we would, certainly), but without a context of established and understood musical practice we would have no clue how the sounds were intended to signify. Other aspects of context, such as our understanding of the social milieu in which we believe the music to have originated, the political associations of similar sounds, the people we know who like or dislike this or similar music, the life experiences which we identify with particular pieces of music, and our personal (tacit or explicit) theories of art all contribute to the context in which we hear it. As does an album’s packaging. The kind of artwork we see before we listen tells us something about the way that the artist (or producer) would like us to receive the work, and about what sort of listener it is addressed to. The very harmonious, classicist design that adorns this album might lead us to expect something formal, something pretty and conventional; it looks like nothing so much as a wedding invitation, in fact, but these observations are partially undermined both by the oddness of the band name and album title, and by the two splattered drops of blood that mar the otherwise pristine surface. The reason I’m harping on about this is that this doesn’t end here: the elegant card case/stand in which the CD arrived, and on which the above design is printed, is wrapped by a band of paper, whereon is printed (in a beautiful, wedding invitation-type cursive typeface) the following nihilistic message: ‘If there is a gaping hole where there should be a soul, you mean nothing at all and it all means nothing, we mean nothing.’ All of this beautiful weirdness was not the first thing I saw however, as the whole came packaged in a numbered, blood-red, folded card pyramid, with copperplate engraving style images of a mouth, an ear and an eye set in circles, which also contained several toffee-like sweets in matching wrappers (the tasty sweets are obviously the reason for the feature-length review). This isn’t the first time I’ve reviewed an album that was available in limited edition premium packaging, but it may be the first time one has been submitted for review in that format, and I think it’s interesting that the band chose to send me this rather expensive item. It suggests that they want me to experience the record in this way, rather than another, that they believe a fair review requires this context. Had I not thought the music was of the first order anyway, I wouldn’t be writing this, but the (lets not beat about the bush) stark contrast between the aesthetics of the packaging and the content of the recording certainly helps me to form an understanding of the music.
Setting off the arcadian calm of the cover design (for all its dystopian hints), the music is a tissue of total fucking insanity. When these people were learning how to do music, they made sure they completely mastered the material skills of playing their instruments, scoring complex arrangements, grooving, improvising and all the rest of it, but when they were told how songs were meant to hang together, and what style is for, they plainly weren’t listening. As soon as you think you know what you’re listening to, this crew will play something so utterly unrelated that you assume you’ve accidentally skipped to another CD. Well, to be fair, patterns do emerge as you listen through, and there are a number of basic style/texture combinations that recur as the poles of their radically unpredictable switchback ride. There are jazzy, funky feels; there are extreme metal feels; there are hints of polka; there are moments of insane noise thrashing that go beyond extreme metal; there are proggy outcroppings; there’s a section of speed d’n’b/powernoise as though Kid 606 were doing a guest spot; there are weird soundscapes and comic spoken-word expositions; there are beautiful acoustic piano phrases; there are… other things. The music doesn’t actually come off as cut-and-paste, however; clearly it’s impossible to judge how it’s put together, and you can do anything in the studio, but I get the impression the band is probably capable of performing these arrangements live. One of the things that gives The Messiah Is Back a sense of coherence, in spite of its seemingly random assemblage of musical materials, is the presence of identifiable instrumental voices throughout: it sounds like the same people playing, with enough personality to break through the post-modern collage of the material. The other thing is the continued presence of brass and reeds: some of the most intense death-metal textures have a horn section in them, supporting and not undermining the aesthetic, telling us by their presence that the band’s intent is more than satirical, that they like this music enough to bother crafting it in a great deal of detail. And they don’t always turn a ninety-degree corner every eight bars: in ‘The Message’, what is essentially a deep house groove continues for around two thirds of the piece, until it is superseded by a thrashy extreme metal sound for the remainder. I usually attempt to give a reasonably complete stylistic description of the albums I review, but it would be futile to catalogue every generic touchstone upon which Orange The Juice alight: you should get the picture by now. They are extremely skilled musicians, and their music is incredibly unpredictable.
Which brings me back to the question of context. If context enables us to distinguish significant from coincidental patterning in the sounds of a recording, if it points us towards the shared conventions that allow a listener to understand what a musician is doing, then it has a lot more work to do in relation to The Messiah Is Back than is usually the case! And it is inevitable that the listener will go looking for contextual clues to help them make sense of the semantically disruptive strategies that characterise this album’s frequent, abrupt stylistic and affective disjunctures. ‘What,’ they will ask themselves, ‘the fuck is going on here?’ Likely enough they will look at the packaging. If they bought the ‘box of sweets’ edition that I was sent, they will find a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a pyramid. This gnomic nesting may not help much in the first instance, but it gives an apparently very exact, very carefully designed and made physical shape to the artwork, which says, if it says anything, ‘we did this on purpose’. This is not random. The music may sound like a patchwork, but if its packaging is so coherent and singular, perhaps we are listening to it in the wrong way? The obvious assumption is that the whole thing is satirical, and that would certainly be supported by the only tenuous comparisons I find myself able to make with the sound of Orange The Juice, which is to say with Frank Zappa or Devin Townsend. Humour is very much in evidence, certainly, and there is clearly a something of the prankster in their stylistically confusing formal manoeuvres, a mischievous desire to screw with our expectations. But the target of their satire is far from obvious, and there is also a clear creative commitment to the sounds themselves. It’s pretty clear to me that these musicians love what they’re doing, that they love the timbral nuances and subtle phrasing they bring to their instrumental performances, and the challenging technical complexities that they execute with such panache and concord. Ultimately, what their incomprehensible strategy brings to the work, given that it is composed in detail of entirely comprehensible materials, is this: forget what you know. Because, for me at least, there is an enormous amount of pleasure, and even aesthetic satisfaction, in the details. If there is a motivating framework, it is of no more real relevance than the kind of voice-leading diagram that the musicologist Heinrich Schenker used to impose his ideas about ‘deep structure’ on the music he analysed. The music is right here, on the surface, offered up like the sweets that I encountered shortly before the music, in fragments of fun and sensation. The temptation with an album like this is to look even harder than usual for a unifying theme, for the ‘concept’ that can offer a key to our understanding, but whether there is one or not, the real challenge is to take it as we find it, to enjoy each fragmentary outbreak of virtuosity and daftness in turn, and to embrace the oddness. I may have struggled to describe and interpret this record for you, but I had no difficulty whatever in listening to it and enjoying it. It’s a piece of warped brilliance, and contains some of the most enjoyable sounds I’ve heard in a while. You should take the plunge.