Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Review: AXXONN - Masters of the Epic Day

Masters of the Epic Day, the second EP from local laptop-drone duo AXXONN (the first being the freel download Should You Fear Hell?, which Gav reviewed a while back), is an interesting little release. Interesting because it's actually something of a split record, featuring two songs from AXXONN and two songs from each of the two members' solo projects: Tom Hall (as himself) and Ian Rogers (as Ambrose Chapel).

It's also interesting because the two AXXONN tracks are probably the weakest on the record. Masters starts out with 'The Second Death', a track that plays out like a slightly condensed version of the debut EP (but this time with drums). The song starts out quiet and contemplative, full of warm synth tones, before erupting into noise around the one third mark, cruising along at full volume for a bit before calming back down... only this time it returns to crushing distortion instead of just petering out. Since it's only one song compared to the first EP's three it contains fewer melodic ideas, being mostly based around changes in dynamics instead of the Hell's gradually shifting tones and melodies. It's satisfying in the way that a Mogwai song is satisfying: it hits all of the points that you want it to hit, and it peaks right around the time you desire it to. It has big dynamic shifts that seem as though they're meant to jolt you about, but you're expecting them so they don't really surprise. In fact, the song is very Mogwai-like - I know it's a sin to automatically compare dramatic instrumental bands to the Scottish post-rockers, but this track really sounds like the more electronic numbers from the most recent two or three Mogwai records (the only difference being that Mogwai play guitars that sound like synths while AXXONN play synths that sound like guitars - even the sampled drums sounds a lot like the playing of Martin Bulloch, though that's probably more because he's often such a lifeless, mechanical drummer). I don't think there's any plagiarism going on here, even of the subconscious sort, as I don't believe that AXXONN are overly avid listeners of Mogwai - it's probably has more to do with the inherent limitations of and similarities between bands in this vague 'genre'. Anyway, 'The Second Death' is certainly not a bad track, in fact it's quite good, but it doesn't feel as successful as the band's earlier release.

The second track, 'Nikki Grace', is shorter but perhaps a bit more interesting, though it mines a very similar vein of ideas as 'The Second Death' - gradually developing textures in the first half, a big dynamic shift around halfway, mechanical drums. In fact, I think one of the main problems with the two AXXONN tracks is the drums - I just don't think that Hall or Rogers are particular adept at programming rhythms, or at least not the big, bombastic sort that they're trying to implement here (actually, on second thought the rhythms are actually pretty decent, the issue has more to do with the drum sounds that have been chosen and the way they've been mixed - the drums just seem to stick out, breaking the spell created by the rest of the music). On Should You Fear Hell? rhythm was used sparingly, often being limited to muted bass rhythms that burbled away beneath the weight of the huge synthesizers, and this was very effective. On Masters the rhythms are much more upfront, and I don't think it really works. It takes the band more in the direction of standard post-rock, which is all well and good, but I think that the band's best moments are when they're more understated and are slowly milking a dramatic chord progression for every remaining bit of interest.

The solo tracks reinforce this. All four are far more understated than the opening two songs, and are all the better for it. Tom Hall's 'Wor(l)ds Fall Down' is four and a half minutes of dread based around a couple of keyboard notes, while 'Between Subdivided Distances' features a slowly building array of drones and textures which never reach any sort of emotional payoff, although they do eventually break through the aural clouds to reach a kind of sunshine for the last minute of the song. Both tracks are desolate, murky sounding affairs, but not in a cold, detached way. They're also both really, really good.

Meanwhile, Rogers' two tracks are equally as enthralling. 'Bulk Carriers At Sea (And On Fire)' alternates between unnerving white noise and synths that sound like foghorns, giving a feeling that perfectly reflects the song's title. 'Corridors_Bend' is the shortest track on the EP, featuring a chorus of what sounds like ebowed guitars and rumbling ambience - there's really only one idea in the track, but it's explored thoroughly while not outstaying its welcome, and as such is as successful as anything else on the EP.

Masters of the Epic Day is an interesting little release. It's successful in ways that you wouldn't think it would successful, and its failures are due to things that you would imagine would be strengths. Who would have thought that the solo tracks, which many might have expected to be somewhat 'throwaway' in comparison to the 'proper' band songs, would be the highlights of this disc? Conversely, AXXONN are often most successful when melding the heady 'art' of experimental drone music with the more emotive, visceral world of rock and folk (in the traditional sense of the word), so it makes sense that the use of bombastic rhythms and big dynamic shifts would only add to the success of their music. However, this doesn't seem to be the case. It seems as though the aspects of AXXONN's music that they should be pursuing are the subtle melodies and texture shifts, and mixing those with a more subtle rhythmic approach.

Don't let my musings on why this record doesn't quite hit the heights its aiming for put you off, it's still a highly worthwhile release. All six songs are at the very least interesting, with none of them being remotely 'bad', while some of the solo tracks would be highlights on many quality records. Oh, and the packaging is pretty cool, almost meeting the lofty standards set by Rogers' other act, No Anchor.

Here's the video for 'The Second Death'.

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