Charlie Looker has issued every rock band in existence a very serious challenge: write music as inventive and natural as the stuff on Secular Works or get the hell off the stage. I’m certain that this album spells the end for nearly every math-rock band in existence.
Secular Works has so much going for it that picking a place to begin talking about it is pretty difficult. The vocalist and lead-man, Charlie Looker, often enjoys singing in a style that’s inspired by plainchant and the band is accomplished enough to oscillate between concussive, heavy metal assaults and delicate, nearly meditative clouds of psychedelia. These contrasts are often forced together on the record, which might at first sound like a disconcerting thing. Plenty of bands enjoy contrasting styles; they bang dissimilar objects together and play in the ensuing explosion with a kind of childish, perhaps immature glee. Destruction is fun and tearing genres apart might be intellectually stimulating, but real talent requires an architect capable of putting all the pieces back together in a pleasing way. Extra Life does just that; with all their various influences and technical abilities the band uses unusual and difficult music to make something that rides the line between the alien and the familiar.
Take for an example the opening song, “Blackmail Blues;” it begins with a strange, almost arhythmic strumming of the electric guitar, which is accented and made perhaps more unstable by an absolutely thunderous assault of percussion. The play of rhythms and melodies in the first two minutes of the song are intense, layered, and complex all by themselves. But, then Looker begins to sing, enunciating the same syllables over multiple notes, utilizing his strangely monolithic voice to rise above the music, and refusing to sing anything that sounds like what a modern rock band or metal band might employ. There’s no screaming, no whining, and absolutely no mumbling. I imagine countless bands wish they had the dynamic range exhibited on this song alone, but what keeps the song interesting over its nearly nine-minute duration isn’t all the unique, little parts or the way they contrast against each other. No, the real pull of “Blackmail Blues” is how well all these various parts come together and form an intriguing whole. The rhythmic abnormalities and incredibly difficult shifts in tempo and time signature all work for the good of the song, not for themselves. At the end there’s an amazing section where the drummer seems to read Looker’s mind and he manages to imitate Looker’s percussive style of singing note for note over a nearly unpredictable spattering of sixteenth notes from hell. If I were the drummer in that band I’d probably have smacked Looker for even suggesting such a ridiculous and difficult task, but Extra Life pulls it out of their hat with such fluidity and class that it manages to lend an explosive end to an already fiery song.
From there things become more intense, despite becoming generally quieter. “I Don’t Feel That Way” is another musical and technical accomplishment that’ll make anyone interested in rhythmic tension twitch with frustration. Go ahead, try counting out the bass-heavy convulsions and snare snaps that seem to spill out of nowhere at a moment’s notice: I’m convinced some form of arcane magic is responsible for keeping this band in time because no natural explanation is satisfactory. Two, ten-minute epics dominate the record, however, and their stark beauty is their best feature. Both “I’ll Burn” and “This Time” radiate with an uncomfortable aura that shines as much as it blackens and confuses. The latter is aglow with barely-there violins, wooden blocks, gently snapped strings, and uneasy lyrics that speak of some long-planned and slow-boiling violence. The noir-ish qualities of these two songs provide much-needed relief from the vigorous and sometimes noisy elements that are featured on the rest of the record.
Secular Works is the kind of record that will catch a lot of people off guard; it has to seep into the skin over the long run, but the impressive punches and immediate gratification is also supplies should be enough to draw most people into its gravity. Technically, it’s the most accomplished record I’ve heard this year. On the whole, it’s one of the most impressively adventurous and satisfying records in my collection; one of those rare blends of experimentation and quality song-writing that succeeds on every conceivable level.