Thus wrote David Kamp and Steven Daly, authors of The Rock Snob*s Dictionary: An Essential Lexicon of Rockological Knowledge (a useful if somewhat tongue-in-cheek resource for applying the merest appearance of authority to a highly contested area of quasi-critical study), on a subgenre of music that is, essentially, the additive inverse to the tensely arithmetic and noise-bedecked post-punk sound-crafting of Atlanta, GA’s Untied States. Quite to the contrary of Kamp and Daly’s definition, the music of Untied States is, if anything, “hard listening”. Which, admittedly, is not a valid rock-crit term—at least, not valid or widely-used enough to appear in Kamp and Daly’s 2005 reference book—but I’ll be damned if I cannot coin it as such. Just so:
“Hard Listening. Catchall term alluding to experimental genres of music—free jazz, psychedelia, musique concrète, math-rock, noise-rock, etc.—which, by their willful use of such outré or inharmonious sonic elements as off-time signatures, a-melodic progressions, excessive distortion, and pre-recorded sound samples, effectively challenge the listener’s preconceived notions of what constitutes ‘music’. Admittedly relativistic, since the popular notion of musical normalcy is subject to change.”
As much as I loathe overly general and reductive descriptors, “hard listening” is a good fit for Untied States and their third full-length, Instant Everything, Constant Nothing. Particularly in that nothing about this album comes easy, at least for the listener.
Borrowing liberally from legendarily discordant avant-rock acts like Magazine, Wire, and Sonic Youth, Untied States offsets their abrasive licks and forceful rhythms with the hazy, crooning art-pop affectations of Radiohead. Names to faces: Skip Engelbrecht and Colin Arnstein throw out bright, angular guitar riffs and echoing, greatly-distorted sing-shout vocals, Darren Tablan smoothes things out with additive synth textures, backing vox, and rapid four-string punches on the low-end, and percussionist Satchel Mallon moves the lot along at a stutter-stepping pace—the end result being a dissonant mess of neigh-unintelligible psychedelic vocals and post-punk-ified guitar-rock furor with a quick-shifting math-rock bent. Hardly easy listening, that.
Even so, Untied States’ Instant Everything, Constant Nothing is more likely to intrigue listeners than to frighten them off, even those little-inclined towards anything played outside of common time and absent a major chord progression. Certainly, lead-off track “Gorilla the Bull” starts out on eerie footing with its reverberating drones, tom-kick-stick percussion, and spastic, spangling guitar, the song’s introductory sonic combo growing odder still when the fuzz and frenzy of the full band kicks the song into high gear. While the burbling bass and upbeat drumming of “Not Fences, Mere Masks” are somewhat easier on the uptake, the track proves no less intricate when its guitars start ringing and buzzing, their comp-contrasting sonic threads weaving in and around Arnstein’s near-indecipherable vocals on their way to a rather raucous end-of-song breakdown.
Duly noted, Untied States like to keep the audience on their toes with rapid and unexpected transitions, and “Unsilvered Mirrors” is no exception. Starting off calmly enough with airy, layered vocal harmonies overtop Tablan’s languid synth, “Unsilvered Mirrors” cracks wide open with a quick percussive hit from Mallon leading to strident guitar interplay from Engelbrecht and Arnstein and low-end shots of bass besides. “Grey Tangerines” bucks the trend in that it stays fairly consistent throughout, pulsing drumbeats and wiry guitars playing point-counterpoint underneath scattered synth blips and sneering vox.
Next up, “These Dead Birds” and “Take Time for Always” virtually defy the listeners’ abilities to find a central melody, their constantly-shifting passages vacillating from calming to comfortable to downright caustic at the drop of a hat. “Bye Bye Bi-Polar” takes a somewhat different approach, its constituent elements somehow managing to harmonize even as they clash, contrast, and diverge. Likewise, “Wrestling With Entropy in the Rehabbed Factory” gives slightly more consideration to compositional unity than its direct predecessors, a tense core of piano, reverb, and distant-sounding percussion remaining front and center even as the song transitions from one meter to the next.
Though still as dynamic as anything else on Instant Everything, Constant Nothing, “Delusions are Grander” returns to a more traditional mode of noise-ridden post-punk, its splashy percussion and weighty bass offset by cutting guitars, twittering synth, and Arnstein channeling Howard Devoto (and quite well at that). Ditto for “Holding Up Walls” and “Kowtow Great Equalizer”.
While not without its faults, at its best, Untied States’ Instant Everything, Constant Nothing is an album that challenges the listener’s perceptions of music without being altogether contrary, its nods to post-punk and math-rock tweaking their respective dialects just enough to be interesting without becoming totally foreign in the process—hard listening, sure, but never so hard that the listener cannot follow along.
And, if you care to follow along in a live setting, be sure to check out Untied States' upcoming performances in the Baltimore/DC Area:
Wednesday, April 14th - Baltimore, MD @ The Hexagon
w/Telecopy, Rosemary Krust
Thursday, April 15th - Washington, DC @ Paper Sun*
w/Bubbling Well, Connect the Dots
*Monroe St. NW between 11th & 13th St.
Audio Reviews (April 12th, 2010)
Tags: audio, reviews, untied states, instant everything, constant nothing, distile records