Autolux - Transit Transit Review

Six years is a long time to wait for just about anything, especially when it comes to new music. Autolux is hardly a household name, and barely even qualified for “underground cult” status since, despite being well-received, their debut album Future Perfect didn’t hang on too many tongues in its aftermath (though loyalists remained steadfast). But the record was strong enough to leave most of those who sampled craving more. And then six years passed. It required a concerted effort from most (including myself) to even figure out what the trio was up to during the interim. Many probably assumed it was a one-and-done deal, another frustratingly short-lived outfit to arise in the fallout of the criminally neglected space rock virtuosos of Failure. But Autolux wasn’t dead, just pupating over the long haul for another go-round, writing and working and deliberating over a fresh batch (and reportedly engaging in label fights). As is, I suppose, appropriate for a band with the narrow fame of Autolux, it arrives without a whole lot of fanfare outside of the dedicated few who followed during those half-dozen years. But fanfare would be unsuitable anyway—this dark, slow simmer, black-burnt offering doesn’t clap you about the ears. It tickles the underbelly and either slowly wins you over or leaves you cold. Too bad it doesn’t invade your dreams, though—those visions remain fixated on Future’s yet-unreached promise.

At Transit Transit’s outset, Autolux seems to be taking a page from the playbook of self-professed fan Thom Yorke. With its stuttering beat, liquid falsetto and yearning piano keys, the titular leadoff couldn’t sound more like Radiohead without sounding like plagiarism. This immediately paints an unflattering picture for this group, though: while Radiohead has frequently claimed high ground among the few great acts these days to be peering into the future for inspiration, Autolux remains consumed by its inspirations. Post-punk, shoegaze, grunge and slo-core remain the obvious pinpoints for dark clatter, seeping texture, squalid guitar chords, and IV-drip tempo respectively. Much like their first album (and the Demonstration EP), Autolux sounds like a product of the early-to-mid-90s alternative cluster brandishing its influences with heedless confidence and faceless individualism. This served them well in 2004 when it was hard to find that pure sound anywhere of note. In 2010, though, distance from its heyday era has replenished its appeal in our catalogues but not the new release bin. At times, they do sound awfully dated.

But that’s actually the flimsiest criticism to declare (and easiest to argue against). Some might even find its antiseptic emotion via torture to be quite refreshing. So too could notice that these songs lack the urgent impact, needling hooks, and viscous production of Future Perfect (maybe that was their intention, and maybe you’ll like ‘em better for it). But I can’t imagine a defense against the observation that these three have ardently mastered the technique of sound and finesse but seem to have mussed up the songwriting process. There are several segments you notice and latch onto immediately: anytime that drummer Carla Azar’s vocals appear out of the stew, the rowdy guitar swerves over the churning backbeat during “Supertoys”’s climax, the curiously marshy “riddit” effects in “The Bouncing Wall”’s midsection, and so on. Yet when the album comes to a close, I was left struggling to remember exactly when, where and how they came about. Or even what they were. One could blame the tyrannically unflagging tempo that never changes but, obviously, a cursory listen isn’t enough to grab hold like it was for Future.

Unlike the rest of the current crop of shoegaze flag-wavers, Autolux sees the appeal of mood and flatlining but institutes heavy but oddly angled riffs instead of warm waves of fuzz. They’re still craggy and distorted, of course, but Azar’s famed stormy drum technique gives them an edge on being rhythm-based instead of guitar-centric. But despite some flirtation with the droning repetition of krautrock (Can obviously played its hand in shaping this sound), they don’t process too much on the beat-happy side. There are hard thuds and lots of rev-ups, but the compositions sound aimless too often. I imagine these roaming passages could be responsible for some truly inspired concert scrambles, but in the midst of mostly 3-5 minute songs, they seem to excise the important parts to get to the look-at-us-ramble freedom. There were at least five take-no-bullshit songs on their first record that stunned on first contact and rolled around the brain for hours afterward. Even after four listens, I can’t locate a single one here that I’d play in place of those other five to introduce an outsider to Autolux.

But even without the great songs at their disposal, they do find their share of inspired moments. Stripped of its tensile soft-loud charge and the black echo at the outset, “Census” could almost sound to be wavering between the headlong rush and the crunchy hooks of different schools of garage rock. The burbling bass and woody rattle on the semi-ballad “Highchair” results in an alarmingly evocative landscape. Greg Edwards’ guitar actually sounds warm and inviting on “Audience No. 2”’s mid-dialed clatter. “The Science of Imaginary Solutions” pools its weary but inviting ambient slumber early on for something almost resembling a towering climax (muffled and haunted by instinct). And “Supertoys”—the closest they come to a remarkable tune—transforms ruffled downcast pop into rollercoaster art rock. Numbers like “Spots” and “Headless Sky,” on the other hand, are notable for the way they sap the already barely-simmering energy; the former is a tepid, string-laden ballad and the latter rides the same distorted three-note riff under undulating experimentation way past the point of interest. And since inscrutability is the name of the game in terms of the verbal content (“I have always been your vegetable/And you my Swedenborg/I would drop myself through black holes/To end up at your door”), there’s nothing to glean from its spell but the sensation of slowly drowning that the music creates. Not a fun place to be, but there’s no denying that they are skilled at creating that miserable mystique.

Autolux’s aesthetic theory of recasting angular and striking drum-and-guitar bludgeoning as being worried and fragile isn’t always easy to embrace. They’re obviously more interested in the instrumental technique and the crafting of a specific mood than going for dizzying hooks, sing/mope-along choruses and visceral thrills. Despite its lulls, abundant echo of stronger acts, and lack of distinguishable nuggets, Transit Transit may wind up serving as a sturdy stepping stone in the band’s development—if they could find a comfortable common ground between the power of Future and the prowess of Transit, they could really be on something. I just hope it doesn’t take another six long years to answer that prayer.

"Transit Transit" is on sale August 3, 2010 from TBD.

Aug
16
2010
Matt Medlock

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