(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Recording review - El Ten Eleven, Transitions (2012)

Duo creates a rich sonic world, flowing like a set of evanescent thoughts

You can't turn around without tripping over hipster duos going for a full band sound. Bands like Best Coast and The Raveonettes produce albums with dense arrangements, but the live show experiences often simplify the sound or rely on touring musicians. In rare cases, a duo can match their studio work, but this is more common with electronic or DJ oriented groups. El Ten Eleven shatters those preconceptions.

With Kristian Dunn playing a double necked guitar/bass and Tim Fogarty on drums and electronic percussion, the band performs dynamic shows featuring live looping, heavily processed sounds, and a large stage presence. Their latest release, Transitions, is another strong album with an eclectic mix of post-rock, indie rock, atmospheric film score sounds, and electronica flavored grooves.

Listening to El Ten Eleven's music, it's easy to forget that that there aren't four or five players building these songs. The illusion of multiple musicians is driven by Dunn's remarkable technical ability. He simultaneously plays bass and guitar using a two handed tapping technique. The parts are repeatedly layered into loops until the track is dense with detail. These elements fit so smoothly that the music transcends the technology.  It would be easy to assume a lot of studio editing and overdubs, but Dunn's live performance delivers all of this combined with a dynamic, dancing stage presence.

Fogarty's contribution is equally vital. His rhythm picks up on the subtleties of Dunn's progressions, pulling in the right balance of cooperation and contrast. On "Thanks, Bill", the guitar sets a tick-tock, clockwork feel, which Fogerty emphasizes with a mechanical 16th note beat on the kick and then the high hat. Once the song gets moving, he layers in a slower beat that propels the song with the perfect snare hit. When the song opens up into a power chord punch, his bass drum rhythm is almost irregular, leaving plenty of holes in the beat to match the more expansive feel.

Transitions flows like a set of evanescent thoughts or daydreams. Ideas blossom, develop, and then lose focus as new musical elements overtake them. As instrumentals, the songs leave themselves wide open for interpretation. This is clearest on the title track. "Transitions" has a series of musical vignettes that balance between meandering exploration and purposeful direction. The full collection seems to reflect a creative process culminating in a sense of satisfaction. The first segment feels anticipatory. Dunn expands on that with a twinkling flicker of notes that sound almost electronic. Then a dirty, distorted bass note pushes through and recontextualizes the interlocking complexity as rock overture worthy of The Who. The next section is more reflective, as if it's assessing a set of options. E-Bowed swells of notes mesh with a post-rock bass line. Later sections create moods of quiet certainty, focused direction, surprised contrast, and inspiration. The song comes full circle as it revisits the first section, but with a new urgency that concludes the long track with wonderment and pride.

The other musical journeys on Transitions aren't as extended, but El Ten Eleven infuses them with a wide range of styles: "Yellow Bridges" crosses progressive rock with a bit of film score expansiveness while "No One Died This Time!" relies on a choppy bass line to create an exhilarating electronic vibe.

My favorite track was "Tiger Tiger", which starts out with a simple bass line cribbed from Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" but slowed to an opiated tempo. This sparse intro is punctuated with a set of trippy guitar arpeggios, twisted with echo and flange effects. The main groove of the song has a King Crimson feel; a smooth guitar line snakes through the interlocking flicker of backing notes with psychedelic shimmers along the edges. Eventually the track is densely packed with details, creating an image of a wild, verdant jungle. Dunn's playing is very reminiscent of Adrian Belew's expressive guitar work.

Transitions' biggest weakness is the short 36 minute running time. But El Ten Eleven mitigates this with moments of quiet beauty, staggering complexity, and gut-grabbing power, sometimes all within the same track.

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