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

Friday, May 3, 2013

Recording review: Tom Slatter, Three Rows of Teeth (2013)

Steampunk prog: ravenous steeples never sounded so good

Musicians should leave the marketing to trained professionals. Then they’d be less likely to brag about making “a steampunk prog-rock album” or tout the dubious merits of including “ravenous church steeples” within their songs. But damned if Tom Slatter doesn’t deliver all that and more on Three Rows Of Teeth. Given that steampunk has mainstreamed here in the U.S., his timing is particularly apt, but the music might prove to be too challenging and experimental for the pocket-watch-and-goggles-at-the-mall set. The songs frequently rely on jump-cut tempo and stylistic transitions to keep the listener off-balance and to change the perspective of a given section. Although it seems like a sign of attention deficit, this technique serves these narrative pieces and their strange, dark themes.

Following his steampunk inspiration, Slatter gathers retro, bygone elements and juxtaposes them in a modern, post-rock context. Evoking such diverse artists as Mike Keneally, Gogol Bordello, Greg Lake and Blondie, the quirky music swerves between fever dream intensity, playful tension and desperate contemplation. If Edward Gorey were resurrected to develop an unsettling film project, he might well choose this music for his soundtrack. It’s a wild ride with top-notch playing that’s partially offset by the quavery vocal tone. Slatter’s voice is somewhere between Thomas Dolby and bluegrass guitarist Peter Rowan’s work with the psychedelic band Earth Opera. Despite this technical weakness, the songs stay within his range and his singing fits the feel of the collection fairly well.

Three Rows Of Teeth starts strong with its title track, which takes the form of a recurring nightmare. The theatrical beginning sets the scene of an airship journey gone awry. When the ship is attacked by toothy monsters in the clouds, the progressive rock groove and layered vocals are suitably bombastic. A sharp cut into madcap carnival music represents the panic as the airship plummets. Frantic harmonized guitar riffs chase themselves like Keneally’s spidering melodies, punctuated by tight, coordinated breaks. During this headlong rush, we encounter the ravenous steeples Slatter warned of: “this nightmare came to life to feed.” The imagery in “Three Rows Of Teeth” is vivid if somewhat incoherent, capturing the surrealistic feel of dream logic. Once the elements have all come together, the song fragments into a series of leaps: the fearful falling, remembered echoes of the journey’s start, then back again. There is no escape.

From this nervous welcome, the album opens into a hallway of disquieting songs, each with its own skewed view. A conspiracy of silence picks up a sharp edge of threat from the bounce of gypsy flair on “Mother’s Been Talking To Ghosts Again”, while “Dance, Dance, Dance” uses Dadaistic images and avant garde interludes to convey a manic desperation. My favorite stop centers on the steampunk cyborg in “Self-Made Man.” Slatter’s sampled mechanical rhythm foreshadows this tale of human augmentation where minor improvements give way to larger replacements. Even if the hubris in this Frankenstein theme is familiar – “I’m better and I no longer care” – the music makes it special. The rhythm guitar in 12/8 provides the whirring gears behind the main machine beat, while the lead guitar looses an occasional moan like the character’s shrinking humanity. The delicate bridge exposes the back story that drives the cyborg, its ragged control relieved only by the fluid bass line representing his lost wife.

The album’s most ambitious creation is saved for last. “The Time Traveller Suite” is split into three tracks, structured something like Phish’s Gamehendge saga. The first, “What We Say Three Times Is True,” toys with a psychedelic collage of sound before using a Greg Lake guitar line to begin the tale. A man wakes to a strange visitor. This girl with a missing eye greets him and disappears. As the song shifts into an art rock jam, the man’s obsession with the girl leads him to build a time machine and search for her in the future. Zooming forward in time to a dark era where the world has broken down, the tune takes on a frantic pace, culminating in an odd new wave section reminiscent of Blondie’s “One Way Or Another.” Then the song wheels around and returns to the arty narrative, rebuilding the tension anew. The second track, “Rise Another Leaf,” acts as a short, pensive guitar interlude that flips the time travel back to the past. While the first piece laid out the basic plot, this section is less clear, providing a rough sketch and fewer details. The post-rock end of the song-cycle, “Love Letter and Entropy”, weaves the themes of the first two tracks together into an epic time-loop trap where neither the future nor the past offer resolution. By this point, the refrain that “the girl with the missing eye will be mine” takes on fatalistic tone, eventually sinking into the desperate hope that we’ll
Find love if we say it three times
Find love crossing the years, you’ll be mine
We’ll find love
What we say three times will be true. 
All told, the suite spans over 21 minutes and a long medley of stylistic reinventions. The song has enough detail to intrigue, but leaves the tale quite open to interpretation.

Three Rows Of Teeth supports its experimental sound with rich imagination and fine playing. Abrupt changes and genre defying arrangements won’t work for more pedestrian pop ears, but Slatter’s madness is definitely methodical.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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