Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Music Review: Growing - PUMPS!

Whereas it may be fascinating to chart an experimental artist’s creative arc through conceptual and/or aesthetic conceits, New York-based drone/noise collective Growing have seemingly begun to map things out through a much simpler gesture: album artwork. All their record sleeves are wonderfully evocative, but the band’s last three albums in particular—up to and including their latest, PUMPS!—have so effectively translated each of their respective sonic maxims into cover art that it can be difficult not to conflate the two. Take, for instance, the kaleidoscopic highway shards gracing 2006's Vision Swim, which sounded something like Kraftwerk’s Autobahn sent through micro-fracture digital strangulation. Even more precisely rendered were the patterned headlong glitches of 2008’s All the Way, which featured a cubist framing of bare torso, fog-enshrouded train tracks, and an oversized downhill skier. By this rationale, and even with no prior knowledge of Growing’s recent flirtations with fractured rhythm, a superficial glance at the gaudy cover art for PUMPS! should be all that’s needed to pick up on the band’s latest sonic thread.

It should be no surprise that PUMPS! revels in a kind of post-disco coke-fried electronic excess. Let’s not get carried away; this can’t really be called dance music (though this curiously coincides with their jump to Vice Records). But the increased focus on strict rhythmic patterns aligns this pretty closely with two other NYC noise revivalists who have similarly abandoned their minimal noise roots in favor of a more fractured house approach. And just as Black Dice and Excepter have grown far less interesting as they’ve continued to explore these depths (though, to be fair, Excepter curbed the spiral in a roundabout way with this year’s Presidence), so too has Growing lost a lot of the edge that endeared them to those of us still enamored with the possibilities drone-based noise and improvisation have to offer. Yet it’s not aesthetic overhaul that hampers PUMPS!—it’s the fact that this record sounds exactly like the work of its many predecessors. Sometimes to the point of being indistinguishable: “Hormone’s” low-end wobble and vaguely hallucinogenic throb can’t help but recall a Black Dice outtake circa Load Blown. Adding to the uniformity is the fact that each of the record’s eight tracks employ the same techniques—dilapidated drum machine, snow-blind synth, zombie-vox, myriad samplers and effects boxes—harnessing the band into a surprisingly narrow range and thus rendering the whole of the album a heaving mass of splattered rhythms and Technicolor hedonism.

At least part of this record’s sonic personality should probably be attributed to Growing’s expansion from a duo to a trio. New member Sadie Laska makes generous use of her sampler throughout, tossing out a few pleasant displays of ricocheting counterpoint in the process, but too often on PUMPS! is this new configuration of Growing seemingly content to tell instead of show. The increased use of vocals doesn’t do the band any favors either; they’re mostly utilized to reiterate what we’ve already gleaned from the album’s many art-damaged signposts. On closer “Mind Eraser,” for example, if those disembodied wails aren’t intoning “I love drugs,” they might as well be, as I imagine that vinyl copies of PUMPS! might very well accumulate fine layers of white powder atop their flamboyant façades. This isn’t, however, a make or break moment for Growing. After all, this is a new working relationship for a group who spent most of last decade as a duo, and the fact that the band is at least attempting to evolve is admirable in its own right. The highest compliment I can pay to PUMPS! is that it represents yet another distinct entry in the band’s catalogue—it’s just too bad the results aren’t as vivid as that striking cover. [65/100] [Published 04.21.10]

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