With the career of one Ariel Rosenberg now firmly in stride down its second artistic stretch, it’s tempting to want to reconsider his early work through a lens of the newly focused, almost flamboyantly glammed approach to last year’s breakthrough, Before Today. This is a fair reaction; despite the cult classic status amended to The Doldums (2004) over the last couple years, it’s only natural to imagine what Rosenberg’s newest, most nimble iteration of the Haunted Graffiti yet could do with this material now that studio production is no longer a pipe dream and full-band interplay no longer takes a back seat to his random lo-fi reanimations. So while his work as Ariel Pink has blossomed into something once only hinted at, it’s logical that he might find new inspiration in old tunes.
Written just after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, and only sold briefly as a 2006 12-inch and 2007 tour CD-R, early Ariel Pink collage “Witchhunt Suite for WWIII” now finds a new lease on life as a freshly recorded digital single for 4AD. As such, the single sixteen minute piece plays as a sort of bridge between Pink’s early, tape strangled anti-pop and his newly hi-glossed, disco-leaning new wave. It’s just nominally qualified and low stakes enough not to be unfairly judged as the follow-up to one of recent indie rock’s most unexpected watersheds, but oddly zany, topically steadfast, and catchy enough to appeal to both Pink diehards and recent converts alike. Furthermore, it once and for all confirms Pink’s career-long songwriting acumen, which, despite remaining shrouded for most of the last decade, was in fact always there, lurking beneath a murky surface of his own self-stifling creation.
Lyrics being what they were in the formative years of the Haunted Graffiti (basically an aesthetic tool utilized to accentuate what little contrast the tunes could muster within a degrading analogue setup), it wasn’t always easy to parse specific thematic concerns in Pink’s music. It always seemed to me, however—whether because of his almost confrontational approach to sonics or just a general DIY spirit permeating the entire project’s visualization—that this music was archly political. The title and inspiration for “Witchhunt Suite for WWIII” makes this much clear, but in case there’s any doubt about Pink’s targets here he wastes no time piping in fear-mongering samples of terrorism-steeped news broadcasts and post-9/11 George W. invectives.
This is all a prelude however, to the track proper, which launches at about 1:15 on the back of a weightless synth motif and skipping, rawly rendered drum kicks. Still sporting (and perhaps even over-emphasizing for effect) his trademark faux-British accent, Pink spins off one alliterative, almost free associative political barb after another. “Sky sky cam what’s seen before you / Contrived tracking systems live / Last name Laden is soaked in Sodom / We tried our best now test these organs,” he begins before a digitally manipulative vocal drops the subliminally low-toned clincher, “Bomb the building / Bang Bin Laden / Building the bombs / Bam bomb building.” Musically this is all presented in such an offhand manner, and with Pink’s marble-mouthed delivery deflecting most if not all of his initial critique, that it can be easy to overlook the grave critique beneath the sunny veneer of this first (and best) verse.
As it does across its entire runtime, the piece quickly moves into another, almost unrelated movement, this time at a half-time tempo emphasizing Pink’s disenchantment. “The human race is an invention of the West / Foreign every other land / The swine walk around as man and the sheep can’t know that they sleep,” Pink gravely intones before the track picks up again for a cheesy chase-scene solo instrumental. At the nine minute mark the bottom drops out of the track and multi-lingual vocal samples come to the forefront. When the actual music returns it’s more touch-in-cheek than ever, with a pogo-ing hook featuring a ten times repeated refrain of “Gotta get ‘em / We got ‘em / We gotta,” a kind of playground call-to-arms that will inspire absolutely no one.
It’s all stupidly infectious enough to forgive a few of the track’s dry patches, particularly with the closing few minutes alternating between chipmunk vocal intrusions by unnamed members of the Haunted Graffiti and Pink’s continued cries of burning bras, U.S. domination, and fighting fire with fire. It remains to be seen if Before Today was a one-off lark or a bellwether for a new, semi-coherent Ariel Pink, but the various incarnations of “Witchhunt Suite for WWIII” certainly evidence a concern on the part of Rosenberg to grow (let’s not say “mature” quite yet) while effectively utilizing the tools currently at his disposal. Then again, I wouldn’t put it past him to drop the whole glitter shtick and hole-up in his bedroom with a four-tack just to fuck with people next time out, so it’s probably best to take it all in stride and simply savor this brief, satisfying reconciliation. [CMG]