(Northern Spy, 2014)
I busted out gAame the other day, Aa’s 2007 album on Deleted Art, specifically for total rager “Thirteen,” and was reminded how amazingly visceral the Brooklyn band is. Lots of tribal drums, lots of euphoric shouting, lots of staggering synths – total recipe for headspace invasion. They reminded me, on gAame, of similar drums-and-shouting four-piece Foot Village, such kindred spirits did they seem that when I reviewed Foot Village’s World Fantasy tape on Crash Symbols, I popped Aa in the RIYL section at the bottom. I later asked FV’s Brian Miller via email if he’d heard of Aa – I think he probably rolled his eyes and guided me as patiently as he could to Aa’s remix of “Protective Nourishment” from Foot Village’s Friendship Nation. I’ll never make that mistake again.
So I was prepared for VoyAager to kick me in the gut again, much like gAame and the big A LITTLE a ten-inch before that. And though it did, it thwacked me in a different way than I expected. All that bombast, all that chaos seemed a little more restrained than I expected, and the melodies, particularly in album opener “Promsac,” were so refined and so much huger than I was accustomed to. These guys weren’t just banging stuff and shouting – they were composing masterpieces. In fact, my Crate-Digging comrade David had this to say about “Promsac”: “The first song is one of the best first songs I’ve heard in a while.” He posted that on my Facebook timeline, for everybody to see! Quick David, top 5 side 1 track 1s, go!
I had a similar reaction – “Promsac” immediately made me go all gooey, made me shout “Aaaaaa!” (or is that “AaAaAaAa!”?) in the car as it all came together. It reminded me a little of how Clipd Beaks psyched out between Hoarse Lords and To Realize, or Liars’ brilliant Drums Not Dead, including the wordless vocals that end the track. If I needed a “Eureka!” moment to get on board the good ship VoyAager, it took me only a few seconds to have it. (Wait, would that then be a “EurekAa!” moment? OK, I’ll stop there – if I have to do that to all my “A’s” I’m never gonna finish this review, and you’ll never finish reading it.)
And it goes throughout the whole album – it’s filled with “Eureka!” moments that kept me coming back to it, over and over again. It’s difficult to tire of VoyAager, and I haven’t yet. “Drug Mom” has a little bit of the old-school Aa tribal-punk to it, but the vocals are Auto-Tuned! I didn’t want to like that. I get annoyed by it in general. (And to be frank, if the whole album was gonna be an Auto-Tune nightmare, I may not have made it through.) But it’s a perfect effect on “Drug Mom,” and it is in fact the only place it appears. The vocals and synths meld seamlessly with its use, and the song, the second on the album, is just as anthemic as the first.
But atmosphere is now a major component of Aa’s aesthetic, and the songs feel really big and totally lived-in compared to punkier contemporaries or previous releases. While “Pug Pit” is perhaps the most standalone number in this regard, with its goth/doom trappings and lack of vocals (and its placement as a sort of bridge between the darker “Mossy” and the livelier “Fish Phone”), other tracks feature buildups that feel incredibly organic, even after they change direction. “Fish Phone” is again a good example, as is “Koosh” which directly follows it. Each straddles the line between insanely catchy and experimentally savvy, succeeding in deep enjoyable immersion while retaining that wild quality that induces neck-snapping double takes with regularity. Dynamics shift almost imperceptibly, and the distances the shifts occur are remarkable in the short amounts of time that they happen. “Fish Phone” borders ambient music at its outset, but it’s a euphoric dance number by the end (and the vocal harmonies are freaking sublime).
It’d be hard not to mention the amazing “Gowntowner” as well, as the vocals are half chopped and digitized in surprising and awesome ways, blending into the rest of the shimmering synth work going on around them. It’s also got the appeal of sort of being a Nine Inch Nails/HEALTH dance-rock hybrid, and proves that a tour that weird (Nine Inch Nails and HEALTH toured together in 2008) isn’t as odd as it initially came off. And of course beautiful closer “Eyebells” makes good use of the titular Tibetan instrument, the one where the act of blinking produces pleasant and euphoric chimes. Oh wait, I think that’s the instrument I may have dreamed up the other night – yeah, that’s it. Eyebells don’t exist. But Aa use them anyway, plucked straight from my unconscious mind.
It’s remarkable that Aa spent so much time away between albums, but the seven intervening years have been kinder to the band than I ever would have expected. Who cares if gAame came out in 2007. And anyway, “Mossy” and “Glow Wreath” appeared on a 2009 12” EP in Sweden, so there was that too. Let’s not spend so many years with singles and comp appearances to tide us over between albums, OK guys? And you’re gonna make me say it, I know it – VoyAager is the front runner for my album of the year. In January! Top that 2014, I don’t know if you can!
NOTE: My two 2013 albums of the year came out in February and April, so early is not necessarily a bad thing…
RIYL: Clipd Beaks, Excepter, HEALTH