Monday, 18 May 2009
A frayed, tattered American flag adorns the cover of Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free, with the fifty stars of Old Glory replaced with a cosmic, tie-dye swirl. This is important, because in Akron/Family's work the constant friction between collectivism and individualism is at large, and much of their work concerns itself with interconnectedness between nature and humans. When questioned on how they view their music Miles Seaton (one of three multi-instrumentalists in the band) replied “The music functions simply as a sound or a sonic story of a communal structure”.
This sense of togetherness, of how we relate to each other, is experienced in the chaotic group vocals of opener 'Everyone Is Guilty'. Phrases are repeated until they become mantra. Full of throat and heart, they almost cling to each other, no surprise given that after 2007's Love Is Simple founding member Ryan Vanderhoof left to join a Buddhist centre. One of the less imperceptible lyrical fragments on the album is “Last year was a hard year for such a long time”. Losing a founding member has that effect on bands, and you could forgive them for untethering themselves in the aftermath of an admittedly amicable split, but in this case it has re-enervated Akron/Family. Seth Olinksy moved from Brooklyn back home to rural Pennsylvania (also the childhood home of third member Dana Janssen), and in doing so the band have discovered a sensitivity and optimism. The response to the line goes “This year's gonna be ours”, and the whole album is imbued with this sense of hope.
Musically they oscillate between styles, from the heavily percussive, Afro-inflections of 'Everyone Is Guilty' to the pastoralisms 'Set 'Em Free' and the more mood based programmed electronic subtleties of 'Creatures' to full on hypnotic psychedelia on 'Gravelly Mountains Of The Moon', a heroic and non-ironic prog song title, to the fuzzed-up freak garage on 'MBF'. They can lithely and quickly switch between these styles and genres, a key component of the multi-instrumentalist's arsenal. The overall dynamics of the songs contribute to a much broader and coherent aural canvas, and the constant segues and juxtapositions between styles are well rendered, with an impressive breadth of influences that are all subtly woven into the mix. Previously their releases were de-centred, while Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free harbours a focused approach throughout, although there are still incongruous elements that don't quite sit right in the middle section of the album. A minor gripe, but one that stops the album getting a higher score.
There are obvious similarities to Animal Collective, in both name and deed, and these comparisons are inevitable. Listening to 'River' you are drawn almost inexorably to this conclusion, with it's combination of shimmering atmospherics and military rhythms. But listen again, and beyond the approach to sound collages, subject matter and melody there is a rawness, a keening and bruised sense of hope. The rousing finale of 'Sun Will Shine' and 'Last Year' is where the album's bliss almost reaches a tipping point.
Their third release finds Akron/Family conceptually less constricted than before, less wilfully obtuse, and the new found freedom allows them to be even more creative than before in their search for self-definition. The challenge has always been there for Akron/Family to harness their improvisational tendencies and sense of community and togetherness on record, and with their latest they have succeeded to an extent. For a band with such a chaotic (and always evolving) live sound and a keen improvisational bent, getting the songs down on record is always going to pose a challenge, yet Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free is a satisfyingly coherent snapshot of where they currently are. It's not a release that attempts to be definitive and provide answers, remaining cryptic until the end. Togetherness is the key. Don't worry, if there is hell below we're all going to go.
This article was originally produced for http://www.thelineofbestfit.com/. To read the music review of Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free on the site please click on the article title.