Akron/Family and Angels of Light

Akron/Family & Angels of Light

(Young God; 2005)

By Clayton Purdom & Scott Reid | 31 October 2005

Wait, hold on, what?

When Akron/Family released their eponymous debut earlier this year, the most logical response was an appreciative headnod and a sincere, “Okay.” The album seemed a well-thought collection of acoustic hymns, a likable and idiosyncratic addition to an overstuffed genre. Publicity photos proved that these guys were, in fact, bona fide hippies, complete with beards and giddy grins. The back story was intensely mythic and completely awesome: four scruffy dudes from the country head to Brooklyn, make up their own religion (dubbed “AK AK”), develop a baffling sonic identity, and finally play backup on the Angels of Lights’ restlessly musical Sing “Other People”. We all liked the album, listened to it for a week, and then resolved to forget about them, because look over there! a Wolf Parade was coming over the horizon.

But a funny thing happened a week or two later: the album refused to be forgotten. There was something about the shambolic bliss-out of “Italy,” the ruinous thrust of “Running, Returning,” the entire album’s sprawling, impetuous nature, that implied something much greater than a “good debut album” should have. The sixty minute cycle snuggled into our iPods and laid eggs, and without noticing it, we were obsessed. It quietly climbed the heap of great music this year has offered and unassumingly perched itself precariously close to the apex.

So what the fuck is going on with their half of this LP? This is wildly bombastic music, howling and funny and fierce and funky and joyous and violent, hurtling out of the speakers with Lennon’s rage and Dylan’s righteous indignance. “Awake” begins things appropriately, a misleading, mournful Yorke-ian lament, haunted by the same ghostly group vocals that made the debut seem so bizarrely domesticated. It’s all a red herring, though, because “Moment” crashes in like the third day of a whiskey binge, knocking the speakers over with a cataclysmic guitar squeal and waking the neighbors up with arena-sized chanting, a pitchless, peerless interlude and a staggering, spiraling finale. This is rock and fucking roll, fearlessly distilled through Akron/Family’s unique sonic aesthetic.

“We All Will” is a layered, country-tinged ballad, but even it moves toward a foot-stomping climax. It’s a breath of air before the epic, eight minute “Future Myth,” which may out-sprawl “Italy” but inverts that track’s woeful structure, reaching its incandescent peak at the 2:20 mark and slowly disintegrating into a bubbling cauldron of melting horns and electric twitches and twenty seconds of a really corny hip hop beat. “Dylan, Pt. 2” is more Crazy Horse than Zimmerman, all tortured guitar god grimacing and bleeding-throated reprimands.

“Oceanside” works well enough, but it barely exists next to the monolithic hallelujah that is “Raising the Sparks,” a tortured supplication to the Monsters of Rock to which this entire song cycle pays homage.

I’ve already gushed about this track plenty, and if I get started on it here, I’ll only end up making a mess of myself again. Suffice it to say, the track works, and thrillingly closes this shocking statement from one of the most interesting and rewarding bands in the game. These seven songs constitute one of the most unique and engaging artistic statements this year, a fact made all the more impressive by the second half of the LP, where Michael Gira reels the band in, taming them for another sublime set of torch songs.

Maybe “taming” is strong; he extends the group to his own means, trusts them and lets them work to his advantage like Young had done with Crazy Horse, except Akron can actually play and don’t need to be told what to do or when to stop. There’s an obvious mutual respect (Gira: “Akron/Family is my favorite ‘Rock Band’ in the universe”), one that goes far beyond the usual label/artist relationship and allows them to consistently get it right. They perfectly balance Gira’s goth-folk baritone with Akron’s art "rock," rarely go overboard, keep it experimental without being overly so, and even when they get a little too comfortable (like the first half of the otherwise good “One For Hope”), are never boring.

Dylan cover "I Pity the Poor Immigrant" breaks from "Sparks" with stark folk. The arrangement is kept to acoustic guitar and light electric lead, Akron lending just a few Oldhamesque (sorry) singing-from-a-distance harmonies and wallpaper soloing. They doesn’t even let loose until the mid-song climax of the album’s third centerpiece, "The Provider"; after steady acoustic guitar and more syllabic melody, they erupt but then abruptly fade so Gira, with Zuma-ing A/Fam in tow, builds to the final section with guitar noise and two minutes of loud "heyyyyyyyyyyyyyy"s.

Swans-remake "Mother/Father" is a Doors-in-the-desert bongo chant-along; if this is more Akron’s take than Gira’s (who led the Swans, so it’s his song, etc.), they really stone it out; some of the harmonies are interesting and it’s kind of hypnotic in a "My Wild Love" kind of way, but after bars like "Raising the Sparks" and "The Provider" have been set, it’s hard to not expect more. They deliver it with closer "Come For My Woman"; there’s incredible slide guitar, another great "la la la" singalong part and more exceptional instrumental build that’s restrained enough to not add needless drama. Well, one exception: they let Gira finish with "come take it from me / come cure what is wrong / come into this song" before going apeshit and ending it all off with a crass glorified tape-loop.

Gira’s half is solid, but Akron/Family demand most of the credit for the record’s artistic heft and overall cohesiveness. Their half is completely over the map yet always incredible at what it attempts, and even subtle contributions to Gira’s songs are key to the split holding together—despite being recorded and mixed and ready in nine days, and despite featuring two prominent, distinct personalities, each endlessly intriguing and unpredictable in their own right. Gira’s vocals and songwriting are in top form here, and that shouldn’t be overlooked, but it’s Akron’s own astonishing growth, in such a short time since their debut, that’s most startling. I mean, behind three great and very different albums in one year? Effortlessly tossing out one great idea after another? "Raising the Sparks"!?

Gira’s created a monster.