Aether Obelisk

(Other Electricities; 2009)

By Conrad Amenta | 30 March 2009

This is difficult. I’ve developed a full on Relationship with Baja. Wait, not relationship: Relationship. With one of those giant first characters on the page that’s all embellished and gothic. I received the promo for Maps/Systemalheur (2006) a couple of years ago and, insofar as I track my development as an opinionated guy who writes on the internet (there are charts on the walls of my condo), it marked maybe the first time I sat down with magnifying glasses in my ears and listened—hard—to an album so concerned with wordless speech, the explicit impression in song form of a single person’s arbitrary decisions. I subjected my brainpan to the relentless drip of laptop pastiches’ cracked and seeping engine. And I realized that there are those records that you really enjoy, and then those records that help you enjoy records differently. For me, Maps/Systemalheur still hovers on the edge of that echelon, like dust mote on a paper border. Deliciously problematic, unrepentantly intimate, it’s like few electronic albums I’ve heard before.

Aloha Ahab (2007) and Wolfhour (2008) weren’t quite a sharp turn, but a turn nonetheless. Ahab potted some sweet (as in saccharine) vocals, and Wolfhour out-Eeled the Eels at their own sorry game and without the dumb, literal lyrics. But both were downright conciliatory in comparison to Maps/Systemalheur‘s relentless personality, not to mention continued Baja’s departure to an era of album covers Photoshopped into lifestyle advertisements for those permanently thirsty for sports drinks. They contained the closest Baja has come to verifiable singles, if that anachronistic quantitative term can even be applied to music like this. But still! Wolfhour, at least, was a reaffirmation of vows; a fishing trip for the newly reunited war buddies; a renaissance period for those who cuddle up with yearbooks and get nostalgic; jujubes washed impossibly new in a colander. Illusion or no, Baja and I were entering our golden years.

And now here’s Aether Obelisk, an album the equivalent of coming home to find your partner lazily thumbing through a catalogue only to look up and ask what’s for dinner. The album sounds less delicate and dainty, less passionate and lusty, and perhaps represents the last squeeze of Maps/Systemalheur‘s aggression from the sponge of Vujanic’s underlying pop sensibilities. Obelisk isn’t a forgiving album—it still possesses Baja’s aching-stomach stops, schizophrenic mood changes, and perfect production—but the source material is cleaner, less harrowing. The magic of those stupid, selfish moves that were electrifyingly surprising and thus resplendently youthful is, however temporarily, absent.

Vujanic has gradually been removing from the Baja equation that tantalizing stubbornness of wheeling free-association that at once drew me to the possibilities his music suggested. I can understand a departure into territories more hesitant and understanding, but Aether Obelisk sounds compromised rather than gentle, a set of songs like driftwood evidence of a forgotten whole. Though there’s some pick up on the ass end of “Be Quick, Be Quiet and Mean,” Baja is increasingly about bloodless stop-start melodies rather than shameless percussion. What I’m worrying about here isn’t that Vujanic has removed his personality from his music, but that the facet of his personality on display is simply less interesting than usual.

Curiouser still is that Vujanic seems to acknowledge the album’s sluggishness, its malaise, right there in “The Story of Fissa Maines.” It cracks and moans with passive defeatism: “Sun goes up and sun goes down / the hands on the clock keep goin’ around / I just get up and it’s time to lay down […] My shoe’s untied but I don’t really care.” True to form, most of the songs begin with stark guitar lines that seem to meekly suggest a direction before some straight beats are entered formulaically into non-committal textural motifs. Once defiantly introspective, Obelisk-era Baja seems to take a glance at the bottomless depths of mankind’s inner torment and shrug.

I want to remember those early days of rapturous discovery! But now I want to make some comment about punk music and accessibility, and then want to make some comment about how electronic music’s programs and tools are affordable is punk music and accessibility, then I try to remember my times tables and go back to wanting to make a comment about punk music and accessibility, and then I think about how a review of Baja’s music doesn’t yield anything as systematic as its design (“does / doesn’t sound delicious enough” vs. the now-predictable squawks in “Tropentage,” the lovely but aimless “Deleth”) then time collapsed around my head and I went back to work. And there’s the rub: Vujanic’s best work is so personal it elicits a personal response for a type of music that, to some, sounds about as human as Cylons fucking Daleks.

Maybe we’re getting into statements about electronic music which are either prescient or hopelessly Luddite, but I’ve already framed my reaction to this album with the flowery inconsistencies of personal truths and insecurity. When songs start to look like this:

rather than this:

music listening can become, for those on the outside of the equations, the easy fixture of musician idolatry in place of ungraspable mathematics. You grow with that artist until he elicits the inevitable reveal of a real person’s varied tastes, and there’s a two-edged sword in the gut for you. Increasingly, especially when listening to the monolithic, maddening “The Aether Obelisk (Supertouch My Heart),” Obelisk becomes as hard to like as a real live person. Which is entirely the point, why Obelisk is no fun to listen to, and still couldn’t possibly have been any other record.