Youth Obsessed Death Culture
By Christopher Alexander | 20 May 2011
The thing with instrumental music is not that it’s difficult to discuss, it’s that anything one can say about its power, paradoxically, sounds better in the song. Bands like Chemtrail trade in dramatic gestures, whole notes, big chords, slow changes, and sonic texture; the amplifier settings and mic placements are just as important as tempo and melody. It’s designed to be immersive, corporeal—it eludes easy criticism by accident, not intention. (Which is another irony, because post-rock’s audience is…the writer balks at saying “smarter,” but it tends to favor blogs over the radio. They’re obsessive in their tastes, and use the internet well to connect the dots and find new scenes, bands, record labels. They’re readers, in other words.) So if you’re trying to connect the music with Youth Obsessed Death Culture to the images in your head—things like, oh, crashing waves under a cloudy sky, old buildings on fire, water dripping off of plant life—and you find yourself realizing that your own set of internal “powerful images” looks like nothing so much as a series of Hallmark grieving cards, don’t panic. This is what’s supposed to happen; it’s okay that you aren’t nearly as creative or clever as you think you are. All it means is that the music is getting to you.
There is, of course, another line about the bumper crop of delay deploying, piano plinking, crescendo happy bands, in that few of them are reinventing the wheel—once you’ve heard one song or record, you’ve heard them all. This explains why bands like Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor get more press, or at least thoughtful writing—the former with their clever song titles, the latter with their extreme politics, the leaders of both bands giving great interviews—but I feel it misses the point, as well. Which isn’t to say this music needs to be felt, man—a lot of the above criticism is true—but such a brush-off precludes any kind of deep listening to records like Youth Obsessed Death Culture, which, if anything, reveals more structural brilliance that’s even more powerful than the almighty first impression. Songs like the nine-minute “Means to an End” and “Think Tank” develop their dynamic paroxysms organically, rather than with Pixies-like variations on repetitive themes or with sudden, galvanic accelerations. It’s a breathtaking essay of restraint, selflessness, counterpoint, and their musicians’ technical prowess (to say nothing of the once-again excellent production of Joe DeMaio). Not exactly thrilling copy, I admit, but I have to say defensively that, with the thing on in the background, it’s a bulletproof, grand assertion, like the greatest of all loud rock, or any teenage expression of love, angst, and confusion.
The thing with sudden dramatic shifts, though, is that everyone likes them. The members of Chemtrail had long careers in assorted hardcore and metal-leaning bands along the New Jersey shore, which goes a long way in explaining their skill relative to their genre. (It’s also somewhat amusing watching the band perform their expertly executed arpeggios of suspended, high-numbered chords live, seeing their hands contort in yoga-like positions when the attentive player knows other bands get those sounds out of vastly easier open tunings—but again, one is reminded that few bands achieve that kind of precision even when they’re cheating.) I said about their last album that they had difficulty going for rock ‘n’ roll broke within the context of their more peaceful sound, but on Youth Obsessed Death Culture they sound much more comfortable with their loud parts. Perhaps Mogwai pointed the way to a perfect marriage between atmosphere and riffola, but one gets the feeling that the raucous moments of this album are right in Chemtrail’s wheelhouse. The thunderous, unholy slashing chords that close “Escape Artist” may be the band’s most satisfying moment committed to tape, but again, it comes as a natural extension of a well-placed and arranged song.
Chemtrail is simultaneously blessed and cursed for being from Asbury Park, NJ. Blessed in that, as an extremely powerful live band playing well-executed but marginal music, they sort of have the place to themselves when it comes to this stuff. They carry a well-deserved pedigree around town, albeit often misplaced: the fact that the band has won an Asbury Music award for “best avant-garde/experimental band” three years running, while surely a big honor, ultimately says more about what the punk, classic rock, and rockabilly heavy Asbury scene consider avant-garde. But the band is strong enough to contend on any level they choose, and the fact that their music is entirely self-financed and released makes one wonder if this is about retaining control of distribution or if Asbury Park, for all of its open arms, still isn’t entirely sure what to do with them. (It should be stated that this is all conjecture—it’s entirely possible that the members are entirely happy with their place in the world and don’t want to change anything. They are huge hometowners, after all. Still, I would imagine that with the amount of time and money spent on a project like Youth Obsessed Death Culture, they would want to reap as large an audience as possible, especially considering the band has to know how good it is, too.)
Hopefully they’ll figure it out; as I said in my review for the excellent Terminals (2008), while the band doesn’t sound like they’re from this area, as far as scenes and politics and all the rest of it go, the music sounds like it can come from nowhere else: all the run-down buildings, urban blight, sprawl, sunrises on the beach, and the other corny shit you’ve read throughout the entirety of the genre, are perfect visual accompaniments to this music. Maybe, it turns out, you have to be here. Or maybe it just sounds better in the song.