The Future is Inter-Disciplinary or Not at All
(Absolutely Kosher; 2006)
By Scott Reid | 30 July 2006
This EP isn’t good. It could’ve been, given the right approach, a lesser reliance on concept, a vantage point for its audience that doesn’t feel miles removed from whatever the hell’s going on — any of these could have likely revived these eight tracks, at least giving their existent but swamped melodies a chance. It could’ve been great, even. But it isn’t. And the level at which it can frustrate even longtime Frog Eyes fans (i.e. me), by now long accustomed to Mercer’s eccentricity and complete disregard for restraint, is staggering.
Before I even get to the how’s and why’s of this fantastic flop, though, it’s important to keep in mind that they’ve got this new record coming called Tears of the Valedictorian, and that it, judging by recent Daytrotter session tracks "Caravan Breakers" and "Bushels," promises to flip this EP’s concept-over-music aesthetic, focusing instead on actual songs. Long ones, in fact, with sections and builds and, more importantly, an attention span.
So there is some good news, and it’s that hope is not lost for Frog Eyes; if those Daytrotter sessions can be trusted, their best is yet to come. But this release, the one I’m currently reviewing, is not good, the cover’s kind of gross, and you should probably not buy it, for these reasons and several more I’m about to get to.
Some context, since Frog Eyes have tread this kind of ground before, and better. In the summer of 2004 under the guise of Blackout Beach, Frog Eyes’ profusely intense leader Carey Mercer released sideproject/solo effort Light Flows the Putrid Dawn — mere months before his band’s incredible third record, The Folded Palm. Sidestepping almost every recognizable trait of his usually vehement art-rock, the EP focused instead on lo-fi extremes — either muddled "rock" or dream-like collages of ambience and compounding mood, all of it lacking in structure or melodic focus, shifting abruptly and confusingly from one idea to the next. It’s not the best release Mercer’s name’s been attached to, granted, but it was at least interesting and inventive with the styles it attempted — at once a disturbing extension of, and break from, his work with Frog Eyes.
Not long before Light Flows, Mercer released another EP (limited to 1000 copies, though inexplicably still available through Absolutely Kosher), Ego Scriptor. Though released under the Frog Eyes name, Mercer recorded each of its thirteen songs alone, with just an acoustic and a four-track. Collecting his band’s songs new (four from Folded Palm, including a great version of "Akhian Press") and old, Scriptor not only touched on but played with their catalogue; each track is abridged and mangled to fit a new conceptual whole that perfectly balances Blackout Beach’s stream-of-conscious flow with the group’s more familiar, and certainly more enjoyable, approach to songwriting.
Like those previous EPs, The Future is Inter-Disciplinary or Not at All‘s seventeen minutes awkwardly string together pulses of short, unfinished ideas with a loose theme/concept (this time, the future!). Unlike those EPs, the rest of the band (sans Spencer Krug, who’s been out doing something or other since The Bloody Hand, and is returning for Valedictorian) play on the EP, which should mean that they take advantage of the their collective range. Instead, everything sounds subordinate and inverted. Mercer’s voice, usually more prominent than is immediately comfortable, is kept far back in the mix, haunting these songs with (sometimes barely audible) repeated bits of melody while also fending off the mix’s profound amount of open, devouring space. Percussion and atmospherics are, by necessity, pushed forward, but not at all conscious of how much weight they actually hold in these backward arrangements, obscuring some potentially great songs — like "A Feeling: I Felt It" (not to play up the misleading Vedder angle, but it almost sounds like a repetitive, "Wishlist"-style Yield outtake, underneath all of the soft buzzing).
There are other moments here that remind us of what Frog Eyes are capable of — most notably, opener "Future Fortress," a short acoustic demo that would’ve fit in perfectly on Ego Scriptor; "Sheldon’s Phone Calling…‘s" hypnotic backing vocals; and "I Am Telling You That Cities…‘s" final minute, with Mercer’s vocals rising and falling against Eluvium-ish layers of synth. But they’re fleeting, tediously crawling in amorphous circles, one after another. And it feels more than a little redundant considering each Frog Eyes release before this managed to find a balance of both concept and melody; maybe not always a perfect balance, but at least with a sense that they were, pardon the terrible pun on a bad album title, interdisciplinary sides of the same band, and not following their own limiting path. This EP is far too lopsided, too concerned with the concept behind the idea instead of the idea itself, and it’d be a massive disappointment if we didn’t already know better things are on the way.