The Only She Chapters
By Ryan Pratt | 13 May 2011
Was it presumptuous of me to assume that the helmet-wearing voyager on the cover of Everything She Touched Turned Ampexian (2009) was no taller than an inch in stature? I’d never considered otherwise, given how that record’s epic journey was spliced together from miniscule movements, many of them less than a minute in length. Fans called it prog-ish but in reality Prefuse 73, aka Guillermo Scott Herren, had accomplished far more than mere genre-mashing; he’d manipulated notions of brevity and excess in a way that allowed his jam to continuously shape-shift and build steam. Above all that, Herren’s self-imposed restraints forced listeners to hear his full-length as a whole and engage themselves with each second for fear of otherwise feeling ripped off. “I’m always going to run into the opinion of, ‘I wish this would turn into a song and go somewhere,’” Herren told The AV Club in June 2009. “If I wanted the song to run longer than 30 seconds…the album would be crushed. It would be overkill.”
Herren’s words, although intended for his previous song-cycle, lean prophetically upon The Only She Chapters. Because in case the kaleidoscopic cover art and all-too-similar song titles didn’t suggest an introspective, labyrinthine mind-fuck, Herren’s beat-making carries an overwrought capacity for thousands of sonic trinkets, swelling and chafing one another. To my surprise, the fact that these stacked and congealing layers all but obliterate Prefuse 73’s flair for progressive hip-hop is almost easy to make peace with, in part because we’re left with so few familiar scraps to champion. In the absence of those trademarks The Only She Chapters feels desolate, but remember: the avid collaborator behind such acts as Savath y Savalas, Piano Overlord, and Diamond Watch Wrists has gone gloriously off-map before. A willingness to blindly trust Prefuse 73’s instincts has proven a passport to imaginative aural playgrounds in the past, but here it’s hard to deny the dreaded suspicion that Herren might abandon us in the hollow of these overcooked productions.
The record offers several opportunities to walk away guilt-free. As if bearing a title that aptly suggests immobility wasn’t enough of a warning sign, “The Only Direction in Concrete” treads a maze of clashing noises that drown guest-vocalist Zola Jesus out entirely. Elsewhere, on “The Only Trial Of 9000 Suns,” Herren merges two disparaging song-ideas—a spacious keyboard line and a cluttered beat—into a relentless vortex that renders the late Trish Keenan’s vocals an afterthought. These are prime offenders, tracks noteworthy for the atonal hardships they inflict on their listeners and some smaller crimes they nearly eclipse—mostly inept segues (“The Only Way To Score”) and aimless collages (“The Only Recollection of How Things Change”).
But is the album thereby “crushed”? More like imploded. That Herren loyally commits himself to designing an airtight sound-environment, consequences be damned, deserves some applause, but its formidable nature swallows any evidence of his intentions. The record’s supposedly about women, or starring an impressive ensemble of them at least, but Herren’s so busy burying their voices under caked electronics that the contributions become indistinguishable. In the few cases where vocals do shape a track’s direction, as when Faidherbe parts the overcast with her celestial coos in “The Only Lilies and Lilacs Pt. 2,” The Only She Chapters takes a decisive step towards reformation. “The Only Boogie Down” and “The Only Repeat” even peddle a stark simplicity but they arrive too seldom to curb these experiments from bleeding out like inkblots in a Rorschach test.
Everything She Touched Turned Ampexian had one thorny clause; sure, its minute-by-minute sequencing prevented fans from mixtape-pillaging but it also safeguarded the flow of Herren’s kinetic narrative. The Only She Chapters, on the other hand, has no story to tell and consequently no payoff to account for its prickly veneer. A conundrum, then, but one readily comparable to the direction label-mate Aphex Twin took with Drukqs (2001) in that both records reflect musicians deeply lost within their own compositional worlds. As with that last Aphex Twin full-length, The Only She Chapters plays to no one’s expectations; gutted and reassembled, it will still unfurl like a disassociated string of insular oddities. Forget nodding along, this is shit you’d rather be reading a book to, meditating to, staring up at the ceiling and wondering if there’s too damned much, or too little, to really absorb anyway. I’ve tried all of the above with this record and only the cover art sheds some light: that those eight women—the female “chapters”—are churning Prefuse 73’s meticulous gears, never fully knowing their role or where their efforts will take them.