Inside the ambient-pop hyphen, Another Green World was the face that launched a thousand “Big Ship”s. There are a million things to love about Brian Eno’s 1975 masterpiece, but in the case of that single three-minute track bobbing in the middle of its sea, there’s only, it seems, one thing to love: the song. The construction being equivalent to the song. The premise itself being equivalent to the song. The heft of “The Big Ship” was that it took a basic progression of towering triads — I / IV / vi / VI / I / V / vi / VI — and continually wove in new voicings. The effect is something akin to a brass rubbing of some ineffable, powerful yet stationary force. The particular glory of the song is that, even as it grows, absolutely no dissonances appear to subvert those glorious triads; very few songs in its lineage have been able to hold back from sabotaging the infinite harmonic size of a triad with some twitch of cultural genius. I’d be remiss to dodge Eno’s theoretical/art-school entrenchment or that, no duh, the diatonic triad is a Western construct, but let’s keep it visceral: “The Big Ship” for most of its fans, simply is — which is probably why I come crying home to it here. You see, I want to tell you about this great new album by Zomes called Earth Grid, but its spectacular, allegiant “is-ness” presents a few problems.
Zomes is the solo endeavor of Lungfish guitarist Asa Osborne, which is background that really only serves as an entry point if you’re more familiar with critical shorthand than the music: Lungfish… right… they were part of the Dischord/DC post-hardcore scene in the 90s… like Jawbox or Q And Not U except… repetition! That was their thing, right? Lungfish had their place, absolutely, but most of cockeyed Generation Y would probably agree that one probably had to be there. Three years ago, Osborne emerged like a seedling from the detritus with his Zomes project, and on Earth Grid his project continues to grow in a surprisingly absorptive way. To be clear, we’re talking about the following formal features:
• Synthesizers running through mostly 1-to-4-minute cycles of soaring, basic chord progressions; like “The Big Ship,” any one of them could easily go on forever, and since their ends are not signaled by any kind of depletion, the abstract-minded might say that they do go on forever without the listeners’ hearing.
• On a majority of the songs, drum machines programmed to mid-tempo 4/4 beats that do not fuck around; they are the music’s vertebrate and they always promise development.
• The cyclical use of silence or the “rest”; the best example, “Stark Reality,” repeatedly lets the drum machine have a “fill” that would put Meg White to shame and becomes one of the most dynamic songs on the album for it.
• Chord length variations that give individual songs a remarkably distinct (anti-)narrative identity; “Life on the Wheel” and “A Path of Music” are the only songs that maintain completely flat drone at the base, but a heck of a lot more (“Step Anew,” “Alec’s Anthem” and especially “OK Philosophy”) are simply withholding of their minute pop epicotyls.
• A whole swathe of cassette-tastic fidelities that emerge not out of necessity but out of an impulse to create interesting, corroded sound-shapes; although lo-fi needs this kind of kick in the pants in general, on Earth Grid it’s complicated further by the ear’s puritanical desire for steady waveforms; that’s why it likes these triads in the first place, and the baggage — a sense of space and obfuscation that occasionally borders on noise — is some cerebral pestilence that the ear nonetheless cannot bring itself to leave.
• Last but not least, a pleasing, feathery-light synth tone that is occasionally reminiscent of backwards guitar; Osborne located this at some point and proceeded to vamp (for lack of a better verb) all over several of these songs; think less Keith Emerson and more a low-gravity rainstick, notes falling continually through the prongs of the chords.
See what I mean about the “is-ness”? With the exception of that last trait, which feels like a true bid for identity and even volition, the musical taxonomist would probably have to identify a song as a Zomes song by virtue of its sheer conceptual audacity. Who does Asa Osborne think he is? Of course, as an entry into the ambient/drone/furniture tradition, Earth Grid would receive a different line of interrogation, and I doubt anyone on either side would step in the glimmering bear trap that is, “it all sounds the same.”
For those of us meandering through this marsh instead of keeping it visceral, Osborne has thrown something of a bone in the form of the title track. “Earth Grid” is, without question, an alternate version of “Pilgrim Traveler.” Every lightbulb that goes off thereafter feels like a puzzle piece: Why does the track have a different title? Because, as indicated above, fidelity is inextricable from the song itself, and “Earth Grid” surely has a certain buzzsaw-buildup of which the leisurely “Pilgrim Traveler” is scrubbed. So how does one know it’s the same song otherwise? Well, the chords have those specific pockets of air between them. Plus, the song’s an equal-length four-chord cycle, which one doesn’t feel is particularly rare on this album until one actually sifts through it and the detail work — the little twinkle every few bars in “Melody, the Prism,” the way the fluttering organ only appears in higher chords on “Step Anew,” the touches and their meaning — really springs out.
All of which is to say that overthinking Earth Grid hasn’t left me entirely perplexed as to its emotional punch. This is extremely addictive stuff, and after only a few listens, every track will attempt to/will succeed in worming its way into the willing listener’s brain. The album also deftly deconstructs genre traditions and reconstructs them for maximum effect: its ability to absorb environment and routinely form symbiotic relationships evokes ambient drone, yet the reeling sense of “am I remembering this or that from earlier in the album, a previous listen, or another musician, or is it just inside me?” evokes the fist-pump of pop’s great masters. But when I remove Earth Grid from the chopping block, it becomes clear that its greatest strength is its unpedantic sonic warmth. Its unity makes it an easy pillar of 2011, and it promises to grow alongside its listeners regardless of where Osborne goes next. So for your own sake, do as I say, not as I do: keep it visceral.