I fumbled with the car stereo while my friend Sean made conversation — the usual after-work gossip about clients and schedules. “You have to listen to this,” I told him. “Who are these guys?” he asked, turning the CD case over in his hands. I cast about for a half-assed bio, mentioning the L.A. punk scene and The Smell, but it all felt beside the point. I hit the play button instead.
From the opening moments, it’s an exercise in cognitive dissonance: a looped hip-hop vocal sample repeating endlessly over Gregorian chant. Slowly, a sinister bass beat snakes its way to the forefront. A human voice electronically processed into a rusty shriek infiltrates the choir until, about midway through, the song bursts. The chant disappears, while the vocal loop, keeping time with the beat, becomes a percussive instrument in itself. “You were listening to this at work?” Sean asked in between howls of shredding electronic noise. I could only grin and nod.
The next track is a total 180. It’s an adventure metal song about warriors enjoying one last night of revelry before charging into battle. Almost no traces of electronics at all, just a guitar riff that sounds like an alternate universe version of “Holy Diver,” if Ronnie James Dio had been really into disco. I only intended to play him a couple songs, but before we knew it, we were at the end of the album. We’d been arguing the whole time — with one another, sure, but also with our own selves. Should we be taking this seriously, or are these guys basically a vulgar Weird Al for Generation X? Is this good music? Do we like it?
In their previous efforts, Captain Ahab tended to gravitate toward shiny techno beats that often resembled high-fidelity NES soundscapes. The End of Irony, however, lances purposefully through genre after genre, seemingly without effort. It’s astonishing that the resulting album ends up sounding like…well, an album, and not just a Frankenstein’s monster of musical tropes (see Okapi’s Love Him for that). Yet the maturity they display in juxtaposing seemingly antithetical musical elements finds a direct counterbalance in their willfully crass and puerile lyrics. To add another layer of complication, this seems to be a concept album; every song touches, however tangentially, upon God, divinity, or omnipotence. What’s one to make of that? Or of the fact an album titled The End of Irony is chock full of tongue-in-cheek emcee posturing like “This is the future/ This is today/ This is the Captain Ahab Way”?
And it’s far from a flawless effort. Moments of breathless, edge-of-your-seat inventiveness — like opening track “Acting Hard” and nimble club thumpers like “Death to False Techno” or “How 2 Party” — follow one after another in rapid succession until you get to the last third of the album, where the duo turns to slower and more ominous electronic compositions that come off much less exciting than everything previous.
Sean and I couldn’t come to an agreement about the album, and I think that’s part of what makes it magical. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt so challenged by music that yielded its pleasures so willingly. Maybe that’s the real harbinger of irony’s demise: that two guys can plunge headlong into camp and rescue from its clutches moments of pure, unambiguous joy. In any case, this is a record destined to polarize audiences. I say jump in and figure out which side you’re on.