“All music theory refers to something that has already happened, but if it is taken as a prescription, or worse as a manifesto, heaven help you.”
– Steve Reich
It’s hard to make a “by-the-term” defining argument, political or contextual, for lo-fi aesthetics, for making the most out of the least, for tape obscuration and reckless songwriting abandon. Once neatly summed up for a niche group of artists as “shitgaze,” a term mostly embraced (irreverently) by Psychedelic Horseshit, the term seems to have since fallen apart. Not to say it was more glue than opposite facing magnets, but we as human beings (both critics and listeners) aim towards identifiers in aural language to draw conclusions and to help frame artistic works — that is, if the work acts deliberately to utilize genre language to its maximum.
So maybe lo-fi in this context is akin to Kevin Shields’ “glide guitar” — a piece of the language, a signifier for a suggested listening — and in these modern times (or however long people have been kicking shitgaze around), we will perhaps see the label hanging over the head of a few bands like a turd cloud raining on one sad individual. Never mind that the whole lo-fi pop thing has at this point been kicking around for quite some time. What do we do with this “shitgaze” in 2013? What does that language do as an identifier in this context?
In an essay regarding shitgaze written by Warren Ellis, he likens the term to what a “novum” or a “neologism” is to science fiction: a central element and identifier of the genre. “Shitgaze, as a neologism and a novum, is, of course, a gag. Minimal Western cultural experience is required to decode shitgaze as a joke at the expense of the musical subgenre of shoegaze, which is in itself a joke…” He continues to state that “it took a science fiction writer of sorts to define the essential nature of the field and the correct response to those who maybe can’t really be bothered to step up to it and its needs: fuck you if you can’t take a joke.” In this context, it goes without saying that the term does hold some sort of usefulness, in addition to the sort of “fuck you” inherent in the lo-fi process.
But the problem here (at least for the term and its desire to acquire definition) is that III marks Eat Skull’s least identifiably shitgaze album yet. The language and identifiers seem to be of no concern to them, especially in comparison to their previous two outings, and the novum and neologisms here seem absolutely useless,. Which is actually not a problem at all, as III contains a series of very well-composed lo-fi songs, the kind heard in bands like Olivia Tremor Control and Guided By Voices (among numerous others), where anthemic qualities are given a ceiling cap by the recording equipment, taking away from that thing anthems do: sucker you into some sort of emotional manipulation, where the listener is caught up in how grand everything sounds and how grand everything is, etc.
It’s this cap that allows for other qualities to arise, such as how catchy a song can be that is damn near incomprehensible (“Space Academy”) or the ways in which they employ experimental vagueness, a relative sibling of (also reluctant) shoegaze. Rob Engbom too sings like he’s straddling the line between keeping the songs together and ruining them, as if there were enough acting drones and strange noises in III working against him that he felt the need to remain expressive and melodic. III is not just a cleaning up of Eat Skull’s act; it actually shows that they have a smart pop sensibility, that by placing the obscurities ever so slightly back, there are a number of really strong songs left.
So with the neologism gone and with the scenery intact (think of a science fiction film set in the future without the invisible time machine or other pseudo-MacGuffin to carry it, that it just casually takes place in the surreal or perceived future), we are left with what remains — a well-done lo-fi pop album lost of the things we’re used to: contexts and whatnot that make both us and the analytical process feel much easier, helping us pretend that we really know what’s going on and how to get behind the ideas. Not to say that it will mark the end of people turning to Yahoo! Answers for which shitgaze bands they should listen to, but III is a space of unsurities, and I kind of like that.