Last year, amorphous Brooklyn post-rock commune Slow Six put out a reliably solid album called Tomorrow Becomes You, and ‘reliable’ is surely the last thing that anyone expects of post-rock in the 2010s. It’s fitting, then, that this year, Slow Six maestro Christopher Tignor and recently adopted drummer Theo Metz fake a manic episode and gorge themselves in a new set of oiled electronics to form Wires Under Tension. Tignor’s swapped in a few androids, but it’s the usual revolving door of guests for him. Why, you may ask, isn’t this a Slow Six album then? The easy-enough answer is that it just ain’t particularly slow: the arpeggios, once rapturous and explosive real-time virtuoso moments, now rattle endlessly through the songs like appliances. A seemingly adventurous clusterfuck of what-ifs (their exact instruments and processes are available online at Light Science 101) add up to an oddly familiar post-minimalist/Balkan/nu-jazz fusion that has yet to receive its proper tag. On Light Science, Wires Under Tension are all about how tightly they can coil that idiom.
Metz makes it his primary goal to keep up with these galloping electronics, and you can just visualize his concerted party-on brow as he armwrestles open his polyrhythm pop-up book. Don’t get me wrong: he’s an extraordinarily talented guy. But the loops are just barbells to him. I was trying to figure out why the sickening violin in “Wood, Metal, Bone” — a teeter lifted straight out of The Velvet Underground’s “Black Angel Death Song” — didn’t signal complete triumph, why I felt like the song was occasionally stuck in neutral. Metz, by process of elimination, had to be the homogenizing factor. He ends up having a smoothing, almost maternal effect on these songs. It’s almost as if this time he’s the one with the baton, all “Now, class,” while Tignor goes hog-wild, twiddling knobs, changing pitches, stamping in new layers. More neat moments arise from these latter manipulations than I care to admit, or whose timestamps to jot. But none of it can save the songs that are fundamentally boring; “Irreversible Machines” encircles a crooked shrug of a violin line with ‘sassy-brass’ blats, a motif that seems to be an unfortunate favorite. Yet in an unexpected turn, the jittery “Mnemonics in Motion” is successfully besieged (and its identity hijacked) by molten pitch shifts. Score for the machines!
But an old dog can’t teach itself new tricks, and if accusations that Light Science is cold or inhuman are missing the point, accusations that it’s still post-rock by association are right on. Optimism, here, is just a thrown switch away; opener “Electricity Turns Them On” ditches its xylophonic eeriness two minutes in for a sudden frolic in the meadow, and with it frolics off any hope for narrative cohesion. The aforementioned “Mnemonics in Motion” pays a little more attention to texture than other songs (see again: sassy-brass blats), but it still, like every other song on the album, gets baptized in a soaring violin line. No matter the number of auditory goodies, crescendos are still ‘the point.’ That such violin lines are faster than their historical precedents actually, counterintuitively, points out how little the basic major-key melodies themselves had to do with post-rock’s effect in its heyday.
It’s not my place to judge what circumstances lead Tignor to find salvation in this stuff right now, but it definitely undercuts whatever his project, or projected project, was in forming Wires Under Tension. Namely, for anyone invested in billowy/organic/communal music, the introduction of machines has got to feel risky somehow. Metz took it as a personal challenge, which he met. Tignor had himself a tea party. Light Science manages, thus, to be impressively conducted, self-announcing, and well dressed while remaining static, safe, and a tad lonely. I get that the album could be seen as pointing out how it feels to be eternally fraught and unresolved, and okay, I might even buy that their clumsy mood-qwops are also a statement about, what, whether the forces of modernization can do anything about it. The unresolved mentality is probably healthy; it probably keeps such artists prolific. But at the end of seven tracks and a single irksome half-hour, they seem to have already exhausted their case to the listener. We can only hope they’ve convinced themselves, too.