Extra Life Made Flesh

[Lo Alternative Frequencies; 2010]

Styles: art metal, chamber pop
Others: Zs, Jawbox, Dirty Projectors

Drawing on sonic scraps as disparate as Gregorian chants and black metal, Extra Life’s seemingly ubiquitous brainchild Charlie Looker created an organic, gripping sound with Secular Works that was capable of both inducing traces and blowing you from your seat. The album loomed thematically amid topics like blackmail, betrayal, and the eerie underbelly of the New York City music scene, raising anticipation for a follow-up as superb as this debut.

In keeping with the velocity set forth by that album, this year’s Made Flesh offers narrower versatility but greater conceptual coherence than its predecessor. Stemming from a theme that’s decidedly carnal in nature, the album is a study of the transformation from the pragmatic world — including its secrets, desires, and vices — to the perceptual realm of the human body. On the symphonic-metal title track, Looker meditates, “My secrets made plain/ My secrets made plain/ My secrets made flesh,” offering a perspective of a wrought world, cloaked in equal parts innocence and mystery. Portraying himself as the former in the surprisingly baroque-pop “Black Hoodie,” Looker finds himself as a boy, quivering underneath his clothing, concealed from the violence and sexuality that both surrounds and consumes him. “Head Shrinker” similarly explores the consequences of these vices inherent in privilege, pleasure, and ultimately loss: “Fancy lad/ How did you blow your inheritance?/ Fancy lad/ You never asked to be born,” Looker sings with pangs of regret stinging in his voice.

Musically, the many devices that constitute Made Flesh — Gregorian chants, post-hardcore bombast, chamber pop, off-beat time signatures — are in most cases the same as the ones presented on Secular Works. While the former does place greater reliance on synthesizers, their effect in producing extended periods of tension and urgency ultimately serves the same purpose. The difference is that, on Secular Works, this tension led to a near-visceral fraying, stripping it of its adornments and causing the album to close with the fraught a cappella “Bled White.” On Made Flesh, however, this tension more often leads toward synthesis: a seeming desire to collect these sonic meditations and create something poignant and lucid. This results in tracks that feel impatient and reaching. “The Ladder,” for example, opens obscenely, lurking amid sparse guitar notes much like on Secular Works’ “See You at the Show.” Unlike that song, however, “The Ladder” seems much too eager to spring from its meditation (“Pay up/ Pay up the ladder”) to launch into a metallic maelstrom. Elsewhere, there are moments every bit as bright. The innocent rumination “One of Your Whores” again evokes Looker as a boy, as he contemplates sexuality and love. The song expertly incorporates samples that bite at its droning pace.

Made Flesh offers a clean production that both illuminates and distracts from the artful pedigree of these songs. It serves to clarify Looker’s carnal study as he navigates and meditates his way through the album, veering toward his own art-metal rendition of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. But the production also dilutes the overall impact of these songs. As demonstrated by Secular Works, Extra Life are clearly capable of mating these forces of theme and impact. But in keeping with the spirit of comparison, Made Flesh, while more conceptually profound than its predecessor, is also slightly less viscerally compelling.

Links: Extra Life - Lo Alternative Frequencies

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