Death is not a joyride The Human Zoo

[Self-Released; 2008]

Styles: experimental, avant pop
Others: Kate Bush, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Dresden Dolls

Restless exploration in music is a double-edged sword. Artists who challenge themselves to find new sounds and/or mix genres are sometimes greeted as potent visionaries breaking false boundaries. Other times, they are simply too unclassifiable to ever find an audience. When sonic experimentation is combined with a performance art aesthetic, the tightrope becomes even thinner. The emphasis on the live experience often makes the album a strange, truncated experience. This seems to be the case with Death is not a joyride.

Admittedly, never having seen this Austin-based band live, my supposition can be classified as mere conjecture, though reports of their shows are telling. Donning animalistic costumes and performing hybrid music with elements of goth, trip-hop, post-rock, and indie rock, among others, the combination sounds quite striking. Sans physicality, the aural leavings are ambitious and even skillful, but hardly pleasing.

The Human Zoo is a concept album with lyrics and song titles metaphorically playing with caged animals as stand-ins for caged human emotions, surveillance, and power dynamics. These are timely themes to be sure, and in many instances the lyrics are quite poignant and insightful. It's their delivery that has something strange about it; Kacy Ritter's voice has a beguiling character that closely recalls Kate Bush, but her tone comes across as uniformly cold and distant, even when she's ‘emoting.’ This seems to be a conscious choice on her part, but combined with the constant shifting of the music, it gives the listener little to hold onto.

In fact, the overall sound of the recording has a clinical, detached feel. Even on a trip-hop influenced track like "Willie the Gorilla (Part 1. Our friend and Subject)," none of the warm analog burble that so often humanizes the genre's generally dystopian sound are present. Nor are there any standout melodies or virtuosic passages that a listener can latch onto for pleasure's sake. There is certainly a lot of skill and versatility among the players, but the general disengagement without the benefit of seeing actual human bodies producing the music leaves me feeling empty. Maybe that's the point, but it makes it harder for me to recommend The Human Zoo for anyone's home stereo.

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