Extra Life Secular Works

[Planaria; 2008]

Styles: chamber, metal, folk, chant, drone
Others: Boris, Zs, Shirley Collins, Gordon Withers, Jawbox, The Jesus Lizard

Tension and restraint. Adornment and shedding. These are the balances that define Extra Life’s fantastic full-length debut, Secular Works. Fronted by former Zs guitarist Charlie Looker, Extra Life is an assembly of musical approaches: humming strings set over fiercely metallic rhythm sections, meditative chants merged with sparse atonalities, juxtapositions between silence and drone. It’s a quintessential fusion work, in a sense, invading sonic boundaries with little regard for convention. Unlike most fusion music, however, Extra Life makes these boundaries seem encompassing and organic.

Following the lineages of the members of Extra Life -- from the metallo-jazz of Period, to the rhythmic maelstrom of Archaeopteryx, to the experimental chamber of Zs, to the Dirty Projectors -- the listener can’t help but feel a sense of collection at each stop along the way when listening to Secular Works. The album’s openers, “Blackmail Blues” and “I Don’t See It That Way,” lumber and crash with thick bass and drums while violins tense overhead. The offbeat, southern goth of “This Time” paces like a wolf before unpredictably erupting into a violent melee. “The Refrain” is a piece of tortured chamber pop. Though disparate, each musical form on display here is neither transformed nor abstracted. Instead, each is dissected and layered upon the others, each stratum a discernible movement. While this approach may sound impossibly and perhaps intentionally distracting, Secular Works has impeccable flow and depth. A graduate of Wesleyan’s music program, Looker’s sense of arrangement and composition melds each sound into a gripping work where fear and urgency loom within each track.

Music aside, the most dynamic device of Secular Works is Looker’s vocals, which toggle from bedroom-confessional to Georgian chant. His incredible range has the ability to repeat, carry, and dive all within a single measure. As the album progresses, the dynamic musical arrangements that introduce it are gradually stripped away, giving complete focus to the vocals that increasingly engross and unsettle the listener until we’re left with the haunting a cappella closer “Bled White.” Here, Looker constructs a grand confrontation from the echoes, “Hit the lights/ Hit the lights/ Your life was a cruel seducer/ Am I right?”

A sparse and hollow production prevents the arrangements that compose Secular Works from shining through to their potential, particularly early in the album, where its more metallic elements are on display. And occasionally the lyric writing releases the listener from the grip of these songs (“I’m getting into this new vibe/ Soak up your every intention like Tampax”). Ultimately though, albums like Secular Works, that are so expertly stitched and synthesized, are far between. It creates an aesthetic so grave and completely realized that it’s with the best sense of anxiety that I anticipate where Extra Life goes next.

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