Primordial Undermind Loss of Affect

[Strange Attractors; 2006]

Rating: 3/5

Styles: psychedelic, free-form rock
Others: Pelt, Ghost, Bardo Pond, Kinski, Vocokesh

When The New York Times declared 2006 the year of freak folk, indie kids flocked to message boards to snipe at the paper, arguing that any dumbass with an iPod knows that the New Weird American wave crested when Animal Collective, Devendra Banhart, and Joanna Newsom released blockbuster records in 2004. There's some credibility in this claim, as many of the subgenre's leading lights have mutated into more well-rounded and conventional pop acts by now. However, these fervent discussions of the last two years of development in psych revivalism ignore a larger, more complex, and equally important stretch of time — the '80s and '90s, two decades in which blasted, free-form rock and acid folk saw little coverage outside of The Wire and fanzines like Forced Exposure and Bananafish. Indeed, many forget or ignore the fact that Charalambides were recording music in 1992, that Richard Youngs was first channeling Great Britain's shamanistic folk lineage in the late '80s, that High Rise were doing two decades ago what Comets on Fire do now.

Primordial Undermind mastermind Eric Arn has also been playing psych music since the Reagan years. In the mid '80s, he came of age in guitar-flailing legends Crystallized Movements, jamming alongside Wayne Rogers and Kate Village before they formed Magic Hour and Major Stars. Since the early '90s, he's devoted most of his energy to Primordial Undermind, who have slowly built up a healthy discography of under-the-radar LPs and short-run 7-inches. Given recent attempts to recover free-form rock's lost generation — Ba Da Bing!'s Dead C. retrospective, Table of the Elements' Alastair Galbraith reissues — the time is right for Arn to finally receive a bit of attention for his years of hard work. It will be a surprise if Loss of Affect boosts his stock, though, as the album is less a culmination of talents than it is yet another blind leap into unfamiliar territory from a guy who's made a career of such stunts.

For starters, it seems like rocking out wasn't high on the band's to-do list during these sessions: the album's most well-wrought and engaging songs are also its subtlest. Opener "Intercessor" sounds at first like a tease. An array of percussive devices — electric kalimba, cymbals, woodblocks — fire off in the distance while spectral flute and refractive drones (Ebowed guitar? Electronics? It's hard to tell...) command center stage. You would expect a buzzing riff to crash through and send the song launching into overdrive at any moment, but this never happens. And then you realize that each plink and puff has its proper place and that "Intercessor" crafts environment as exquisitely as any song from Thuja's last record.

In "Breathe Deep," Arn goes solo, delivering a Ben Chasny-style American raga on acoustic guitar. The song cycles through a series of suggestive phrases and pregnant pauses before a fully-formed melody congeals in the final minute. "Color of Nothing" also uses a minimal template to great effect, showcasing knob-twiddler Vanessa Arn and multi-instrumentalist Otis Cleveland in a duet. Cleveland attacks his alto sax and bass clarinet like a starving man at a Golden Corral, spitting out stuttering slap-tongue notes and blustery note-heavy runs, and Mrs. Arn's electronics coat the furious reed-work in layers of Tangerine Dream-ish surges. Both players exercise great control and judgment, leaving "Color" better off than a lot of more high-minded attempts at fusing digital sounds and extended technique acoustic music.

More disappointing are the rockers. There's plenty to dig in "3rd Class Sissy" — elegiac guitar licks whiz by like gunfire, shakers hiss like rattlesnakes — but the tune's Mogwai build is all too predictable. "Tremens" and "Blind Stars" follow similarly ho-hum trajectories. Only in "Driftglass" do Primordial Undermind inject a little intrigue into their crushing riffage: Cleveland solos on bass clarinet over incendiary distorted six-string, adding a layer of melodic complexity to the carnage his bandmates are wreaking.

So is Arn mellowing out with age? Does he fare better making abstract music than aping Hawkwind? Should Cleveland team up with Greg Kelley and record the most visceral free improvisational album ever? That's for you to decide. Loss of Affect is a string of suggestions, not a bombastic statement. Some of its chances pay off, and others don't feel daring enough. It's this exploratory impulse, though, that should keep us coming back to this album long after the latest Sunburned Hand of the Man CD-Rs sell-by date.

1. Intercessor
2. Breathe Deep
3. 3rd Class Sissy
4. Color of Nothing
5. Driftglass
6. In Violation
7. Tremens
8. Pertussis
9. Blinding Stars