Radian & Howe Gelb Radian verses Howe Gelb

[Radian; 2014]

Styles: molecular rock, dub poetry, post-rock
Others: Tortoise, To Rococo Rot, Calexico, Have Fun With God

The rationale behind Howe Gelb’s latest collaboration is best put in his own words from a 2006 post on his website: he was invited to play a festival curated by Radian and, upon seeing them, described them as “molecular music…like the space in between music. The sounds are large and deep and tumble with a joyous flow. You might call it noise, but it is a great form of rock. ” Surely a kinship is felt: Gelb’s own decades-long Giant Sand project is, apart from being one of the only consistently great alt-rock groups, a constant twister of expectations, the pioneers of an elegantly elusive brand of Americana called “erosion rock” that has kept them both critically adored and categorically difficult to place. It’s clear enough from his liberal use of granular metaphors that Gelb feels an artistic commonality in these Viennese post-rockers that would be a shame to waste. Besides, he adds: “I had recorded an album’s worth of material with them over the last year or two.” Oh, well, perfect.

Well, that material (or new material; it is unclear) arrives here in 2014 in the form of Radian verses Howe Gelb. The album’s primarily a Radian release: they handle most of the instrumentation and the post-production, generating a super-precise network of rhythms and grooves that are part rock, part sound art. Atop that, Gelb has added crucial aspects of “piano, guitar, and above all — voice.” His earthy tonal contributions and lyricism are a rich counterbalance to Radian’s byzantine sonics and pinpoint percussion.

Because, taken alone, the biggest drawback of Radian is that they can be perfectionists to the point of impenetrability. Their usual arsenal consists of quick, snippy, spastic zaps of white-hot noise, pinging toms, booming kicks, and thin, tinny drums clasping on close surfaces. Their music is particulate and metallic, manipulating the shared frequencies between sounds: the crack of a stick, the pop of a wet mouth, the hiss of a cymbal recreated in sines. They have songs with names like “Transistor” that sound like neural networks stripped from a server and taught to play the drums. Their music is often so crisp, so precise, and subsequently artificial that it can get a little unnerving. It’s the same common pitfall of groups like To Rococo Rot or Monolake. No one listens to Monolake for fun. It’s music for Swedish executives. It just plays in their cars, and they never have to mess with it.

Gelb, the sloppy yet intellectual singer/songwriter and alt-beatnik poet hero, is exactly the kind of contrast a group like Radian really needs. His songs, despite sharing a mutual love of the fine art of studio time, are of a roughshod and looser order, inextricably organic. His lyrics effuse an emotionality than can be portioned out in small, sample-able phrases, for mood and pacing, and occasionally as overly literal instructions.

This is demonstrated nowhere better than on opener “Saturated,” a skittering bank-heist rocker that finds Gelb murmuring his way across a hair-splitting field of hi-hats and brushwork, lines like “Gonna get dirty/ Gonna be great/ Saturate” squirming out like questions asked to nobody. The album continues on as such: the first two songs (both called “Saturated,” both using some of the same sounds) end with him flatly declaring “Wait a minute, stop.” “I’m Going In,” meanwhile, traces an eerie ambient trek as Gelb offers a radioed-in narrative to its oscillations, a series of wombic non-sequiturs from some Lynchian rescue mission gone wrong.

Gelb walks the line between unseen poet and a more authoritative first-person storyteller on songs like these, but that’s largely because of how Radian positions him. It’s their meticulous editing and sampling that give these songs shape, and what strange shapes they choose: “From Birth To Mortician” begins as a stark piece of cubist dub, only to suddenly escalate to cathartic garage rock, audaciously skipping the usual build-up and going straight for the anthemic singalong. “On and on and on and on…” he moans, and it’s ironic, because we’ve only been hearing him for seconds.

Where Gelb’s long-running Giant Sand project and Radian’s solo releases offer each of them an outlet for perfecting a brand of idiosyncratic rock & roll, this collaboration is more speculative and experimental, more interested in the sheer what-if factor of genre clashing. This isn’t to say Radian verses Howe Gelb is unmusical, though. An undeniable and unique groove lies at each intersection of these disparate ideas. In the last lingering moments of his “Moon River” cover, Gelb gives us a sublime synopsis: “There’s a triple A battery stuck in the piano.”

Links: Radian & Howe Gelb - Radian

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