Thursday, January 18, 2018

album review: 'offerings' by typhoon

Oh, I'm not going to make any fans with this review. 

And part of this starts with an observation about the increased commercialization of indie rock, because there's really two distinct schools of it nowadays. You have the roughscrabble upstarts where if they get any crossover appeal it comes by fluke, where the textures or vocals or presentation or content might be offkilter or abrasive, but there's something about it all that sticks, usually in the fine details of great compositions or smart writing or just a damn solid understand of their strengths.

And on the flip side you have the indie groups that are flagged as 'indie' because they're just quirky enough to not fit mainstream pop or rock but safe enough to play for your average gentrified afternoon beer-run and picnic in the park. You know the groups, the ones that a decade ago would be called adult alternative and will be soundtracking comfortable middle-brow sitcoms and commercials for a steady paycheque - and that's not always a bad thing, for the record. Hell, I'd probably put The National in this category, and they're a genuinely terrific band even despite that last record - but I always get worried when I start hearing about groups in this vein branded as 'experimental' or 'progressive', because more often than not they're labels used for cheap marketing to disguise pretentiousness or a lack of cohesion while never being truly challenging. And even then, it can still work - look at Elbow, even though I'd argue they're more just straight progressive rock - but on the flip side you get acts like alt-J, and the group we're discussing today, Typhoon. They broke out in the very early 2010s and I can emphatically say I'm not a fan, mostly because they have the sound of a profoundly boring and stuffy group that tried to substitute wonky song structures for depth and experimentation. Some critics tried to compare them to Arcade Fire for their massive lineup - they have a horns and strings section - but it holds shockingly little water to me, mostly because even at Arcade Fire's most pretentious and least earnest they could still write a decent hook or had some interesting production. With Typhoon it always felt way too clean and sanitized, with the content on records like White Lighter trying to bring an edge but with no clear idea how to do so in production or composition - out of nowhere tempo shifts and transitions don't always make you progressive; without a foundation, you're just obtuse.

So yeah, not a fan, but apparently their newest record was their most ominous and sonically demanding, so either someone in the band decided to grow some testicles or a spine and they had somehow managed to stick the landing on this fourteen track, seventy minute album, or it was going to be the biggest mess they ever made. So, what did we get?

I was not expecting this - and I want to make this abundantly clear, for as much contempt as I showed towards the group, I'll state right out of the gate that Offerings is by far the most competent their compositions have ever been. And thus I can see why some might be a little surprised by me saying of all of Typhoon's records this is the one that really angers me, because if you're not making the effort to decode this album, you might not hear it. But I did make that effort, and thus I can make this statement: this is arguably one of the most short-sighted, myopic, and damn-near offensive 'portrayals' of memory loss and mental illness I've heard on record in a while. And here's the thing: while that is central to why this record doesn't work at all for me, I don't quite get the impression the intentions were bad with this, so instead of giving this record the thorough, profanity-laden thrashing it probably deserves, I'm going to use this as an object lesson of why artistic framing is so damn important and how good intentions can be undermined by not considering this. 

So, what is artistic framing? Well, that's somewhat straightforward: it's how, through the art's execution, it is to be perceived by an audience. For the most direct example: Andrew W.K. wants you to party hard and have a great time doing it, so he uses broad power chords, heavily compressed guitars, and basic lyrics to deliver that intention: and what makes that material so damn transcendent is its purity: it so fully embodies that intention to party hard, that's why it connects so effectively. Compare this to so many modern trap songs in hip-hop: they want you to turn up and go crazy, but the tones are desaturated and focused in minor keys, the delivery is incoherent or flat, and the content is often how much better they are than you as they take your money, screw your girl, and kill you, which is one reason I'm so cold on a lot of that genre. Now these are the basics: if you want to get a little more complicated, look at Melodrama by Lorde, an album describing a relationship that burned out too fast thanks to Lorde's intensity, her partner's distance, youthful naivete, and a sense that all her expectations will come to nothing - that's the text and intentions of the album, but the subtext and compositions work to heighten the intimacy, accentuate the rough edges, capture the angst, and draw attention to the melodrama of it all, and the value of its emotionality in teenage life. It's one of the reasons why Lana Del Rey's records like Ultraviolet frustrate me so much: the content touches in similar territory of the artist making bad or misguided decisions in love, but it's framed as subtle high drama that doesn't fit the text.

So why bring all of this up? Well, Typhoon on Offerings is looking to explore central ideas surrounding mental illness and memory loss, both from the outsider looking in and the person experiencing these events. A primary metaphor established very early on is fire - representative of one's life and fueled by human memory, which is the 'offering' made to continue on - sacrifice your memory of life's experiences to keep on living, with the acceptance of death at the end to whatever afterlife and renewal coming being the thematic endpoint. And if that doesn't make a lot of sense - and spoilers, after you take in the rest of the record it can read as pretty damn appalling - well, you get the sense it's not really designed to. As early as the second song 'Rorschach' we get lines like 'reason's a tease', intending to show how our protagonist is questioning his rational mind, drawing the conclusion the only thing he can really trust is the fragile strands of memory, which on the same song is revealed to be inconclusive as well. And thus the rest of the record is a blurry stream of snapsnots as the protagonist tries to focus on what he knows and remembers, turns on those he loves, and falls into paranoia and substance abuse before passing into something presumed to be better with some vestige of peace. And let me establish this: thematically, there's a core here, you can tell there was at least some desire to show the complexity of a situation like this.

And yet it's in the framing and subtext where this record screws up, and let's start with the lyrics, because for as much as this record wants to speak from the perspective of someone losing their memory or higher faculties, it feels utterly disconnected from the truth of how they'd present themselves. And it's right on the first track: I get the purpose of establishing the protagonist having lost his memory at his lowest point, clinging to whatever he can, but even with a complete loss of dignity would one ever say, 'I shit the bed in solitude'. Poetic, isn't it - but that language choice and usage is one of the biggest problems here: this is a record that'll reference Flowers For Algernon and Harrison Bergeron and Fellini's 8 & 1/2 alongside Greek myth and the Bible that wants to present itself as well-read... but they feel incredibly out-of-character for how this protagonist - even with all of its allusions to the everyman's wealth brought low - would act in a situation such as this, which really compromises the immersion. Compare this to Father John Misty, whose choice of language and symbolism is just as pompous, but punctured by his own self-awareness, or Brand New on Science Fiction, where Jesse Lacey is so acutely aware of his fracturing mind and personal neuroses that he holds nothing back in allowing this record to get as ugly as it does. When Typhoon shows its protagonist getting paranoid or pushing away loved ones on 'Unusual' or 'Darker' or 'Ariadne', it pairs it with nihilistic language where you can't ignore the references to modern right-wing political paranoia, and that strikes me as not only unnecessary and heavy-handed, but implying a stripping of agency in a really dehumanizing way. And that feels at odds to a track like 'Chiaroscuro' where he seems to be nobly accepting of his fate in a way that no person losing their memories like this would ever feel! If anything, it feels way more reminiscent of a very 'Hollywood' picture of mental illness or memory loss: wanting to capture the wistful moments of regret and contemplation of the human condition or those forgotten that can be beautifully framed, but never really wanting to engage the angry reality of what that might be, the gross indignities that might be felt, never allowing them to fully tell their own story, shuffling them off this mortal coil before uncomfortable realities are felt. I'm going to piss off a lot of you by using the word 'privilege' here, but it's incredibly apt when it comes to this framing: using just enough of the protagonist's victimhood to create the drama, but never allowing them to become a rational agent in their own lives or story, which not only can feel pretty gross, but leaves the emotional connections feeling hollow.

And that's a damn shame when you consider this is arguably Typhoon's most well-composed project to date... well, to a point. It's definitely their most stable, spare and dark project to date - which can definitely make its 70+ minute runtime draining - but to say this record is going to engage with textures that are more raw or abrasive or experimental is asking for something Typhoon has never done and won't do here. Part of this is frontman Kyle Morton, who certainly sounds tasteful enough in his Gordon Lightbody impression, but he or Shannon Steele never bring any sense of deeper, raw intensity to these tracks, outside of the heavy-handed Fellini reference thoroughly beaten into the ground - and what's more exasperating is that for as big as this band is, you'd think they'd call upon more members to flesh out the story from alternate perspectives, or at least keep the protagonist's narration somewhat consistent! Now from a production standpoint, I'll at least give the band some credit in probably having their most stable melodic compositions to date, even if they've developed a fondness for lo-fi vocal filters and placing them midway back that isn't nearly as abrasive or challenging as they think. But beyond that and some lingering, drone-heavy textures and a few guitar lines that might have a little more low-end muscle and bite like on 'Rorschach' or the thicker bass and guitar on 'Darker' which doesn't get close to its title, these are not compositions that build much momentum or real intensity - or when you have more frenetic solos like on 'Unusual' they throw this keening synth over everything before a horn-accented Latin-inspired breakdown with sleigh bells that goes nowhere and fits with nothing - and then they do something similar with the thicker low-end build up on 'Bergeron'! Part of these problems come in the drums - whoever thought a distorted pickup in the percussion would help the mix was just wrong - but another factor comes in Typhoon's stubborn refusal to let go of the more tasteful arranged elements like the strings or incredibly clean shimmering tones - I get trying to add dramatic gravitas, but not only does it not match with all the inorganic vocal layering and sound effects patched in, you neuters the sense this record can pivot into the uncomfortable reality of this situation, which doesn't help the problems in framing. More often than not this record relies on very liquid acoustic guitars and lingering keys or the occasional slapdash lo-fi interjection... which yes, can led to some very pretty moments, but they also spark an easy comparison to progressive rock acts like Steven Wilson or Elbow or even that last Brand New record, who have done these sounds and similar themes far better! The closest this record gets to bringing any sort of power or emotional weight for me comes on the Shannon Steele-fronted track 'Coverings' that was more heavily reliant on strings and seems to speaking from an observer's POV - shame it feels like the only moment where that switch-up happens - or on 'Remember' or 'Ariadne' with that pretty damn solid guitar melodies and firmer bass grooves - a lot of the bass work on this album is pretty good, actually. But even, the mix on 'Ariadne' buries the more unstable paranoia of the protagonist behind vocal filters while letting more twinkling melody flutter at the front - what an apt metaphor for so much of this record!

Look, there's a part of me that feels I should be so much angrier about this project: it's painfully overlong, there's no significant dramatic weight, the vocals are underwhelming, and even despite slightly sharper composition the writing is pretentious as hell, wanting to impress the audience with all of its literary references while treating the story at its core as a prop for semi-coherent ideas about memory and consciousness - appropriate for how much this record disdains reason, considering it falls apart at the seams if applied. At the same time, with the exception of the utterly unnecessary political commentary that adds nothing in its parallels, the more I plowed through this the less I directly hated it, as it feels like there was at least the seed of an idea here, just a horribly framed execution that badly needed an editor to trim this into something reasonable. I hate the presumptuous attitudes that come from artists who should know better not taking the time to think this through... and thus, like with alt-J's last record ahead of them, it's getting a 4/10 and no chance in hell I'm recommending this. Hope you all learned something through this review, but I'd stay the hell away from Offerings - granted, I would have said that about anything by Typhoon, but it still applies with this.

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