Emeralds, ‘Just to Feel Anything’ (Editions Mego)

SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: November 06, 2012
Label: Editions Mego

Emeralds started out in the Midwestern noise scene as mushroom-chomping, drone-obsessed electronic improvisers with a yen for murk. Beginning in 2006, they released dozens of awesome, but admittedly kind of interchangeable tapes and CDRs like Dirt Weed Diaries Vol. 1, Grass Ceiling, and the tellingly (if, presumably, ironically) titled Bullshit Boring Drone Band.

Then, in 2009, with a self-titled album for Wagon and the better-known What Happened for No Fun Productions, their music made a subtle but significant shift to something both more complex and recognizable; for the first time, they turned out jams you could actually Shazam successfully, meaning the app didn’t just point you to something like Spooky Halloween Atmospheres, Volume Three. (Just kidding: Most early Emeralds tracks don’t return anything on Shazam, although at least one of their droniest drones, bizarrely, comes back as a J. S. Bach prelude. Go figure?) Ramping up their hardware and rapidly honing their chops, the trio’s members (Mark McGuire, Steve Hauschildt, and John Elliott) learned to weave twinkling synthesizer arpeggios and sinewy guitar leads into shapes both more expansive and more intricate, with major nods to “cosmic” keyboard heavyweights like Klaus Schulze and Edgar Froese.

Emeralds continued to move in the same direction with 2010’s Does It Look Like I’m Here?, their first for the Editions Mego label. It was more assured, more detailed, more obviously emotive — it wasn’t hard to recognize as their best work to date. But there were also signs that they might be settling into a comfort zone, with their tracks increasingly coming to seem like variations upon variations of some astral ur-style, as though every arpeggio were an attempt to decode the DNA of some quintessential Emeralds-ness.

But just as they escaped Bullshit Boring Drone Band status, there’s no longer any mistaking them for a group called We’ve Got an Arpeggiator and We’re Gonna Use It, either. Just to Feel Anything, their first material in two years, is the group’s most wildly, head-scratchingly varied effort yet. They haven’t entirely re-invented themselves: The trio still relies heavily on the same pinwheeling sequences and arcing top lines, but those elements are subservient here to a newly discovered, capital-M Musicality. At times, it has a surprisingly traditionalist feel, marked by tasteful chord changes, pop-song bridges, strummed acoustic guitars, neatly programmed 808 patterns, and McGuire’s (occasionally wanky) electric-guitar fretwork.

There’s definitely a core aesthetic at work — more on that in a moment — but the album also features several songs that could be taken for the work of radically different bands. The sumptuous, rumbling “The Loser Keeps America Clean” could be a soundtrack cue for a horror film set in a haunted meat locker; it sounds more like the work of BBC Radiophonic Workshop revivalists Demdike Stare, or maybe a lost outtake from Isolationism, a landmark dark-ambient compilation from 1994 that featured artists like Scorn, Ice, and Final at their most blood-curdlingly bleak. The placid “Through & Through,” on the other hand, suggests Cocteau Twins and Harold Budd’s Moon and the Melodies under the influence of JJ Cale’s “Magnolia.” In some ways, those songs are outliers, but given that the seven-song LP only lasts 40 minutes, the diversions they provide make even more of an impact, particularly when compared to the shimmering, ebullient excess of the rest.

This would be a good time to address the elephant in the room: Some long-time fans are going to be turned off by this album. (The Quietus quoted contributor Rory Gibb on Twitter as saying, “Fucking hell. They’re like the Dire Straits of current synth stuff.”) A lot of the underground synthesizer music of the past few years has been about embracing cultural castoffs, from Emeralds’ own New Age flirtations to Oneohtrix Point Never’s lysergic edits of glossy pop acts like Chris de Burgh. But on Just to Feel Anything, the trio really goes the full fromage. That’s owing largely to McGuire’s presence here, wailing away with multi-tracked guitar solos on almost every song, keening counterpoints, whammy-bar action and all. Air guitarists can get some serious mileage out of this record, and practice their best “O-face” at the same time.

It’s not just McGuire, though: Much of Anything is steeped in sounds typically coded as cheese. When the opening “Before Your Eyes” references New Order, it’s not so much Power, Corruption & Lies they’re going for as Low-Life — a great album in its own way, but definitely marked by the band’s drug-enhanced pop ambitions. “Adrenochrome” — with its rubbery bass, billowing mids, and pitter-pat, proto-house beat — at times shows a bizarre resemblance to Seal’s “Crazy.” Scoff if you will, but sing that famous chorus melody over this track and see if you disagree. When “Search for Me in the Wasteland” echoes Swans, it’s the noise gods’ 1989 album The Burning World, a Bill Laswell-produced major-label fiasco that Michael Gira has since declared borderline unlistenable. (For the record, I love it unconditionally, so no complaints there. But again, it’s hardly the conventional, rock-snob-approved choice.) There are plenty of tasteful (or at least hipster-certified) references to be found dotting this spongy, elastic landscape, like Tangerine Dream and even Steve Reich. But the main takeaway, at least initially, might be its evocation of the crispy cocaine glow of Jan Hammer’s Miami Vice soundtrack.

And you know what? Some deep listening may shift you from serious skepticism to being strangely won over by Emeralds’ non-judgmental approach. If their strategy really is to resuscitate, without irony, some of the denigrated products of pop-culture past, they’ve succeeded: After a while, the Miami Vice stuff actually doesn’t sound so bad, with some pretty cool, pretty out-there musical qualities that years of over-familiarity with those robo-toms and keytar leads had gradually obscured.

Just as importantly, it never feels like Emeralds are trying to score cool points here simply by bringing back the terminally uncool. The dodgy bits work because they’ve been thought through and worked into a rich, unpredictable, sometimes messy whole. There’s real drama in the band’s sweeping crescendos and ringing guitar chords; there’s something genuinely affecting in their newfound emo overtones. The album’s title, with its sense of frustrated yearning, makes perfect sense once you submit to their conflicted mood music. This is the opposite of stoner noise-dude complacency, where trying is the most uncool thing you could do. They go way out on a limb here, and as vertiginous as it gets, taking the plunge feels like falling into the arms of an old friend.


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