This album has some of the best artwork I’ve seen all year. Against a pink backdrop, an assortment of grotesque B&W images assault the eyelids: an elderly Asian woman with knives running through her hair, a human skull catapulting out of an explosion, a one-winged bird carrying a turd with its feet, etc. The title of the album comes from a Marxist social theory book called Dialectic on Enlightenment, and sample song titles include “The Machines Become Cognizant,” “Fodder for Defamation,” and “Lament for Bhopal.” Because of the way in which this CD is presented, I assumed that I would be treated to a slice of violent agit-punk, or at the very least, something that would elicit an extreme reaction from me once I put it on. Neither of these assumptions proved to be true; unfortunately, what I ended up with was a slab of garden-variety instrumental math-rock.
This album’s “intro” begins with 30 seconds of aimless guitar meandering before giving way to a cacophony that sounds like a chicken coop being set on fire. From the second track onward, though, the elements of Ahleuchatistas’ sound are a bit more cleanly defined. Shane Perlowin’s guitar playing is nimble, clean, and uncluttered. He prefers peeling off rapid flurries of palm-muted notes to strumming full chords, and the only effect he uses on his instrument is the occasional bit of reverb. Most of the true noisemaking in the band goes to bassist Derek Poteat, who’s not above stepping on the fuzz pedal once in a while and unleashing streams of irritating feedback (especially on the ambient piece “I Don’t Remember Falling Asleep Here”). Last but certainly not least is drummer Sean Dail, who plays with the kind of speed and tonal variety that suggests that he’s got a million-piece kit or a secret supply of uppers (though it’s probably neither). They’re all good musicians, but in what way does that make them different from any other math-rock band? Have you EVER heard a math-rock band that didn’t have a bare minimum of pure technical skill?
There are enough key, tempo, and dynamic changes in each track to fill four or five individual songs. Ahleuchatistas launch into ideas only to abandon them a minute later, and Lord knows when (or if) they’ll bother to actually return to any of them. “A Thought like a Hammer” does a decent job of milking a two-chord riff before devolving into two minutes of near-silent nothingness. The sprightly riff that begins “Al Jazeera” has an appropriate Middle Eastern flavor to it, only to eventually morph into a depressing a minor-key dirge. The second section of “(Ibid.4)” is a metallic minor-key prod that gets my head nodding every time I listen to it. The first half of “Empath/Every” introduces a slow, ballad-like theme that I could easily hear a crooner laying some sweet vocals on top of. Notice that I’ve spent this entire paragraph talking about SECTIONS of songs instead of their entireties. That’s precisely my point: there are good ideas in every song, but they only appear once or twice, and the other sections aren’t memorable enough to compensate for their brevity. Attention deficit disorder isn’t always a good thing.
Part of the problem is that the band works inside such an intentionally austere framework: very few pedals, no instruments other than guitar, bass, and drums, no vocals, and no fancy production tricks. The aesthetic is certainly admirable, and it does put more of a spotlight on the group’s formidable musicianship. However, on an album that lasts nearly an hour and puts most of its longest songs in the second half, it means that the group has to work twice as hard to keep its music interesting. Unfortunately, every time I listen to On the Culture Industry I lose interest right around the last third, which is why it took multiple listens for me to figure out that album closer “Lament for Bhopal” contains the exact same riff as the album’s intro. If playing incredibly well isn’t enough to get my attention, and switching ideas every 45 seconds isn’t enough to keep it, what else can Ahleuchatistas do to motivate me to listen to their music again once I finish writing this review?
(Other than throw their Slint and Ruins records away and do something NEW?)