March 10, 2006

Emperor X "Central Hug/Friend Army/Fractal Dunes (and the Dreams That Resulted)"

After a murky vinyl-only debut album, Emperor X’s 2004 follow-up Tectonic Membrane confirmed Chad Metheny as one of the more talented children of the last decade’s “lo-fi” movement. On songs like “Florencia Tropicana” and “Garbage Shaft Floor-by-Floor,” Chad demonstrated a knack for catchy melodies that pushed his adenoidal voice to its limits, lyrics that were too vivid and funny to be dismissed as collegiate navel-gazing and arrangements that enabled the music to transcend the meager setup on which it was recorded. In short, it was DIY done right. In the eight months after its release, Chad moved from Florida to New York, and quickly assembled his third album, Central Hug. Although nothing on Central Hug will shock those who’ve heard Chad’s previous work, it still finds him making major strides as a singer, writer and arranger.

Central Hug is smartly sequenced; the songs with the fullest arrangements open and close the record, with a block of more minimal songs filling up the middle. Opener “Right to the Rails” is one of many songs that betray Chad’s newfound love of travel. With little more than Chad’s voice, a delayed guitar and the pitter-patter of tom-toms, the song works itself into lather until Chad repeatedly shouts “Go! Go! Go!” like a gambling man urging on his favorite racehorse. Second track “Shut Shut Up” is an anthem that rises slowly out of a morass of hissing cymbals and guitar harmonics, as Chad rebukes an apathetic friend with the fervor of an angry John Darnielle.

Things calm down a bit with “Raytracer,” on which Chad augments the quarter-note strum of his acoustic guitar with the kind of lyrics that couldn’t have been written by anyone but a post-collegiate indie-rocker: “Did you ever get sad on your bed late at night, crying, listening to Either/Or?” “Use Your Hands” is about a building so structurally sound that it inspires an already crazy man to start bombing other, lesser buildings, and “Sfearion” laments the fatigue that sets in after constant traveling; both are dinky synth-pop songs that sound like lost Postal Service demos. The last third of the record is highlighted by the Swirlies-style whammy-bar abuse of “Edgeless” and the arid psych-rock instrumental “Coast to Coast.”

Chad has already followed Central Hug up with a new EP called Dirt Dealership that reportedly has a folksier feel than his previous work. However, it’s a 7-inch vinyl record that’s limited to 300 copies, so for most of the people reading this, Central Hug remains the best and most recent entry point in the Emperor X discography. I hope to grab a copy of his new EP at the day party that his record label’s throwing on the week of South by Southwest. If I do, I’ll definitely give you my thoughts on it. For now, Central Hug is the perfect tonic for anyone who wishes the Nineties never ended and ProTools never existed!

---Sean Padilla

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