September 28, 2006

Growing "Color Wheel"

For fans of contemporary drone music, NYC duo Growing has always served as a serene yang to Sunn0)))’s sinister yin. Both bands love stretching one chord for as long as humanly possible and overwhelming listeners with low end and feedback in the process. However, they use this modus operandi as a means to opposite ends. The difference is made clear in their album and track titles: before putting either CD in your player, you can tell that “Friendly Confines,” the second track of Growing’s latest album Color Wheel, will be a much smoother listen than Sunn0)))’s “Cursed Realms,” which appeared on last year’s Black One. Nonetheless, both Color Wheel and Black One are watermarks in the bands’ respective discographies, albums that find them successfully experimenting in order to transcend a formula that could’ve quickly and easily become stale.

On previous albums, Growing’s songs were edifices that simply stated a theme and let it linger. On Color Wheel, however, the duo constructs and deconstructs its music in real time, producing for the first time songs that have beginnings, middles and ends. The first four minutes of opening track “Fancy Period” find Growing slowly layering one sound on top of the next: scintillating keyboards, sprinkler-like hissing noises, woolly clouds of bass, and guitars that make curlicues up and down the major scale. Shortly after the four-minute mark, the duo breaks the drone back down into its separate components, chopping each instrument up until it flickers in and out of silence, producing a vaguely percussive effect. This trick is repeated on penultimate track “Peace Offering.” Groggy, pitch-imperfect guitars are chopped into bits, scattered across the stereo spectrum, and disrupted by a bow mercilessly grinding against the strings of a double bass.

Color Wheel is also distinguished by some rather bipolar sequencing in the middle: the album’s shortest and least orthodox song (“Cumulusless”) is succeeded by its longest and most predictable (“Blue Angels”). “Cumulusless” barely qualifies as a drone: the guitars and keyboards are too staccato to have the trance-like properties that Growing’s music usually aims for. To me, it sounds more like Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” with the drums removed from the mix. “Blue Angels,” on the other hand, comes across as a 16-minute encapsulation of everything that the duo has done up to this point. It starts with a drone so radiant that it sounds as if it’s been beamed in from a faraway pipe organ. At the four-minute mark, the drone doubles in volume; the resultant over-modulation produces an array of phase shifts and overtones. The drone finally recedes during the song’s last two minutes, leaving in its wake a cacophony of fuzz guitars that blare like bagpipes.

Album closer “Green Pastures” demonstrates Growing’s newfound appreciation of the element of surprise. At the three-minute mark, the bassist plays a loud, grinding chord that sounds like he’s thumbing a hot cable wire. This chord abruptly retreats into silence, only to return every few seconds with even greater fury. This process is repeated for the next two minutes, until the song starts sounding like the aural equivalent of electroshock therapy. Even after multiple listens, “Green Pastures” never fails to make my hair stand on end. It’s hard enough to make an album that staves off boredom at every turn, especially when you’re a drone band. Growing pulls it off effortlessly with Color Wheel.

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