June 15, 2003

Manitoba "Up In Flames"

Remember when the Chemical Brothers tried to integrate the textures of psychedelic 1960s pop into their trademark Big Beat sound on
to mixed results? Well, this album is WAY better than
that. Picture a modern-day rave kid time traveling back to Woodstock with a camcorder, and discovering there that a drum circle is not that far removed from the techno he currently listens to. Manitoba’s Up in Flames would be the perfect soundtrack to his home movie. There would be loads of people dancing, but the flash and the sun would be so overwhelming that it obscures all but the contours of their bodies. Nonetheless, the video would be beautiful, and the fun everyone was having would definitely be palpable to the viewers. This scenario isn’t that far-fetched if you look at the CD’s artwork, which is full of Day-Glo backdrops awash in colors bright enough to render the objects of said backdrops a near-total blur. The music follows suit, built from a core of stomping live drums, jangling acoustic and electric guitars, and breathy, often wordless, vocals. Although Manitoba guru Dan Snaith has roots in IDM, this record barely qualifies to be cast into that genre. The lopsided drum programming, computer glitches, and sonic cut-ups come second to the woozy, rocking atmospheres evoked by the actual singing and playing.

Like every other song on the record, album opener “I’ve Lived on a Dirt Road All My Life” is a veritable feast of sound. It begins with what sounds like an orchestra tuning up, which is then completely elbowed out of the mix by Smith’s vocals. His first words are “I’ve lost track of all the time,” and his voice is drowned in enough reverse reverb that it really DOES sound like he’s stretching time itself as he sings. Chicken scratch guitar, Rhodes piano, horn and woodwind solos, and animal noises ricochet from speaker to speaker until the song is hijacked by an extremely funky stop-start drum solo. Manitoba gets off on this kind of sonic density, adding elements one by one to a song until the results are just shy of overkill, only to strip everything away to reveal one or two layers lying underneath. The last couple of minutes of “Dirt Road” sound nothing like the rest of the song, its pitter-patter drums and coy keyboards sounding like an extremely shy version of Boards of Canada. The next track, “Skunks,” adds a little free jazz to the mix, courtesy of a series of atonal saxophone bleats and intentionally offbeat drum fills. “Jacknuggeted” begins with a sung four-word mantra before launching into a cacophony via garishly loud organ and hissing cymbals.

An orchestra of spastic music boxes drives the music on “Bijoux,” and the song’s gliding vocal fanfares suggest a choir of heavenly eunuchs after inhaling a potent dose of helium. “Crayon” is equally percussive and flighty, overlaying tapes of giggling children on top of a childlike symphony of bells that DJ Takemura would kill to call his own. The amazing “Twins” succinctly sums the entire album up by cramming a monster guitar riff, a dexterous drum solo, and a field recording of a hippie jam band into a time frame of less than two minutes, running everything through just enough computer manipulation to make everything sound otherworldly. Album closer “Every Time She Turns Round It’s Her Birthday” does “Twins” one better by turning these aforementioned elements up to ten and not letting up for nearly eight minutes. The only track on the album that feels superfluous is “Why the Long Face,” which is merely a forty-five second snippet of trumpet beats and swirling keyboards. It’s cheery enough to live up to its title but is otherwise insubstantial. On the whole, though, Dan Snaith constructs Up in Flames as a whole in the same manner that he constructs its individual songs. For almost forty minutes, the music only gets more and more intense, only to stop just as the listener is close to complete exhaustion.

---Sean Padilla

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