Of all the bands to call British label 4AD home in the early ’90s, none are as inscrutable—or wholly unpredictable—as His Name Is Alive. While the band’s early peers (the Breeders, Red House Painters) spent the better part of that decade honing singular aesthetics, His Name Is Alive were intent on doing the opposite. Early albums like Livonia and Stars on E.S.P. flirted with everything from shoegazey ephemera to sun-bleached California dream pop, but never lighted long enough on any one style to truly embody it. Warren Defever—the Michigan-based musician, songwriter, and mercurial heart of the band—embraces a kind of gleeful wanderlust, a predisposition that only intensified after the band parted ways with 4AD in the early 2000s. In the years since, Defever’s output has become even more of a willfully mixed bag, encompassing everything from spooky R&B, blown-out psych rock, meandering instrumental compositions, and—on 2007’s Sweet Earth Flower—an album-length tribute to free jazz saxophonist Marion Brown. Some 20 years deep into their career the only single thread twisting through all of His Name Is Alive’s music has been Defever’s own peculiar force of vision, which makes exploring the band’s now expansive back catalog both a satisfying and weirdly schizophrenic experience.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Tecuciztecatl—the band’s 14th full-length—is a thing both wonderful and extraordinarily strange. A concept record that comes with the worrisome descriptor of “psychedelic rock opera,” Tecuciztecatl involves a proggy narrative about a young woman who discovers she is pregnant with twins—one good, one evil—and must seek the help of a demon-hunting librarian. Each of the album’s nine tracks is written from the perspective of a different character and the whole melodrama is set to play out like the soundtrack to a gothic psych-rock horror movie that never actually was. (Additionally, every edition of the record—be it on vinyl, CD, or digital download—is unique, each with different mixes and tracklists.) Most records would surely collapse under the weight of this kind of conceptual pretense—the struggle of good versus evil as played out from within the womb! —but Tecuciztecatl succeeds due to the strength of the songs, all of which still operate nicely outside the confines of the album’s bloody narrative.
The album opens with “The Examination”, a 13-minute opus comprised of simmering, Yes-era synthscapes, a chorus of flutes, and—most flamboyantly—an arsenal of fuzzy, overdriven guitar lines twisting around each other. As the song morphs from prog-rock anthem into something resembling a messy garage-funk jam, vocalist Andrea Morici’s plaintive vocals provide a calming counterpoint: “Look into my eyes/ Look into the light all around you/ Make yourself at home.” As opening salvos go, it’s a doozy…and something the rest of the album never quite lives up to. Still, tracks like “Reflect Yourself” and “See You In a Minute” play around with classic rock power riffing in ways that are both ridiculous and kind of perfect. Employing harmonious guitar solos that were apparently perfected by practicing along to an edit that Defever created of every Thin Lizzy guitar solo recorded between 1973 and 1983 (It’s a real thing. You can check it out on YouTube), much of Tecuciztecatl plays like a celebration of the kind of bombastic, gatefold double-album sonic excess that marked ’70s bands like King Crimson and Emerson Lake and Palmer.
It would be easy for these sorts of rock opera theatrics to come across as jokey or ironically reverential, but Defever’s earnest commitment never wavers. Psych-rock noodlings aside, it’s the more subdued tracks—the splish-splashy “African Violet Casts a Spell” and the pastoral vibes of album closer “The Cup”—that not only sound the most like classic His Name Is Alive, but also save the record from simply being a conceptual goof. Divorced from the album’s bizarro storyline, “I Believe Your Heart Is No Longer Inside This Room” would still rank as one of His Name Is Alive’s most inspired tracks—a song that manages to simultaneously address birth and death while also incorporating an orchestral snippet of “Joy to the World” in a way that somehow makes total sense. No small feat.
In the end Tecuciztecatl is an unusual treat because it manages to have it both ways. As an aspiring rock opera, the album is sufficiently bombastic, but it’s also surprisingly emotional. That the record can be both is a testament to Warren Defever’s kooky dexterity and his continued willingness to take big, weird conceptual risks—something that gets celebrated less and less within the increasingly homogenous landscape of what has come to be known as indie rock. Tecuciztecatl will certainly not be everybody’s cup of demon twin tea—and as albums go it is the very definition of a “grower”—but those willing to spend time with it will are to be rewarded with what is a sometimes challenging but ultimately strangely beautiful listen.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1AftlLl