Sunday, 9 February 2014

Album Review:Xiu Xiu – Angel Guts: Red Classroom

(Bella Union)

Xiu Xiu are not an easy group to pin down. The band, centred around front man Jamie Stewart, have gone through an ever changing line-up ensuring no two albums sound the same. Collaborating with artists like Grouper, Devandra Banhart and Michael Gira of Swans as well as taking unexpected turns, like last years album of Nina Simone covers. There are some common threads in his music. They write dark electronic pop songs full of bitter humour, dark subject matters, and self-deprecating shown with album titles like Dear God, I Hate Myself and Fag Patrol. All of this is evident on the group's new album Angel Guts: Red Classroom but its taken to an extreme. The title is taken from a Japanese erotic film from the seventies and the album's lyrics depict the Los Angeles neighbourhood to which Stewart recently moved unaware of its reputation for murder and gang violence.

Often Stewart would use a happy melody or acoustic instrument to add the juxtaposition of warmth to his lyrically dark songs but with Angel Guts he has limited his sonic palette to just analog synths, drum set and 1970′s analog drum machines. Cold analogue tones befitting a dystopian sci-fi film are dedicated to creating an unwelcoming atmosphere, a feeling of hopelessness and the sense of a problem that can't be solved.

The first track Angel Guts mostly compromises of a quiet field recording, like that barley audible hum that is ever-present in any city. It last for three minutes and shows that a) this is not an easy listen and b) this album captures a loneliness, that irony of being surrounded by people but having nobody to talk to. Stupid in the Dark begins like those aggressive creations of influential New York band Suicide. A drum machine beat gives form to the hurried rhythm as analog instruments become primal creatures, spewing bursts of harsh noises. Tracks like El Naco showcase Stewart's erratic delivery; part paranoid fever dream, part unhinged cry of terror. The overall effect is like a heady blend of early industrial music like Throbbing Gristle with the surreal and abrasive black melodrama of Scott Walker's recent output.

New Life Immigration tells of a double suicide, and musically and lyrically offers one of the more hopeful moments here. Unlike on the other tracks a way out is presented from fear and anger, a chance at peace is offered in the repeated line “We don't need to live be loved”. Almost anthemic, Botanica de Los Angeles stands out near the end of the album with its huge defiant stomp of a mechanical drum beat and rumbling bass line as a fuzzy lead line snakes its way around the mix.

Even though the album is made up of track that hang around the three minute mark this is not an easy listen. It may seem like I’m overstating how dark it is but there isn't anything redeeming in these tales of death and depravity though you do feel like these stories are coming through a character, his psyche battered and whipped into a paranoid frenzy, a victim of his environment or just an unreliable narrator. Angel Guts: Red Classroom is an odd listen but it does create a place, not one that you'd ever want to spend much time but it feels like Xiu Xiu gave their all to this concept and it makes for an interesting experience.

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