El Alto – The Center of Accident One

El Alto
The Center of Accident One

Domenic Maltempi and Michael Quoma together form the band El Alto, and, with the help of three times as many other people, they have created the album The Center of Accident One. The first thing that strikes you with this CD is the elaborate, cool packaging. The outermost cardboard cover has been die-cut into the pattern of one of those old 5-1/4″ floppy disks. Inside that, you get a couple of more artistic-feeling pieces, one that is the “cover art” and one that has printed on it the track listing and credits. The band clearly appreciates good presentation.

Overall, the presentation in the music, however, somehow doesn’t quite match the packaging. It’s not a problem with the recording, as the songs all sound professional. I think my reservations about the album stem partly from the random minimalism most of the songs employ. That is, much of it sounds like random synth or guitar parts laid on top of fairly conventional beats (some digital, some analog), overlaid by storybook lyrics that often come off as absurd or just incoherent.

Of course, I could be missing something here. I’m not a poet, and I don’t know how to appreciate modern poetry. For all I know, this could be a lyrical goldmine to those less Philistine than I. But because the spare music seems to be there only as a backdrop for the vocals, and because the vocals become the centerpoint of so many of the songs, I imagine that appreciating the lyrics is the better part of appreciating the band’s intentions.

The electronic flourishes that accent these tracks share common ground with Lali Puna’s excursions. But this album feels more like bedroom music than does Lali Puna’s or Mouse on Mars’ output. It sounds to me like someone’s 4-track, late-night ideas brought to a studio for some fleshing-out. I found myself enjoying the songs that felt finished, the ones that felt more thought-out. For instance, “Epsi in Nepal” has an effective bassline, real drums, and a true structure to it. Likewise, “Oceans to Fry” feels full and composed, with its strings and acoustic strumming (not to mention its accordion-sounding background). It’s an instrumental.

More frequently, though, the music seems a little directionless or, if directed, then directed only at keeping time for the dada vocals. Which is fine. I did like the occasional ambient-sounding keyboards, and I preferred the slightly darker-sounding numbers to the more upbeat-sounding ones. Sometimes, as on “Georgia Knockout,” the music sounds upbeat while the lyrics sound ominous (“Put your head in the oven”). This can be an effective approach, but for some reason hearing El Alto do it just confuses me. Hearing what sounds like four or five disparate and unrelated sonic elements going on at the same time, such as on “Back for the Mangos,” makes my head hurt. And then El Alto hits you with a track like “Hey Ratso,” which works really, really well, sounding like some of Resplendent’s paranoid work.

So, in the end, I’m not sure what to make of El Alto’s work, but I feel like I’m not getting as much out of it as others might. I feel like, at some level, I just don’t quite “get it” at all.