Phosphenes is one of those rare albums that melds instruments and styles into a concoction that defies easy categorization and still succeeds at what it attempts. From the driving, headlong rush of “Mortal Wombat” to the contemplative soundscape of “Go Where Airplanes Go,” Imperial China continually hits the mark on this debut album.
Consisting of two multi-instrumentalists and a drummer, Imperial China has expanded on its 2008 EP Methods and has put together nine new songs. Inventive without being self-conscious, Imperial China plays its material with a confidence that belies its status as a relatively new outfit. Opening with a spare beat and an aggressive, choppy guitar line, “All That Is Solid” kickstarts the album with layers of rhythms — a common conceit on Phosphenes. The guitarwork that follows comes in short, sharp bursts, laid down on top of a slippery bass line that punctuated by pauses for breath. By the time of the bridge, the song has built itself into a fireball. Credit goes to DC stalwart Devin Ocampo for bringing out the band’s live sound and energy in a studio setting.
Most tracks make use of odd electronic snippets, sometimes looped and sometimes played as submerged melodies. “The Last Starfighter” begins with some backwards sampling and moves into a spare drum-and-keyboard combination that’s a little ominous (and made more so by the hyper, dublike bassline that creeps in after a few measures). It isn’t until a couple of verses that the song breaks into new sections without ever returning to those verses. Its constructed linearly, with some passages upping the syncopation and others returning to a center. “Go Where Airplanes Go” spends much of its time with only ambient keyboards and samples, with distant vocals. It becomes increasingly spacey as the vocals echo from ear to ear against steady, martial percussion. “Invincible” has a creeping, alien texture to it. Its high-then-low bass runs move out of phase with the 4/4 backbeat and repetitive, warped background samples. It’s best listened to with headphones: there are vocal subtleties you’d miss otherwise. The mix of 3/4 and 4/4 times across instruments only adds to the song’s tensions, which are broken by machine-gun bursts of guitar.
Although not necessarily a dance song, “Bananamite” would be a natural choice for DJs. It’s got syncopation on top of a steady bass drum, more dub-type bass, and spirited off-time vocals — reinforcing the emphasis on rhythmic complexity. “Mortal Wombat” works in a similar fashion. Its more unhinged, though, and more post-punk than most of the record. The relentless marching of its looped sample recalls Course of Empire’s “Infested,” but the playing is more insistent. There’s a lot of guitar-effect wizardry on “Mortal Wombat,” and on Phosphenes generally. Its subtle and confounding, to the point of making you question how they get these sounds from their guitars. Instead of making these unusual sounds the centerpieces of its songs, however, Imperial China just throws them in for short runs and leaves them for dead. It’s a testament to the number and combination of ideas on the record that the band never beats you over the head with any of its original statements: it just drops them out there and moves on. More remarkable may be the fact that the band consistently pulls of all of the album’s instrumentation- and idea-switching when it plays live.
Many of the modes of composition and instrumentation come together on the kaleidoscopic instrumental “Corrupting the Grid,” perhaps the apex of the album. How often do instrumentals have that kind of focusing effect and staying power? It’s by turns nuanced and pummelling, straightforward and oblique, arty and accessible. It’s where This Heat may have landed had it kept making music into this century. Again formulated linearly, it never lets you predict its next move. The same can be said of the album as a whole, actually. It’s a rare treat to come across an album so full of surprises that flow organically from one to the next.