Since its genesis in 2002, Brooklyn-based collective Akron/Family has been lumped into the freak folk genre – essentially just another ambiguous tag used to categorize those with a jones for suffusing acoustic music with a touch of psychedelia and the avant-garde. By melding these two disparate tastes with a calculated desire to be evasive, Akron/Family exhibits both the quirky affability of Animal Collective and the apocryphal declarations of The White Stripes.
On LP No. 5, the undertones reach new heights of esotericism, meaning that those unfamiliar with the band’s backstory are likely to think that they’re getting involved with some heady Coheed and Cambria spinoff. Indeed, with the astrological implications of the album title and the Far East mysticism surrounding the record’s germination (written in a cabin built into the side of an active volcano on the island of Hokkaido, Japan), no one would be faulted for thinking that Akron/Family had gone the way of prog rock pomposity. The music, however, tells a much different tale; while aberration is certainly a core element of the S/T II experience, the record is so much more than just a bloated collection of twisted time signatures and virtuosic showmanship. There’s drum circle percussion, fuzzed-out riffage, New Age-y field recordings, Steve Reich-inspired minimalism, pristine three-part harmonies, and Orient-referencing pentatonicism – and that’s just the first six tracks.
It may sound like the perfect recipe for distention, but remarkably, Akron/Family avoids sitting on any one idea to the point where it risks becoming superfluous. While this is an achievement unto itself, it pales in comparison to how adroitly the group maneuvers between them; at times, it even becomes possible to forget that these 13 songs are the work of just one band. With this in mind, there’s something to be said for the Akron/Family hierarchy – namely that there is no hierarchy. Seth Olinsky, Miles Seaton, and Dana Janssen are all multi-instrumentalists who, in blurring the delineations of a rock band’s typical chain of command, create opportunities to experiment and explore without limitation.
For all of its boundless energy, S/T II can still more of less be separated into halves, with the skyward trajectory of “Light Emerges” forming the demarcation between the frenzied joy of the album’s first half and the tender reflections of the second. “Silly Bears” gets things underway with bonfire chanting and a searing guitar melody. A song that seems like it’s about doppelganger Poohs competing for honey may come across as a cloying gesture, but the gorgeous vocal harmonies and raucous interplay of the guitars and drums renders it irresistible. “So It Goes” melds classic rock guitar melodies with cooing falsetto vocals and a plucky performance from the rhythm section. “Another Sky” pits a harmonized guitar and bass hook against handclaps, vaguely spiritual lyrics (“Enter in / first light of the morning”), and a looping pentatonic scale. Only “Islands,” with its mollifying lyrics (“I wanna be on an island / off the coast of Mexico / there’s an island with tropical sand and boats”) and lush instrumentation, momentarily stalls any sense of ardor. Such a subdued number might seem premature (it’s the second track), but it’s also one of the LP’s most affecting, regardless of sequence.
On the other end of the spectrum – less Shinju TNT, more cosmic birth – we find tunes like “Fuji II,” “Canopy,” and “Creator,” all of which find Akron/Family operating on its mellowest setting. For the first two of these tracks, the vocals even take on a Wayne Coyne-esque fragility, particularly on “Fuji II” where the words – “We’ve been living underground / in a city in the cold / we were dreaming of the springtime / we were perfectly growing old” – are sung with world weary gravity. “Creator” brings the sprawling album to a close with a fittingly grandiose gesture, an amalgam of droning strings and trickling piano arpeggios bathed in reverb. It’s times like this when you have to wonder if the album’s alleged origin (again, that cabin near the Japanese volcano) had a more significant impact on the trio than its recording location (an abandoned Detroit train station).
Still though, nothing comes close to matching the intrigue of S/T II’s central work, “Another Light.” What starts out as an exercise in Steve Reich minimalist percussion, Japanese melodicism, and vivid nature imagery (“Catch a glimpse of a bird’s eye / stoic stance and stoic cries / fill up mason jars with fireflies”) gives way to a shout-from-the-roof-tops outro of wordless vocals, galloping drums, and sparkling shards of guitar. It might actually be the best song Animal Collective didn’t include on 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion.
Akron/Family II might be too scattered with divergent concepts to capture the attention of the masses, but in this still very young 2011, it should rank among the most ambitious and rewarding listens of the year. And don’t worry about getting hung up on the cumbersome song titles or the meaning of the album’s name. As the band said itself in a recent press release: “This album is titled S/T II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT. We have no idea what that means.”