When last we heard from Christopher Tignor, it was in the days immediately following the release of Tomorrow Becomes You, the third studio release under the Slow Six moniker. For most of the 21st century’s first decade, the New York-based band deftly towed the line between classical and popular music, taking the experimental dash of composers like Harry Partch and Karlheinz Stockhausen and suffusing it with the hypnotic ambience of 20th century minimalists like Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt. For those of us whose musical cultivation is as steeped in Brian Eno as it is in Beethoven, the idea of a group like Slow Six seemed positively utopian; classical training and technical mastery meets pioneering innovation and rock n’ roll cool.
At the beginning of 2010, Slow Six was gearing up to take their electroacoustic compositions on the road in support of their innovative new LP, hopefully increasing their fanbase beyond its New York roots. Then the fire marshal showed up at Tignor’s door and everything changed. The sudden need to up and leave after thirteen years of living and creating music in one space brought about a sea change for Tignor, who left the hipster enclave of Greenpoint, Brooklyn for the uncompromising environs of Mott Haven, Bronx. Like any musician whose life experiences parallels his work, Tignor formed a new group that was born out of the circumstances surrounding his move, vividly named Wires Under Tension.
Despite only possessing two core members – Tignor and longtime drummer Theo Metz – Wires Under Tension is a more inclusive affair than Slow Six, with guest appearances from a half dozen musicians that perform on a spectrum of brass and woodwind instruments. The resulting seven tunes on their debut possess the same dizzying layers of texture and melodic tension that were foundational ingredients of the Slow Six sound, but the music of Wires Under Tension is appropriately more wary and paranoid, thanks in no small part to Metz’s positively seismic performance on the drum kit. If Slow Six brought about some of the most storied variances between classical and rock music, then Wires Under Tension is truly a study in dichotomy; the compositions on Light Science waver between acoustic and electronic, funky and brooding, organic and processed, primitive and visionary. The resulting experience cannot be pigeonholed into any one genre or style – this is music far too circuitous to fit neatly into any post-rock definition.
The aptly named “Electricity Turns Them On” opens with the warped sounds of Tignor’s violin and a Fender Rhodes that are almost entirely camouflaged by liberal amounts of digital processing. An asymmetrical groove in 13/8 is established, with Metz employing everything from Indonesian bells to large plastic storage containers in his execution. The mood is one of bewildered urgency until the bridge arrives, when a change back to 4/4 ushers in momentary strains of relief and comfort. “Irreversible Machines” flirts with both 6/4 and 7/4 time signatures and introduces guest musician Phil Rodriguez, whose trumpet playing brings adds just a pinch of spice to a song which would otherwise come off as doleful. Metz’s drumming is mesmerizing from beginning to end, robotic in its precision but organic in its warmth.
The middle third of the album is its finest; “A List of Things to Light on Fire” is a composite of Tool’s “Ticks & Leeches” drum part, brass section riffing that recalls 1970’s funk, and jittery violin textures that approximate musical static. “Wood, Metal, Bone,” though the album’s shortest track at just two and a half minutes, is among the most stuffed with ideas – skittering string loops, bowed vibraphone bars, microphone percussion, and Metz’s best John Bonham impression. “Position and Hold” finds old samples of air traffic controllers mingling with nightmarish videogame sound effects, glockenspiel melodies, and a straightforward but no less intimidating moderate rock cadence from Metz.
Tignor throws a curveball with the final track, “Сказал, Сказал,” a title which, in his own words, is a “euphemism for ‘he said she said’ chit-chat.” For an album so frenzied and anxious, the song’s first half is shockingly devoid of steady rhythm; only the occasional thud of Metz’s bass drum and echoing chords from a harmonium provide a sense of movement. As the tune progresses however, it devolves into some of the most emotionally wracked ambience to be found anywhere on the album, with Metz’s drums going off like machine guns until nothing remains but the serene timbres of the harmonium.
Those who feel that vocal melodies, conventional songwriting habits, and arena-sized choruses are essential components of good music will likely be unsatisfied by Wires Under Tension – this is a cerebral and quixotic display of what can be accomplished when the focus shifts away from big hooks and pop music orthodoxy. Like their name, Wires Under Tension’s music is fraught with restlessness, and in a music industry that still generally rewards and promotes the familiar and commonplace, a little agitation might be just what we need.