Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Album Review: Agent Fresco - Destrier

It should go without saying, given the definition of the term, that you never know what you're going to get when you listen to avant-garde music. Sometimes, you get music that is just a step off the beaten path, and sometimes you get music that doesn't realize that someone has already cut through the forest, and there's no need to carry a machete and hack your way through a maze of tangled branches. What the most abstract music has going for it is that no matter how good or bad it is, the experience will always be interesting. It is often used as a cop-out, an artist saying "it's not supposed to be good, it's supposed to be challenging", but the more I think about it, the more it's a genius way of getting around their own limitations.

Over the course of fourteen pieces of music, Agent Fresco travels and traverses a wide array of sounds and feelings. "Let Them See Us" is the first of these what I will call scenes, and it opens with over a minute of pure droning noise before anything resembling music begins. That snippet of song is a piano and drums ballad, a tender offering with falsetto crooning that is not at all what I would expect a record to open with.

"Dark Water" follows with a mix of pop balladeering and indie rock chords, and that jangling guitar goes a long way to propping up an otherwise leaden song. "Pyre" is much better, with a stronger melody, and a main rhythm that is off-kilter enough to remind you that you're not listening to a normal record. The beat hesitates where you would expect the hit to come, twisting the time just enough to make you think about what you're hearing.

The title track then makes things even weirder, bouncing from chords to single bass notes in an instant, then segueing to a section that sounds like the bass amp has broken. Throwing that in between two melodic section is completely bizarre, and exactly what the whole point of this is.

As the record unfolds, I'm struck by two opposing thoughts. One of them is that Agent Fresco has the building blocks to something here. There are ample moments when they conjure a more interesting version of indie rock, and have the chops to deliver it. The other thought of mine is that the pursuit of being weird damages the record's potential. There is a good reason why conventions develop, and the fact that this record fails to adhere to many of them is what makes it so frustrating. A song will have an interesting melody, but then the music under it will be too skeletal to enjoy, or the song will shift without warning or any attempt at a segue into something radically different. It may be fun from an artistic perspective, but it gets annoying as a listener.

The other problem with the record is that it simply doesn't have much energy going for it. The vast majority of the music here is played with such a laid-back approach that it always feels like the kind of performance you get from a stage actor running through the material for the eighth time that week. Artistic music isn't always known for its passion, but a bit more fire would have made this far more enjoyable.

I don't want to sound like "Destrier" is a bad record. There are moments in these songs that are very good, and if the whole thing was streamlined just a bit, it could have been good. I realize that what I'm saying goes against the purpose of this record, but art and commerce don't always go hand in hand. This may be artistically valid, but it's just not compelling enough as a record people have to listen to.

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