Wednesday, December 26, 2007

2007 in Review: The “Welcome Back, Old Friend” Award

This award; in honor of excellence by a talented artist who was once awesome, then sucked, and is now awesome again; goes to:

Grass Geysers . . . Carbon Clouds
Touch & Go

Godwin’s Law states that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” Applied to conversation with me, the longer a conversation grows, the probability of a discussion of Brainiac approaches one. Brainiac were a short-lived band from the 90’s who either brought punk sensibilities to experimental electronic music or the other way around, and no one can really tell which. Their first album was a forgettable punk record with some synth on it, but when guitarist John Schmersal joined the band before “Bonsai Superstar,” everything turned to gold. He and singer/guitarist/synth-guy Tim Taylor brought out the best in each other and turned out crazed, charismatic rock music like the world had never heard before, nor has ever been matched since. Then Taylor died, and put an end to more potential than I can really bear to consider.

A couple of years later, Schmersal put together Enon, originally with a couple of guys from Skeleton Key. Their first album, Believo! (which was recently reissued by Touch & Go and you should get it) took a less convincing synth/guitar dynamic from Brainiac, but augmented it with the stomping junkyard percussion from Skeleton Key and made it into something interesting and unique, if you could silence your expectations. And then, for whatever reason, Schmersal replaced those guys with Toko Yasuda from Blonde Redhead, and they put out the utterly fucking BORING High Society. However much I tried to love it, there’s just nothing to it. Hocus Pocus followed, and that was even worse. John Schmersal, the guitarist who had stood poised to revolutionize rock and roll, was lost in the wilderness with a vague memory of having done something cool before and trying to get to it through this haze of crappy pop music. The betrayal was too much. Have you ever had one of those friends who you love dearly, and then he or she gets into a relationship with someone with a completely toxic personality and their life becomes a trainwreck and after a while you can’t talk to them anymore and you can only watch in horror from afar? That was my relationship to John Schmersal. I was covering my eyes and watching through my fingers.

But between then and now, something changed. I don’t know what, but it’s like he woke up. He remembered, “Oh, I’m John Schmersal, and I can play guitar like a fucking fiend, and I know how to make some of the kinkiest noise around. My fingertips are electrodes and I can shoot lightning bolts from my eyes.” No more are the somnambulist afterthoughts like “In This City” and “Star in the Gates.” Instead, the album kicks off right away with a crunchy, fuzzed out bass line and a beat with an actual pulse. After one verse of frantic falsetto, he rips into this dirty little guitar solo and all you can think is how grateful you are that he’s writing songs under two minutes again. Listen to “Those Who Don’t Blink:” you’ll be so shocked that this is Enon that you will actually be physically incapable of blinking. It’s not a perfect record, by any means: Toko Yasuda’s voice tends to conjure up unpleasant echoes of 90’s indie-friendly J-pop (you’re probably okay if you just skip over “Sabina”). But I’m not going to completely write her off as a bad influence anymore, because they’ve finally figured out the dynamics where she can bring this sugary pop element to the mix, and Schmersal can pummel it with dirt and rage as much as possible within the structure.

It’s still too conventional to be Brainiac. No one will ever be what Timmy Taylor could have been. But I feel like at least with this album, John Schmersal is living up to the talent that he brought into the creative mix that made them one of my favorite bands. I put this album on just so I could see how bad it was. I could have received no happier a surprise than bringing this old friend back into good standing.

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