Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Eternals, Heavy International

Download: The Eternals - "Patch of Blue"

The Eternals
Heavy International (Aesthetics)
Grade: A-

If the Liars ever get into dub, and start throwing down some scary-tight bass lines, they might sound an awful lot like Chicagoland trio The Eternals. On their third LP, Heavy International, The Eternals mix the robust bass lines of reggae with the radical politics of punk, and the experimental, genre-bending sounds of their best indie peers like TV on the Radio.

After a spoken-word intro (which I’m willing to bet is a sample from some uber-obscure cult classic just waiting to be re-discovered), The Eternals kick off the album with an odd, frenzied, and utterly hypnotic track called “The Mix is So Bizarre.” The shuffling drums, menacing bass and attack-dog vocal attack of singer Damien Locks is, initially, very off-putting. Also, the fact that The Eternals have very little regard for traditional song-structure doesn’t help their first-time listening cause either (by the time the flying-saucer mimicking keyboards arrive in the first jazz breakdown, you’ll be wondering just what the hell the band is going to do next).

The Eternals shift styles with ease so uncommon that it borders on frightening. However, trying to navigate their stylistic maze is also very rewarding. For example, while Locks may bark in one song, he may also settle into an eerie falsetto, as he does on “Patch the Blue.” The track begins with a rattling percussion sample and a staccato bass line, before harmonizing, echo-laden vocals sing an off-kilter melody. At the end of the phrase, the drums kick in with a syncopated snare hit and they send the snake-charmer groove of the "Patch the Blue" into overdrive, and the song stays that way for its duration.

As Heavy International marches on, The Eternals' music starts to make sense in its own fragmented way. When the record is enjoyed on a more casual level, the sensation of having the musical wind knocked out of you at any given moment becomes an adrenaline pumping experience. If studied more carefully, then Heavy International becomes as engaging for the mind as the trickiest of Sudoku puzzles.

If there was ever an album made for repeated listens, it's definitely this one. The problem, though, with this listening experience is that the album becomes exhaustingly unpredictable. When you hear songs for the fifth or sixth time, it still seems like you are just discovering them for the first time, due to the dense layering of the tracks. That, in and of itself, can be incredibly awesome and annoying.

It’s a good thing, then, when The Eternals slow down – and they do frequently on Heavy International’s more straightforward second half, because the listener can finally catch his/her breath. But just because the band slows down the tempo doesn't mean that The Eternals lose their musical focus. The band still manages to come up with some sounds that can only be described as being from another galaxy on tracks like on the title track or "Too Many People (Do The Wrong Thing)."

In essence, Heavy International is like listening to genre-hopping as a confrontational manifesto. Some parts may infuriate you, but they also will challenge you. And, ultimately, you are convinced by what you are hearing and take up the proverbial cause of The Eternals. Or, at the very least, you will be convinced of the fact that this is an amazing record.

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(Jonathan Graef)

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