Turning Lead Into Gold with The High Confessions
The High Confessions
Genres: Kraut rock, space rock, psychedelia
RIYL: This Heat, Popol Vuh, Sonic Youth
Super-groups are often not as good as the sum of their parts. So when Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth), Chris Connelly (Ministry, Revco, Killing Joke), Sanford Parker (Minsk) and Jeremy Lemos (White/Light) got together, they knew they had the daunting task of bucking the trend and putting out something phenomenal. Whether you see it as a success or not is ultimately up to you, but many elements do find a way to work.
First of all, if you’re a Sonic Youth fan, you shouldn’t be surprised as to how demanding this record is of your attention. This is going to be more in the vein of the challenging Bad Moon Rising than Rather Ripped. But if you’ve listened to any of the side projects of the other folks in Sonic Youth, you probably weren’t expecting it to be a breezy pop album anyway. Shelley isn’t the crown jewel of the output like you’d get with drummers like Damon Che (Don Caballero, Thee Speaking Canaries) or Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater, Liquid Tension Experiment, Trans-Atlantic). While they usually take the driver’s seat with their bands, Shelley knows how to intelligently play his parts where it doesn’t stomp all over the music and lets the others be part of the integral formula, much like he does in Sonic Youth.
That being said, none of the other guys are slouches either. There’s a lot of sonic attack here, with tons of electronics manipulation by Sanford Parker and Jeremy Lemos. This is especially evident on “Along Come the Dogs,” the 17 minute behemoth on the album. Shelley plays the most abstract percussion he possibly can, and you hear Parker and Lemos doing their thing with drone, spoken word speech samples intermingling, and eerie sound effects. As the drums fade, vocalist Chris Connelly returns to the forefront to give a soliloquy, with quiet sounds playing in the background. It isn’t until almost 6 ½ minutes into the song where Shelley returns with a vengeance. The track starts to resemble an extremely long version of SY’s “Starfield Road,” with its marching rhythm and odd sounds playing out in the background. It’s moody, it’s dark, and the ending hypnotic speech wrapping around the soundscape, only helps to serve its atmosphere.
The odd-numbered tracks on this five song effort serve as more accessible material, while the even ones are a little bit more of an emphasis on brooding. It’s much like listening to a split E.P. between two bands. The third track titled “The Listener” draws immediate comparisons to This Heat and King Crimson, with an interesting major vocal melody and harmony juxtaposed with a minor key piano line and bass underneath it. It may even make you think of a David Lynch-influenced, Beatles pop song. Demented, yet delightful.
The “poppiest” track on this effort though is the opener, “Mistaken for Cops.” The guitar melody is just way too catchy for such an avant-garde effort, showing you that the band is capable of writing catchy tunes even amongst all of the experimentation. This is the standout track on this record, and you’ll find yourself going back to it even after the album is finished. It evokes memories of bands like Polvo and Seam.
“Dead Tenements” has more in common with SunnO))) and Kayo Dot’s slower moments, with the heavy deep distortion and droning rumble as thick as it can get. But this is where the problems creep in. The main issue with a lot of this record is that the tracks just go on for too long. This is where the kraut rock homage can either be great for you, or turn you off. The idea behind kraut rock for those unfamiliar, is similar to post-rock, but features a little more groove and electronic elements.
That being said, a lot of great kraut bands like Can, Neu!, and Faust take those ideals and find a way to penetrate your earhole and stick with you all day. There’s not as much to be found here with The High Confessions, and due to the fact that they try to incorporate so many elements of music into a record that clocks in at just under an hour, it feels a little too unfocused. If they had gone the more accessible route, it might’ve worked out. If they wanted to go the abstract and drone route, that would also find its niche. But instead, we’re left with a band lacking pure identity for what they’re trying to do.
This is a noble first effort, although one has to believe that it could’ve been better due to the all-star cast. There are a lot of promising ideas unrealized, and some of the tracks drag on just for the sake of dragging on. “Along Come the Dogs” could do in 10 minutes what it takes 17 to do, and “Chlorine and Crystal” has no reason for going longer than 5 or 6 minutes. The length is more understandable for the 11 minute “The Listener” because it’s purely drone and should be played at maximum volume, but the mood just changes so abruptly from track to track that it’s hard to really settle in anywhere with this record.
Let’s hope that the band continues forging its path and finding a way to stay cohesive without being formulaic. There are a lot of brilliant ideas on Turning Lead Into Gold, but you have to do some alchemy to find it.