Here is my abridged review of this amazing experimental pop record. It won't win any awards, but I simply wrote it while listening, so the whole thing only took me about forty five minutes. Allmusic has a two sentence review. I'm pretty sure I have more than two sentences. Point being, I hope someone stumbles onto this while looking for reviews, and can actually read about how it sounds.
Robot Factory - cranking and whirring buzzes, and a ghostly organ drones away in the background, unsure if it accepts the clanging percussion. Epic enters on bass and snare, tight and crisp, as the chaos of the off-kilter percussion envelops him. About a minute later...
A huge bass and drum hook up leads into a messy, strange organ and vocal led romp, with Epic pounding out a nice-Beefheartian backwards drumbeat. Huge build-up leads to an amazing saxophone break played by Jowe Head. "Border Country" is a standard guitar-led track that wouldn't sound out of place on Nirvana's Bleach. Dissonant, but glaringly catchy. Intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-instrumental bridge-verse-chorus-out. You don't get a standard structure from Swell Maps too often, but they pull it off fantastically.
"Cake Shop Girl" is a guitar and synth-led track, rather catchy if not for Jowe Head's low, mumbled vocal. It sounds like it came out about five years too early, and the same could be applied to the rest of the record. One can see how Jowe hooked up with Television Personalities' Dan Treacy later on in their careers, what with the synth lead and pop sensibilities.
"Helicopter Skies" is a barn-stormer, the sound of guitars cranked up as loud as fucking possible. Another pretty standard song, but the insane volume, four on the floor beat, and the lead guitar creaking and swooping around the background create a song rife with tension. Always a fan of great outtros, the boys start to break down to quieter state as Epic plugs along on his crashes.
"Big Maz in the Desert" and "Big Empty Fields" are the true jumping off points in this record. Structure is abandoned for pulse and texture. The drums and bass in "Big Maz..." shutter along in a clumsy Krautrock groove, as the rest of the band seemingly leaves their guitars against their amps to feed back, pianos are bludgeoned, and percussion of course is thrown around the room. The bass drops out, the drums lighten up, and the boom! the bombast continues until you're in the fetal position with your headphones on. "Big Empty Fields," on the other hand, is crafted in chaotic subtlety. Again, a bass and drum hook-up pins the song down, while guitar harmonics and lonely sax create an alien landscape.
You know, I love crazy noise music. I do! But what follows the smooth and calculated improvisations is "Mining Villages," which is literally the sound of someone smashing typewriter keys while another person makes silly noises for about a minute. Stereo-damaging nonsense. Quintessential Swell Maps.
"Collision with a Frogman" is yet another drum/bass instrumental, with dissonant James Bond guitar fragmenting out until the song is bathed in flange and falls apart completely, revealing a new track "...Vs the Mangrove Delta Plan," an improvisation that comes deliriously close to boring the hell out of me.
"Secret Island" comes exactly when it's most needed. A classic rock/pop structure is a welcome respite from the noise hailstorms I've weathered, and the song is freaking great. Can't make out any of the lyrics, but that's never the point with the Maps.
"Whatever Happens Next" besides being the band's status quo, is a militant drone with thick gauzy fuzz guitar and group vocals. It's the sound of a band stuck in a loop, and the tension involved in that song is unmistakable.
If you want to know what it's like to ride a flaming chariot down Route 95 blind-folded, "Blenheim Shots" will take you there chariot-free. An absolutely blazing two-chord riff is pushed to the brink the moment the song begins, with Nikki Sudden's words stumbling and breaking over the verse, suddenly overtaken by a organ-led chorus, only to have the verse consume all before it.
I really like this song. I mean, Desert Island favorite style. The lyrics finish up, complete with Nikki saying, "OK, stop," as the song continues to blaze around him, but the musicians take no note. They build to furious climax, as a strange piano pattern starts to emerge out of the mix, eventually overtaking "Blenheim Shots." "A Raincoats Room" ends the album with stark beauty, the sound of 4 out-of tune pianos hammering out the same descending chord triads.