Saturday, November 04, 2006

Langhoff Unpublished: Cesium 137's Intelligent Design

Another gem from the Metropolis goody wagon. I sent this off to Chuck shortly before he was canned, and he replied with a diplomatic "Probably not, but I'll hang onto it if space opens up." Understandable, as this review is long and nobody else has heard of these guys and Metropolis seemed not to care about this release at all, instead focusing their attention on Gary Numan's awful new album. When Harvilla came aboard, he said he'd try to run this review, and thus did I love him--but to no avail. Anyway, somebody oughtta hear this CD, cos it's one of my three favorites of the year... possibly. I still need to figure that out and listen to Pitbull. So, all you anonymous commentators who keep talking shit about Carman, go out and listen to Cesium 137, will ya?

Oh, and in re the final paragraph, I wrote this shortly after the '06 Grammy awards, at which U2's "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own" won Song of the Year and Green Day's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" won Record of the Year. I hate both songs.

Cesium 137
Intelligent Design

What if there was a godlike computer that could quantify impossible data? I’d first ask it: During my life, what song have I heard the most? If it’s the Friends theme, how much should I hate myself? Is “Bizarre Love Triangle” really my favorite song? When writing music, what’s the most beautiful chord that could possibly follow the notes I just put down?

Philly’s dynamic darkwave duo Cesium 137 seem to have accessed the computer for that last one--or maybe they are the computer. Whoever came up with the chords on Intelligent Design, their answer seems to have been, “Throw some 7ths and 9ths on top of some IV’s and vi’s, maybe a suspension every so often, and you’re set! Humans eat up that shit.” It’s true, I do. Cesium’s chords oscillate through waves of yearning, and every chorus is lovely, if not necessarily memorable.

I’m not fool enough to think these overwhelmingly diatonic chords and tunes are interesting, but the songs’ forgettableness isn’t usually a problem. Cesium’s point isn’t the chords so much as all the different synth parts providing notes for the chords. This is, simply, some of the busiest pop polyphony I’ve ever heard. Four or five repetitive patterns of laser blasts, alarm clock shrieks, and bass farts are usually flying around the melodies. The patterns often sync up with the basslines to provide those split-second 7ths and 9ths and whatnot that people, through centuries of musical evolution, associate with anguished prettiness. But as soon as the synth lines hit their marks, they’re gone, back about their business until the next pleasure moment locks into place.

Not that this is anything new. Counterpoint’s been around for-freakin’-ever; classical and pop musicians love exploiting the tension between independent horizontal lines and what those lines are doing vertically with one another. Since Cesium’s counterpoint uses diversely timbred non-melodic patterns more than hummable melody lines, it often feels like something new, but the difference is more one of quantity than quality. That is, I’m amazed they’re able to coordinate all the different elements of each song, without anything sounding extraneous or random. Each part plays its necessary part, and the precise interactions bring the songs to life as organic wholes, like beehives or something.

Take “Gravity,” which is not a scientific treatise! The bassline gallops out the Lone Ranger rhythm from Rossini’s “William Tell Overture,” only shifted a fourth of a beat earlier. When Cesium pair this up with the 16th note squiggly pattern speeding through the song, the composite sounds remarkably like Angus Young’s bouncy “Thunderstruck” riff, no doubt a big influence. Then there are the two different synth melodies--one a mirror of the vocal refrain, played by both thick techno chords and airy legato synths, and one a shriller filler during the verses. Over the top runs an ethereal line that performs the same function as the strings in a Johnny Mathis song. Put it all over the relentless cymbals and snares and the big old backbeat--there’s one in every song; the Cesiums clearly learned from Chuck Berry and Huey Lewis--and you get a whole mess of stuff that somehow coheres into a fine chipper melancholy.

I’m gonna go out on a limb and say Cesium 137 will never win a Grammy for Song of the Year. Based on the evidence of Intelligent Design, their songs divorced from instrumental context--the way you’d find them in a fake book--aren’t much. At least I can remember the chorus of that damn U2 song! But since Cesium’s music is all about production, performance, and intermeshing synth lines, tunes like “Gravity” and “Forsaken” should be a lock for ‘06 Record of the Year. “Forsaken”’s 1999-era drums, two levels of bass throb, and three revolving synth patterns swell around the climactic line, “Divine inspiration isn’t worth much these days,” which is more moving than anything in that idiotic Green Day song. I should now admit that I have no idea what these 10 magisterial songs are “about”. How much do I care? Let’s ask the divine computer…