Jan 29, 2014

Music Review: "The Unnatural World" by Have a Nice Life

By Ian Cory

When Dan Barrett and Tim Macuga released Deathconciousness in 2008 it was hard to tell if they had any idea of what would happen next. Despite being the product of home recording on a shoestring budget, Deathconsciousness was by no means a humble debut. Sprawling over two discs, the record made its home in the grey area between post-punk, drone, shoegaze, industrial, and black metal while making no attempts to hide its use of Logic presets or Barrett’s roots in the early 00’s emo scene. Have A Nice Life’s “everything is distorted everything has reverb” aesthetic struck a chord and spread like wildfire through music forums like sputnikmusic, rateyourmusic and /mu/. In the absence of any real media coverage or traditional live promotion, fans of the band and its various side projects (all released by Barrett’s Enemies List record label) took on a cult like aura, bolstered by Barrett’s obsession with death and the afterlife. Have A Nice Life seem to recognize this because despite getting much more high profile press this time around (NPR! Noisey! Pitchfork!) their new record The Unnatural World finds the band digging even deeper into the abyss.

Waiting six years for the Have A Nice Life record to arrive in the mail and only getting eight songs, including three that have floated around the web as demos for years, may seem like a bit of a rip off compared to the double disc excess of Deathconsciousness, but The Unnatural World’s brevity isn’t so much a sliming down as it is a condensing. The duo’s suffocating production style remains intact, but while this sound was a matter of limited resources in the past, here it reads as a more deliberate creative choice. Like with their early material, it's often hard to tell if the wall of sound surrounding Barrett’s voice is being made by guitars or digital instruments, but whereas that kind of obfuscation was caused by excessive layering before, here even single sounds are difficult to place. Sometimes songs will feel like they’ve gotten louder without noticeably adding instruments or any individual sound increasing in volume. This only adds to the creeping suspicion that The Unnatural World is a haunted album. Barrett and Macuga’s voices wail in the distance while sudden bursts of unidentifiable noise burst out from behind corners and lights flicker intermittently across otherwise pitch-black tracks.

This kind of ghostly atmosphere should be familiar to anyone who has spent time with the Enemies List discography, but Barrett and Macuga are far from repeating themselves. Even one of the older songs, album highlight “Defenestration Song,” has been reworked significantly from its original release. The song bursts forward with more momentum than nearly any song the band has done before, driven by a Joy Division-esque bassline and eerie chant-like vocals. It is also one of the only songs on the record with a recognizable form. Most of the songs on The Unnatural World are purely linear, something that the band had toyed around with in the past but approach with a greater sense of confidence here. Some tracks, like “Music Will Untune The Sky” or “Emptiness Will Eat The Witch” feel more like extended ambient pieces than formal songs, each piling layers of harmonized vocals and drones before dissipating without the kind of obvious climax that the band might have included on Deathconsciousness. That Barrett and Macuga have become much more invested and deliberate with their atmospheric choices speaks to a change in the band’s mission statement from the last record to this one. On Deathconsciousness the goal was to plunge the depths of depression and make “the saddest album ever.” Here the aim is less introverted and more aggressive; this time Have A Nice Life simply wants to scare the shit out of you. And boy do they succeed. The Unnatural World is an incredibly unsettling listen, continuously pushing the listener out of their comfort zone and hinting at something even more fucked up happening just out of earshot. Even the most accessible and light-hearted song on the album, “Unholy Life,” a track that could conceivably be a lost track from The Cure, comes across as disturbing just from its contrast to the rest of the record.

Despite hitting all the marks that it aims at and moving the band in a new direction while retaining pretty much everything that made them great in the first place, it's hard to not feel slightly underwhelmed at the end of The Unnatural World. Part of this is by design; the final track ends abruptly and without warning, but it is also an inevitable consequence of the album having to follow up a lauded debut have after a long absence. But then again, Have A Nice Life’s effort to do something other than just indulge our need for sadness porn is worth more than a repeat performance from their first album. Listening to Deathconsciousness all the way through isn’t that far off from rewatching Melancholia for the fourth time or scrolling through sad blogs on tumblr at three in the morning as far as self-destructive art consumption goes. While it’s just as dark of an album, and the subject matter just as fraught with self-loathing, listening to The Unnatural World never feels like an act of wallowing. In fact, despite the claims of Enemies List’s most popular merch item, it’s kind of fun.

Grade: B+

No comments:

Post a Comment