Feb 18, 2014

Music Review: "Angel Guts: Red Classroom" by Xiu Xiu

By Milos Markicevic

Xiu Xiu as a band has always messed with the long held notion that there exists a fine line between experimental and accessible, doing away with the idea of a line completely to instead make their own rules with each new album. Frontman Jamie Stewart has never shied away from any subject matter, no matter how disturbing or taboo, and as a result he's created some of most uncompromising and challenging music in the last decade. Angel Guts: Red Classroom is a direct continuation of this ethos and it's the band’s heaviest and most experimental album since Knife Play.

For the uninitiated, Xiu Xiu's music is dark and uncompromising. Vocally, Stewart shares a lot in common with Morrissey-- Morrissey being Dr. Jeckyll and Stewart his evil polar opposite. Think you've heard sadness in music before? Stewart makes musicians like Robert Smith and Morrissey look like the dressed up entertainers in Disney Land. If you're familiar at all with independent film, Stewart can be best described as the musical equivalent of director Todd Solondz (Welcome to The Dollhouse, Happiness). Both artist's unflinchingly challenge their respective audiences in a way that leaves you feeling a bit anxious and unwell. 

And anxious and unwell is how I felt while listening to Angel Guts--hell I was anxious just pulling the album out of it’s sleeve. To call this album harsh would be an understatement. Through the album you’ll be subjugated to manic screaming and sounds that seem to be ripped right out of a snuff film. Recommending Angel Guts to an oblivious listener would be like pushing a toddler into the deep end of the pool and watching him drown. 

One of the things that humanizes Xiu Xiu as a band is Stewart’s penchant at creating a vulnerability with his voice that is beautiful and moving-- few musicians ever come close to Stewart’s level in this regard-- and with that vulnerability we are able to emphasize, no matter how harsh the band’s music gets. Angel Guts lacks a lot of this vulnerability and is much more provocative. To use an example, one song is called “Black Dick” and the band recently unveiled an official video for it on PornHub (toting it as an early Valentine’s Day gift on their official website). 

Musically this time around, the band has gone straight up minimalist. In the album Stewart uses only a couple of synths and a drum machine, but the stripped sonic carnage created using so little is immense and probably the album’s biggest achievement. On top of this you also have Swan’s Thor Harris doing percussion (enough said). A lot of the songs on the album reminded me of no-wave minimalists Suicide and it's fairly clear they probably had the biggest influence on Angel Gut’s overall sound. Xiu Xiu doesn't hide their love of the band either, having covered “Frankie Teardrop” at numerous shows in the past.

In a way Xiu Xiu have gone off the deep end with their latest album. While I appreciate their willingness to experiment and push boundaries there's little on Angel Guts that I can say I actually enjoy listening to. But that may have been the band’s goal all along-- creating something provocative. If that’s the case then Xiu Xiu have won the game (be it by their own rules).

Grade: C

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