Akron/Family have always exhibited two personalities as a band, it seems. Each of their albums, with the possible exception of their 2005 self-titled debut LP, features sounds that range from the exceedingly quiet to the almost unbearably loud, from simple a’capella chanting to overdubbed blasts of noise, from one-chord drones to complex free flights of harmonic progression. This is an overly schematic view, perhaps, but it must be said that it is the most noticeable trait of the band’s work to date.
At their best, the band make productive use of the tension between minimalism and complexity, between noise and quiet pensiveness, resolving disparate impulses into forceful songs. At their not-quite-best, they threaten to dissolve into entropic grayness, a sort of free-jazz lack of drive (more noticeable at their live performances). Their quieter songs on their first albums from 2005 exhibit a similar lack of drive; the interest there seems to be more pensive and sensitive, but that doesn’t play to the band’s strengths as musicians. Those strengths – incredible timing, intonation, and force – manifest more clearly in the louder tracks.
This is not to say that the quieter, more pensive tracks aren’t good – they are – but Akron/Family are simply superb when working with energy and force, and when you have extraordinary ability in an area, spending time doing what so many other bands do feels almost wasteful. I always got the sense listening to the band’s first four records that they were right on the edge of making a truly extraordinary album, if only they could figure out the most effective ratio of quiet and loud, the most effective sequencing of energy and dissipation, and if they could figure out how to keep focus and not be sucked into the whirlpools of inertial freedom that they sometimes had been before. Well, Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free (2009, Dead Oceans) is that record. It is nigh-perfect in every particular: Akron/Family have blended the drive, the force, and the gentleness of their previous records in just the right proportions into a coherent statement of both anguish and hope for the times.
[Author’s note: as this album is Akron/Family’s most coherent set to date, it feels wrong to move through it in any other way than as a whole. Think of the (rather long-winded) summary to follow as something like a live diary of the record, I guess].
The album opens with “Everyone Is Guilty”, the kernel of which had appeared in numerous live performances the band had given during the creation of the record. A single organ line with percussive bell leads into a driving groove as the drums come in. Immediately notable in comparison to their previous works is the presence of the recording; the drums are right in the listener’s ear, gently pushing, forceful, less subsumed into the mix than on previous works. The primary lyrical impluse of the record – repetitive and direct mantra – is also immediately apparent. “Everyone, everyone, everyone” is the cry, four times over, by primary vocalists Seth Olinsky (who also plays guitar) and Miles Seaton (bass) in standard Ak/Fam gang-vocal style. Layered string parts filter in underneath before everything drops out save for one organ octave and drums as the gang vocals continue.
And then the bomb drops. On the downbeat, as Mr. Olinsky and Mr. Seaton scream out the word “speak”, the band puts into motion their entire apparatus. The timing here is simply perfect; the entire band hits at once. It is a wall. Everything contributes: volume, reinforced by perfect intonation and just incredible guitar and bass tone (the comparison to the sound of Yes noted quickly and accurately by numerous reviewers), and hammering drumming. As the song continues, structure becomes apparent. Tropes are grouped into repetitions of four. But just as things start to become a bit aimless, the entire thing shifts into a lurching, desperate, slow march, complete with trumpets, wailing saxes, and tumbling guitar lines. The old groove eventually returns, though, with “Everyone” again the word, and strings and horns pulling out plaintive, lush chords. It is a perfect overture, this track, building anticipation, leaving everything unresolved.
The curtain drawn back, the band settles into the next track, “River.” Lyrical themes begin to emerge: concern with environment, the natural world, and one man’s relationship to it are on evidence. Akron/Family have often delved into this material before, with songs about oceans, seas, forests, dolphins. “River” establishes the fact of the symbiosis at work, the interdependence of people and surroundings, that forms the basis of the album. Sung statements of “You are no longer river to me…” weave in between some of the most sublime countrified picking that Akron/Family have done yet. This picking falls over snare drum military marches, which, along with the tempo and some whistling, give the whole thing a sense of explorative adventure, a parade of youthful meandering. If Henry Hudson wrote songs, they would be like this.
The production is absolutely key here, as well. Never before have Akron/Family generated thickness in quite the same way. Before, they would work with few instruments and rely on volume for force and size. On Set ‘Em Wild, the production is lusher, the arrangements deeper. Strings, horns, guitars, shakers, basses, drums, organs are all on display. It is a testament to the work of the engineers that, despite this complexity, the stereo spectrum is never overwhelmed on any track. The sound is wide and deep; the sound is vast yet immediate. Non-traditional sounds play a large part on the album as well, whether it is the crackling of fire on “River” or the sounds of birds and nature in between tracks.
“Creatures,” track three, shifts the tone considerably. The youthful march of “River” gives way to almost completely electronic arrangements in the vein of something The Flaming Lips might have made ca. 2001. Synths predominate, flutes are audible in the back right distance somewhere, and the occasional horn line (that quotes a melody from “Future Myth” on the bands 2005 split with Michael Gira) comes in. The track eventually fades out with a simple acoustic guitar that fades into the night sound of crickets, a sound that forms a bridge to the next track, “The Alps & Their Orange Evergreen.” Olinsky’s acoustic guitar and harmonica start things off, and when the vocals come in, singing a tale of starting over, trying to forget, it is incredibly tender. The song rolls out, gradually working in bass, horn lines, and finishing on the repetitive line of “Things that are still/sometimes they appear to move.”
What is important here, it seems, is that whereas on previous albums, the quiet song here is not so quiet that the momentum of the record dissipates. The dual personalities of the band have given birth to a wonderful blend, a continuous forward energy that can be both subtle-tender and simple-forceful. This stems from a focus on the energy of the song form, I think. Previously, Akron/Family’s concern with atmosphere ultimately weakened their songs. They put the atmosphere cart before the song horse, I think; this can work, but sitting on the fence about it doesn’t really work. Here, they’ve focused on the songs, letting the atmosphere spring from the musical and lyrical forms and from the production values. On the quieter tracks, Olinsky and Seaton still sing out, rather than singing inwardly in a bid for gentleness. The result is potent.
And it continues. The album’s fulcrum, “Set ‘Em Free”, follows. Another gentle acoustic track, acoustic guitar, two lap steels, and bass, along with some organ and background vocals are all that’s in play. “Set ’em wild, set ’em wild, set them free…set them up / and let them be their own release”: the concern with the natural world continues. “You cannot win…you cannot lose, so go ahead and set ’em free.” The track manages to be both layered and simple; it is direct, it is beautiful in its lack of pretense. It is lush but not overbearing.
“Gravelly Mountains of the Moon” follows. When the vocals come in, the tone shift is palpable, and at first it feels like a misstep. The inward singing of the band’s previous quiet works returns, and the words (particularly the phrase “uterus holy”) ring hollow in their poetic dimension, following as they do on the heels of five direct lyrical statements. The shift feels a little forced, the tension unproductive. However, it does not last long, as the fancy instrumentation and words give way to one guitar and a simple vocal style again. “Live a life and let others talk about it / They will if they can / Get on TV, that is / A glowing representation of themselves.” The line that follows steps the song up a key, and brings the work back into the realm of repetition and force: “Prove me real / prove me real / prove me REALLLLALALALAYEAHHHHH” – and then just a wall of force and volume. The crescendo is startling, thrilling; it’s like being launched into space. “Geometry of self / Geography of Else” is the mantra now – as electric guitar, bass, and drums blast a waltz-time wall of skronk and freakout at maximum volume. Gentle meditation on the natural world has given way to ecstasy and desperation as horns as Olinsky, Seaton, and drummer Dana Janssen repeat the phrase “translate to get right”, pleas to break down the barrier between self and else, self and other, the sensorium and the surroundings.
This is the impulse behind the music, too. At their best, Akron/Family strive for ecstasy, that state of being where all sense of unity of the self gives way, borders fall, and the self and the other blur into a new unity. This is viscerality, orgasmic being. The mind loses control of the body, the spinal cord takes over, limbs move and shake, eyes shut tight, breathing intensifies. This, THIS, is the tension and the release that Akron/Family do better than just about any band working, and this is the tension that features so strongly on this record, interspersed among the gentler moments of articulation. The minimalist impulses of repetition, are married to a sense of maximal force, and the sound lifts up and off the ground. The barriers between thought and impulse, between human and animal, between human and nature, are threatening to vanish under duress.
It cannot, of course, last. Ecstasy never does. Akron/Family know this, and they usually do a fine job of “coming down”, as it were. The energy must dissipate, and in this case, the guys, spent, put in a final plea for participation: “Put me in / And let me run with the ball – ha!” This is the laugh of the exhausted, the falling back.
Out of this exhausted state floats a dream: “Many Ghosts,” which starts with softly plucked strings and celeste. The mix is more sparse, and the imagery is that of reverie: “Leap from the mountain / fall to the sea”. This track, calm, sparing, spacey, provides a necessary respite. However, like the frenetic passion of “Gravelly Mountains”, this cannot last. The dream becomes skronk nightmare in “MBF”. The polarity reversed, loud screams, dense walls of formless guitar, and frantic drumming prevail, until a final scream caps everything off.
The band awakens to “They Will Appear”, which begins quietly with a single organ note, bass pulse, and one-note guitar line. The lyrics are back to a plea to escape from the situation (“We want out of this maze”), and the harmonies thicken, the volume steps up. It is time for the “chosen song” – thunderous alternating major and relative minor chords under the words of Black Elk – “They will appear – behold!” Pleas of previous tracks have given way to incantation, still desperate, but assured, and as boisterous as ever. The chants continue as the track winds down, Janssen’s pounding drums fading out, leaving just guitar and the vocalists.
The final two track on the record are a matched pair, both understated, both in the same key, both hopeful, both future tense. On “Sun Will Shine”, one phrase is repeated over heartbeat toms, spacey guitar arpeggios, languid strings: “Sun Will Shine / And I won’t hide”. Horns begin to weave in, and then the band wash out the whole thing in a burst of white noise, horns floating away to the back of the mix. All goes silent before the horns fade back in with childlike enthusiasm – it’s playing for playing’s sake – “Auld Lang Syne” is in there, renewal and enthusiasm the theme. As the horns fade out, a single piano fades in with steady chords, and everyone’s singing the album’s final refrain. It’s a hymn, lifted to the sky four times: “Last year was a hard year for such a long time / This year’s gonna be ours.” The album has come full circle: what started off as an accusation and a cry for help has concluded in forgiveness and assurance.
It is this thematic/fanatic devotion that makes Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free Akron/Family’s best record to date. The inconsistency of previous efforts stemmed not from too much experimentation or shifts in tone (this album is both experimental and varied), but rather from a lack of focus and a lack of direction. The band have never sounded as focused both in structure and production as they do here. Olinsky, Seaton, Janssen, and their horn and string-playing friends sing and shred with intent, rarely if ever timid, and they execute with skill and power. Whereas previously their energy always threatened to dissipate, here they channel it into a solid stream. The production reinforces the strength and lushness of the arrangements. No track ever feels messy, even when overwhelming. Reverb and the recording spaces give the tracks depth from front to back, complementing the full use of the left and right channels. All of this results in lush soundscapes (listen with headphones and the music will, well, it will wash over you, clichéd as that may sound). And it results in the best album Akron/Family have made yet.