VA: Quality is Punk

Don't be deceived: while the album title and aliases like Sicker Man might suggest Mirex-styled breakcore, this seventy-five minute collection inhabits a different universe altogether. What we have instead are ten meditative, scarred soundscapes (actually twelve, with two uncredited) that recall Set Fire To Flames and a less apocalyptic sounding Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Like those groups, the artists on Quality is Punk—blankrecords founders Tobias Vethake, Joao Orecchia, and Andreas Rosenhahn—embrace a style that's equal parts acoustic, electric, and electronic and generously incorporates natural field materials and string instruments. Interestingly, though the album presents itself as a compilation of tracks by those artists under five guises (Sicker Man, Mini Pops Junior, Neverland, Vincent, Fotomaton), a uniform sound reigns throughout, despite the differences between the individual pieces. That observation shouldn't be construed as an implied criticism of the artists' lack of stylistic individuality, more an acknowledgement of their simpatico commitment to an overall sound.

A haunting intro of harmonium, acoustic guitar, and soft bell tinklings sets the tone immediately, followed by a slowly congealing mix of electronic squalls, industrial noises, and muffled saxophone musings. Like phantoms drifting through the ruined embers of abandoned farmhouses, these funereal pieces are coaxed into life, nurtured with careful deliberation, the musicians resisting the temptation to use noise to attract attention. The mournful, dirge “Another Told-You-So” finds Sicker Man contrasting bright, Celeste-like glimmers with deep cello tones, the song's distorted vocals evoking early Labradford. While the material is consistently strong, Neverland's “Searching For Longing” stands out as perhaps the most impressive piece. It begins with the lonely resonance of electric guitar twangs, largely solo at first but then joined by electronic treatments, but it's the gorgeous sound of Jakob Enderlein's mournful cello that raises the track to a level that matches Godspeed at its most affecting.

A piercing blizzard blows through “Fell Like Drowning” but, for the most part, the artists eschew intense climaxes and grand theatrics for a more reserved, controlled sound. That doesn't mean the album lacks drama or tension as there's no shortage of either. The singular weakness is that this consistently strong album feels sufficiently complete as a ten-piece whole, so the two hidden tracks seem unnecessary and if anything diminish the album's cumulative impact, especially when the last piece's 'rock' beat element sounds so incongruously unsubtle next to the nuanced material coming before it.

March 2005