Monday, January 14, 2013

PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone: A Review

The biggest mistake one could make when listening to the new John Frusciante album would be to expect something that resembles his days with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. There are no Jimi Hendrix type embellishments like the ones found on the Chili Peppers’ biggest hit “Under the Bridge” or guitar-hero-styled solos like those found throughout Stadium Arcadium, his last album with the Chilis’ (2006). But that should be expected. Why would he have left RHCP in 2009 had he wanted to continue playing the same style of music he played for the past ten years?

That said, PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone is one hundred percent John Frusciante. It is the result of his experimentation with electronic music--a sort of musical Frankenstein that combines electronic drums, synthesizers, Frusciante’s characteristic grimy guitar tone, a sampler of his varied vocal timbres, and a guest appearance by Killarmy MC, Kinetic 9. Intentions seem good, but the unintended horrors of creating a new beast occasionally appear making you wonder whether he should have tested these new boundaries. And, when that doubt creeps in, you might head for the stop button but, rest assured, Frusciante will draw you back in with his keen pop music sensibilities before actually reaching the cd player.

According to a post on his website, Frusciante considers this album “Progressive Synth Pop,” adding that this genre does not explain “what [the music] sounds like.” Before hearing the album I had no idea what this meant but, after the first listen, I understood. While many tracks travel to far-out, different worlds, underlying connective tissue exists in each track but not always in the same form. Paraphrasing Frusciante’s explanation, the songs progress through different stages, often introducing a new electronic sound at each level, but the layers rarely, if ever, go beyond the threshold of too much.
            The intro track to PBX seems like a confirmation that Frusciante knows he’s created musical Frankenstein. With eerie screams that, at one moment, come from the right field of sound but then reappear behind you, it seems as if the screams are running from what they’ve heard like a warning of what’s to come. Accompanying these screams is a quivering synth that resembles a fearful voice and atonal pounding at a keyboard. After about twenty five seconds of this hair-raising sound collage the noise evaporates into an electronic melody with other layers being introduced gradually. And this general model, the progressive adding of new elements while sometimes subtracting others, sets the stage for the rest of the album. In fact, only two of the nine tracks seem to not follow his established “Progressive Synthetic Pop” song arc: “Ratiug” and “Sum”. These two tracks, and possibly “Mistakes”, also appear to be his most accessible, or commercially viable, songs on the album.
            Ryan Bray mentions in his review that Frusciante has developed a strong following of dedicated fans that will “let him off the leash some”, but this concession, an attempt to explain away the album’s potential success, presents a general misunderstanding regarding fandom and a misunderstanding of the audience of a review. First off, anyone who claims to be a “true fan” would buy the album, regardless of whether critics say it’s a flop. That’s what fans do. If you don’t understand, go talk to a Buffalo Bills fan. This means that anyone reading your review, Ryan, is either reading for entertainment purposes, or is curious about the work of an ex Chili Pepper. Remember: the dedicated fans have already bought the album, they don’t care what you think about it. By stating Frusciante has enough “good faith” with these fans, you’re implying the album is a flop which is untrue. It would be more constructive to either refer your readers to a more commercial John Frusciante album, or provide fair warning that it’s not for everyone, because that it certainly is not.
           Track three, “Bike”, of PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone begins with a descending wah-guitar line which lands on a clean-toned octave divided by the tri-tone and some hand drums. For those of you unfamiliar with what a tri-tone is, this sound used to be forbidden by the church and had the nickname of “the devil in music” for its dissonance. (The tri-tone is a common interval used in metal as well.) Continuing the dissonant tone of the song, Frusciante moves the tritones up by minor thirds three times to outline a diminished seventh chord. Though diminished harmony has been used since the inception of chords, to use a diminished progression in a pop song creates a very unstable feeling that could potentially make listeners cringe. Not to worry, though, because Frusciante lets your ears relax by balancing the diminished verse section with the more orthodox C# minor bridge sections before returning to the original progression, each time presented by a different combination of instruments. It is important to remember that the use of diminished harmony in a verse section of “pop music” is uncommon because many people feel a sense of uneasiness and tension when employing such a dissonant chord as the foundation of a song. And this is why I generally agree with many reviews that this album is not for everyone. I believe that those willing enough to seek out new, different music could appreciate the album, but, at the same time, anyone going into this album, as well as any new album, should also approach the music with an open mind. And this is a prerequisite some reviewers seem to omit.

For example, both Sim Campbell and Ryan Bray describe the album as “challenging” (Campbell using this descriptor twice) but with the negative connotation that “challenging” somehow equals bad or poor quality, that challenging means “not worth listening to”. While I would agree that the album challenges its listeners to accept a new musical amalgamation, this does not necessarily mean the album falls flat. Instead, I’d argue its innovation warrants the album a bit more flexibility when making judgments. Many of the world’s best musical artists--from Bach to Beethoven to Debussy to Frank Zappa--have met criticism for their innovations. Yet time and again, many of these new styles and compositional techniques have stood the test of time while the critics continue to perish and disappear. Now, I don’t wish to compare the music of Frusciante to the previously mentioned composers. Instead, I aim to point out that to describe music as “challenging” is more a reflection of subjective musical tastes--maybe even a snapshot of that era’s preferences--rather than musical quality.
            Seeing as how you’re reading a review of this album, it’s safe to assume you have at least some interest in it or John Frusciante. So how to decide on whether the album is worth buying? Before we get to that, my recommendation hinges on the assumption that you a) know how to make your own decision and b) know how to operate Youtube. If you’re capable of these two criteria, then I would also like to divide my readers into those familiar with any of Frusciante’s past work (including the Red Hot Chili Peppers) and those unfamiliar with it.

(1) Mike Piscitelli
To those with any familiarity, some of the songs resemble styles found on earlier albums. For example, the final track, “Sum”, sounds like it could have been a b-side to The Empyrean (2009), his last album before PBX. Frusciante’s familiar falsetto is also present throughout many of the tracks and probably most noticeable on the previously mentioned “Bike”. Also, though less prevalent than some other albums, Frusciante supplies a hearty dose of guitar playing with his new axe of choice: a Yamaha SG. While “Sum” and “Bike” could provide some comfortable connections to his past work, I’d recommend the tracks “Uprane”, “Intro/Sabam”, and “Guitar” to get a full picture of Frusciante’s work with “Progressive synth pop”.

For those of you unfamiliar with anything from the realm of John Frusciante, you’ve been missing out. But that’s beside the point. I’d first recommend the track “Ratiug” simply because its the most traditionally structured song on the album. It doesn’t hurt that Kinetic 9 adds a verse on the track which could appeal to diehard fans of the Wu-tang Clan, or even anything old school rap related. (Kinetic 9 has guest appeared on a few of Rza’s solo projects and is a member of Killarmy, an affiliate of the Wu-tang Clan.) The second track I’d recommend is “Mistakes” because it begins with a bass tone and rhythms taken straight from the eighties. The sound is almost corny, but the song travels in a different direction quickly so don’t get too anxious if you don’t like the opening few seconds.

Overall, I’d say Frusciante has found a sweet spot between accessibility and experimentation. For anyone with an open mind that is looking for something new, give the album a listen on Youtube and then decide yourself whether you want to support the artist by buying his product. I don’t wish to quantify or rate the album, but I will close by saying that there is no one complete track I am completely dissatisfied with. All the traditional songs are enjoyable and the few tracks that have ugly spots change character quick enough into something enjoyable that I forget I started out not liking that particular song. So give it a listen and decide for yourself. I doubt you’ll regret it.

(1) This photo is used under a creative commons license

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