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Extra Life - Secular Works

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Artist: Extra Life

Album: Secular Works

Label: Planaria

Review date: Apr. 28, 2008

Every so often there's a record so accomplished that it makes most albums of its type sound ridiculous, and Secular Works is one of those. Extra Life's frontman Charlie Looker (who, in the interest of full disclosure, I briefly played with in Anthony Braxton's ensemble at Wesleyan University, although I've only talked to Looker a few times) has been involved with a number of interesting projects, including Dirty Projectors and the brilliant notated-noise ensemble Zs. One of Looker's lesser-known groups is a duo with guitarist Matt Hough called Seductive Sprigs, which lists as its influences "the Middle Ages, the 1980s and the future."

Substitute "math rock" for "the 1980s," and that's a pretty good description of Extra Life as well. Looker's melodies have far more to do with plainchant and other early European sacred music than with rock; they dart around unpredictably, often with multiple notes on the same syllable. Of course, wandering melismas aren't new in rock, but Looker's are tied to medieval and Renaissance music by their stair-step patterns and by the modal feel of Looker's melodies. (And in case the connection weren't already clear, the ending of "I'll Burn" is relatively straightforward Renaissance-style polyphony.)

Extra Life's ridiculously complex instrumental parts (played here by Looker on guitar and keyboard, Karen Waltuch on viola, Tony Gedrich on bass, and Zs drummer Ian Antonio – although, amazingly, Looker's touring band is Gedrich plus an otherwise completely different set of players who sound almost exactly the same) are sometimes quiet, sometimes brutal, but when they're at one extreme, there's always the sense that the other is a possibility.

"I Don't See It That Way" mostly falls into the "brutal" category, and it's just jaw-dropping. It's based on a handful of santoku-sharp guitar shards that appear over and over, but with subtle variations, and timings that are just about impossible to decipher. If it were just a technical exercise, it'd be ridiculously impressive, but the tricky timings are only one part of what the song actually does – it genuinely rocks, and its lyrics powerfully reject dog-eat-dog capitalism.

Most math rock now has more to do with what its practitioners are against than what they are for. I recently saw a math rock band that began one of its songs by quoting the opening of U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday," then stopping abruptly and charging into a completely unrelated riff. That's pretty typical. More often than not, math rock isn't about anything except its own (perceived) complexity and a kind of self-conscious irony that acts as a shield. You don't risk exposing too much of yourself if all you're saying is, "Check out this riff! And also, U2 sucks, ha ha!"

The thing with Extra Life is that their music is about 18 times more accomplished and complex than most math rock bands could ever hope to be. And yet their music isn't the least bit ironic, and its complexity nearly always sounds like it's in the service of some broader idea. Their music is a construction, not a deconstruction, and it's complex because it has to be, not because of someone's desire to seem accomplished by playing in 13/8. (You can trust Looker when he says he doesn't listen to prog.)

And so we get lots of lovely stuff, like the spectacular ending of the epic "This Time," which manages to sound celestial despite a rhythm that jerks all over the place. Or the deliriously self-loathing "See You At the Show," in which Looker spits, "The obsolete version of Charlie Looker is dead in a bathtub / Charlie Looker '07 owns the dance floor," with his vocals and guitar locked in a quiet but intense rapid-fire unison that sounds like the obsessive tapping of fingers on a table. Or the sprightly "The Refrain," which is a heroic update on the (medieval) troubadour genre – the song doesn't feature a lute, but it feels like it could.

Remarkable for its scope, depth and technical accomplishment, Secular Works is a devastating record that has the power to change minds, if only people hear it. Don't miss out.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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