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Viva L’American Death Ray Music - Behold! A Pale Horse

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Artist: Viva L’American Death Ray Music

Album: Behold! A Pale Horse

Label: Mexican Summer

Review date: Mar. 30, 2010

Listening to Behold! A Pale Horse is a lot like the parable of the blind men and the elephant. These were the guys, you might remember, who tried to imagine a pachyderm as the sum of its parts. A clutch of trunk meant the animal was long and skinny like a snake. A brush of the tusk and it seemed more like spear. The ears suggested a leathery fan. The legs were like the trunks of trees. And so on. What the blind men understood themselves to be experiencing depended largely on where they grabbed on.

Guessing the shape of Viva L’American Death Ray Music, too, requires a certain amount of mental flexibility. The Memphis trio — Nicholas Ray of (Limes, Golden Triangle and ‘68 Comeback) leads on guitar and voice, while Harlan T. Bobo plays bass and Jeffrey Bouck (Lithops, Polyphonic Spree) plays drums — refuses to be boxed into a category. In fact, they range so far over the range of possible sounds that it may require a larger sample to get any sort of handle on who they are.

For instance, if you’re a sequential type and drop in first for the opening track ("One Hour"), you might well be convinced you’ve latched onto a slab of Fall-ish ranting drone, the ferocity of the guitar (and general lack of keyboards) hinting at a Country on the Click-period B side. Or maybe a lost A-side, because "One Hour" is a damned good track. It’s got all the hallmarks of a Mark E. Smith triumph, boxy claustrophobic rhythms, cave-echoed production, a sense of barely reined in mayhem and lyrics transmuted through repetition from nonsense into gnosis.

Okay, it’s a Fall knock-off, you think to yourself, but a convincing one. Let’s hear some more of that. And like the blind man in the parable, you reach out again to test your assumptions.

They’re way, way off. The second cut, "I’m a Killer Yelo" (remixed from the band’s 2008 double LP Sangre Libre), is all dubby, skanky bass and rinky dink keyboards, slouching toward Kingston in a reggae-slanted, backward leaning indolence. It’s not just a shift in style from the first track, but a fundamental shift in being. The instrumentation sounds different. The voice is not the same. It is hard to believe that the two tracks come from the same band.

The same can be said for the third and fourth cuts. "Out of the Pink" is chilled and hollow-eyed and cloudily repetitive, a seven-minute venture into dark synthery, where Joy Division and Fad Gadget seem like the most obvious signposts. Then, with "Behold! Pt. 1," we emerge blinking into the sunshine, entering an airy, light-filled guitar meditation. All four of the tracks are fully realized and separate and all four have their appeal. Still, if there’s any relation between them, if the album progresses in any logical way from one cut to the other, it’s too subtle for me.

You can listen to Behold! A Pale Horse a dozen times — and enjoy each of its component tracks thoroughly — without coming any closer to understanding exactly what Viva L’American Death Ray Music stands for or what it wants to be. That’s only a problem if you allow it to be. Why not stay on the surface and enjoy the tunes without worrying about what sort of animal you’re dealing with?

By Jennifer Kelly

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