Way back in 1998 or so, when I had just begun writing about music, I was sent a compilation called Boston Underbelly. Released by Sublingual Records (a label that appears to have gone dormant circa 2001), the album brings together a handful of Beantown noisemakers, improvisers, or otherwise outsider practitioners of the sonic arts. Though I already had some vague notion of Neptuneís existence and the bandís use of self-made instruments, the comp was my introduction to their sound. Over the intervening years, Iíve come across the bandís releases from time to time, and hear the Neptune name uttered off and on, and seen the band live, but Neptune has always seemed to exist at the periphery of whatever circles I find myself in, their orbit rarely crossing my own. Save for inhabitants of Boston and the surrounding environs, I donít think Iíve been alone. This may, however, be about to change. After releasing 2008ís Gong Lake on Table of the Elements, Neptune have found a new home on Northern Spy, which counts Rhys Chatham, Zs, Bird Names, and Tom Carter among its previous or current residents. Whether this means that Silent Partner will be Neptuneís big appearance at the debutante ball, Iím not sure, but theyíre certainly wearing something new for the occasion.
For almost twenty years, Neptuneís constants have been guitarist and instrument builder Jason Sanford and a wiry brand of guitar-based rock, heavy on the clatter of junkyard percussion. Gong Lake had been a step away from the latter, but Silent Partner is a more dramatic departure. The bandís new lineup has stripped the sound down, the meaty bits pulled away to expose its rhythmic skeleton. Percussion and electronics do most of the work, with the guitar often used as a well-disguised garnish or left completely out of the mix. The opening segment of ďRest from BreathingĒ could almost be a Wolf Eyes track, and the images of the bandís gear on the back of the albumís digipak have far more mixers, electronics, and oddball implements than any of Sanfordís usual Frankenstein creations. In some of their past incarnations, I felt as though listening to Neptuneís music wasnít always as interesting as scoping out their instruments, that the albums Iíd heard didnít always have a sound that was as singular as the bandís visual presence. On Silent Partner, Neptune circumvents what could have been seen as their shtick, as well as part of of their appeal.
The mood on Silent Partner is dark. For all of its dissonant clang and serrated edges, Neptuneís former music was often, at its core, actually pretty fun. The hooks were juicy, the rhythms quirky and jerky in a way that made even the most sedentary of showgoers (Iíd raise my hand here if I werenít too busy nodding with my arms crossed) move. While Silent Partner is sometimes built on the same sort of beats, the albumís energy can make it tougher going. Sanfordís lyrics paint a pretty grim picture of life: ďCash MattressĒ seems to imagine the 1% as primitive animals, and ďCanine SpeciesĒ isnít exactly kinder to the rest of us. Past Neptune albums may have been no more sunny, but their vocals werenít so clearly out in front of the music. Admittedly, weíre not living out halcyon days here. Life, in a lot of ways, just plain sucks right now for lots of people, and one of artís roles is to speak the truth about the time in which itís made. Still, I canít shake the feeling that Silent Partnerís best tracks are the ones without a human voice at all.
There are many reasons behind a bandís change in style and sound. Sometimes itís a natural, unconscious reflection of the artistsí shifting interests or environments, other times a more pointed attempt to stay relevant, to mix things up, to avoid becoming stagnant after years of minimal growth. It can work nearly to perfection (Bringing It All Back Home), or not so much (Empire Burlesque), but if a band is to exist for very long at all, it almost has to happen. Were Silent Partner another iteration of Neptuneís usual sound, Iíd likely be equally nonplussed, if for totally different reasons, but that doesnít change the fact that I enjoyed my retrospective reacquaintance with some slices of the bandís catalog more than the actually listening to disc I was out to review.