Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Unified Alarm System is disorienting in its abstract electronic compositions

February 18, 2010

Friendly Psychics Music has a long history of challenging releases. They rarely make things easy for the listener, and that’s one of the things that attracts me to them. The releases are like good alcohol; whether beer, wine or other spirits, they all take getting used to before full appreciation can be had.

This, however, is not the case with Unified Alarm System‘s This Is Only a Test. While I don’t have scientific evidence to prove it, I’m relatively certain this is the longest FPM release ever, at fourteen tracks averaging five minutes each. The fact that it’s over an hour wouldn’t be a problem except that this is some of the most abstract music I’ve ever heard. Each and every track is composed of synthesizers, theremin, static, vocals, reverb and white space. The difference between songs comes in changing the amount that each individual element is featured in the track.

Although odd, those pieces aren’t entirely foreign. What makes this release so frustrating is the compositions, which are incredibly long, drawn-out pieces that sound like the beginnings of techno songs looped over and over. Almost every track begs for a thumping beat beneath it to fill it out. But we are never treated to that, and the album becomes a study in tension without release. It’s incredibly discomforting to listen to This Is Only a Test, because there is rarely (if ever) resolution to the moods presented. The overall effect of the album is disorienting.

Making things more confusing is the fact that this is one of the best-recorded releases FPM has put together. The soundscapes made are pretty hi-fi in their recording – it’s just that they’re obtuse, peculiar and off-putting hi-fi recordings. If this is the direction that FPM is heading, I’m pretty excited; they’ve kept their very idiosyncratic songwriting sense and upgraded the parts that took away from the success of that vision. I hope that these striking production values will be used in future FPM releases.

In all, this is a point on a larger FPM line rather than a stop on it. This is Only a Test is more than an hour’s worth of unresolved tension, and I’m not sure who signs up for that. But as a marker on the FPM line toward the future, this is a sign of good things to come. If FPM in general interests you, I would still point you toward Derecho’s latest.

Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.

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