Supersystem Keep the Good Stuff Coming
Poor Grant. I was supposed to turn this in to our trusty reviews editor two weeks ago so it could coincide with the record’s release. But since this bad boy arrived in the mail, I’ve been trying desperately to wrap my head around what makes A Million Microphones tick. At first gander, you might mistake Supersystem (formerly El Guapo) for one of the many faceless dance-rock bands of the last half-decade or so — lord knows I surely did.
While the DC quartet certainly share a great deal of sonic real estate with groups like Enon or the Rapture — which, depending on your tastes could make you cringe or salivate (this reviewer sides with the former) — on the group’s second release under their new moniker (fifth if you include the three records they released under their old name), the group displays a rather canny knack for song craft. That simple fact makes it hard for me to dismiss the group even though, oh good lord, do I hate this kind of music.
Supersystem have got me thinking of what their strategic brand of “rock, punk, pop and dance” (says Wikipedia) means in a larger context. With regard to rock and roll (or at least specific varieties), each decade has had a stylistic imprint of sorts. Whereas a great deal of rock n’ roll released in the ’60s was filtered through a psychedelic colander and a lot of ’80s records came packed with more bad reverb than you can shake a Tiffany record at, I’ve come to the conclusion that the way Supersystem sound most of the time is simply a product of the times, not because of substandard songwriting.
In other words, songs like the opener, “Not the Concept,” scream new millennium dance-rock the way that the Byrds might conjure images of paisley shirts and love beads or Mudhoney might bring to mind flannel shirts and long johns. Which is to say that I think the group’s songs are generally of decent quality, but because I’m hearing the band through the lens of a million other dance-rock bands, I gotta deduct a few points for unoriginality.
The fact that the group’s been around since 1997 brings their score back into the positive zone — who knows, maybe all those faceless bands co-opted their pose from old El Guapo records (sorry but I’m unfamiliar with the band’s early output). You can see why I’ve been having so much trouble making up my mind about this record.
Let’s talk more about what makes Supersystem a cut above the rest: the aforementioned “Not the Concept,” while largely formulaic in approach (god, do I hate those quasi-atonal dance-rock vocals!), features some nifty compositional goodies. For instance, check out that simultaneously ascending and descending video game synth line at 1:18. It kind of reminds me of the music that would play when you fell down a chasm in Super Mario World. And let’s face it: that chorus is catchy as hell.
Elsewhere on the album, “The Only Way It’s Ever Been Done” sounds like a Beyonce track being hammered out by nerdy white guys and “Earth Body Air” could be a long-lost Neptunes beat, strangled and retooled by whatever British pseudo art-rock band’s getting hype these days.
Ultimately, I’m much more intrigued by the tracks on A Million Microphones that take stylistic detours without compromising the group’s pop sensibility, which is certainly their strongest suit.
Take “Joy,” with its hypnotic groove and spooky 13th Floor Elevators-esque guitar line or “Eagles Fleeing Eyries,” which starts out with an honest-to-goodness eagle cry. The latter features a lovely harp-plucked melody and a vaguely psychedelic vocal, while rhythms create a thoroughly danceable pulse that’ll keep any self-respecting hipster on the dance floor. Later on in the track, a squelchy synth mimics the harp in a part straight out of a Univers Zero album. The track illustrates perfectly why Supersystem have much more to offer than your average Art Brut album.
“Prophets,” my personal favorite track on the record, does sound a great deal like Emergency and I-era Dismemberment Plan but with a chorus propelled by a gaggle of percussion (and a vaguely island flavor to boot). I can’t help but drop whatever I’m doing and shake my ass. All my friends who listen to nothing but out-of-print Xenakis LPs and obscure Burmese folk compilations are definitely going to make fun of me for this review.
A Million Microphones is literally bursting with insanely catchy tunes, all wrapped up in an oh-so hip package that’ll make certain that this record will be bumping in every liberal arts college dorm from Vassar to Pomona. As much as I want to knock Supersystem, they kick out some catchy, well-crafted tunes. Who knows? I may find myself putting this record on at some point down the line by my own free will. What more can I say? Oh yeah — did I mention Josh Blair from Orthrelm is in this band? What the hell?!?
Supersystem are playing at the ’Sco with Zombi next Thursday, Oct. 12.