Friday, July 3, 2009

Dissecting the Idea of “Journalism,” One Admitted Bias at a Time; Civil Vain’s New Retro Industrial.

Phoenix-based multi-instrumentalist/ Industrial conceptualist Wes Hopeless recently submitted to me a couple of tracks and videos from his current project, Civil Vain (a recent combination, or merger, of the material under that name and a prior outfit called Entropy 33) to take a look at and analyze a bit for him. These are demo-tracks that may eventually find their way onto an as-of-yet unplanned but speculated album project, and feature songs that will most definitely make their way into the project’s live-performance debut, tentatively slated for the fall of ‘09.

Bias alert- Wes is a frequent musical collaborator of mine. Together, we were the two primary halves of the Phoenix-based surreal doom-rock outfit The Green Sea, and since that project has been on hiatus per my relocation to the east coast, we have continued to frequently exchange tracks, ideas, bits-and-pieces, feedback, critique, etc. Therefore, keep this in mind, and take this review for what it is; a bit more informed and subjective than a blind listen, yet still striving to give the material its fair and honest due.

With that out of the way… first, a video.
La Femme Diabla

This song has evolved and been posted in various forms several times, and I’ve been keeping tabs on its progress. Wes’ current songwriting tactic seems to involve constructing gradually in sonic layers, like overlaying various screens over each other on an old-school overhead projector, and in the various versions of the song you can hear the colors and textures of each screen that’s been overlaid. What’s fascinating to me is that with each layer of sound and electronic chaos that Wes adds, the finished product seems to become somehow MORE coherent than the last, rather than less. This most recent video is therefore my favorite version thus far.

The latest recorded audio version of this track, unlike its live-video counterpart, features much more of a build-up, a crescendoed gradual layering; starting off almost sparse enough to recall early Depeche Mode or The Dead Milkmen’s “You’ll Dance to Anything” in an awkward-flashback sort of way, then building into the noisy Industrial electronic layering that the song has since evolved into. Of Civil Vain’s currently available audio material, the four newest tracks are definitely the stand-outs, as it’s obvious that Wes’ project has made great strides recently coming into its own in terms of arrangement, production, and songwriting. Of these four, two are original compositions (“Confession of a Killer” and “La Femme Diabla,” the song just discussed), and the other two are “covers” (“Electric Barbarella” by Duran Duran, and “Chalice,” originally by The Green Sea, which I wrote in collaboration with Wes. I‘ve never written a review of a cover of a song that I wrote before… this seems a bit awkward.).

For the two cover-songs, I’m trying to resist the urge to go back and listen to the original versions for comparison. I haven’t heard the Duran Duran song in long enough that I don’t remember what it sounds like, and it’s been a while since I sat down with the E.P. that we recorded with The Green Sea. More relevant, I think, is taking them in the context of the other two songs. Wes made a smart decision to choose two songs for Civil Vain to cover that sound little like his own writing-style in terms of melody and construction, as it frees him up to focus his attention on creating the interesting noise-landscapes that he does so well, and adding grit and creative production to songs that feature a style different from his own trademark. The way that the vocal-parts and song-structures are created on the original tracks smacks of old-school Industrial; There’s plenty of influence from the tried-and-trues here (Ministry, Skinny Puppy, KMFDM, etc) and Wes’ vocal-style and instrumentation often reminds me of The Revolting Cocks. Civil Vain pulls this off extremely well, but the cover-songs demonstrate refreshingly that Mr. Hopeless’ arrangements are still viable when Al Jorgensen has left the building.

On a personal note, I’m extremely impressed by this solo-take on “Chalice;” Wes managed to accomplish a genre-shift without much more than minor tweaks such as toning down my original hair-metal-meets-doom over-played guitar-part (I think Wes even played it on bass on this version?), translating the vocal part from “dark” to “sinister, ” etc; The song has been transformed enough to fit well into a very different sounding set, while leaving its structural integrity intact.

I just realized that with this version of “Chalice” and Tipsy Cougar’s repurposing of “The Plea of Miss Claustrophobia” (“Miss Claustrophobia’s Revenge,” from the forthcoming “Immaculate Conceptions”), two out of the three songs on The Green Sea’s E.P. have been kept in circulation, which makes me seriously tempted to rework a version of “The Evasive Enigmatic” with Swords We Swallow. We’ll see.

Wes’ greatest achievement with this Civil Vain material, I’m well aware, sounds on the surface like a sideways compliment at best. Let’s face it; What we have here is a one-man electronic act, playing Industrial music peppered with unabashed throwbacks to that genre’s bygone heyday, performing songs that are littered with references to robots, vampires, and creepy, sexed-up murder scenarios. On paper, it seems that if there was ever a precise formula for “hard to take seriously,” this would be it; possibly even rivaling The Cruxshadows in that regard. But somehow, in my biased opinion, Civil Vain manages to steer clear of some of the seemingly inevitable cheesiness lurking in this sort of terrain. As for how he manages this…. Honestly, I’m not quite SURE why it works, but it does. Take a listen. Your guess is as good as mine.

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