Upsilon Acrux probably shouldn’t be considered metal, but I haven’t reviewed anything avant-garde or extreme in its deviation from standard genres in a while. They are an experimental rock outfit. They used to be on the Cuneiform label which I frequently found new artists from, because one of my favorite composers (John Hollenbeck) put stuff out through them with The Claudia Quintet.
Despite their name floating around my subconscious, I never made it around to listening to them until now, so I have no context for how this new album compares with their move to New Atlantis Records.
I’ll preface this review with the usual. There seems to be two types of people in the world. Some people praise every experimental band uncritically. If you don’t like something, then you aren’t smart enough, or “didn’t get it,” or numerous other insults. The other type says that experimental bands are nonsense wankery. Music is more than being technically proficient at your instrument.
There seems to be very few people who want to engage in difficult music on its own terms. I plan to write an essay on this very soon, so I’ll stop this rant before I give the whole thing away.
A peculiar thing happened with Sun Square Dialect. After a few listens, I found that sometimes one of the songs would be stuck in my head. Despite the extremely disorienting chaos of complicated time signatures, unfamiliar riffs, distortion, at times atonal harmonies, and just plain experimental nature, there was enough familiar to get stuck in my head.
So I started to listen a lot more carefully to figure out how this could be possible. I mean, I’ve listened to some Xenakis pieces a lot, but I’ve never found myself humming them randomly. The thing I found is that the songs on this album really don’t throw the rules out as much as you’d think from a first listen.
Just like in more mainstream music, the songs are highly structured. They are built out of a few recurring riffs and motifs. These can actually be quite catchy, even if highly unorthodox, and this is what stuck in my head. These riffs are then developed and manipulated in various ways.
There is also clear harmonic structure and development, again, even if unorthodox. So all the pieces of standard composition are there: melodies are introduced, developed, and layered. It is as well-composed as anything I can think of.
A lot of experimental groups basically dare you to call them out. Let’s play loud and fast, whatever crap pops into your head here and then we’ll slow down, but make sure it sounds really bad and has no meaning. That’s one way to do it, but you won’t find that here. If there is improvisation (which I think there is), it serves to enhance the human element in otherwise rigid, cerebral pieces of music.
I know a lot of you are thinking: okay, so it is well-composed technical wankery, but if it isn’t used to serve something else, then it is worthless as art. But here’s the interesting thing. Some of these songs are intense, moving experiences.
“Remnants of the Habitable Epoch” is an example of this even if it isn’t representative of the album. It is probably the least experimental track, but they really showcase how experimentation can create some palpable, raw emotion.
As proof of one of the reasons music is so great, the emotion itself can’t really be described in words. It borders on sadness, nostalgia, and anger all mixed together. I know you can’t win with some critics. On the one hand, they only want experimentation if it serves some purpose. On the other hand, you point to a song like this where it enhances the emotion, and they will say it is overly sentimental post-rock:
Over the past six years, I’ve moved away from blindly praising anything experimental. This album is the real deal. It is without question worth the effort needed to parse the unique musical language Upsilon Acrux has invented.
I’ll give it a 9.5/10. Here’s a more representative sample: