In Rotation: Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, Balam Acab (Review)

Some thoughts on Before Today by Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti and the “witch house” music of Balam Acab.
Balam Acab

In Rotation is a regular Opus feature where I post short reviews of noteworthy music, both new and old, that I’ve been listening to lately.

Before Today by Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti

Before Today - Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti

When I heard “Round and Round” — the first single from Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti’s 4AD debut Before Today — I was floored. I initially described it as “a warmer, fuzzier version of Lansing-Dreiden fully indulging in a Hall & Oates fetish”, and I still stand by those words. “Round and Round” remains one of my favorite songs of 2010, and it really raised my expectations for the album. Sadly, Before Today — listen to the entire album here — doesn’t live up to them.

“Round and Round” is still as great a track as ever, and there a couple of tracks on Before Today (“Beverly Kills”, “Can’t Hear My Eyes”) that come close to its brilliant blend of 80’s soft rock, 70’s AM Gold, twisted lo-fi pop, and funk. However, much of the album is a muddled, incoherent, and underwhelming mess that often lacks the grace and panache that abounds in “Round and “Round.” And the insipid lyrics (“Menopause Man” being the worst offender) only makes things worse.

Part of me thinks that the album might be a grower, but I have a hard time imagining music rendered so intangible by its fixation on musical nostalgia — the entire album is essentially a constant mining of the past for ideas (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) — having the ability or wherewithal to grow. It’s an immediate listening experience, and it either happens for you or it doesn’t. As for myself, I’ll certainly include “Round and Round” on my year-end mix, but I can take or leave the rest of the album.

“See Birds” by Balam Acab

See Birds - Balam Acab

A few weeks ago, Pitchfork ran a feature titled “Ghosts in the Machine” which looked at the “witch house” genre (which, by the way, ranks right up there with “chillwave” and “glo-fi” as silly genre names go). As a genre, “witch house” artists take dubstep and hip-hop influences, slow the beats down to a molasses-like crawl, layer on plenty of moody, psychedelic atmospherics, and send ghostly, manipulated vocals drifting through the mix. The result is music that is as eerie as it is atmospheric, but with a strangely human quality that is hard to ignore.

There are numerous artists working within the “witch house” genre — Salem, White Ring, oOoOO, Fostercare, xix — but Balam Acab is the one that really gets to me. If Burial sounds like, as one poster on Arts & Faith put it, the sound you hear “when most of the club has emptied out and the strobes and colored lighting are replaced with cold florescence”, then Balam Acab sounds like the ghosts that haunt said club attempting to communicate with the living via drum machines and laptops.

Whereas other “witch house” artists often seem to be trying too hard to be creepy/ominous/whatever, Balam Acab’s music contains a grace and poignancy amidst the darkness that makes it more affecting than evil. “See Birds” (listen to it here) sounds like it was recorded about a mile beneath the surface of the ocean, and it moves with the sort of slow-motion grace that accompanies underwater movement. At the same time, there’s a fragility in the tweaked vocals and exotic dulcimer-esque tones implying that the water pressure is threatening to slowly crush the proceedings to nothing — which only adds to the track’s haunting immediacy.