Review — Lesbian — Stratospheria Cubensis
The four guys in Lesbian are some complicated bastards.
They made an album so effing intricate, so multiple personality disordered, so thorny, so Byzantine, so seemingly perplexing and perplexed, that just to write this review (let alone the multiple listens before and during said review), took waaay longer than normal.
Maybe fittingly, a review of their Gordian knot of a second full length album, Stratospheria Cubensis (after a split with Ocean and the Power Hör LP), requires a more complicated write up than does, say, Wormrot. I fucking had to actually sit down and decide what it means to “review” an album.
I wanted to do it justice, you see.
Not laud its musical verbosity or groovy Sabbath-meets-Yes tendencies, just try to explain it to you, the open-minded and ever-seeking listener. Break it down. Map it. Untangle it, if you will.
Great music takes many listens to reveal itself fully; bad music just degrades further with each listen. So what’s great and what’s shit— that is the question.
Three ways to listen to (and review) music:
One: guts—does it rock or swing? Are you tapping your foot, dancing, moshing before you know it? Examples: the “guilty pleasures,” like Everybody Wants You, Brick House, even the Macarena (don’t EVEN act like you can’t go it, and do it well); anything by Bad Religion; any “early” period metal— Entombed, Metallica, etc.
Two: brains— does it do strange or interesting things that engage the brain, but not the loins? Progressive and jazz are particularly guilty here: I love examining the revolving time signatures of Rush’s 2112, or the major third root movements in Coltrane’s Giant Steps, but I don’t listen to either otherwise— I listen to their songs that actually have a soul.
Three: both. Those albums that you’ve loved for 5, 10, 20 years? They have guts and brains. They satisfy every part of you, that’s why you keep going back to them.
Stratospheria Cubensis is 50% brains, 50% guts. More below.
Three ways to plug music:
A) the album as a whole, as an inseparable unit (which some say, after the advent of digital downloading by song, doesn’t exist, as bands either don’t care, or people don’t think that way anymore, as their attention span’s too short)
B) song by song (are there great singles?)
C) in pieces, aka idea by idea— “that was a cool solo, but the song sucks,” or “that bridge djent djent was awesome, but nothing else was.”
I’d never heard Stratospheria Cubensis or Lesbian before. While I’m not a huge fan of “progressive” music, I love it when it’s done well: Cynic, Atheist, Opeth, even Queensrÿche—I listen to things trying to find something worthwhile; partly because I’m trying this new thing called optimism, partly to justify the time spent reviewing it.
With that in mind, the best pieces of Stratospheria Cubensis are:
Overall great vocals. Visceral, an ideal death metal roar: like an angry demon, choking on glass, blood steaming in it’s teeth– not like a teenager trying to imitate some horror movie so mom knows how angsty he is. Nice.
The first track, Poisonous Witchball, opens with layered, reverberating vocals over a thick riff; it ends up sounding like Gregorian chants over a Sleep concert. Very cool.
Raging Arcana, roughly five minutes in (with a very Call of Ktulu-esque section just before and after), drops into a cool, etheric section for about three minutes. Spacey and gossamer, yet heavy and dense. Nicely done.
Stropharia Cubensis (at 0:35 up to 3:27), sounds like Krallice with less melody, and at 11:23 launches into a windey, slinkey riff, again with the chanty vocal overtones. Sweetness.
The final track, Black Stygian, sounds like a death metal Watchtower at 2:21, at 6:47 drops into a loose, nearly funky, kaleidoscopic riff, at 10:52 mellows out into another memorable etheric riff, and at 19:02 finishes up sounding like Soundgarden. Coolness, Park.
Now the bad news.
Notice any patterns up there?
This is the problem: there’s one great song in here, if properly Frankensteined from all the composite cool parts (no sarcasm). But the songs themselves, and the album as a whole, don’t hold together.
Music should flow from one topic to another, like conversations between friends who know each other really well and have a shorthand; Stratospheria Cubensis is a conversation between sufferers from a psychotic disorder: they may be mind-melding and thoroughly enjoying each other’s company, but no one else knows what’s going on, and you wonder if they actually do.
This isn’t a criticism particular to progressive music: think how many sections Opeth have per song, yet how the whole song still holds together.
Do you have to be a fan already of a particular genre to appreciate it? Or should a truly great album attract people to that genre? Or make them forget genre altogether? The “progressive” tag of an album shouldn’t be obvious; if you’re aware of how good someone is, then the experience of listening is as much to study technique as to enjoy it. Lesbian seem to change for change’s sake— rather than because their music is so complicated and layered that it needs that complexity.
Stratospheria Cubensis is (boiled down) progressive sludge metal; their Myspace page called it “King Crimson forced to interpret Ride the Lightning,” which it IS, and which sounds totally awesome.
Unfortunately, it isn’t nearly as cool as it sounds.
Sludge/ doom/ stoner is defined by RIFFS, by broad movement, like ocean waves; the sludge here is too unwieldy, too massive, to be fluidly progressive (only Intronaut can sorta do that)— it clunks around like Mechagodzilla, lurching into new sections— while the progressive elements prevent the riffs from working as drone or psychedelic: the changes come too often, and harsh any mellow you might get…man….
The switching from sludge to prog and back again also highlights either genre’s weakness: songs seem clumsy, then noodley, then clumsy again, then noodley again. Lesbian bravely mix genres, but they never gel, and abrupt transitions make each individual musical phrase seem incomplete, half done, a manic sketch of ideas that are rarely returned to and fleshed out.
If you told me this album was completely improvised, spontaneously, on the spot, I would worship Lesbian. I would make a pilgrimage to Seattle and wait patiently outside their place until they agreed to teach me their ways.
It wasn’t though. If only.
Even the ability to play these songs live makes me deeply respect each member of the band; from a musical standpoint, this is difficult shit to play together, especially as I’m sure they’ve memorized all the songs.
I don’t know that that’s enough, though.
Lester Young, after hearing a young lion blaze away for ten minutes on his instrument, supposedly said, “Yeah man, but can you sing me a song?” Even the most complicated great music is memorable. You can hum Wagner’s masterpieces. Shit, you can even hum Schoenberg’s with a little work.
After many listens it’s obvious that, swirling around in their collective mind, Lesbian have all the elements of a masterpiece.
Stratospheria Cubensis is not it.