YOU have to admire the scope and ambition of Los Angeles postrock duo El Ten Eleven, who are about to release their eighth full-length LP, Tautology, on September 18th.
You certainly get a lot of bang for your buck. They’ve been releasing it bit by bit in the digital world for months now: Tautology I appeared on May Day; Tautology II, early in July; this Friday sees the release of the final part of the trilogy, for an actual trilogy it is, Tautology III, on their new home, Joyful Noise.
Yep, there’s an actual triple-vinyl LP pressing, available to pre-order now (you’ll find the where-to at the end); the limited red/green/blue has long gone, but there’s still trad black, clear wax; even CDs.
Like any good triple set worth its salt, there’s a concept sat behind the work. Begone, ghost of Wakeman, shade of Anderson! There’s no six wives, no topographic ocean here. Thankfully. El Ten Eleven’s Kristian Dunn and Tim Fogarty are a hell of a lot sharper than that, thank you very much. The triptych represents, in Kristian’s words, “a representation of life from the teenage years, through middle-age, until the end of life.”
Okay, let’s embrace this. Tautology the first is aiming right for the jugular, wants your para boots springing off the floor. It’s an ambitious album and that ambition is matched by the ten-minutes plus of the first track, “Entropy”. A crisp and massive rock break underpins a dual duel, if you will, of a tightly harmonised twin-lead guitar bite; very Joey Santiago at peak form. It drops out into a cavernous landscape of semitonal, slurring synths, overdriven guitar poised right on the edge of feedback. That alien, queasy synth seizes control of the riff, and finds common ground with a bass so bloody huge and overdriven it sounds like it’s being played on ship’s cables.
Kapow. Wake. Up.
“With Report” and “Jejune” maintain that huge, genuinely awesome bass, and hunt out on the hardest, metallic edge of post- and mathrock, riffs and drums interlocked in marchstep; “Jejune” especially is one to flail dreads to in unholy abandon. Even with looping and the like as the man behind the curtain, it’s still astonishing how much sound these two can make.
The pace slows for “Moral Dynamite” – ha! So you think. You were proper falsely lulled by those opening synth atmospheres. That bass is taut and dangerous; if the strings snapped at that kind of volume and velocity they could you clean in half. It’s as if Killing Joke recruited a really shit-hot hard rock guitarist. You can really see why West-Coast inkie SF Weekly said of El Ten Eleven’s live shows: “Watching [them] play is something like watching two superheroes do their thing.”
“Division” actually could almost be something dreamt up by the Mancunian gods whose name is half-suggested in the title. There’s motorik, grey skies, acceleration through cityscapes; the final track of Tautology I’s half-dozen, “Lassitude”, is as dark, dark, dark as the title may suggest. The rapture, the energy, the abandon of the preceding tracks has faded back. It has that cold-wind chill of the second generation of British postrock bands like Bark Psychosis – until it too erupts and spins sonic shrapnel off into your face, quietens again; in its loud passages it’s genuinely monumental. Again, there’s this almost “Love Like Blood” thing in its black reach.
The album’s second movement, Tautology II, is, at it were, the present; and reflects Kristian’s current state. “I’m middle-aged now, and this is the happiest I’ve ever been”, he says. “I think that comes across in the music.
“This record is the one that sounds the most like the El Ten Eleven people are used to.”
It begins, this middle period, in “Besotted”. Pinging electronic percussion marks the path for deep, chorused bass with a very English 80s’ feel. Think second-era The Cure, think early Sisters of Mercy. Guitars siren and swoop. It’s a very accomplished post-punk post-rocker, if you like. Those guitars dive like swallows through the rhythm section, playing with the yearn of microtonal dissonance. “Shimmer” plays with that same swoop and dive, breaking back to allow a crisp break take the stage. It’s massive and theatrical like the tracks from the first chapter, just shorn of that over-brimming, limitless teen energy.
“Nocturne” pushes out on big tom rolls and a bass chord figure, becomes more shoegaze with those lilting midground washes. It gallops across its landscape; it’s gallant. It breaks down through string harmonics to rise once more and shift deeper into the atmospheric.
“The Silent Bell That Rings” has this bass to all intents and purposes with the sonics of a foghorn. It expands like Happy Songs For Happy People-era Mogwai, those four strings with barely contained roar. Abruptly it switches down into an intimate acoustic passage, all string squeak and supporting harmonic chime, before flowering once more and so satisfyingly. “Half Mast” has swirl and bites sharp like a robot dog, the riff snarling and insistent, staccato, before becoming even more off-world in a twin synth-bass yaw.
Part the second concludes in “Growing Shorter” – a bald comment on the physical depredations of aging, maybe? It’s mid-tempo, wholly epic and maybe has a little of early Ride flowing in its veins, courtesy that pretty but overdriven guitar arpeggio; y’know, “Dreams Burn Down” style. There’s a plaintive quality, a vulnerability, for all the tremendous (in both senses) sound. It’s very Anglophile, very beautiful.
And so to the closing phase, Tautology III, for which Kristian composed an ethereal group of compositions, partly in elegy.
“I don’t know what it’s like to be elderly,” he detailed; “but my grandmother-in-law Frances McMaster was a very inspiring person. She died recently, and I was thinking about her a lot. She was really smart.
“She lived into her early nineties and she wrote her fourth book when she was 88. I’d like to be like her if I make it to that age.”
Thus “Farrago” opens proceedings in slow ambient scapery, swirls of pure-phased sound almost seeming to pick up a hymnal melody. It’s spectral rather than strictly restful. That’s until it grinds the gears and growls out of first base on a Dodge Charger snarl of guitar at about two minutes twenty.
“Caducity” – it was a new one on me, too and for the benefits of the lexical geeks among us, it means the infirmity of old age, at least in its primary sense – man, “Caducity” is sad. The ringing harmonic motif is so pretty, but that dark swell of synth and guitar can only suggest the impending Great Beyond. It reminded me of personal losses without uttering a word. It’s clever, but if music gets you right in the feels perhaps steel yourself.
Follower “You Are A Piece Of Me, You Are A Piece Of Her”, swings gratefully through 90 degrees to look at the growing generation rather than the departing one. It begins in immediately widening pulses of looped and distant guitar sonics, string harmonics; it reminds me of lost London outfit Rothko, and it’s a very beautiful thing. The bass suggests tonal movement, drums trill lightly, and that overloaded, processed guitar gives the whole a halcyon shoegazey feel.
That itself would prove a repast for the soul, ebbing and shifting like clear water, as it does; you could float here for a long time. But it oh so gradually shifts up through the gears, as the guitar chimes louder, moves centre stage, is joined by other drone textures. It could be one of the most simple yet beautiful tugs at the chest your correspondent has heard in a long time.
“[It’s] a song for my daughter,” explains Kristian. “The ‘Me’ and ‘Her’ in the title refers to my wife and me.
“I was envisioning when my wife and I depart this mortal coil someday (hopefully a long time from now!) and thought about my daughter living without us. It made me feel quite melancholy and emotional and this song is the result.” You can listen to this one on our YouTube embed, below.
“Aubade” – a song for lovers separating at dawn, in the tradition, is of a piece with the following “Shimmered” in embodying that sort of mournful grace that Spiritualized owned at their peak. It’s the saddest, the happiest, all these things. It cascades you into deep thought; nah, feeling, and remembrance. The latter goes for catharsis and lets rip, lets your cup overflow in stacks of guitar that sound like they’re still semi-molten in some forge; and by now you need this. It phases elsewhere into a more Chameleons-like passage of chiming guitar and burns hot and sparks once more.
“Let’s All Go Out Like Francis” – a one-letter shift and a regendering away from Kieran’s lost and admired relative – this has swing. It has swagger. And if that’s how she went out, then this is as fitting a tribute as you need. “Senescence” – again the condition of deterioration with age – has a really aquatic synth figure out front, which gradually submerges into a glacial flow of deeper, backgrounded feedback; once more grabs the spotlight; once more fades back. As with its correspondent “Caducity”, the marriage of a simple, one-word concept and musical evocation are damn powerful.
There’s no denying it’s a huge, huge, serious work, this. In post-rock terms you’d have to perhaps look to Stars of the Lid’s triples, The Tired Sounds Of … and And The Refinement Of Their Decline; save these twin masterpieces of drone were, I think, all about maximum expansion of the form. I think a closer index may be found elsewhere in Aphex Twin’s huge opus, Selected Ambient Works Volume II. There’s so much here. Inevitably, you’ll come to love some moments at the expense of others. It’s a lot to take in, at triple the length our Homo Albumus brains are used to.
Kieran thinks there is no right or wrong way to listen to Tautology: “I think someone could listen to any one of the discs by themselves and have a really great experience – even if they didn’t know about the others. But if they do want to go deeper, I think there will be a lot of interesting stuff to discover.
“It works symbolically and it all connects. I think this is the best record we’ve ever done.”
It’s so big; it’s by turn cerebral, soulful, powerful; jagged, tearful, rocking as hell; angry, studied, blissed. Maybe it’s a lot like life then.
El Ten Eleven’s Tautology is already available digitally, with 3xCD and 3xLP physical versions shipping from September 18th. To order yours, visit the Joyful Noise Recordings webstore, here.