I wasn’t prepared for this, I’ll be honest. A look at the sparse promo sheet for Extra Life will tell you that it is a project masterminded by Charlie Looker, a composer who has worked with (among others) the underground legend Glenn Branca (which should have set alarm bells ringing straight away) and who composes music which “combines elements of Medieval chant, metallic hardcore, dark neofolk, abstract modernism and lush pop”. Yet, as with many of the bands that pass this way, placing a genre label of any kind upon this music is somewhat pointless, for just as you think you’ve got a handle on it, the mood shifts along with the style and you’re left tearing up the review sheet in frustration.
‘Made flesh’ opens with a synthesiser-led progressive charge through Pavement’s indie territory. Upon first listen something akin to sensory overload sets in and it’s too much to take, but repeated attempts allow you to sift through the layers and the genuinely intense undercurrent seeps in creating an air of unease. The music moves much in the way of modern life, whirling past in a hurricane of disparate sound and light, with occasional bursts of rage. It’s disjointed, occasionally atonal and thoroughly brilliant. ‘The ladder’ recalls elements of ‘Soundtracks for the blind’ – The Swans least coherent and, in many ways, most astonishing album. However, rather than Gira’s strong Baritone, Charlie Looker has a voice which is hard to define. Too clean for rock and roll, it floats over the distorted, sub-industrial elements in an almost monastic fashion. While this is perfect for the music, it is arguable that it is the vocal approach that will alienate some listeners as it sits at odds with the music more often than not, and while one can’t help but feel that is the intent, more traditional metal fans may well find that it grates over time. However, stay the course and there are a further six dark wonders for you to enjoy. ‘Made Flesh’ moves into dark soundtrack territory, slowing the pace and allowing for a more introspective feel. The synths are torn straight out of John Carpenter’s sci-fi epics of the eighties with occasional flourishes of guitar adding extra weight to the dark tones contained therein. Of course, that’s only half the story, around the half way mark, the music gives way to complex vocal interplay that is half chant, half cut and paste vocal snatches conducted in a medieval style, if you can imagine such a thing (which you probably can’t but anyway it works amazingly well).
The charmingly titled ‘one of your whores’ is (well sort of) a ballad, albeit in no form that a ballad has ever been attempted before. Rather more theatrical than your average ballad, it would sound more in place if offered as part of a stage show, and it features some of the creepiest music found outside of a horror movie scored by ‘Meddle’-era Pink Floyd. It’s an unsettling experience, but rewarding nonetheless. ‘Easter’ returns the Swans as a source of inspiration with a heavy dirge which stands out as one of the highlight tracks for me. It’s a brutal, down-tuned stomp that is as likely to induce nosebleeds at high volume as it is any sort of rock and roll euphoria. It’s a special moment in a special album and a track that I come back to frequently, if only to send my long-suffering neighbours completely over the edge. ‘Black hoodie’ is a folk jam played on classical instruments by tone-deaf musicians. It’s absolutely bizarre and all the better for it – jarring and utterly unique. ‘Headshrinker’ is equally unusual, featuring the most memorable vocal hook which is irritatingly catchy (and not unlike The Smiths), set to a sublime back drop of Sigur-ros meets Angels of light pop music. Final track ‘the body is true’ is a dark, bass-heavy miasma filled to breaking point with dark synth noise. It is the most intense track on the disc and closes the album perfectly.
Extra Life are a band quite unlike anything you’ll hear elsewhere. Original and innovative, but with overtones of Pink Floyd, The Swans, Sonic youth and classical music it is a sonic ride through the senses. If you have more than a passing interest in avant-garde you owe it to yourself to check out this stunning release.