Album review: Joan of Arc – "Life Like"

The Chicago based math-rock outfit with steady lineup changes, Joan of Arc, adds to their already frighteningly prolific repertoire with their latest effort, “Life Like”.

You know that you are in for a serious journey when an album begins with a track that clocks in at over 10 minutes, with the vocals not beginning until 7 minutes in. It’s the combination of math-rock and prog that no doubt inspired decisions such as this one, and helps to shape the sound of the band in general. There is also a touch of old-school emo the likes of Braid and The Dismemberment Plan evident in the treatment of the vocals where the singer’s voice is just as clean and unaffected as the guitars. It crackles with intensity throughout many of the tracks.

That opening track, “I Saw the Messed Binds of my Generation”, lays the groundwork for the entire album with its crystal clear sound, intricate contrapuntal guitar lines and a lock-step rhythm section. It seems to me that it could easily be broken into two tracks where the first 7 minutes or so are an introduction, or prelude. The final 3 minutes are what actually constitute the opening of “Life Like”.

The guitar lines across the album weave through one another much in the same way one would hear on a Dirty Projectors album. It’s that clear and clean disjointed melodic guitar work that seems to jut out in a million directions while still obviously focused on a single goal.

My prog-trained brain tells me that this is a concept album. “Life Like” projects that album-oriented sound where everything seems to be heading in a clear direction; uniform sound throughout, with intense lyrics and similarity of compositional style throughout. It just sounds like it was written to be an album and they just had to divide it up into songs. There are some obvious commonality between the songs. They very much belong together. The only problem with this is that even after several listens I can’t fully make out the concept. Joan of Arc seem to be hiding their lyrical content in a web of complex metaphors and symbolism in the same way that their guitar figuration are branching out in a million exploratory patterns. This really is a complex and deeply emotional, challenging album.

Joan of Arc - "Life Like"
Joan of Arc - "Life Like"

Contrasting the smooth, scrolling guitar work throughout most of the album is the spastic start/stop rhythmic interjections present in “Deep State”. To that end there is also the nearly a cappella “Still Life” with only muted guitar strings doubled with drum stick clicked against the rim of the snare drum. Though this track does slowly gain momentum and density as melody begins to creep in from the shadows and we are presented with a pulsating beat with bass guitar false starts with the 2nd guitar trying a number of different approaches to break the silence. “Life Force” stands out for its use of a shoddily tuned acoustic guitar that hammers out a straight ahead quarter note rhythm. Though these tracks are the most unique on the album they still encapsulate that sound that is put forth at the very opening of the album. They still sound perfectly in place on the album and correctly sequenced.

Every song on “Life Like” seems to chart the same course, but not all are dark and hopeless. “Love Life” and “Like Minded” are bright and joyful sounding tunes, though the latter quickly seems to take a dark turn moving from cheerful to foreboding in short order. The polyrhythmic overlapping of delicately plucked guitar lines creates an interesting texture that is less abrasive than much of the guitar work featured on any other track. The song continually grows darker as the distortion kicks in and the vocals move from shouting to screaming, voice cracks and all.

Concluding the album is “After Life”, with it’s martial drum roll and drill sergeant/platoon call and response. A great lyric from this album closer states that “my discovery: I am all alone” seems to accept the irony of stating such a fact while surrounded or followed by people that shout back at you everything that you say while they march in step behind you. That track bursts unexpectedly into a distorted and frenzied guitar solo. That is not the only instance of spontaneous guitar soloing either, they seem to crop up a lot, it sounds like they are being exorcised out of frustration, or that they otherwise come from some deep, dark place and just need to be there warts and all.

The concept comes across in bits and pieces and, judging by previous work by the band, that is exactly how they like it. They like coming off as mysterious and complicated, confusing and comical. This album is certainly many of those things, all balled up in a tightly wound web of intricate guitar work, complex rhythmic shifts and symbolic lyrics that would confuse and frustrate Cedric Bixler, famous for creating equally convoluted and impossibly shrouded lyrics with At the Drive-In, who would be the hard hitting counterpart to Joan of Arc. By the looks of it though this band has no intentions on stopping.

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You can purchase this album directly from Polyvinyl at: http://www.polyvinylrecords.com/store/index.php?id=1671

[audio:http://quartertonality.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/02-Joan-of-Arc-Love-Life.mp3]

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