Untied States (“un-tied” states) is the musical creation of two childhood friends from Atlanta, GA. Colin Arnstein and Skip Engelbrecht dropped their first release, Bird of the Blood Feather, as a duo in 2003. That EP was followed up by the two full-lengths, Ineffable, by Design (2004) and Retail Detail (2006). Although all three of them were self-recorded/self-released efforts, the latter two found the duo collaborating with a plethora of rotating additional musicians. The group spun through various incarnations for their live performances until connecting with Darren Tablan in 2001. With Tablan operating as an engineer/keyboardist/sound-sample manipulator, US released the 7″, Bye Bye Bi-Polar (b/w These Dead Birds) and was subsequently signed to Distille records. With the addition of drummer Satchell Mallon, Untied States has now released their first large studio recording, Instant Everything, Constant Nothing.
I hadn’t heard the group’s previous releases and I nearly didn’t hear this new one, either. I had already received an email about the band from Distile, but I paid it little mind. We receive so many emails these days that I can’t focus on them all and most have little to no connection to anything that we would even be slightly interested in dealing with. I think that I had even given a quick listen to an album link for IECN but, for whatever reason, I wasn’t immediately impressed and instantly went back to what I was doing. Maybe I’m just like a toddler and need pictures to get my attention because, after receiving the following video of the guys performing live for the WRAS | indieATL music series, they had captured my full attention.
These cats look disheveled and rough. At first, it almost appears like they are wrecked-out drunk and don’t really know what they’re doing or how to play their instruments. Arnstein looks hobbled at best and Mallon‘s drumming, somehow comes across as both forced and apathetic. The crazy thing about this video, as I’m sure that you will notice the more that you view it, is that the sound reflects a very capable and aware combo with some complex, intricate compositions. They know exactly what they’re doing; aware of every minor bleep, screech and noise and recognizing it’s role in each individual segment. It’s not quite “Prog“… it’s… um… I’m not quite sure what it is, exactly. Then again, I’m not quite sure what it’s not either. The first press release that I received from Distile labeled the group as “Art Rock“. However, the one-sheet that they sent me with the CD identifies them as “Indie“/”Rock“/”Post-Punk“. Their Myspace also states that they play “Post-Punk” but adds “Gospel” and “Grime” into their repertoire of defining sounds. The Untied States Facebook fanpage claims that their music is “Baroque“. Who knows which of the endless possible terms each individual reviewer or magazine are using? I’m sure that Rush Limbaugh would probably just identify them as “COMMIES!” They ARE signed to an independent French label and their name DOES imply a dismantling of our democratic nation. Then again, I believe that it may actually imply something completely different. Whatever it is and whatever they are, I’m pretty sure that I really like these guys.
Instant Everything, Constant Nothing is a terribly shitty name for an album. It sounds like the title of some contrived middle-school spoken-word emo poetry. It could have easily been used to title a Better Than Ezra LP or a song from Sixteen Stone; something from the Marcy Playground era. Yeah, it’s true that it’s a terrible name for just about any album. That is, any album other than this one. Honestly, I can’t think anything more appropriate for this LP, because, while so many others have taken and slapped corny ass titles on their work for dramatic effect, Untied States has a much simpler intention with their work. The term Instant Everything, Constant Nothing actually fits perfectly and, after mentally challenging them to support it’s lofty implications, the only conclusion that you’ll inevitably come away with is, “Oh, that wasn’t supposed to be anything other than honesty. I get it. It just makes sense. Sorry, to have bothered you. Carry on.”
The band name itself seems like a simple play on words that anyone can enjoy. “Oh I see, they switched the ‘T’ and the ‘I’ around. Wonderfully clever. So instead of being ‘united’ it’s more like the opposite. Splendid, splendid. What clever chaps.” However, I even see that as having a deeper yet simpler meaning to it, which reflects the musical approach of the group, itself. At first hearing their name, I had a vision of a slowly separating land mass but, after fully listening to the album, I recognized that the “STATES” in their moniker better represented states of being, or consciousness. Mental states, states of disrepair… state of the art. Even elemental states; sometimes solid and heavy, other times gaseous and ethereal, at moments melting and fluid. Untied and distinct as they may be at times, the strength of the Altanta noise wranglers lies in their ability to transition effortlessly between these separate elements and connect them. At least that is the most undeniable of their strengths. A bag of bricks smash a clawfoot tub, the standing water rots the floor boards, a bookshelf falls over and catches fire by the heater, alarms go off, there’s some wood crackling, sprinklers activate, there’s some dark smoke, there’s some lighter smoke, some blinking lights shine through each, there’s steam, it’s warm, there’s some poisonous chemical backdraft, some hickory vapor, condensation on the windows, a cool breeze of fresh air blows through the collapsed hole in the wall, there’s a view of a mountain, the smoke dissipates/morphs into the clouds. It’s like a life-size game of mousetrap, where each result makes perfect sense, with not-quite immediate retrospect, yet they’re always drastic enough to alter the entire dynamic.
The lead off track, “Gorilla The Bull” builds up from an ambient drone until it’s spewing out fragments and heavy chunks like a wood chipper. It’s easy to use the term “driving“, but the song also utilizes a start-stop-start approach; at moments stalling out in neutral, zipping into reverse, popping the clutch, and then lurching forward again. Next is the frenzied psychedelic whirlpool of “Not Fences, Mere Mask” (featured in the video above). “Unsilvered Mirrors” is the first time that the Radiohead and, more specifically, OK Computer similarities really begin to present themselves. Arnstein‘s vocals airily waft in and are buoyed on the deliberate, rust-tinged chords of a haunted organ. A climbing beat enters in and then quickly ricochets off like a loose sprocket. The vocals and music grow like rising steam, there’s a quick 8bit-style Megaman/Metroid/Castlevania moment and then the beat winds itself into a knot and quickly unfurls. Shit is beginning to get weird. This band likes to set trap doors and drop the bottom out of their songs but, although the descensions may be swift at first, the fall is often cushioned like a stuntman through a series of apartment and marketplace awnings. Untied States yank the table cloth out like a parlor trick and, if they feel so inclined, they may even still choose to shove the table over, crashing the dishes to the floor regardless. “Unsilvered Mirrors” ends with a static bug-zapping feedback that bleeds into the next track, “Grey Tangerines“. A heavy thump is introduced and then more and more ingredients are dumped out and mixed into the thick batter. Some raisins, walnuts, a broken chair, battery acid… At points, the twinkle of broken electronic toys seeps through. Other times it’s laser beams or the pulsating sound of what strobe lights look like.
“These Dead Birds” continues with a Radiohead-heavy sound. To borrow from it’s title, I would liken the buildup and subsequent shift to hand-cranking a dead bird up a tree, notch by notch on a pulley system, only to let it float and glide back down to Earth, with sunlight peaking through the leaves to the twinkling of a music box. The friendly little sailboat odyssey eventually shorts out, tumbles over a gloomy cliff, and gets frozen mid-air by the tractor beam of a UFO. US then summons up the drowning, muffled yell of the chorus, which risks being too “Screamo” for my taste, but the track fizzles out admirably with a 30 second outro that includes the slipping thump of a heartbeat. “Take Time For Always” starts with a 30 second intro of more spooky haunted piano chords until it kicks into the full-on horror circus chaos of a Mr. Bungle track. It sounds like a demolition derby where everyone is driving Steinways and simmers out at the halfway point with choppy piano keys layered over the crank of ratchets. The anxiety ascends again, but exits with the aquatic clicks and knocks of of an Atlantean cobbler. “Bye Bye Bi-Polar” instantly revisits flashes of Radiohead during the buildup of it’s1 minute, 30 second intro. Ahhs and the sound of a circut-bent Furbee getting it’s teeth drilled are abruptly smoothed out into a brief moment of somber Nirvana, which then shifts to a quick glimpse of unwieldy screams, and back. This song is all over the fucking place. “Wrestling With Entropy in the Rehab Factory” couples melodic verses with trashy drums and the subtle screeching tension of steel cable. Its a pressure cooker of steam, hissing through rivets and popping the top off it’s container like a novelty can of peanut brittle.
It’s difficult not to notice a bit of Thom Yorke in Arnstein‘s voice throughout the next track either, but “Delusions Are Grander” also displays glimpses of Experimental Jet Set Sonic Youth and the screech of Kurt Cobain, as well. “Holding up Walls” mixes a pretty straightforward pop-rock, Elliott Smith circa-Heatmiser sound with deconstructed noise and background effects. As the title implies, the bass-line groove and melody in the vocals are fighting to remain upright against the swarm of chaos and glitched-out electronic squawks that threaten to chop them down and derail them. The track ends, buzzing into the heavy warping blur known as “Kowtow The Equalizer” before concluding the entire album.
I’ve gone back and forth about my feelings for Instant Everything, Constant Nothing. In fact, my feelings change almost as much as the tracks themselves. Sometimes, I see the music like a triumph of deconstruction. At other times, it feels like I’m hearing a pretty straightforward and simple rock album. One moment I can be unimpressed and wonder what happened to the elements that I thought had excited me so much before and then, the next thing I know, I find myself wishing that I was actually in the group, or one exactly like it. The crazy part is that these conflicting outlooks can shift suddenly and, sometimes even multiple times within the same track. Some moments its like these guys have no idea what they’re doing and then, in others, it’s clear that it was all by design and that they knew exactly what they were doing the entire time. Sometimes the amazing bits feel like they were accomplished by complete accident. Still, they’re sound feels natural and true to who they are as musicians and individuals. During one listen, I got the impression that, if they were “trying” to do anything at all it was to make a pop album, but that the result of those efforts was that they had failed miserably and came up with something a hell of a lot more interesting. As if they didn’t know any better and were doomed to inevitably create something more amazing by default. At their best, Untied States sound like a group of special ed students are peaking on LSD, while they’re driving around in suped-up Power Wheels, and smashing shit up in a factory warehouse with cricket bats. Their interpretations of sound are crisp and focused, but they are directed in a manner unique enough to demand attention. Two things that this album is not are boring and unimaginative. By recognizing the value of their one-of-a-kind structural perspectives, US offers the listener an opportunity to re-examine and question the way that they, themselves, may interpret and understand sound.
One of the major risks that the band takes is handing everything over at face value and letting the listener attempt to pull the pieces apart or figure out what’s going on for themselves. Whether through sheer ignorance or complete apathy, the musicians have no fear about the preconceived notions or connections to any outside influence that each listener might bring with them. Maybe they sound a little like Radiohead at times. Actually, they sound a lot like Radiohead at times, but I really don’t think that they are too concerned with that. I’m sure that they are aware of the similarities and, even they weren’t at first, they’ve heard it plenty by now. Still, I don’t believe that they are “trying” to sound like anyone. What may be even more commendable about the group is that I don’t think that they are “trying” not to sound like anyone else either. Most people have a “guilty pleasure” or something that they really enjoy, but may hide it for fear of being berated by the opinions of others. US provides a mixed bag of influences from everywhere; some that I admire and some that I’m not really that into, but they openly spill everything out on the table without apology. With all of the comparisons that could be drawn, they manage to maintain a distinct sound and avoid the pitfalls of becoming derivative. The current quote on their Facebook page reads, “Tomorrow’s cliches today” and, In all honesty, I don’t believe that US gives a fuck what I think. I’m not even convinced that they are concerned with reviews at all. It’s as easy to over listen to this album as it is to under listen to it. If you don’t pay attention, the subtle intricacies can just slip by. If you stare too hard, it’s easy to focus on other less important aspects too much. If IECN is playing long enough, however, something is inevitably bound to force a double take, snap your neck, and make your ears perk up. It’s like a magic eye photo where, with a soft focus, the clear outline and added dimensions can pronounce themselves on their own. The image pops out in an instant and can evaporate again just as easily. It’s ike raising an X-Wing out of a Dagobah swamp. “Do or do not, there is no try.” Regardless of your feelings about their results, Untied States simply “DO” and that is what I respect the most about them. No matter how many times I hear the music differently, or how many ways my opinions about it might shift, I believe that my feelings about the people who are creating it will always remain the same. What matters the most to me with anything that I review is the intention, integrity, soul, and honesty behind it. That being said, I haven’t the slightest apprehension about providing Untied States and their latest album with my stamp of “LEGIT!” The point is that these guys are extremely good at what they do and anything beyond that is just a lesser matter of personal taste.