I could say a hell of a lot about the sound of Akron/Family but it could never quite match up to the words of Swans’ Michael Gira about his occasional backing band: “There are no inverted commas in the world of AK. They’re inside the music, grinding it, fighting it, chewing it, digesting it, then spewing it up to the sky in a multicoloured spray of endless sound and love.” Sounds good to me, Michael.
Since 2002 Akron/Family – Dana Janssen, Seth Olinsky and Miles Seaton – have rocked and rolled their way through five albums (six if you count their release with Angels of Light) of pastoral folk, psych rock, experimentation with found sounds, tribal rhythms, pure harmonies and much, much more. There’s never been a clear trajectory for the band; they’ve been happy to go where the mood takes them yet they’ve managed to maintain a consistent quality throughout their releases: whether it’s the harmony-heavy Love Is Simple or the manic chant unpredictability of Akron/Family II they’ve always been reliably good. So it’s almost boring to report that nothing changes on new album Sub Verses: it’s solid, but brilliantly so.
Inspired by the works of artists Michael Heizer and James Turrell, Akron/Family set out to make a record about the stuff of America; dust and stone, light and space. It’s about the desert and the country that they and countless other musicians have existed in, and Sub Verses is an attempt to recreate that world through song. It’s typically hippy-ish stuff, but the infectious way in which the band tells their tales makes it believable and achievable. And there’s something of the earth about Akron/Family’s music, whether they’re tackling the traditional music of their homeland, or that of the various cultures that permeate their music and nation.
That’s heard immediately on the elemental and stormy opener of ‘No-Room’: crackling guitar riffs clash with rattling drum rolls while Olinsky and Seaton half-sing and half-chant “We held fast/And we held strong”. It’s an uncompromising opening, classic heads-down rock and roll meeting psych experimentation, tectonic plates scraping and shifting against each other to create new landscapes. Second track ‘Way Up’ begins in similar style, but the heavy riffing gives way slightly to stabs of organ, burbling electronics, and Animal Collective-esque harmonies, and then ‘Until the Morning’ returns to the side of Akron/Family that loves peace and melody. It’s a positively 1950s doo-wop moment, almost jarring in its quiet simplicity after what’s come before it but that’s what the trio tend to do best – confound expectations.
Things return to the heavy side with the battering ram of ‘Sand Talk’, a track where they manage to combine the punchier side of the band’s output with sunny harmonies, while ‘Sometimes I’ carries some of Swans’ intensity through creepy synth noise and discordant horns, and there are similar sounds throughout the dark and muttering ‘Holy Boredom’, in which the title is chanted over and over like Akron/Family have been possessed by an evil spirit before it all explodes in a hail of metallic riffing. Following all the powerful noise, there’s a window of respite when the doo-wop sounds return with the sweet and lovely ballad ‘When I Was Young’ before final track ‘Samurai’ floats us out on Hawaiian guitar and crooning worthy of The Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser.
Themes and aims aside, Sub Verses is simply an example of Akron/Family’s continued good run of form, and undoubted confidence. They’re one of the few bands who can take on a variety of musical styles and not sound like they’re way out of their comfort zone – if they maintain their willingness to experiment, they’ll always find success.