A recollection, first of all: I first saw Randy Randall and Dean Spunt way back in 2005., in their hardcore-soaked garage band Wives. In a glorious ten-minute set, they leapt wildly and heroically around the tiny stage of Liverpool’s since-dormant Magnet venue, burning brightly and all-too briefly in the process. Of course, if you can’t win ‘em over with ten minutes of roaring post-adolescent spasms, then you may as well give up, and indeed they’d split within a matter of months. Even during those ten splendid minutes, however, it was clear that they were tired of the constraints of their own music – the endless sturm und drang of hardcore’s freneticism can wear thin for even the hardiest of souls, making their reinvention as ‘ambient punks’ No Age something of a natural progression. The pace, the drive and the energy were still there; just wrapped up in bundles of cryptic, sampler-driven noise and the mischievous fug of distortion. Three albums in, we can be sure of one thing: the LA duo like ideas.
Well, that pretty much brings us up to speed. Three years in the making, latest album An Object represents the first time the band have taken time out before delivering a record, following their rapid work rate between 2007-10. During that period, it seems they’ve decided to refocus a little: the increasing tendency towards pop songs that led up to previous effort Everything In Between has apparently left the band determined to recapture the imaginative approach of their earlier records. This time round, we get songs that are structured like collages, a more thoughtful approach to lyricism and percussion made from coins bouncing up and down in a bass speaker. It still sounds like no-one else but No Age, but… refreshed, somehow.
The very first line of the album hints that some soul-searching has taken place. “Who do you think you are?” they ask, over Randall’s lurching, stop-start guitar hook, as though imploring you to consider notions of self and introspection, whilst brassily throwing down a gauntlet. It’s an adrenaline-pumping thrill matched by the tortured squalls of ‘C’mon Stimmung’, the album’s bona fide moshpit anthem, which piledrives through the album’s early stages like My Bloody Valentine doing their best to keep pace with The Thermals.
It’s not all punk fuzz, of course. There are more bucolic efforts, such as the blissful daydream of ‘My Hands, Birch And Steel’, or the moment when ‘Commerce, Comment, Commence’ implodes into glistening shards of ambient beauty that suggest a noble attempt to channel the likes of Brian Eno or Tim Hecker. The album’s finest moment, however, comes in the form of ‘An Impression’, where an unexpected shift to minimalist electro-pop sees Spunt singing gently and meditatively about the magic of brushstrokes . “I’ve never seen colour act this way,” he sings, before soft layers of strings shoot across the luscious percussive backdrop like beams of light rippling across a Monet painting. Form reflecting content, beautifully and capably.
What to make, then, of that album title? Given their incubation period in their hometown art space The Smell, one would fondly imagine it’s an artistic reference – and given their modus operandi as a collaborative partnership, let’s assume we can safely write off the notion of a tribute to Ayn Rand’s individualist manifesto. Instead, let’s imagine it’s a framing reference to a specific faction of modernist poets – objectivism, as interpreted by William Carlos Williams, yearned for analysis with “a special eye to structural aspects”, or “how has been constructed”. In the case of An Object, the band have gone to great lengths to explain the care and detail that has gone into the project – how they switched to unfamiliar instruments, their experiments with composition and sonic trickery, their hands-on involvement with the packaging – suggesting that their very intention is for this all to be considered, rather than just the musical product at the end. The methodology. The layout. The composition. Its sincerity. Music as the object itself, rather than merely the form.
Do they fully get to grips with this lofty concept? And is it really their intention to do so? Debatable in both cases. The objectivists attempted to obscure meaning through obliqueness of form, leaving the interpretation to the reader, whereas the various strands that tie together to form An Object suggest an over-arching theme of self-discovery through art. Even so, its overall meaning is never clear. Theoretical musing aside, their eagerness to continually try out new ideas mixes well with their bustling itch to create – even if their working methods fail to push their sound beyond its previously-established boundaries. It’s pretty hard to deny that No Age make a damn good off-kilter rock record, and that’s a pretty good idea in itself.