How soon is too soon. Parisian indie rockers Austerlitz go for bronze.
Austerlitz have rushed to release a record that with a couple of months worth of emphatic development would have been sensational. As it is they’ve released something that is resplendently bold in places and has potential in others but all in all could do with a critical eye making some tough choices and a hard heart telling the earnest Parisians to go away and come back when it’s finished.
The PR claim that Austerlitz are an art-punk band is dangerously wide of the mark. Art bands such as King Crimson, The Cardiacs, Talking Heads, The Mars Volta, and Captain Beefheart show a flagrant disregard for style and push music in new and unexpected ways by considering music outside of conventional norms, certainly eschewing (or at least subverting) verse-chorus-verse structures for something more, well, artistic. Depending on your perspective ‘Punk’ is either defined as a sound based around Keith Levene’s guitar on the early P.I.L records, or as an anti-authoritarian energy, sometimes confused with ‘doing what you want’. The danger in labelling any band as art-punk is that it has a massive amount to live up to, moreover it better deliver. That is, of course unless its sole ambition is to appeal to ignorant and uncritical poseurs.
Latterly, Art-punk has been used to describe Hoxtonite private view liggers and the attendant post-pop quasi-installation premise that garnishes pop-up gallery walls. Cynically, you could say the preoccupation with glorifying consumption and ironic marketing supposes a dearth of meaning in lives where creation is sublimated to the mystification of mass-production. The ‘punk’ here is made up of readily available media consumables, worth equated to their novel arrangement rather than the act of production. This may be valid, it might even be deeply true, but it sucks and smiling about it belies a narcissistic obsession with culture’s putrefaction.
So how ‘Art-Punk’ are Austerlitz? At their most original, they have an ‘Art-Punk’ quotient of around zero, at worst it goes up to about three. When they start sawing away simplistically using tinny sounding indie guitars over ideas recycled from At The Drive In on tracks like Yes But With You, Stand By, and Rotten Ears the hatred starts to rise. It’s not that Gil Charvet can’t sing, he has a solid voice and developed sense of melody, which on Happy Song and Walking into the Fire suggest They Might Be Giants and Europe respectively but it’s just that in the main he’s chosen to emulate much lesser bands, badly.
Austerlitz have that rare commodity, originality, but lack the confidence to heighten what makes them unique seemingly preferring to give their music a marigold wash of mediocrity. Lyrically, their unambitious motifs and forgettable lines work against them and the despite some clever moments by and large the music never goes anywhere new, with one startling exception; Walking Into the Fire.
Walking Into the Fire is probably the best opening to an album I’ve heard in months. The keyboards conjure Bo Hannson’s surreal best with a pulsing persistence that the bass picks up and drives it onward into fast lane anthemic 80s decadence that perfectly complements convertibles and coke. The arrangements are sophisticated and bring to mind a less navel gazing Steeley Dan and are all magically brought together to create a song that has imaginative twists and turns at every juncture. There are proggy elements to the entire track that deliciously layered prove that you can create fascinating work with a backbone that doesn’t sacrifice intelligence in order to create something widely accessible but also artistically satisfying. Tour-de-force is too strong a term for Walking however the depth of discerning talent displayed makes it absolutely crucial listening.
After such a strong opening it’s a shame that the rest of album isn’t just forgettable but rather than a morass of missed opportunities and regrettable choices that just plain suck. One wonders whether the same voice that pushed them to consider the ‘art-punk’ tag pushed them to crap-up their sound to appeal to the Indie scene’s musical location two years ago.
The best indie bands aren’t the ones who aim for the middle, it’s just that the middle has a way of absorbing the creative outliers and making it the norm through exposure. The problem with Austerlitz is that they're aiming for this middle ground with the fixed determination of conservative French culture. Any traveller to the venerable country that spearheaded the world into modernity and then bashed us into fractured post-modernism will note that France is in a sort of somatic crisis. Overwhelmed by the weight of the past the last twenty plus years have seen the nation par excellence enter bloated middle age, refusing to change, refusing to accommodate difference and refusing to bolster creative thought outside it’s glory years during the early 1970s. Austerlitz claim that they want to start a revolution in rock music, fine, but this is impossible without a stronger contemporary claim. In short, they need to be leaders rather than rehashing followers.
French rock has always been the US and England’s ‘backward’ cousin who, outside of a few mysterious finger paintings, has never managed to express itself coherently at length. The baseline here is a band that manages to rise above its influences and create something new. There are a few contemporary examples in guitar based music, the metal band Gojira being the most well known, who have managed to find international fame on this basis, but not in rock per se. On the strength of Walk Into the Fire Austerlitz might be able to be the indie band to do it in 2011.
Of course, putting a nation’s hopes on one song is patently absurd, especially when the rest of the album is largely bad or worse, but I wish them well. On the basis of Austerlitz by Austerlitz you can say they are a bit special, here’s hoping they recapture the magic of Walk Into the Fire, learn to dress themselves and become great.