Aidan Baker‘s opus The Spectrum of Distraction is a monumentally ambitious work from the Toronto artist that was produced in collaboration with a number of percussionists who are well-known and well-respected within the fields of heavier and more artistically enterprising groups such as Swans, Slowdive, the Jesus Lizard, and Killing Joke. With a group like this, it needs not be said that the drumming throughout the two-hour album is nothing short of fantastic. Each of these players vigorously displays their virtuosity across a wide swath of songs that take from such genres as metal, no wave, jazz, reggae, industrial, shoegaze, and more.
The overall album is a massive testament to seeing an idea carried out to its fullest potential. That idea is to have an almost overwhelming group of tracks that can be chopped up and reassembled endlessly to take full advantage of the ‘shuffle’ function of most modern music players and create something that is new and unique each time it is played. Many artists are influenced by literature, usually something pretentiously highbrow, but Baker was instead influenced by the ‘choose your own adventure’ style of children’s books, right down to song titles that suggest a plot without forcing such themes down the throat of the listeners. This approach is stretched out over the course of 96 songs that range in length from three seconds to seven minutes.
The album is split up into two parts. The ‘OCD’ side tends to be the more ‘clean’ sounding, as a number of the songs are bereft of the heavily distorted guitars that populate the ‘ADD’ side. There are a number of highlights here, such as the droning “The Deadly Shadow” that is powered by gymnastic drumming. It’s a powerful piece of juxtaposition to have a dynamic rhythm section overlapped by instruments that stay the same while changing, much like the water in a river constantly re-configures itself while it flows. Elsewhere, “Invaders From Within” combines herky-jerky rhythms with a repetitive guitar figure that sounds like Burning Spear playing the blues. “The Green Slime”, with its fuzzed-out bass and guitars heavy with delay comes off sounding like Mission of Burma if they were re-imagined as a jam band, as the bass holds down the groove while the drums shake and shimmy, allowing the guitars to fluctuate and build into a hypnotic trance. Likewise for “Space & Beyond”, which finds its trance in the constant cymbal splashes and tom-heavy drumming. Combined with the buzzy guitar that seems to appear out of cheesy sci-fi movie, you get the soundtrack of tribal warfare on some far-off world. “Forgotten Days” builds its suspense by layering several instruments that are largely playing out of time with each other, like a song that everyone is expecting to begin but never does. Right at the end where it appears as though all of the instruments have aligned and are about to start playing together, the song suddenly cuts off. However, due to the concept of the album, it trickles into a completely different song instead. “You Are Microscopic” is a piece of sublime beauty, where endlessly circling slices of guitar turn into a near-impenetrable wall of glorious noise as the drums spur them on, and it slowly transforms into something far more sinister. What started out as something lovely becomes something frightening. “Killer Virus” is understatedly creepy and ominous, a portent of bad news that falls on deaf ears.
Meanwhile, the ‘ADD’ side mostly revels in a sheen of metallic thunder. A good number of these songs sound like they were pulled off any number of doom, stoner, or sludge metal albums, with their ridiculously heavy, nearly impenetrable textures of fuzz. “Mystery of the Secret Room” features a simple pentatonic riff that sounds like AC/DC on some bad meth, with another section sounding like a classic punk track from the late 1970s. “Trouble on Planet Earth” combines a dub baseline from hell with squiggly guitar murmurs and minimalist drums. “Blood on the Handle” is one of many tracks that features a headbanger of a riff that morphs into something a bit more subdued and spooky. “Race Forever” upends its own title with a preposterously slow, sludgy riff that seems pulled straight off Sleep’s legendary “Dopesmoker” album. “The Planet Eater” is like the “Stairway to Heaven” of the entire project, as it builds up more and more over seven minutes from quiet tinkling of the keys to an unstoppable tidal wave of pure noise by the end. “The Antimatter Formula” borrows a swinging, jazzy rhythmic background and lays an unnerving chord progression atop it that goes in bizarre directions and modulations before settling into a more typical Sabbath-y stop-start groove complete with the aerobic drumming a la Bill Ward. “Beyond the Great Wall” calls to mind the fantastic work of contemporary bands like Russian Circles that do similar things within the framework of heavy instrumental music. “The Phantom Submarine” employs some jarring polyrhythms between the drums and the guitars that produce a haunting effect of never quite settling down, made more jarring by the fact that this is one of the fewer tracks on this side where the guitars are completely clean. “Prisoner of the Ant People” features nothing more that angry, buzzing feedback that calls to mind a colony of insects intent on ravaging the world.
There are moments of remarkable congruency that appear every so often that help to strengthen the concept of constant rearranging of the pieces. Oftentimes consecutive songs will lead directly into each other not only with the tone of the instruments but with tempo as well, creating a completely smooth transition from one song to the next. It is rare that two pieces will be completely foreign to each other and will produce an overly dissonant, cacophonous texture.
One thing to recommend would be to not intersperse the songs from the two different ‘sides’. The disparities in their sounds are quite jarring when placed together, in contrast to the way that the individual sides retain a certain cogency regardless of the track order. But if you’re more adventurous than I am, go right ahead and mix the two together.
There is one inherent flaw in the concept of cutting everything up and rearranging it randomly; if your music player stops when it has played all of the songs rather than looping until hitting the ‘stop’ button (as mine does), there is a very abrupt and awkward finish where it sounds as though the music has yet to resolve, because it still does. Even if there were a track designated as the ‘final track’ to provide musical resolution, it would immediately be removed from that context once the songs were put in random order. Furthermore, even if your music player does loop the songs ad infinitum, at some point you will have to hit the ‘stop’ button, which will similarly cause a sudden lack of musical resolution. Whether or not this will bother you is completely personal; to me it was the only real flaw on an otherwise highly pleasurable listening experience.
Overall, the unique concept of listening to these tracks in a completely random order is absolutely essential to enjoyment. I tried in vain to listen to it in ‘order’ (that is, in the sequence in which they are actually presented) and the effectiveness of the music was blunted. The tracks flowed together somewhat indistinguishably, and although it was really the same exact music I had already praised and enjoyed, the fragments of music were too easy to predict and they quickly fell into that area of ‘unlistening’, where we are listening to music and are aware of its presence but are otherwise preoccupied with something else and therefore unable to pick out or recite any melodies or rhythms of what has transpired. It is astounding how such a simple thing as rearranging the order of the pieces can produce such a vastly different picture. Just like a classical painting such as the Mona Lisa being chopped up and restructured in myriad ways, this album can produce an outrageous number of products through the use of the same elements. You can still see the face and the details of the background, but the way it has all been put together is new and exciting. And best of all, unlike many albums that may lose appeal after time and several listens, this album will be fresh every time it is put on, and will always offer some new soundscape, a new journey for the listener to embark on. This level of replay will have people coming back for seconds, thirds, etc.
Review by Liam McManus