LISTEN NOW: SlowEarth Deconstructs The Concept Album For The Internet Age

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The musical climate in the States these days is fairly homogenous. By this time, we’ve all fought through the adolescence of broadband Internet, that which confounded established wisdom and changed the rules of the hustle almost overnight. Rebellion was cool, then ceased to be cool in an ironic way, then became cool again. The pillars that we thought we understood are in constant flux: inconsistency is the new normal, and we’ve all grown accustomed to that.

These days, it’s rare to find a local band with a history longer than a couple years. The idea of longevity works totally at odds with our collective attention deficit. Music comes in quick, hot bursts and fades into other forms as quick as you please. It would never work: you can’t distill epic 1970s concept albums into every-six-month SoundCloud EPs. The age of Tommy is over. The Wall has given way to the charmingly quirky pop ballad written by the good-looking scruffy urban lumberjack. The good news is that we get a lot of hip music released, and those releases are often rapid fire. The flip side of the coin, however, is that we rarely get anything with more ambition; we rarely see anything that tries to challenge the listener.

Unless you happen to live in Atlanta.

SlowEarth is a four-piece electro-rock outfit with a 25-year history. Over the last four years, they’ve crafted an intense, ambitious, double concept album called Construct. With twenty nine tracks and nearly a hundred minute-playtime, the effort falls totally at odds with the modern zeitgeist of steady, quick releases that (generally) have little to no narrative – all within the confines of a genre that is not typically associated with “indie.” Yet indie they remain: the music is fiery and anti-authoritarian with a mixed sense of the punk layered over a certain abstract, well, sweetness – the band has ditched that misanthropic sensibility that often comes with electronica/rock hybrids. Construct pulls the American dream apart by its seams during the first half, then rebuilds it into a strange – sometimes frightening – alternate vision during its finale and denouement.

I had the chance to sit down for a couple of hours with Zach Solem (vocals, programming), Richard Farmer (drums), Joe Price (guitars, design) and Ben Thomas (synth, bass, programming) to talk with them about the genesis of Construct; its personal and professional implications, the state of the music industry, gear, and about a million other off-the-cuff things. The men behind the record talked over each other in a friendly, affable way; it’s easy to understand how the band has lasted as long as it has during the most tumultuous time the music industry has ever seen.

A brief history: SlowEarth released Cage in 2001 and followed with 2003’s Edge, a seamless, interlude-laden, soundtrack-like reimagining of Cage. They had every intention of repeating that process with 2006’s Beautiful Machines, but lost the thread toward the late 2000s. Instead, they released a twenty-track collection of songs from the band’s younger years called Vault in 2010. In other words, we aren’t talking about a group of men who are quick on the release-new-material trigger. They’re thoughtful, careful, and take some time between releases. Conventional wisdom dictates an album a year, and nü-rules has an EP every six-months with a digital/physical hybrid release. SlowEarth doesn’t fit into that niche. They’re candid about it as well. Solem talks almost spiritually about writing and releasing SlowEarth material. “I call it the conduit,” he says. “Whatever that power is, it starts to create itself [and grows] with you.”

Construct evolved organically and holistically, without a sense of self-imposed pressure to prematurely release a fractured idea. The band’s entire catalog has been written this way back to the very beginning. When asked if the concept or the music came first using the old chicken-and-egg causality dilemma, they all yell one or the other over each other like the old friends they obviously are. All four men come back to the same point, though – the narrative and concept for the album grew with the music. Nothing in the process was disjointed; the concept grew from and fed on the music, the design of the physical product sprang from – and influenced – the lyrical content.

Talking with SlowEarth makes this seem like an inevitability. How could it be otherwise? The processes of creation and revision were so intertwined during the genesis of Construct that they became hard to discern from one another to the band itself. So, which came first? The chicken, maybe? They don’t really know, and that’s a good thing – also, it’s another difference between SlowEarth and many other bands in the Internet Age. This is a record that was penned, above all else, directly through the conduit, to use Solem’s metaphor.
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The music of Construct is a rollercoaster. The opening track, “Providence,” begins with a long intro fade of clipped and chopped interjections (“Google for your life!”) and builds to a tremendous mid-tempo monster of a tune. Here’s the interesting bit: that sort of tempestuous, metal-influenced style doesn’t at all prepare the listener for the rest of the experience. SlowEarth drops the bomb at moment zero and fills the array with a multi-genre, almost schizophrenic mix of highs and lows. That’s all according to that weird sort of unplanned evolution they’ve created and directly fuels the concepts of construction and deconstruction. Those two concepts buttress every facet of the record, keeping it oddly grounded. You hear militaristic, marching-band-like Wagnerian interludes that feed directly into melodic and syncopated synth-pop. That isn’t something you hear often today.

If you wiggle five bucks just right at a local rock show, you can walk to the car with a monochromatic, single sleeve compact disc – I have about a million floating around. Price, SlowEarth’s guitarist, designed a beautiful slipcover for Construct, and the band packaged the record by hand. We all know that sort of DIY kaizen, the feeling of connection with the audiences, but the band really went above and beyond. It has a distressed, tornado-like writing-on-writing vibe that feels very ray-gun gothic; think of retro-futuristic print media or the early days of post-modernism. The discs are printed beautifully…even the liner notes are stylized in such a way that denotes a crazy amount of diligence. You can immediately see that a ton of work went into the album’s presentation, right down to its wax seal. This sense of presentation is the first of many concrete doses of departure from the norm you get with Construct.

The concept, the packaging, the writing philosophy, the tunes. All this stuff adds up to a band that doesn’t really work like the rest of us have over the last decade or so. They’re an old-school outfit. Somehow, in an age far faster-paced than its predecessors, that is very satisfying. It feels new again.

So, is Construct great? It sunk its teeth into me. You listen and decide.

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