. issue VI : ii .
. artist : a minor forest .
. album : flemish altruism: constituent parts 1993-1996 .
. year : 1996 .
. label : thrill jockey .
. grade : a minus .
A Minor Forest’s debut, Flemish Altruism, Constituent Parts 1993 to 1996, is abrasive math rock at the center of a web woven by Polvo, Crain, Sweep the Leg Johnny, and The Spatulas, then Unwound (har). Flemish Altruism is the 90’s: effete callousness, glasses and knit sweaters, vulnerable and stoic and reticently cerebral. A Minor Forest existed in a tension between intricate composition and on-your-toes impulsivity. This is sullen garage shoegaze — there’s an intense delicacy in the performance, but it’s not for anyone; it disregards. The band always played concerts facing each other, even though it meant drummer, slide guitarist and sometime vocalist Andee Connors would have his back to the audience. Totally unbothered by his less-nerdy-Doug-Martsch voice, Erik Hoversten sang and played guitorgan and omnichord in addition to guitar; John Benson played bass and A Minor Forest’s memorable Dictaphone and “Radio Shack” tape recorders; Dominique Davison contributes mournful, memorable cello for classical panache. Indeed, Connors and Hoversten both had a classical background but felt stultified within the tradition; A Minor Forest has deft and eloquent compositional sensibility but none of the restriction, instead deploying noise relentlessly in a collisional revelation.
“ … But The Pants Stay On” is a maturely morbid somber spiral into apathy. Hoversten’s voice is just-right for the music as he broods, “It’s all red asphalt, anyway. It’s all an effort to end anywhere.” When asked about this theme, he said that he perceives “ineffable sadness” — not situational, but systemic and profound, in which the pants (presumably both sexual and as pall-borne responsibility) must stay on. With a Slint-like detachment, a light touch on the steady melodic heald, Hoversten and Benson chime out soft harmonies, with pungent harmonics, snake-charming riffs and drumstick batter for textural bas-relief. Totally sincere, Hoversten bumbles out, “I’ve waited all day for this. Worry about that.” Like most A Minor Forest compositions, “…But The Pants Stay On” persists far past the point where it might have cut cleanly, rather, choosing to be messy, unclosed, unstanched, self-possessedly distraught.
“So Jesus Was At The Last Supper” has a mathy bounce in which the notes are repelled by each other but boing back into proximity with a charged magnetism. Connors is notable on the drums, always attending to and accomplishing with texture, tone, pace, light, soft touch and pull-down bam-bams. Small notes go awry, like the bass turn first an accident (so sorry), but then twice and worst than the first — it’s a deliberate challenge. Every instrument is marginally detuned and brushing-up uncomfortably to magnify the itself inappreciable misstep, just as healthy naturalism often seems bizarre about the things it doesn’t care for, or, indifference can be distasteful. “The Last Supper” posits motoric, irate, yowling guitar, and wretched screams from Connors like a cheese grater with a Glasgow smile, dispensing tracts of vehement mathy noise from the accumulated bluster. At 13 minutes and a screw-you-14-minutes 59 seconds, “Last Supper” is Flemish Altruism’s most extended endeavor, with wending, asymptotic bends on guitar so out-of-focus that they evoke a bagpipe or oboe — with a squashed reedy, lopsided-and-squinty-eyed sound — crashing cymbals, pushing-it steady riffing, a chugging torus of screams, scaling, methodical riffs and confused bass warbling around below like a blindfolded spotter. The improvisational section might in fact be pre-composed, but it is the same sort of section A Minor Forest would replace with genuine improvisation live. A small springy waterfalls of riffs form a down-escalator spring spring, a crooning and honing guitar, pacing drums, harmonics chime beautiful, and then open-mouthed open-throttle careening guitars on pull the cord on a lawnmower field day. Connors’ drum holds it out under a swathe of feedback, like the blanket-for-the-sea waggle-wave-tide in a school play. The low-budget f-ck-you of A Minor Forest positions them at their best; they would have been worse for ‘better’ equipment But no: this is what ‘better’ sounds like.
And “Perform the Critical Straw Transfer,” with cello from Davison, is can’t-even-get-out-of-bed pathetic; the listener is forced to endure a laughably excruciating noise and Connors’ angsty screams. Neat-o. There is nothing so Charlie Brown as “Straw Transfer” — you don’t even feel sorry for this kid; the kid who depreciates himself: “Guess you really lucked out on this one.” The chorus, “It’s all about the little things / Waiting for them to fall / It’s all about the little things / From now on / from now on” is a 90’s couplet a la Built to Spill. But — “Straw Transfer” accrues its confidence in its own awkward sway (see also So, Were They In Some Sort of Fight’s “Wussy,” where A Minor Forest play the same long game) on the choral reprise. And relief from the feedback — along with soft guitar slides over placid daydream cello — now allows the listener to feel concern. A Minor Forest strike a guitar and cello chord at the midpoint, where the song could have stopped, but “Straw Transfer” is the underdog, resurgent at a non-pathetic level and with its kite, too, where, with lines like “Soul-sell a–hole, so what? / He’s down on me, so what?” the song begins to meld valid coming-of-age problems (relationship strife, family strife) with the small incapacities that pepper ‘Charlie Brown’s’ day. A concise drum at the end implements the resigned resolution, “Then I know this is worth it / Then I know this is worth it.”
When asked in an interview if their songs “meant anything,” Connors replied that A Minor Forest was “a completely instrumental band; my vocals and Erik’s vocals and the tape player are all just more instruments.” These are Byzantine compositions with all the surreal confusion and disproportionality of that aesthetic — opulent, saturated and blank by turns, categorical abstractions all proportional to status and value. But if reality is unimportant — if art serves something other than ‘reality’ — this weird diversion doesn’t mind that it’s misinformed.