• Julian Fane - Special Forces

    Reviewed by James O'Brien (earlash.com)

    <b> Julian Fane </b> - Special Forces

    Julian Fane's new album, Special Forces, opens with a track that suggests either The Joshua Tree or the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Actually, what it indicates is that Radiohead have forever altered what the first track of a pop record is allowed to sound like. Three-plus minutes of tom rolls and snaking keyboards with haunting ambient vocals give ways to organ chords, and that's Fane's "Disaster Location."

    A deep-bellied cello creates the outline of "Safety Man." Pulsing keys and a violin-like falsetto splash grays and ochres into the space between these lines. It's entirely possible that Fane scattered eighth-inch lug nuts across the snare that erupts at the two-minute mark, and the theremin that wraps itself around the vocal could very well have tilted into Ed Wood territory, but it doesn't.

    As far as this kind of sweeping, arty, semi-instrumental, low rock goes, Fane is in the company of the Swans, Julie Cruise, and the ghost of Slowdive. The production keeps a firm grasp on the chunky drums and bass, observes plenty of ceiling room for the sequences, and fairly skillfully lifts and drops elements from the soundscape to refresh the ear every forty-five seconds or so. The sequences all occupy the general frequency range of the human voice, and Fane's actual vocal tracks are so obscured, in terms of diction and language, that they satisfy what seems to be his impulse to keep it in the realm of just-another-instrument.

    This being said, by track three the production must resort to a broad, dramatic change of tempo and arrangement. No matter how it's sliced, this repetitive, programmed, essentially wordless effort always teeters on the edge of becoming a soundtrack to nothing. It owes a great deal to its predecessors. It's hard not to think of Angelo Badalamenti when almost every track ends with a swell of synth pads. The use of increasing/decreasing volume tactics on the snare/sample loops is reminiscent of English genre-mates Orb.

    Special Forces is not necessarily derivative. It simply struggles to do much other than sit there and execute some familiar moves very well. Exceptions are available. "Stasis," planted firmly in the center of the disc, opens with a beautiful loop of chimes that whirl and cascade through the first minute and a half, gradually joined by bird-like whirrs and coos of strikingly deconstructed percussion. The slippery keyboards end up overwhelming the ear, but this is an example of discovery in the studio, the reassembling of organic and electronic sounds to suggest spiritual, environmental, and most importantly, emotional, subject matter. A few songs later, for the opening of "Book Repository," Fane transforms what sounds like crinkling plastic wrap into a Philip-Glass-cum-Björk rhythm section. It's brilliant.

    What Fane could watch out for in these ambitious impasto paintings he offers is that evil trap Radiohead have laid for all future poptronica explorers. Tom Yorke's vocal mannerism is practically a copyright at this point, and when Fane allows his nitrous-oxide visions to slip into that affectation (most imitatively on "Darknet" and "In Space") it undoes the sure hand he shows throughout the rest of Special Forces. This is probably as fair as complaining about singer-songwriters aping Dylan, but it's still a valid concern. It doesn't ruin Julian Fane, on his new album, but it rather indicates where his own boundaries have been set. It would create a position of strength to surpass that ceiling next time out.

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