Think of Super/System, the latest release from D.C.’s El Guapo, as a sonic science experiment. The members of the band obviously do. Clocking in with 18 songs in just about 42 minutes, the ambient-punk trio sets a land-speed record for rock ‘n’ roll avant-gardiness while actually managing to create a semicoherent record along the way—emphasis, admittedly, on the “semi.” Working from a palette of dialed-up rhythms, random musical noises, and chanted vocals that scan like parodic beat poetry, Super/System repays repeated listening with subtle melodies and a preoccupation with ticking percussion that should make even erstwhile ravers sit up and take notice. But the main point of the disc seems to be testing how far from pop formalism a band can travel and still satisfy the needs of hard-bitten hook addicts. And El Guapo goes pretty far.
Consider the call-and-response opener, “My Bird Sings,” which milks the title phrase for more than it’s worth. Set to a throbbing double-time beat, the track serves up the mantra “My bird sings/Swelling strings” about a thousand times. What’s it mean? Who knows? After all, this is science: raw research, baby. And though the song is a strange mood-setter, it’s also weirdly pleasant, like a white-noise-maker that lulls you to sleep or the dull buzz of an aging Frigidaire—an approximation of which, by the way, the band threads carefully through the middle of the track’s spacious mix.
For all its weirdness, however, “My Bird Sings” is about as linear as Super/System gets. But the more disjointed El Guapo becomes, the more musically engaging the disc becomes, as when the found digital-machine sounds of “Elguapolis” segue abruptly into the martial drums and faux-military cadence calls of “Inevitability,” a track that channels one of the band’s obvious influences, Gang of Four. But whereas lead Gangster Jon King frequently sounded as if he were piecing together his lyrics from cutups of cultural-studies texts and back issues of Melody Maker, El Guapo seems to be reading from an especially passionate AP physics exam. Check out this immaterial yet unassailable factoid from “Inevitability,” which the group delivers like an opponent-bashing cheer: “The speed (the speed) of light (of light)/Could not (could not) be heard (be heard)/No more (no more) than could/A specific heat be seen.” Got that? Good. ‘Cause here follows a strange cacophony of accordion riffing and bass-line ascending that’s definitely a little harder to grok.
The vaguely menacing “As In…” is also Quiz Bowl material, keeping up the Gang work via a minor-key melodica sound that’s sure to make you wanna party like it’s 1979—even as it traffics in the droning vocalese and lysergic drum pattern of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.” “Disappointment Spelled With ‘V’” works a similar angle but adds Rafael Cohen’s honking oboe, whereas the futuristic spy theme “Buildables” could probably tempt Fred Durst to build his next piece of chart-topping excrement around it. And “Actual Sound” gets seriously meta on your ass, serving up 2:34 of plinking rhythm guitar, scattershot drums, and one peculiar roundelay: “The actual sound/Of my voice/ Not the idea of the sound/A name for the sound/The actual sound/Of my voice.”
Suffice it to say that even though El Guapo seems to have the purest of scientific intentions, Super/System is a tad self-indulgent in places. A shocker, I know. But the cartoonish “Super/stition” is a major letdown, a Triolike trifle that seems to exist for the sake of a self-referential title. Off-kilter delivery aside, “Don’t cross my path/Scary black cat/I want to live/More” is acceptable only if it’s a joke—or an anagram. “Rhyme Scene/Rhyme Dream” finds the band effectively cross-wiring programmed cymbals with a soulful bass line but also mucking up the works toward the end with the sound of accordion scales being practiced ad nauseam. And the broken reggae of “The Kid Is Building Something” sounds as if someone has been spending a little too much quality time with Side 6 of Sandinista!. Though there’s no sheep-bleating (which is too bad, really), the track’s sea-shanty melody, faux-noir interludes, and spliced-in movie dialogue are plenty goofy on their own.
But the album closes with two oddly moving tracks. The penultimate “Clock” counts down to Super/System’s close by refracting the band’s robo hypnotics and improv tendencies through a love affair with Kraftwerk and the Beach Boys. With pretty bah-bah-bah vocals providing the hook, Justin Moyer’s hyperactive bass climbs octaves while a percolating rhythm keeps things moving along. And once it gets past the requisite accordion freakout, the set-closing “Being Boulevards” is the disc’s best bet. It’s a humming, Enoesque pocket epic that sends Super/System out with synthesized warmth and restrained emotionality. Not bad for a bunch of science geeks.
In the end, El Guapo’s arresting new disc comes off less as a super/system than the musical equivalent of a Tonka Toy or an Erector set. The pieces fit together fine, but the whole contraption seems a little unstable, poised to fall over (on purpose?) at any moment. It’s to El Guapo’s great credit that it doesn’t. And anyway, for both scientific purists and musical avant-gardists, the only failed experiment is the one you don’t conduct. CP