If you were to peer in on American life from the era of pre- and early-Internet, you’d have no idea what was going on.
Back then, men who wanted to make complicated, noisy instrumental music were everywhere. All over the country, basements were deployed for the purposes of improving the sound of noisy, rhythmic instrumental bands, and the friendships of those who played in them. Disaffected rock fans wanted to little more than to come together in sonic squall over some tangled 11/8 time signature — not, say, tweet some uninformed racist nonsense anonymously from the basement computer.
Think of An Anderson as a gift sent here from that era. At the time of this record's official release in December 2016, this cohort had been playing together around five years, having produced the excellent six-song EP Parts in winter of 2013. A supergroup of Portland-area musicians, guitarist Ron Harrity had played in Honey Clouds and operated record label Peapod Recordings. Bassist Stefan Hanson of Huak played in Perfect Hair with guitarist Dan Smith, who played in Cuss with drummer Elijah True. By the time they formed, it seemed they already worked well together.
The band's latest album, Very Machine, is a single 35-minute track. Released nearly a year ago, but it deserves attention today for several reasons, not least of which that it's a towering musical achievement. Like what you like, but I'd challenge anyone to listen to this in full and make an argument that An Anderson aren't one of the most exciting bands to come out of Portland.
With music like this, you either know its antecedents or you don't. Groups like these are rare. They take years to cohere to this level of intensity and excellence. But even before that, they require people who have the time and wherewithal to learn how to manipulate their instruments like this. And finally, they need whatever spirit is required to make art this fantastic and complex with little to no expectation of audience or grand reception. The last time I saw An Anderson was at Geno's last fall, one of the final sets for October's Waking Windows festival. They played Very Machine in its entirety. Maybe 15 to 20 people attended.
And that's fine. From getting drunk, reading Twitter, playing Pokémon, keeping up with the White House, tending to human relationships, making an income, harboring or discrediting various political conspiracies, watching TV (and reading subsequent hot takes on TV), liking @earlboykins posts on Instagram, and whatever else people do to pass the time in America in 2017, there's a lot to do. And there's simply not a lot of cultural capital found in loud, instrumental math-rock.
Now I'm going to try to describe the actual album. On the surface, Very Machine may seem like an experience obsessed with its own intelligence and complexity, but it's way better than that. It's rhythmically polyglot and texturally dense, but its tight weave of sections never feel desultory or arbitrary. The guitars of Dan Smith and Ron Harrity vacillate between steady, repetitive patterns and discordant melodies, stumbling upon oddly moving and memorable passages through repetition more often than a lyrical passage. Having seem them live, bearing pedal boards so vast they look like tiny simulations of cities, the dynamic range Harrity and Smith are able to coax from their guitars is incredible. Others playing postrock often resort to grandiose emotionality and gesture. By contrast, An Anderson sound industrious, workmanlike; more attentive to process than payoff.
Of course, a solid rhythm section is requisitional for guitars to do that sort of work, and bassist Stefan Hanson and drummer Elijah True are truly marvelous here. By the album’s 14-minute mark, when a cacophanous noise break marries a passage where Smith's quirky guitar line repeatedly snakes away from an avalanche of tom hits to another section where steadily galloping percussion leads the band into what feels like Very Machine's spinal core — what is that time signature, 13/8? — and it's clear that drummer Elijah True is the lifesblood of the group. It's his effortlessly dextrous ability to juggle complex mathematical precision among abrupt shifts in tempo and mood that enables the album's unexpected emotional highlight, a dizzying passage from 23:30 through minute 29 that could serve as the band's most impressive composition to date. As rare as it is to find a drummer this good, it's rarer still to find one who refuses opportunities to be showy, and True's steadfast, head-down intensity through this articulate passage is perfect.
Last winter, after this album's release, Elijah True was diagnosed with a form of cancer, which he is still battling. While that's a challenging and difficult diagnosis for anyone — let alone a thirtysomething husband and father — it's particularly hard to fathom having witnessed his electrifying and vital performance on this album, and in this band. While An Anderson remains on hiatus, two shows have been assembled by the Portland music community to raise money for his medical bills. Like this album, they're strongly recommended.
"What Had Happened?: A Benefit for Elijah True," with Johnny Cremains + Uncertainty + Mouth Washington + Ossalot + Cryptic Overcast | Aug 25 | Fri 8pm | SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland | by donation | https://ananderson.bandcamp.com/album/very-machine
"What Had Happened? A Benefit for Elijah True - Night Two," with Cushing + FCC + 300 Calories + id m theft able + Old Night | Sep 8 | Fri 8pm | The Apohadion, 107 Hanover St., Portland | by donation
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