8
Aug 20

Omargeddon #15: Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Jeremy Michael Ward

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To say that a new type of lockdown music has entered the swollen ranks of hyper-specific genres is clearly inaccurate, but I think it’s also safe to say that what is being released during this time has a unifying theme. I’m hearing a lot of frustration and powerlessness manifested as fear-driven anger. That fear and anger is sometimes passive, depressive, confused or hostile, but it’s always present, from exquisitely produced angstpop to rage recorded from a living room.

Recently, the Spotify algorithm overlord delivered me a song from the new Yo La Tengo album We Have Amnesia Sometimes. Recorded in the now-requisite socially distant fashion, it’s a dreamy landscape that flutters between smooth and itchy, existing in the state before unease tips into anxiety. Listening to it made me recall picking Omar Rodriguez Lopez & Jeremy Michael Ward to soundtrack my last holiday, chosen because of the song “Heathrow Waltz”. Back then, I did not get very far before switching it off, because it was far too similar to the airplane engine’s white noise and not at all conducive to the state of beach-soaked relaxation I was geeing up to.

I thought I’d give it another shot, since oppressive, droney background noise is pretty much permanently in my head anyway these days, and out of a sense of duty/fairness telling me that I couldn’t form an opinion of the album without listening to the whole thing at least a couple of times. I was wrong.

This collaboration was recorded in 2001 and initially only given out to friends and family via minidisc but was officially released in 2008. Jeremy Ward was credited with sound manipulation working with At the Drive-In, De Facto and the Mars Volta before his death in 2003, so this album’s “abstract concoction of manipulated sounds and processed, unrecognizable recordings of household objects, everyday activities, passing dialog, and similar ephemera” isn’t a huge surprise. That same press release notes that it was representative of ORL’s concept of artistic freedom as well as the interconnectedness of all his projects, and the similarity between this and the trippy, ambient parts of De-loused in the Comatorium and Frances the Mute are striking.

I love those sections; the way “Eriatarka” vworps into “Cicatriz ESP” sends shivers down my spine, but a whole record of it would be a bit much, and that’s kind of what Omar Rodriguez Lopez & Jeremy Michael Ward is. At times, it skates dangerously close to Despair levels of unsettling weirdness, although less sluggishly evil and more like an angrier Metal Machine Music. There are interesting parts in nearly every track, but they never form a cohesive unit and too often veer into the annoying. Most tracks hover around the 2-3 minute mark, with “Salvo” an agonising fourteen minutes long, and though it’s inaccurate to say there’s no progression across the material, it really does smack heavily of ‘Ross Geller flips between his helicopter and barking dog discs’.

My main beef is that a good deal of this album is nigh-on combative and not just hard to listen to but actually painful. “A Tightrope Supports Our Festering” features a high-pitched whistling that sort of gets distracted and wanders off, like a kettle that’s tripping balls and starts to think it’s a steam locomotive before lying down to stare at a fascinating speck of dust. Aforementioned “Salvo” has some fairly cool, shitty sci-fi B-movie thereminny bits (presumably arrived at without an actual theremin), but it’s far too distracty to be a calming wallpaper. “Impoverished Beliefs” begins by sounding the most evidently like traditional music, a demented sea chanty that plummets into melancholy accordion-like notes but reverts back into high-pitched, squeaky hellishness. The background chatter on “Improvised Beliefs” is infuriating, and “Untitled” is so harsh I’m not entirely convinced it isn’t actually a Despair outtake.

My favourite (to say, the least disliked) track “Swell the Ranks” could definitely have been an outtake from De-loused or Frances the Mute stretched out into a song. It’s the bubbliest and least aggressive one, and I can imagine Jeremy rubbing his hands together in delight before straddling a giant mixing board and diving in. But I honestly don’t have any real desire to ever hear it again.

Fan reviews of the album submitted to Amazon vary, with some really digging its surrealistic grooves (while admitting it’s pretty hard work). But most agree with me, and I think the person who titled their review ‘My buddy at Guantanamo told me this beats Nickleback’ came closest to saying what us doe-eyed fans couldn’t bring ourselves to: this is torture. If Despair is the soundtrack for passing through the tobes of Hades, then Omar Rodriguez Lopez & Jeremy Michael Ward is the OST for the charivari prior to being tarred, feathered, and run out of town. It’s more recognisably music and for the most part jauntier, but where Despair is buzzy and panicky, this is piercing and annoying.

It’s lazy and almost certainly untrue to say this is drug music, but it sure does sound like what I imagine a dull opiate haze feels like. But not even a pleasant nodding opiate haze, more like a slight reprieve from junk-sickness opiate haze. I know I’m probably arriving at this comparison because of the heroin overdose that killed Jeremy Ward, and the fact that it was released many years after his death makes me think it is meant more as a personal tribute to him than anything meant for laymen to enjoy.

Track Listing:
Sounder of Tame Swine
A Tightrope Supports Our Festering
Salvo
Impoverished Beliefs
Heathrow Waltz
Swell the Ranks
Gidi Prime
Swiss Armor Tank
Improvised Beliefs
Host to Fairweather Friends
Untitled

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