Tuesday, February 19, 2008

ALBUM: "To the Teeth" - Serafin (Our Rekords, 2008)

Chance pitches the freakiest curveballs from time to time. Just a few months after corresponding with Ben Smith about my original Serafin article back in 2006 I bumped into him moonlighting as a roadie for hapless electro-wazzock Ali Love. It was an odd experience, to say the least - clearly more surprised by the fortuity of the encounter than anything else, we chatted briefly for a few minutes before swapping e-mail addresses and going our separate ways. Last week he got back in touch with heartening news: five years after Warner Bros’ acquisition of Taste Media stuck the knife in their original plans, Serafin have finally regrouped to deliver the long-awaited follow-up to No Push Collide.

The hiatus has clearly not been without creative endeavour, with each member having indulged in a number of musical excursions whose diversity weighs heavily on To the Teeth. Shorn of a major production budget, the album is a scuzzy, down-and-dirty affair - musically and sonically it’s more off-kilter than their debut, and certainly a great deal more unhinged. The band’s trademark chunking guitar stabs remain intact, newly augmented by the hollow clatter of Christian Smith’s urgent drumming. Rhythms chop and change mid-phrase and there are several striking flourishes, most notably when an organ solo partway between medieval rhapsody and Ray Manzarek’s work in The Doors unexpectedly bursts to life. Interestingly, for the first time since his days fronting Stony Sleep, Smith’s world-music influence returns, with Bones adding Egyptian-flavoured strings to the mix and Lord opening with a quasi-religious chant that wouldn’t appear out of place in the catacombs of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Opening track To the Lost and Found establishes the album’s erratic tone with eerie intent, its skeletal melody descending tenuously like a spider on a thread. There’s definitely a feeling that the sense of purpose that characterised their early singles has been jettisoned in favour of a freer approach in which ideas are left to slowly coagulate rather than uniting from the outset. Consequently, To the Teeth ripples with uncertainty, fluctuating between desperate pleading (“Keep me like a brother / Please don’t treat me like any other”) and vitriolic defiance (“Screw you, and screw your friends”) within the space of a few songs. As a singer Smith sounds distracted throughout, his indolent vocals meandering over the melodies as if traversing some kind of scattered cerebral landscape; the album is littered with idle ruminations left casually strewn around like post-it notes - “I must remember to stop breathing”; “I think I’m going round the bend”.

Whereas No Push Collide was an album of full-frontal attack, oftentimes the songs here are drifting, non-linear affairs lacking a notable centre. Oddly, the record it reminds me the most of (in design if not sound) is the Arctic MonkeysFavourite Worst Nightmare – though in no way musically comparable, they share a sense of woozy disconnection, as if wandering giddily through a sickly daydream. Smith has always exhibited a fragmented perspective in his writing, but on this record he weaves a web of riddles and thought-patterns so complex that the cumulative effect is akin to emerging from a bad drug-trip: we arrive just at the moment of waking, unsure as to whether the feeling is one of muted euphoria or insufferable hangover.

Its standout track is Arms, a song which best embodies the album’s psychotic push-pull and also one of the finest things Smith has ever written. Haunted by a sad, almost Joy Division-esque synth line, its liquid chords drift aimlessly as they attempt to bring form to the singer’s evident resignation, before finally stuttering to attention to deliver a stark warning partway between violence and despair: “You’re in danger / in my arms”.

To the Teeth
doesn’t always make for comfortable listening, but its languorous rhythm is certainly hypnotic and it’s an album that rewards perseverance. It’s occasionally pretty (Scars), often mesmerising (as in the wandering see-saw melodies of Snake), and frequently exhilarating (News is a pummelling beast of a track that would easily slot alongside Day by Day in the band’s live set). It’s an album that leaves questions dangling rather than seeking to provide easy answers: an unstable mistress who wins the heart then runs away.