For fans of: Dirty Projectors, AU, Of Montreal, Freddie Mercury, and seven-piece symphonies
A friend of mine once described the symphonic groundswell in alternative music as “emo kids on LSD.” To the psychotropically inexperienced, this must sound like the terrifying nightmare of whiskey-and-Parliaments-diet idealizing, self-immolating teenage nihilists. He was, however, gushing over Panic! at the Disco’s surprise sophomore offering Pretty.Odd., an album very much indebted to Sgt. Pepper which is itself very much indebted to LSD culture if not just the ‘at the time’ OTC drug. The album was often euphoric, hardly what you’d anticipate, and matured far beyond the lovelorn caterwauling of its turn of the millennium forefathers. If Pretty.Odd. is what happens when you add a drop of ego death to the over-sincere anguish of emo, then the results are encouraging enough to hope everyone else follows suit.
That was nearly 8 years ago, but the tripification of music is audible in just about every genre from its gestational homeland of EDM all the way to indie-folk. It’s not just that the music has gotten more symphonic, either. Lyrically, the abandonment of despair and broken hearts for more mature and introspective concepts is near total, save where the audience’s primary concern is virginity and getting above 1100 on the SAT.
San Francisco’s cleverly named Makeunder makes me want to take LSD, for I feel that is the only way I could fully appreciate and hear everything stuffed into each second. Their album covers say it all: a body in a fine suit with a psychedelic cosmic jet blasting from the neck. This is mental landscape music. The first time I heard Makeunder, it was the height of peeping season here in Boston. I was working on the 12th floor of a suburb-facing high-rise, staring out my window and getting lost in synesthetic pleasure. I listened to nothing else the rest of the day, ran home to hook their album up to my speakers and blasted it so I could feel the bass in my guts.
In this age when just about anyone can make music with their computer and spare time, the composers have once again risen to the top. This is perhaps where Makeunder gets its name. Hamilton Ulmer’s compositional restraint is extraordinary but wise, given how much he gets out of each little piece. Any more, and it could very easily devolve into an Of Montreal rip off. There are few songs that sound like the whole band is playing; instead, Makeunder masterfully invokes scenes with abrupt changes in instrumentation or layers the same instrument over itself. It’s this controlled overstimulation that makes a few hollowed-out songs feel rather pronounced, if not a bit plodding. More often than not, this is saved by the band’s harmonies, easily their fullest instrument, expertly used to incite awe and anxiety from one measure to the next.
Makeunder’s latest EP, Great Headless Blank, autobiographical if not conceptual, details a tragic period in the life of lead singer Hamilton Ulmer. In the space of a few months, his brother fell into a coma, his grandfathers and father died, his girlfriend lost her US visa, and he and his siblings had to sell everything in and including their parents’ house to pay medical bills. Makeunder’s first EP, Radiate, Satellite, technically a solo album, was written while Ulmer was cleaning out that house, using only an alto sax, a violin, and a drum. It’s context that can enhance listening if that’s what you want to ruminate on, but you might have a hard time discerning that on your own. Furthermore, there’s plenty to hear and extract without a predetermined narrative. Simple observations of domestic life flow between giant concepts heard in salons and dorm rooms. Free will versus helplessness. Suburban decay. Death is a big subject with Makeunder, not because it’s scary or edgy but because death is always with us and you have to come to some sort of agreement with it in order to live properly.
There just isn’t enough music like this. Exhilarating, original, thoughtful music. I really do hope Makeunder tries to work out a national tour soon, because I’m sure it will be a euphoric experience.