Graded on a Curve: The New Sound of Numbers, Invisible Magnetic

In 2006 the Athens, GA band The New Sound of Numbers released their debut album Liberty Seeds, and those smitten with the well-built post-punk it offered have no doubt been champing at the bit for its follow-up. Well, the wait is over and Invisible Magnetic, freshly out via Cloud Recordings, is an excellent and highly distinctive second effort from a group of true vets led by Hannah Jones.

The bio of The New Sound of Numbers is loaded with connections. To begin, the band’s guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter Hannah Jones was previously involved with Circulatory System, where she played alongside New Sound of Numbers-contributor and alumnus of The Olivia Tremor Control John Fernandes.

Also figuring in the scenario are Greg O’Connell and Jeff Tobias of the Athens unit Bubbly Mommy Gun. And NSoN’s status as a regional act with partial ties to the Elephant 6 scene is only enhanced by Jones also figuring as part of Supercluster, a Vanessa Hay-instigated venture that also happens to include her present New Sound of Numbers counterpart Kay Stanton.

If Hay’s name is triggering a few buzzers of recognition, it’s almost certainly due to her vital role in the shaping of Pylon, one of finest names in Athens’ musical back-story. And her participation in NSoN surely increases those geographical conditions as they chart a course that’s divergent from what’s commonly thought of as the Elephant 6 sound. Specifically, The New Sound of Numbers eschews a psychedelic orientation; instead they’re explorers and extenders of the post-punk genre.

While the widespread use and abuse of its techniques has greatly lessened post-punk’s specific reality, ‘twas initially very much a largely European and especially British-based phenomenon. It’s important to not equate subsequent or even roughly parallel developments as simply congruent to the original post-punk impulse, but with that said Pylon was one of the earliest and most notable exceptions that prove the rule.

Today Pylon are often synopsized as the serious-minded body-movin’ Athens coconspirators of The B-52’s, and are additionally cited as being a major link between late-‘70s New Wave and the following decade’s emergence of College Rock a la their hometown partners R.E.M. But all it takes is a cursory listen to their debut ’79 45 “Cool” b/w “Dub” to glean just how deeply Pylon’s thrust intertwines with the music fostered via UK labels like Rough Trade and Fast Product.

For a few years there, the group existed as a reliably interesting and often truly excellent band, and it would be easy to chalk up The New Sound of Numbers’ extremely well-rounded extension of post-punk sensibilities to Hay’s role in the proceedings. However, the large-scaled and somewhat porous NSoN lineup’s clearly defined leader is not Hay but Jones.

The New Sound of Numbers had already been in existence for a few years and even completed Liberty Seeds before Jones was tapped by Hay as a participant in Supercluster, a project that’s been called an open-door regional supergroup of sorts. Indeed, locally grown talent is a pretty crucial element in Supercluster’s concept, an idea that’s been described by Hay as “Appalachian wave.”

And it differs from the general supergroup scheme in that some of the contributors lack much rep outside of the area, though it’s important to note that prior to his death from a heart attack in ’09, Hay’s Pylon bandmate Randall Bewley was a key Supercluster contributor. If sadly gone too soon, Bewley’s guitar work fortunately lives on through Supercluster’s full-length Waves, with Athens residents Jason NeSmith and the high-profile Bradford Cox (he of Deerhunter and Atlas Sound) lending assistance in its completion.

Amongst Waves’ numerous moments can be found the influence of post-punk, but it’s less overt and rather distinct from what The New Sound of Numbers bring to their first effort. If minus Hay, Liberty Seeds, along with detailing the strength of Jones’ post-punk-derived tunesmithing and the depth of her full-bodied sonic conception, is greatly distinguished by the violin playing of Fernandes.

His input only underscores NSoN’s post-punk veneer, accentuating the welcome air of The Raincoats on the tracks in which he figures. That’s nine out of thirteen, but the whole of Liberty Seeds exudes a firm commitment to extending the beautiful advancements revealed via the late-‘70s output of other femme-constituted UK outfits such as Essential Logic, Delta 5, and The Slits.

The Slits in particular, since they and The Raincoats do figure as the easiest points of comparison throughout an intensely focused collection of songs. And Liberty Seeds might be a first album, but it carries the weight of veteran ingenuity; if a breed apart from the Elephant 6 activity that helped to spawn it, the disc retained from those origins the ability to utilize the studio not just as a recording apparatus but as an expressive tool.

Furthermore, New Sound of Numbers’ use of tape collage and manipulation, while completely in keeping with the overall post-post-punk scenario, was also tied to the stranger qualities of some of the more outward-bound Elephant 6 material. To elaborate, while NSoN aren’t psychedelic, on Liberty Seeds’ cuts like “Fifteen Lands at Five” and “Is Is Was Was” they do plunge the ear into sonic waters that are explicitly odd and just as importantly diverse from the UK stuff that basically defines their approach.

Seven years have passed since the arrival of Liberty Seeds, and I’d like to say I’ve been spending all that time appreciating it, but that’s not the case. No, I’ve been very recently pouring over its value as the predecessor to Invisible Magnetic. As a gap between records, seven years is a long time, and I suspect those holding lengthier familiarity with NSoN might be surprised by the expansion that’s taken place.

For Liberty Seeds can be shorthanded as a moody, dark affair. But as the opening title track on its follow-up plays, it’s evident that melodic, and even more so, rhythmic transformations have taken place. Again, this change in tactics might seem applicable to Hay, and it’s undeniable that her presence is felt, but “Invisible Magnetic” honestly registers less like Pylon and more like a Schneider-less B-52s that evolved in the UK under the auspices of Rough Trade.

Notably, “Invisible Magnetic” would’ve been the first cut on that fictitious group’s second release, the one made after they’d smoothed out a few of the appealing early wrinkles in their music’s fabric and used their growing confidence as a springboard for getting down to the business of adapting melody and rhythm to their own needs. It’s a song both exceptionally catchy and rich in sonic detail, but it’s through pure, unabashedly dance-like motions that this imaginary analogy is reinforced.

Back in the real world, this is music made not by individuals quickly becoming comfortable with the sound of their own collective voice, but from musicians with varying levels of experience already behind them, and this plays a huge part in what makes Invisible Magnetic and particularly its second track “Complete” so refreshing. On casual inspection, it’s a deliriously infectious combination of gorgeously fragile but emphatic harmonizing vocals and forceful, terrifically lean Krautrock-esque propulsion, but after closer inspection it’s the precision that makes it so successful.

And this meticulousness also helps New Sound of Numbers in standing out from the crowd of one-dimensional post-punk late-adapters. For instance, “New Dance” is a delicious combo of The Raincoats and an early-B-52s-like spy-movie rocker. Instead of just rehashing ideas that are over thirty-years-old, NSoN bring a point of congruence between two seemingly dissimilar but complimentary elements, with the vocals of Jones and Hay linking Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson to Ana da Silva, Gina Birch, and Vicky Aspinall.

To be frank, that’s something I haven’t heard before. And if Invisible Magnetic at first details a rhythmic agenda that’s not wildly different from what The Slits were doing way back then, The New Sound of Numbers also don’t revert back to it after “New Dance,” with “Patterns in the Test Tube” being mildly reminiscent of The Raincoats’ circa Moving.

But it’s with “Energy Plan” that the LP really takes a big step forward. The first entry on the record to break the three-minute mark, it’s also the one that emphatically sidelines that rhythmic ideal for the emphasis of a woozy pop construction, with the cut chock full of horns, strings, synths, and even Hay on melodica. And yet it’s not a bit disconnected from what’s came before, mainly due to the shaping properties of the singing.

But directly afterward they shift into art-dance overdrive. “Like Children Do” embodies that early-‘80s late-No Wave anemic funk in spades, combining it with brutally simple lyrical chants, fleet percussive additives remindful of a battery of chimes being given a workout by an unusually erudite marching-band drum captain, and at just the right moment the appearance of a wickedly strummed electric guitar. It’s a fantastic assemblage of rapid-fire ideas, and along with “New Dance” it makes plainly obvious that Invisible Magnetic is far from a plate of regurgitated post-punk leftovers.

From there “Green Wind” reestablishes the melodic, though its harmonizing voices are unique from “Energy Plan,” with Fernandes’ violin and the gradually building guitar textures a delight throughout. Then the sweet instrumental “Feel” hypothesizes Stereolab stuck halfway between a rock of arty chamber-pop and a hard place that’s almost garage-new wave in aura. They shrewdly try and Motorik their way out, but no matter how they try just can’t get unstuck.

“Turn Around” only adds a minute to “Energy Plan”’s duration, but it still feels maximal in Invisible Magnetic’s unwinding course, and in leaning to the rhythmic, highlighting their post-punk bona fides as it also deepens NSoN’s intriguing complexion, the track is quite fine. And “Redirect the Current” draws much of its power from a loose but focused ensemble dynamic. A significant part of the post-punk playbook was anti-virtuoso, and New Sound of Numbers do retain that atmosphere but also sharpen it, and again through experience.

“Antenna” quickly sets down a solid mid-tempo and then examines it at length without ever running out of gas, in large part due to the tune’s spacey, almost Robert Schneider-like synth texturing. Next, the brief “Seed Pod Riot” pulls off a considerable feat in employing what sounds like a steel drum for a non-trite result.

By this point NSoN have once again done an impressive job transcending precedent in their creation of a second LP, one that also displays substantial growth. Listening to penultimate selection “Juju Missive” finds their influences readily clear, but you’ll also not likely mistake them for their sources, and this extends to “Galaxies,” the very pretty one minute a cappella closing number.

Invisible Magnetic is outstanding, but if it has a weakness, it’s that even at average LP length the entirety’s heft is slightly muted. This is not to infer that any of the songs are weak; it’s just seems that the cumulative impact is somewhat lessened by the generosity. There are certain cuts that if pulled from the album would’ve made a doozy of a 45, and the force of Invisible Magnetic’s punch would’ve only been increased in doing so. But ultimately this is a very minor complaint; if they offer a little too much of a good thing, NSoN could easily say the same thing about this review.

In closing, I keep coming back to that long interval between records. After reflection, I must say it’s quite attractive. These days, many outfits are spitting out releases at a much faster clip than what was once the pre-internet norm, with young bands trying to get noticed in a blitz of publicity and a ceaseless avalanche of product. Yes, the whole world’s dangerously close to becoming one big stage, and it can really seem like the once ubiquitous contributions of local scenes are a thing of the past.

But then an LP like Invisible Magnetic comes along, carrying with it the specifics of its geography as those circumstances also greatly inform the music in the grooves. And hearing it comes as a breath of fresh air.

Long live regionalism. Long live The New Sound of Numbers.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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