Graded on a Curve: Lungfish, Artificial Horizon

If you want to see me run and hide, merely utter the word “emo.” A slippery and nebulous genre, emo, but basically it encompasses any band whose lead singer spent his sophomore year in high school writing deeply sensitive poetry he didn’t show anybody, and who possesses the sense of humor of a garden gnome. Invented in my crapulous adopted home town of Washington, D.C. by the Rites of Spring, it spread like a sincerely fatal virus across the nation, leading to many sensitive singers expressing their most heartfelt emotions in an intense manner while subjecting those of us who didn’t care to suffer for somebody’s else’s art much emotional anguish.

All that said, I’ll make an exception for Baltimore, Md.’s Lungfish, because while they’ve occasionally been lumped under the emo banner I don’t hear much soul baring in 1998’s Artificial Horizon. What I hear is rock solid, no frills, well-played post-hardcore, and far from being journal-entry poetic singer Daniel Higgs’ lyrics are minimalistic. Indeed, he often doesn’t sing at all. Perhaps what got Lungfish labeled as emo was Higgs’ seeming lack of a sense of humor. But overall Lungfish’s emo classification just goes to show you how misleading labels can be. If Lungfish is an emo band so are Gwar.

Formed in 1987, Lungfish has released 12 LPs, with Artificial Horizon falling right in the middle. Their LPs tend to be as solid as the Berlin cobblestone I keep on my bookshelf; they’re “nuthin’ fancy,” to quote the great Lynyrd Skynyrd, but they’re mostly excellent, especially if you’re looking for a band that sticks to what it does best and knows better than to tinker with a winning formula. As Higgs told an interviewer, “There’s a temptation to bring in all kinds of crazy new sounds but ultimately, we’ll stick with the guitars and drums.” That we includes, in addition to Higgs, Asa Osborne on guitar, Nathan Bell on bass, and Mitchell Feldstein on drums. The band does have an undeniable poetic bent; both Higgs and Feldstein have published books, a perusal of which would cast a brighter light on Lungfish’s emo quotient.

The LP opens with the instrumental “Black Helicopters,” which establishes an ominous groove that slows occasionally, then kicks back in. Osborne’s guitar work is fantastic, and the rhythm section is totally in lockstep. My only problem with the tune is that it doesn’t build, and goes out not with a bang, but with a whimper. The wonderfully titled “Oppress Yourself” is a great mid-tempo tune, what with Higgs throwing out phrases to the accompaniment of Osborne’s guitar. But what’s really cool about the song is its chorus, which is simplicity itself; Higgs merely repeats the title four times, but those repetitions have power, as do such lines as “Hanging from the ceiling/Eating off the floor.” I have no idea what he’s going on about and I’m not sure he does either, but in the end it doesn’t matter; the song’s impressive groove is enough to keep me happy.

“Amnesiac” is another instrumental, but unlike “Black Helicopters” it moves at a relatively fast speed. Osborne does cool things with his guitar, amazing things for that matter, and I’m sorry this one’s over and done with in about 2.5 minutes. The sentiment expressed in “Love Will Ruin Your Mind” gets my total endorsement; as for the song itself, it features Higgs backed by a weird second voice that produces nonsense sounds. Meanwhile the band is as rock solid as ever, although the brief instrumental section doesn’t do much for me. “Ann the Word” is a sturdy-as-a-brick slow-burner that features Higgs singing about how he was stalked by echoes and wore amphibian skin and his eyelashes fell out, which makes me think he wasn’t having a good day. Especially when he vomits a blinking eye; I’m no optometrist, but I’d have that looked after. As for “Slip of Existence,” it’s louder and more raucous than its predecessors, with the guitar wailing like a siren and Higgs shouting into an echo chamber, growing more insane as the song moves along. It slips away in a fade-out, but it’s great while it’s around, as is the instrumental “Free State,” which features a gargantuan drum beat and some vaguely Middle Eastern guitar that grinds away in a wonderfully repetitive way.

The instrumental “Truth Cult” opens with some cool percussion and a droning guitar, establishing a groove that is hard to resist, and would sound tremendous on drugs. On and on it goes, subtly psychedelic thanks to yet more Middle Eastern flavored guitar and that percussion, and where was Higgs during these instrumental-heavy sessions, anyway, in study hall jotting down poetry that owes an immense debt to Joy Division? “Shed the World” is a fast-paced rocker, with Higgs digging in and the guitar wailing away and the rhythm section keeping the song from descending the stairs of suck like a demented Slinky. “Don’t shun the world,” Higgs sings, “Shed it,” and I’ll be damned if I can see the distinction, but I’m no poet and have never understood a single word of Ezra Pound, although I often lie and say I do.

“Pray for the Living” is another sturdy drone rocker, with Osborne playing big riffs while Higgs goes on about praying for the living and the dead, and the sleeping and awake, backed by a woman who I’ve yet to find listed in the LP’s credits. This is slow head-banging music, the sound of a band that eschews special effects and wild tempo changes for a sound that can only be described as monolithic. Closing track “Light for All” opens slowly with hard-hitting drums and a simple guitar figure, then veers to the left as Osborne plays a beautiful guitar solo over the unvarying drums. It will put you in a trance, this one, and is perfect for rocking back and forth to, but it ends too soon for my tastes—I could listen to that drone for 20 minutes, easy, and never tire of it.

The formulaic simplicity of Lungfish’s aesthetic makes them an easy band to underestimate, and that’s too bad because they’re making vital music. You will return to their albums, seduced by their droning, dependable sound, which is both Lungfish’s strength and its weakness. Own one and you own them all, but they’re all excellent, and how many bands can you say that about? Lungfish’s LPs may just be vinyl, but they’re as hefty as the cobblestone I mentioned earlier. Lungfish produces formidable LPs, and there isn’t an emo bone in the band’s body. Never trust labels; they lie like the literary figure Lillian Hellman, about whom a fellow literary figure, Mary McCarthy, wrote, “Every word she writes is a lie, including and and the.”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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