For a band that once titled an album Love Is Simple, Akron/Family has a knack for making things complicated. While there’s a surface level thematic simplicity to the band’s output—nature, freedom and community are obviously important to these dudes—the music they make and the stories surrounding that music are often willfully obtuse. Even the name is confusing. The band draws it’s moniker from a town in Ohio, but the members all hail from other states; they bill themselves as a family but they aren’t related in a biological sense. The band’s last album, the Boredoms-style noise meets psych-rock fantasia Akron/Family II: The Cosmic Birth And Journey Of Shinju TNT, came with a backstory as convoluted as its title. The group’s newest record, Sub Verses, could be seen a return to the band’s earlier Young God days, but even that’s an oversimplification. As the “Sub” in the title suggests, it’s helpful to look beneath the surface.
After over a decade of combining drum circles rhythms, folk music sentiments, Swans-like volume and Sun Ra-esque astral projections, Akron/Family has gotten very good at being consistently puzzling. Their albums are never quite the same, but they tend to be different in the same way: a slight left turn from the previous album that reveals a new aspect of the band’s identity without reinventing its sound. Sub Verses is perhaps the first Akron/Family album that finds the band gazing backward. “Sometimes I/I grow tired/Sometime I/I get weary,” the band sings on “Sometimes I,” a lurching horror-movie-string mood-piece. The pauses in the verses suggest a type of trepidation that’s been hard to find in the band’s exceedingly confident music in the past, but they’re more thoughtful than nervous here. Self-reflectiveness is a good look for a bunch of guys so heavily invested in their own mythology.
Having spent so much time racing from one experiment to the next, it’s fun to hear the band settle in and take stock in its own legacy. Working with producer Randall Dunn (Sunn 0))), Earth, Black Mountain), the song’s have a monolithic quality, a sturdiness that supports even some of their flimsier ideas. Opener “No-Room” is the longest track on the record, clocking in at under seven minutes and building off a swirling percussive flutter and a blues-rock guitar riff that grows angrier as the song progresses, eventually conjuring a wall of blooming feedback. The next song, “Way Up,” is the weakest point on the record, failing to muster up enough emotional potency or rhythmic intensity to escape the inevitable Animal Collective comparisons that will surely dog the wailing vocals and the bubbling synth.
The album grows darker (and better) in its second half. “Holy Boredom” begins with a pumping, factory-like percussion sound and a bit of deep chanting, before drawing you into a heavily distorted yell-along. Half-way through the music drops out and we’re left only with a vocal howl about finding ourselves “back in the presence of our skin.” With that visceral call, the song rips open in a way that makes you feel like you’re getting sucked through the open window of a plane. From there on the album alternates between psychadelic stomping (“Sand Time”), sensual vamping (“Whole World Is Watching”) and orchestral lounge music grousing (“When I Was Young”) with startling precision and professionalism. When the group returns to hymnal-like country on the album’s final song, “Samurai,” it doesn’t feel like a retreat so much as a homecoming.
“I’m sorry I didn’t know,” the three members sing together on “When I Was Young.” That sense of regret hangs like a thin myst over the album, enveloping even the more traditionally bombastic, guitar-driven moments. That quivering melancholy edge is what makes the album so complicated and compelling. However, the apologies found on the record are never pleading or embarrassed. It makes sense that a band that’s spent so many years preaching kindness, generosity and love would look back in the same way: not with anger, but with dignity and grace.