Cleveland ambient wizards Emeralds have spent the last six years building a reputation that doesn’t exactly hinge on the concept of accessibility. Through countless CD-R releases, cassettes, collaborations, singles and side projects, the trio of John Elliott, Steve Hauschildt and Mark McGuire has amassed a staggering amount of hypnotic and enchanting music, but for many casual listeners the group’s 2010 LP, Does It Look Like I’m Here?, was the big coming-out party: a sprawling yet cohesive journey into the depths of a carefully cultivated psychedelic, Kraut-drone universe. After two years the band has released a follow-up, Just To Feel Anything, and it’s an even bigger gamble for the group but in a surprising way. Instead of continuing to explore the blacklight-friendly star-map of their comfy aesthetic planetarium, Emeralds have made a warp-drive leap into the experimental-pop realm.
What’s changed? At first glance, not a lot. Just To Feel Anything opens with a fairly typical mercurial swirl that sounds like dusk settling on an ocean of glass, but about halfway through, the song’s Terminator-style beat kicks in, adding a new-found intensity to the group’s typically starry-eyed mysticism. The big difference here is a type of sonic clarity and directness from which Does It Look Like I’m Here? shied away. In an interview with SPIN‘s Control Voltage blog, synth player Elliott explained the outfit’s new sound by saying, “Introducing instruments like these to the band is a logical progression. No point in standing still all the time.”
While the point of Emeralds was often to stand still, the new album finds the band fully embracing Giorgio Moroder flourishes, Tangerine Dream soundtrack theatrics and post-rock dynamics they only flirted with in the past. The escalating guitars toward the end of “Andrechrome” sound like credit music for a Michael Mann-produced TV show about tough-guy space cops, with McGuire’s crystalline playing providing the perfect accompaniment for our heroes as they walk down the beach together playing grab-ass. “Through And Through” strikes a more sensual, romantic tone, using the guitar to draw out little silver robot tears. It’s the perfect type of sentimentality, skipping the arch, knowing verisimilitude of Drive or Twin Shadow and instead striking the messier, gritty emo-ness of Thief or Cocteau Twins.
As the album progresses its two primary modes—mournful space-rock and playful not-quite-ambient electro-pop—begin to merge in unexpected ways, often vibrant (the smooth, spiraling transcendence of “Everything Is Inverted”) and occasionally disappointing (the sprawling, groove-driven title track). When the trio is locked into a specific idea or style (the guttural noise of “The Loser Keeps America Clean”), it’s untouchable, but problems arise when it starts chasing big moments of catharsis. For example the title track starts off with all sorts of cricket-like chirps, twinkling synth lines and New Age touches, then seems to build toward a giant communal woosh, like the type of head-crushing tremors you find on a Godspeed album, but the band chooses to pursue a more ecstatic and less punishing finale. It’s fun and diverting, but not really satisfying.
The band feels more in its stylistic comfort zone on the final track, the post-apocalyptic acid-Western come-down “Search For Me In The Wasteland,” a slow-motion crawl toward the finish line that combines McGuire’s lush acoustic guitar playing with smeared synth rumbles. For an album that begins in the stars, it’s oddly fitting that it ends so close to Earth. While some longtime fans may find Just To Feel Anything‘s retreat from the cosmos a disappointment, the album’s relative conceptual restraint actually allows it to be even more emotionally accessible, inviting the listener into the trio’s interstellar clubhouse instead of only letting us peak in from the outside.