Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Partial Birth

Reality Memory Sensation [EP]
The Fetus Tree

Michael Mullings, the Austin songwriter/guitarist/experimental musician who records as The Fetus Tree, sent me a package in the mail with quite a bit to digest. Three CD's worth, one summarizing his early work, another with his most recent completed release, and a third including some early mixes of his unfinished next opus. This is an excellent opportunity as a reviewer. Normally one has to extrapolate from a single recording what a musician's roots are, and what direction they're heading next. I was able to listen to Reality Memory Sensation, take some notes, and see whether my assumptions about The Fetus Tree's development process were correct. Then I was able to put on the preview of the next record and see whether the progress I wanted to hear based on the EP was taking place or not.

Mullings is an intriguing artist, one whose music is equal parts IDM and guitar-based folk. Reality Memory Sensation gives each element of his sound a track of its own and then attempts to combine streams for its closer, "Sensation," which weds a circular electric guitar figure with programmed disruptions. Without the electronic additions, his guitar-based songwriting is a little dreary, with little in the way of melodic advancement and gloomy vocals. The collection of earlier recordings he sent along shows why The Fetus Tree needed to move past a totally guitar-centered identity -- other than the atypically upbeat "Magic," the tracks are colorless and droning. The electronic composition "Ocean <-> Sky" contrasts oddly with the guitar/vocal numbers.

Along with the first EP track, "Reality," Fetus Tree's electronic stuff does have a weakness in common with their singer/songwriter tunes. They're not nearly extroverted enough. "Reality" has a lot of development and changing rhythmic and melodic pedals, but the patches selected are well within the normal range of expectations for modern-day electronic music. You won't hear anything that shocks you, and the melodies are almost too politely mixed low and employed for fleeting moments. The music could stand to be much prettier, or much more obnoxious, or both, but it definitely needs to take risks one way or the other.

Combining approaches seems the natural answer for The Fetus Tree to hit upon a sound that's both memorable and original. "Sensation," the last track on the EP, shows both how this could work and the pitfalls involved. It's far and away the most interesting piece Mullings has completed thus far, with its odd, longing guitar melody and unsettling programmed bass tones, but it also has technical problems. The guitar performance and the delay effect applied to it aren't lined up properly with the electronic elements, and that really undermines the lulling, hypnotic effect that the track ought to have. As odd as it is that the bulk of his early releases switch back and forth from one style to the other, you can see why The Fetus Tree didn't jump into a hybrid approach right off the bat. It's a lot easier to theorize about than practically execute.

The tracks from Audio Sketches Vol. 1, the next Fetus Tree project, show things continuing to cohere. The programmed elements are more of a vital cog to the songs than incidental noise, the live instruments and vocals sound in closer touch with the beats (although still not perfect), and unexpectedly Mullings is beginning to develop more attitude and personality in his vocals. That's a most welcome development. I look forward to hearing the completed new record.

Oh, one more thing: I don't like the band name at all. It's tacky and politically confrontational in a way that doesn't match up with the project's music in any way, shape, or form. "Fetus Tree" makes me think of a Megadeth album cover or something. There's probably a way to label the elements of genesis, creation, and rebirth present in this music that doesn't call to mind images of people firebombing Planned Parenthood.

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