When I starting keeping an ear and eye to EOTO two years ago, I had no prior experience with the duo's wildly different band-of-origin, The String Cheese Incident. I knew nothing about these guys, actually, except that they were trying something that combined live instrumentation with software audio looping technology to create improvised electronic music – and that, as a looping musician uninterested in retreading someone else's creative terrain, I would do well to pay attention.
And at first, I was mightily unimpressed. Without the starry eye of a rabid Cheese fan, I saw no reason to privilege this project with the benefit of a doubt. What I saw was one guy admirably drumming his ass off and the other guy just goofing around – no matter what a monster musician Michael Travis was in his other ensembles, here he was just twiddling knobs, more stage presence than virtuosity. When I saw them for the first time at Wakarusa Festival in 2007, I waited fifteen minutes for him to pick up the guitar, and then he put it back on the stand after looping a positively uninspiring two-note diddy that didn't take long to start drilling into my brain. Jason Hann's drumming was stamina-licious, but didn't hold my attention for long. I didn't understand the hype.
How things have changed.
What at one point a was loosey-goosey garage jam of a psytrance outfit has hit the books and the road hard, executing heroic workaholic tours and internalizing the diverse idioms of the world's finest electronic musicians. When these guys aren't practicing, they're asleep, and it shows. Jason Hann has significantly stepped up his game, wresting the King Kong Drummer title from KJ Sawka and Zach Velmer of STS9 by learning a veritable zoo of beats. And Michael Travis is now back-of-hand familiar with the synthesizers and looping programs that define their sound. Together, the two exercise a telepathic sensitivity to the energies of their audiences, uncanny in their capacity to know just when to remix the beat or kick up the intensity, drop out one theme or introduce the next.
I'm a bit embarrassed to admit this, because I know these guys, and I call myself a fan; but it used to be that I was only in EOTO's scene because they had a crowd that liked to watch me paint at their shows. Now, I hold these guys in high respect. I look up to them not only as musicians but as working musicians, people who are constantly challenging themselves to grow and learn, experiment and play, with fair dues paid to what they don't know and a sharp eye to the road ahead.
And in this shift, I've gotten kind of attached. Emotionally invested. I'm not a big sports fan, but I imagine this is what it feels like – when they execute a sterling endgame play, I'm out of my seat and in the air whooping; when I see them slump back toward autopilot mode I'm waving my fist because damnit I know you can do better!
So I'm of two minds about their latest studio release, Fire The Lazers!!!
In one respect, it's the most intense and apocalyptic of the three albums so far – and that feels right, given that their name is an acronym for End Of Time Observatory. There was always something dark and tremendous I wanted them to capture and now they've not only netted it; they've tamed it and bred it into something even more monstrous and awesome. Dubstep and glitch hop have been good to these guys; they know how to ride the scene. I'm amazed that what is in essence a live instudio concert, produced in exactly the same fashion as their live shows and edited only for length, manages to evoke such grandiosity with only two guys. Tone choice is perfect. The mix is crystal clear. And it should not go unsaid that the album's design is pretty classy, perfectly branded with tongue-in-cheek 1950's comic space adventure art and even a trippy lenticular insert. (Although, as an aside: It's not a "hologram," guys. They're two totally different technologies; please stop muddying the waters of lexical precision.) It's one of the most epic sets I have ever heard from these guys, if I block out 2008's Halloween show in Lawrence, KS.
But I'm not too happy with what they've left behind in the process. In spite of its faults, early EOTO managed to balance their darkness with something sparkling and transcendental. No matter how much I felt sucked into the maw of Kronos by their explorations, there was a happy subcurrent, something I came to associate with the influence of Pleiadians and Buddhas they wore on their sleeve. If I suspended disbelief, I could damn near believe this duo was a conduit for divine energies, holding down some seriously sacred vibes while still getting me deeper in my own embodied groove. Plus, I got spoiled: I caught Travis actually wail on that guitar once or twice, saw what he's capable of with a fretboard. I saw the fruit of this holy union between laptops and a live band that reached heights that, with all due respect, groups like STS9 and Boombox would never dare to go. They stirred me into ecstasy with that stuff. And it's painfully missing from Fire The Lazers!!!, which seems a bit more wrapped up in the concept and cool, the groovy club dimension, something...kind of...smug.
In all fairness, I do occasionally see the contours of a gothic cathedral traced in the terrible majesty this album evokes, like in its chill-inducing first track, "Flying Red." But it's never long before those arches disappear into the murky fog of what other listeners would describe with words like "nasty," "sick," and "dirty."
Not to mention, grit aside, the fact that the studio presents a unique opportunity for a band like this to do something truly different, something impossible in their live shows, to stir it up with more sophisticated and fantastic arrangements, inconvenient instruments, and freaky post-production magic tricks. And they blew that one completely.
It isn't easy to be notorious badasses and still keep it fresh; you're constantly at risk of alienating your audiences (no pun intended). And so I'm finally giving these guys the benefit of a doubt. I'm willing to believe that I'll look back on this as EOTO's Dark Night of the Soul, their fling with the Dark Side, where there are no guitars and the shimmering depth is momentarily replaced by some kind of sexy-but-nasty postmodern chic. In fact, I'm almost certain, knowing these guys, that they're probably already kind of embarrassed with this stuff. That the last few months since their last studio sessions have seen a resurrection after their three days underground, a glorious and newly-integrated resurgence I can't wait to hear on the next album.
In the meantime, I love EOTO and what they do enough to tell you that Fire The Lazers!!! is worth a spin. It's a perfect album for certain situations – mostly the kind in which you want to be turned on and spooked out at the same time: autumn midnight drives, deliciously dark psychedelic forays, edgy sex and its neon club seductions. It has kind of a David Lynch-directs-Tron vibe, which is great, and certainly close to what they had intended. And it's light years ahead of their earlier live sets.
But I know they're going to read this review. And I hope they take it as a friendly challenge to bring back the divine intergalactic exultation I fell in love with. Crop circles, after all, aren't made with lazers.
(Written for Colorado Music Board.)