Wax On Radio.
Over the past two weeks, I've been pretty much unable to stop listening to "Exposition", the debut album by a Chicago-area band called Wax On Radio. They're one of those bands that came completely out of nowhere for me--my friend Brandon mentioned them to me and sang their praises so effusively that I had to have the album. Then I fell even more in love with it than I think he did. But it seems like we're pretty much the only people who know of its existence. Which is a tragedy, because this is a truly great album, the kind that only comes along a few times a year (if you're lucky). "Exposition" has a cinematic feel, moving through moods and settings like one of those long films from decades gone by that makes you feel like you've been invited into a hidden world, one that is self-contained, elaborately detailed, and full of mystery and wonder. Wax On Radio's sound helps create this feel, as they are prone to reverbed-out lead guitar lines and extended, ambient interludes. The album begins with "Today I Became A Realist", an acoustic song that begins as a solo performance by singer/guitarist/songwriter Mikey Russell. Underneath his strumming and singing, crowd sounds are added in, giving the impression not of a rock concert but instead a coffeehouse crowd, at least as many of which are continuing to converse with friends as are paying attention to the performance. As the song continues, and Russell's acoustic guitar is joined by percussion and minimal bass lines, the audience seems to become absorbed by the song, an illusion that continues through the last chorus, when the entire audience suddenly joins Russell in singing the song's final line, "Sail on quick, fly past the world, find me a love." This last line, which will turn up later, is a helpful indication of what this entire song represents, which is a prelude, a setting of the tone for this entire album. As the guitar and vocals fade out, a keyboard line playing the melody of the song fades in, and when it has become the only sound we're still hearing, it switches to the melody line of the next song as scratchy record sounds fade in under it. We're now transitioning into the first movement of the album proper, a transition completed as the keyboard line builds and finally becomes the actual song it's referencing, "Time Will Bind Us To The Guilt of Commitment."
This is the first song on which we get to hear Wax On Radio's actual sound, which is a fascinating mix of several different rock subgenres. The music integrates heavy, guitar-driven indie rock of the 90s with the spacy ambient sounds of 70s prog-rock in a manner that recalls The Mars Volta, though Wax On Radio are far more focused on standard rock structures and melodies than The Mars Volta have been at any time since "De-loused In The Comatorium". Indeed, some of Wax On Radio's best moments recall "Roulette Dares", The Mars Volta's finest hour, though when Mikey Russell's voice swoops and soars through the musical stratosphere, he sounds more like Rufus Wainwright than anyone else. There's also no trace in Wax On Radio's music of the Latin influences that add some spice to Mars Volta's sound, but that's really not surprising in light of the fact that these are white boys from Chicago rather than Hispanic kids from El Paso. Overall, the resemblance is undeniable, and if anything, Wax On Radio's more straightforward grounding in rock save them from the tendencies to overindulge that have made The Mars Volta less and less consistent as their career has gone on.
The next few songs continue in much the same manner as "Time Will Bind Us To The Guilt Of Commitment", with the catchy but intense riffing matching Mikey Russell's soaring vocals to create a gripping, dramatic feel, especially on the powerful climax to "Remembering". I haven't seen a lyric sheet, if there even is one (in truth, I only have a burned copy of this album), and therefore don't know exactly what Russell is singing about, but based on song titles and phrases that stand out in the songs, I get the feeling that his subject matter is every bit as intense as the music it's paired with. He seems to deal with life and love, and with the damage that can be done to relationships when moments are not seized and time is allowed to take its often fatal course. But of course, these are all just guesses.
The album changes about halfway through, starting with "Dawn Architects", the shortest song here. In fact, it's the only song that isn't between 5 and 8 minutes in length--the epic qualities of this album are due to more than just its sound, after all. "Dawn Architects" is mostly built around quiet piano lines, and proceeds at a more sedate pace than anything on the album has since the acoustic opener. This makes it an appropriate transition into the last three songs, which are the three longest tracks here. "When In Rome..." has moments that reach the intense pitch of earlier in the album, but for the most part, it's a quiet, reflective song, beginning with the line "In so many words, we were wrong." It seems to come to an end around the 5-minute mark, with a repeating guitar line fading out as the rest of the song ends, but interestingly enough, the guitar line doesn't fade when you expect it to, taking over two minutes to finally dissipate completely. Then when it does, it dissolves into the sounds of crickets chirping quietly, which lasts for over a minute itself--if you're listening to the album at a low volume, you might be fooled into thinking that it's over. Finally, though, just after the 8 minute mark, the drummer taps a cymbal twice, and Wax On Radio move into "The Devil", another longer, slower track. This song also spends more time on quiet interludes and building sections rather than on the loud, intense parts that dominated the first half of the album, but ends loudly rather than quietly.
The last song on the album, "Give Me A Place To Stand And I Will Move The Earth", is every bit as climactic as its title indicates, but begins so quietly that again, you may be tricked into thinking that the album has ended. This song also begins with Russell singing and playing by himself, though this time he's playing an electric guitar. The first verse is artificially quiet, and the song increases to full volume as it moves into the chorus, with percussion and minimal bass notes again joining Russell in the background. Things start to build up through the second verse, but everything except quiet guitar and vocals drops out for the second chorus. However, this just serves to make the transition into the bridge that much more intense. The band finally really kicks in on said bridge, which is catchy and beautiful and appears to be building towards a climax, even though it comes only 3 minutes into an 8 minute song. When everything drops completely out after the bridge ends, you expect a return to the quiet chorus, but instead, after the briefest pause, the band comes back in full force, pounding the hell out of a melancholy yet beautiful riff that repeats for a seemingly impossible amount of time, spiraling ever upwards on the contrails of Russell's soaring voice. At first he is singing alone, continuing the lyrics of the song, but soon he is joined by a choir, buried in the background at first but rising in volume as the never-ending riff continues. They reprise the last chorus of "Today I Became A Realist": "Sail on through, fly past the world, find me a love." Russell sings other, unrelated lyrics for a while longer, but by the end of the song, he has joined with them. The music starts to fade out around minute 7, and the choir fades too, but more slowly. For the last 20 seconds or so of the CD, you can still hear them singing, quietly, in the background. The feeling this last section communicates is almost indescribable--it's heart-rending but at the same time somehow beautiful, like the ending of a movie that makes you cry even as you feel your spirits lifting. I almost wish it really could go on forever.
Failing that, I generally just start the album over. In fact, I'm gonna do that right now.
Wax On Radio - Time Will Bind Us To The Guilt Of Commitment
Wax On Radio - Give Me A Place To Stand And I Will Move The Earth
[P.S.--I don't feel like I've really done this record, one of my favorites this year, the justice it deserves, in this piece of writing. Sorry about that. I'll get better as I get back into the habit of doing this. See you next week.]