Arjuna Genome: The Universe Is Blinking (Big Joy Records)
DL / Cassette
Noise? Check. Fuzz? Check. Feedback? Check. Melodies? Check. Inaudible lyrics? Totally. Nat Lyon reviews the new album by breaking artist Arjuna Genome.
If you have been waiting for the 2013 version of The Jesus and Mary Chain – it has arrived from Los Angeles in the form of Arjuna Genome. The Universe Is Blinking is the first release from this band- and it is great. The album contains many elements of classic noise/punk/psych genres, but Arjuna Genome brings a unique perspective- blending and tilting familiar references points. And they deliver. Hard.
Arjuna Genome is the band/project name for Douglas James Sweeney. Sweeney plays all of the instruments on the 8-song album, which clocks in at a little over 31 minutes. It might seem short, but it is a very sweet and a very strong performance. Sweeney was joined by a cast of five other musicians and four people handling recording, mixing, and production in making The Universe is Blinking. That might sound like a bit of overkill, given the length of the album and the basic arrangements- but was most likely due to a sense of urgency in recording and releasing the album as quickly as possible.
The Universe is Blinking first caught my attention because it is the first album credited as produced by Avi Zahner-Isenberg (the Avi in Avi Buffalo) who also contributed on many instruments – and this increased my interest. Arjuna Genome is not a simple punk/noise band from LA- they simply cannot be if Mr. Buffalo is involved. Right out the gate- the album sounds GREAT. And the comparison with The Jesus and Mary Chain hits you as soon as Douglas Sweeney lets loose the first line of reverb drenched vocals. The opener “Digital Days Before the Brain,” is an interesting hybrid – the reverb and heavy fuzz guitars provide a great psych-punk vide. But there is also a distinctive SoCal influence in the melody and the song structure. This is a well-balanced, near perfect, combination in my book: noise with hooks and an occasional melody. A poppy guitar (with that signature Avi Buffalo sound) plays alongside feedback, noise, and uncomplicated percussion- and these sonic elements gave The Universe is Blinking my undivided attention.
Arjuna Genome sounds fresh. This is what next-generation California punk should sound like.
Noise vs melody is a difficult balancing act – with the risk that one or the other will take over. That is not the case on The Universe is Blinking. This album has poppy jangly melodies- that turn on a dime into walls of fuzz and feedback. This effect works perfectly and does not feel forced or contrived. The reverb-heavy vocals are nearly impossible to discern- but they do add a melodic layer to each song. Sweeney’s voice is unique and reminds me very much of Stephen Steinbrink – it’s high and thin but can carry a tune in a way that many others cannot. The persistent use of reverb on the vocals does not get old- it is a great sound. My only complaint is that I might have liked the album even more if I could understand the words. Other than that – it fucking rocks.
The Universe is Blinking is definitely a guitar album. The bass and the drums are minimal – and in some cases seem muddy in the mix (not a bad thing). Sweeney’s vocal range and the guitar leads add the right frequency to balance the mix – which trends toward the bottom heavy end. But the overall sound is balanced – and nothing is fighting for your attention. Harmonies are used on several songs with great impact (“Grief Thief”) providing a reference to the SoCal sound of the 1960’s This is not a droney album, but it is a punk album. Each song has nuance, instrumentally they are well written compositions, and there is a real breadth of range in this collection of songs. “Alive With Emily” turns down the gain several notches and features acoustic guitar with an accompanying electric delicately carrying the melody. The song is short (2:12) and provides a fresh interpretation of classic California psychedelic folk-rock.
On a short album, consisting mostly of 3-minute songs, “Apple Heart” caught my attention because of length- it is nearly 7-minutes long (almost a quarter of the entire album!). In many ways, “Apple Heart” was the acid test for me. Long songs are not punk. And if you are going to make some one listen to a song of that length- you had better bring your “A” game. Arjuna Genome delivers on “Apple Heart.” The song begins with jangly pop guitars, minimal percussion, Sweeney’s lovely (but indecipherable) voice, and real strings in the background. “Apple Heart” drifts through several verses on a SoCal breeze until it delightfully builds to a wall of noise at the 3-minute mark- which the carries remainder of the song to a careening end. Cymbals crash, but are harshly edited and chopped (cool!), feedback reigns, ambient electronic noises pop in and out- as all of the wheels come off the cart. Beautifully executed. Yeah- Arjuna Genome can pull off a 7-minute long song. In many ways, this would have made the perfect closer to The Universe is Blinking.
The first seven songs on The Universe is Blinking hooked me – which created high expectations for the closing track, “Hare Krishna.” The song begins with a bit of cacophony and has a nice bass riff- but the single repeated line of the Hare Krishna chant was a disappointment and a turn-off. I could not tell if the song was meant to be satire or a true invocation of the Krishna chant. If it was meant to be satire – it fell flat and the lyrics detract from one of the strongest instrumental pieces on the album. All the key ingredients are in place, a driving rhythm section, noisy guitars, and Pauline Lay literally raking away at the strings. But the music dissolves quickly at the end of 4-minutes to a single chanted “Ommmmmm” -a trite and cheesy way to end an otherwise great first release. My first thought was that Arjuna Genome had written a great instrumental, but had no lyrics and just appropriated the chant because they were in a hurry to finish the album – and “Hare Krishna” it was.
Despite my misgivings about “Hare Krishna” and the brevity of the album, Arjuna Genome has produced a great first album in The Universe Is Blinking. I am absolutely convinced that Douglas Sweeney is a talented musician and great songwriter. The sonics, production, and arrangements on the album are reminiscent of other west coast psych, pop, and punk genres – but these compositions are fresh and highly original.