Emperor X: Brown Recluse / At a Rave with Nicolas Sarkozy
Score: 9 / 10
To put this single into the appropriate context, a bit of background is in order. Actually, the entire contextual concept is essential to understanding the music that Chad Matheny writes and records under the mantle of Emperor X. So, hang on – this might get weird.
In 2011, Emperor X released his fifth full-length album, the critically acclaimed Western Teleport (Bar/None). Western Teleport is an extremely dense album that mixes acoustic guitar with electronica, a punk aesthetic, and abstract post-apocalyptic-William-Gibsonesque-futurescape lyrics- all with a healthy dash of the best sorts of subtle sonic weirdness. The loud parts are wild and the soft parts are heartfelt and show a very painful vulnerability. And at the end of the day- EVERYTHING on Western Teleport is political.
In 2013, Matheny released the album 19 Live Recordings (Plan-It-X). This album, in contrast to Western Teleport, is stripped to the bare essentials- and a reminder of Matheny’s distinction as a lo-fi genius. Some of the songs are rough recordings from live shows during the 2011-12 Emperor X tours featuring material drawn from his back-catalogue. The remainder of the songs were new and recorded as single takes in a friend’s apartment in Los Angeles. The newer material on 19 Live Recordings is haunting. A single voice, an acoustic guitar, and a delay pedal, combined with the ambient street sounds outside the window produced a set of songs that are authentic and delivered with fearless sincerity.
Emperor X is a bit of a musical shape-shifter, who seems to move effortlessly between tech-heavy experimental rock, to stark acoustic, to noise, and spoken word samples. Given the extensive and varied catalogue of Emperor X, one always has to wonder: What will come next? Answer: Everything.
Over the past three years, Emperor X toured the US extensively (mostly via public transportation), as well as Europe (using much nicer forms of public transportation). Currently, he is enjoying the status of a global citizen, residing in Berlin. The material for the new single was recorded, mixed, and mastered in southern California, Florida, Germany, on the buses, planes, and trains that moved him between these locations. Matheny is a musician that is constantly moving AND constantly working. His travels provide field notes for new songs, which are recorded in hotel rooms and the homes of friends and family, later to be edited and mixed on trains or trans-Atlantic flights or coffee shops with free wi-fi.
In December, Matheny released the single Brown Recluse b/w At a Rave with Nicolas Sarkozy. These two songs are vastly different in their arrangements and production but they are, at the core, two sides to the same coin. And this is some of the smartest and most gleefully subversive song writing that you will ever hear.
The song Brown Recluse seems to start where 19 Live Recordings left us. A fingerpicked acoustic, minimal percussion (most of it from rapping on the guitar), and softly delivered lyrics that blend the complexity of relationships, poisonous spiders, and centrifuges. The vocals get special delivery through gauzy harmonies. Brown Recluse is a song that is emotionally subversive, comparing the recovery and rebuilding of a damaged relationship to a debilitating spider bite: “We’ll be back once our nerves return.” A simple story, simply stated, that borrows from a common theme- but here put under an electron microscope and deconstructed to a beautiful effect in both the lyrics and arrangement.
On the other side of the coin, At a Rave with Nicolas Sarkozy, brings us back to the sonic territory Emperor X mapped out on Western Teleport and will greatly appeal to those that prefer his experimental pop soundscapes. Matheny is an expert engineer- and his bag of tricks is deep and expansive (much like his actual rucksack). Lyrically, this is a playful, yet extremely caustic, political song that re-imagines the clique of global leaders and their attendant bureaucrats as partyers that fill out forms, populate, and rave. Consistent with this sentiment, the music steamrolls and Matheny’s expert arrangement and sonic sensibilities make At a Rave… one of the best pop songs of the year.
The combination of politics, thinly-veiled satire, and musicianship place At a Rave with Nicolas Sarkozy in line with anything the Gang of Four could have come up with. Interestingly, this song originally appeared on 19 Live Recordings as a solo acoustic piece. The new version kicks the rave up several notches- and the added vocal effects and killer beat add an edge to the cynical lyrics and their delivery. Compare the two versions below, and you will see what I mean- they are very different, but delivered with the same level of intensity and earnestness.
Both songs on the Brown Recluse / At a Rave with Nicolas Sarkozy single demonstrate Emperor X’s breadth of range and ever-expanding creative universe (insert appropriate comparison to Yo La Tengo here)- promising great things for the next full length release(s). Matheny has indicated that he has two albums of new material recorded and ready to go, and this single provides just a glimpse of things to come. With the lyrical wordplay of Robyn Hitchcock (but not the Robyn Hitchcock that tries too hard to be dada-clever), skilful composition, musicianship, expressionistic structures, and adroit lo/hi-fi engineering, the end result presents compelling lyrics about relatable issues driven by top-notch and innovative arrangements. If this single is any indication, we will (hopefully) be hearing and seeing much, much more from Emperor X in 2014. Jetzt, Jetzt, Jetzt!
1. At a Rave with Nicolas Sarkozy from the 19 Live Recordings album. Buy HERE.
2. At a Rave with Nicolas Sarkozy from the single. But HERE.
You can stream and purchase the digital version of the Brown Recluse / At a Rave with Nicolas Sarkozy single at: emperorx.bandcamp.com.
Watch the super-awesome video for At a Rave with Nicolas Sarkozy HERE.
All words by Nat Lyon. More writing by Nat can be found at his author archive.