I've thought, on more than one occasion, that if I were only allowed to listen to the works of two bands for the rest of my life, those two bands would be Orbital and Spring Heel Jack. I just wish that, whatever it is they've been feeding Coxon and Wales at the Strongroom lately, they'd slip some into the Hartnoll bros.' chow as well. Because, while it looks like Orbital's going to make us wait a full two years between albums, SHJ has graced us with back-to-back LPs just five months apart, both of them powerhouses.
Despite the proximity of their release dates, however, Disappeared and Treader are extremely dissimilar, much moreso than Treader was to its own prequel, Busy Curious Thirsty. For one thing, SHJ, much to my dismay, seems to be experimenting with random drum effects, a la DJ Shadow and Aphex Twin, and for that reason alone I very nearly pegged Disappeared with a negative review. At first listen, I admit, many of the tracks seem to have all the elaborate subtlety of a Cuisinart, with all the effects dumped in and ground up to sift and lodge where they may. But despite three tracks of jumpy, ghostly, arhythmic ambience--"Disappeared 1," "Lester," and "Disappeared 2"--the album as a whole rocks. A lot of it's hard to like at first, even for a diehard fan like yours truly, but I could say the same thing about Treader, and I've been listening to "Is," "Blackwater," "Winter," and "Pipe" almost once a day since March. Disappeared is very different from SHJ's previous work on the surface, but at the bottom there's still the same soul, the same je ne sais quoi that makes Spring Heel Jack so indefatigable and so inimitable. Notice the similar progressions in "Bells" and "Rachel Point," and the stark atmospherics in both "Winter" and "Galina." "Mit Wut," "Bane," "I Undid Myself," "To Die a Little," and "Wolfing" are likewise quintessential, if not classic, SHJ.
Disappeared sports some of the atonal treble effects of BCT and some of the giddy abandon of Treader, but for the most part our boys have completely reinvented themselves here, much as they did in the hiatus between Versions and BCT, adopting a sound reminiscent of DJ Shadow's Preemptive Strike. Gone is the booming, foundation-cracking bass, in favor of a softer, kickier feel that is whimsically retro in some places, almost lounge-like in others, complete with cellos, mournful trumpets, clarinets, cymbal washes, fuzz-tone guitars, even calliope organ. The best example of this new sound is "I Undid Myself," which sounds like it belongs to a chase scene from some campy superspy movie from the sixties. The opening track, "Rachel Point," is a jaunty march, and the rest of the album follows its peppy lead for the most part. But Spring Heel Jack is nothing if not dark, and these, like all their songs, are best envisioned as a David Lynch nightmare, originating somewhere deep in the heart of a pine forest at night, eerie and still and shrouded in shadow yet crawling with mystery.
(On the subject of "Rachel Point," I almost have to wonder if Coxon and Wales happened to read my panning of the feedback effects in "Blackwater" and decided to retort in musical form. The opening track starts out with explosions of grainy, amorphous feedback--annoying, yes, but over the course of a 90 seconds it wends itself into the song and reshapes into a catchy, foot-stomping breakbeat, as if to say, "I gotcher blinkin 'avalanche of feedback' rawt here, ya wanker!")
Perhaps the best example of SHJ's skill on this album is the adroit "Wolfing," which comes at you like the Mohammed Ali of dub tracks, setting you up with a light, teasing rope-a-dope before flashing out of nowhere with a devastating bass hook, sending you straight to the mat, only not in pain but in blissful rapture. More please!