Going back and listening to some of their earliest releases like Solar Bridge and Planetarium, you’d be forgiven for not believing the same trio that recorded those records is also responsible for the newest Emeralds album, Just To Feel Anything. Whereas they were once firmly a drone group, their latest record finds the Cleveland boys at their most aggressive and kosmiche; while still certainly an ambient album, Just To Feel Anything is almost certainly not a drone album. And that distinction is important beyond the genre nomenclature.
We’ve gotten hints that Emeralds were interested in exploring beats. The last track of guitarist Mark McGuire’s 2010 album Living With Yourself, “Brothers (For Matt)” features a marching-band drumbeat quite similar to that of Just To Feel opener “Before Your Eyes.” And Steve Hauschildt’s Tragedy & Geometry from late last year featured “Batteries May Drain,” an almost-new-wave blast of instrumental synthpop. But now they’ve gone and added percussion to a proper Emeralds release, and while some may view this as a treasonous departure from their earlier musical missions (the paranoid abstraction of 2009’s What Happened? is nowhere to be found here), is it really fair to expect an established group not to explore new territory?
“Adrenochrome” bounces with all the funky energy of New Age of Earth-era Ashra, while closer “Search For Me In the Wasteland” unfolds with all the morose grandeur of Pink Floyd circa Wish You Were Here. While past Emeralds records have toyed with the interplay between synths and guitar, now they’ve introduced basslines and definable rhythms into the mix. McGuire’s guitar seems at once newly freed and strangely tethered to these new rhythmic pulses; it’s to McGuire’s credit that he doesn’t let the timekeeping presence of a drum machine damper his passion, and in fact he works in some some soaring riffs the likes of which we’ve heretofore only heard in his solo efforts.
Yet an inevitable question arises: how many people actually want a downtempo Emeralds album? They’re masters of drone, but their newfound expansion has come at the cost of the subtle sound manipulations that made some of their earlier work (especially “Allegory of Allergies” and “What Happened”) so durable. Just To Feel Anything is an easy record to like but, I suspect, not quite substantial enough to love. For all its charm, “Adrenochrome” kind of sounds like a Tim & Eric backing track, its unwavering machine beat and synth patterns overstaying their (6-minute) welcome. “Everything Is Inverted,” meanwhile, ratchets up the rhythm once but otherwise remains strangely static, even McGuire’s wailing guitar sounding more fitting for a pickup truck commercial than an experimental ambient record; I assume they were going for “kraut” here, but with so many other bands picking up that mantle, Emeralds would have had to knock this one out of the park for it to stand out. Unfortunately, they do not.
This monotony is all the more frustrating given the entirely too brief “The Loser Keeps America Clean,” which is arguably the closest the boys have come to making what some might call a “dark ambient” track. It’s also the lowest-fi piece here; largely atonal, with synths groaning as if from the bottom of a dank, dark well and what eerily sounds like footsteps or a lit match dotting the foreground. It’s not just that it’s drone and, you know, that’s all Emeralds can handle; rather, it’s that on a record that finds the group running the risk of sounding more like genre tourists than ever before, “The Loser Keeps America Clean” stands out because it plays to their droning strengths while also allowing for some found-sound-assisted growth in a different, beatless direction. It’s quietly my favorite moment on the entire album.
Despite its seeming confidence, Just To Feel Anything is at its core a transitional record, and for that reason it might be regarded with uncertainty and perhaps even disdain by some of Emeralds’ longtime fans. What’s more, this is a superficially clean record; “Through and Through,” for instance, sighs and ambles just like the Emeralds of old, minus the hissing lo-fi reverb and tape deck framework of their earlier cassettes. Meanwhile, the crunchy guitar and Tangerine-Dream-on-Super-Nintendo synths of the title track ring out with almost shocking clarity. Still, Just To Feel Anything is an engaging step in a new direction for Emeralds, and if you can get past your possible expectations for a return to tape-warped glory, you’ll find that there’s indeed plenty to feel here, even if the feelings are more transient than on records past. Just shy of magnificent and unprecedentedly accessible, Emeralds’ latest is not their best work, but at least in terms of the group’s development, it’s among their most exciting