For those first acquainted with Tyondai Braxton via his output with the incredible Battles, listening to some of his solo work can be disconcerting, to say the least. Definitely don’t expect the rolling energy of “Atlas” or even the tuneful meandering of EP tracks like “TRAS 2” or “HI/LO”, as whilst the ‘avant-garde’ tag that Battles can retain is certainly present with Braxton’s solo work, their ‘poppy’ side is largely ditched.
Following two largely obscure releases in which Braxton began exploring avant-garde, loop, jazz and noise based compositions (as I’ve been led to believe), 2002’s History That Has No Effect is a summation of his technical and creative ability. The album’s opener, “Great Mass”, is a monstrous, discordant thing – a constant H.R Giger-esque wail that mutely writhes over an increasingly foreboding rumbling. The rest of the album is similar; miniscule vocal samples looped, made smaller and looped again, screeches of static, layered, obscure guitars and rhythmic stuttering punctuating songs – there is a constant sense of unease, confinement and horror. But, after a few listens, they appear less an indulgent festival of Braxton’s attention to detail and incredible ability to manipulate sound and more an incredible coalescence of hideously atmospheric rhythms and samples. After a split release with New York noise outfit Parts & Labor, the formation of Battles in 2003 gave Braxton a full-band dynamic to work in, something which he has stated as influencing this record, in that he is moving away from his inward, older work and into far more expansive territory. And now, Central Market, and Braxton’s upgraded sound is obvious – working with the New York-based Wordless Music Orchestra (known for performing Jonny Greenwood’s orchestral composition Popcorn Superhet Receiver) Braxton has transposed his minutely detailed, hypnotic pieces into a far more accessible and ‘fuller’ format.
The first track to be released was “Uffe’s Woodshop”. While listening to it for the first time, it is hard not to marvel at the wealth of things going on – blasting kazoos, swirling, flourishing strings, guitars and Braxton’s vocal virtually indistinguishable from the dazzlingly-arranged music. This is by far the most concise and focussed song on the album – and arguably almost too concise; hearing all the interlocking and overlapping hooks and sections is dizzying and hard to recall, and as such is the only track that could probably have been comfortably extended.
The first half of the album has a very specific, almost cinematic sound: if you can recall watching 1950’s episodes of MGM or Disney cartoons, just imagine them being soundtracked far more richly and dynamically and you pretty much have the first four tracks here. “Opening Bell” meanders around a playful piano and happily strides aimlessly forward with various instrumentation, coming across more as a sound test than fully fledged. “The Duck and The Butcher” begins with a stupid kazoo imitation of a duck and an aimless guitar, before suddenly picking up about two minutes in, whereat a harp and a trotting percussion focus the song’s aimless traipse into a merry amble, again with various strings and trumpets joining in and filling out the song. Of all the first half’s cartoony pieces, “The Duck and The Butcher” is definitely the most accomplished; it really is a ‘fun’ listen and has the focus the other songs need to work.
The album’s centrepiece, the ten-minute “Platinum Rows” is an often bloated, often mind-blowing piece; fluctuating between dull, silly kazoo sections and enthrallingly complex and exciting orchestrated sections. The complexity is tangible (the Warp site lists some twenty instruments featuring), but the feeling that some parts are unnecessary is common; in particular the yelping vocals are just annoying and detract from their sections, and often Braxton seems to deliberately lose the pace he gains, somewhat disappointingly.
The final three tracks are entirely different; we are now soundtracking a night time horror exploration. “Unfurling” uses pitch-black, suspenseful strings and sounds of firecrackers crackling and “Dead Strings” begins discordantly and soon expands its range almost as much as “Platinum Rows”; wordless vocals and crashing drumming in particular adding to its insane atmosphere, before disintegrating into static. The former seems more a pointless interlude though, when we can hear the cavalcade of musicians Braxton has at his disposal, and both these tracks definitely evoke History That Has No Effect, both being violent and eerie orchestral soundscapes, rather than loop-based. “J-City” is easily the most accessible thing Braxton’s done so far; a galloping guitar and stuttering percussion and a surprisingly clear and affecting vocal (with actual words) make this a surprisingly poppy oasis in the denseness of the other tracks..
Whilst certainly not an easy listen and often straying into (admittedly accomplished) indulgence, Central Market is one of the most original sounding records of the year, and probably of the decade.