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Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free Emily Moore , May 8th, 2009 03:42

In September 2001, the Strokes played a much-hyped 9/11 benefit show at the Bowery Ballroom. Is This It had not yet been released, but their status as saviours of NYC, even popular music itself, seemed assured. A friend and I drove for four hours from Boston and were rewarded with a leaden reproduction of the album, note-perfect down to the tiresome guitar "solos". It felt like the desolate end of a line that ran from Don Kirshner through Stock Aitken & Waterman to these ennuyés; entertainment as mechanical reproduction for a decadent, Dubya-electing society that got the art it deserved. After the show, we headed to lower Manhattan. No barriers had yet been erected, so we gazed straight at foundations tattered with rebar, breathed in air that still stank of electrical fires and drew fingers through the centimetre-high dusting of ash that covered every surface for blocks around.

In September 2008, one-time New Yorkers Akron/Family played a fierce, sometimes transcendent 90-minute set at London's Luminaire. Their third full-length, Love is Simple, had come out the year before; then the band had announced the departure of founding member Ryan Vanderhoof and their own departure from Michael Gira's Young God Records. Though still adjusting to being a man down, they were exuberant, their sound pushed and twisted to the limits of throats and amps. In an hour and a half they touched on just six or seven songs, expanding bridges and transitions to fill a space that stretched out in front of them like the sprawling horizon of the American midwest. Behind them was the patched-together flag of tie-dye and stripes that appears on the cover of their similarly sprawling new album.

Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free is Akron/Family's most immediate, live-sounding record to date. Its pace and volume jump between giddy extremes, sometimes in the space of a single song. Like watching a bucking bronco, it's exhausting but invigorating. Opener 'Everyone is Guilty' kicks off with jittery percussion, high staccato guitars and chewy basslines as intricate and funky as Fat Albert Rotunda-era Herbie Hancock, then bounces abruptly between retro hard-rock riffs and the ponderous multi-tracked sound of the Beatles' weirder moments before landing squarely in a puddle of vibrato violins. It's a glorious patchwork unified by a brittle, clattering rhythm and fatalistic chanted vocals. 'River' is a shimmering epic, sweeping from "docile stream" to "glassy bay" on the back of spacy, piercing lead guitar, taut, pulsing rhythm guitar, whimsical whistling and breathy flute, each mapping out rhythms as distinct and satisfyingly interlaced as their melodies. "You are now vast and open sea, and my mind travels you endlessly," croons Seth Olinsky in his weirdly seductive nasal twang. "You beckon, toss and toss and swallow me." Even a military snare roll manages to swell in and out with something approaching tenderness.

The fuzzed-out dark funk of 'Creatures' recalls fellow sonic collagists Animal Collective as strongly as 'Everyone is Guilty', and though the two bands are frequently compared, Akron/Family's sound is rawer and more physical. Throughout the album, horns sigh with contentment or resignation; guitar lines turn upwards like shrugged shoulders, bounce like heartbeats or pierce a cluttered soundscape like a shout. Even the freakout jam of 'MBF' sounds like nothing so much as Elvis Costello's über-analogue instrumental pile-up at the start of 'Man Out of Time'. The mystery Akron/Family weave is more primal than mere sonic trickery. Recorded music only ever captures a fleeting snapshot of an idea of a sound, one still frame in an imaginary reel of a million variations. The ghosts of a million possibilities are always there, hovering in the background, and Akron/Family evoke them with more vividness and imagination than most.