Little did Akron/Family know what lay ahead when they started sending Michael Gira demos. "If a record was anywhere in our minds, it was way in back," multi-instrumentalist Miles Seaton claims by phone from his home in Brooklyn. "Essentially, we were just looking for feedback from someone we respected. We were so immersed in what we were doing that we had absolutely no distance from our work. We needed someone to tell us that there was, in fact, sound on the discs we were making—that we weren't just hallucinating the whole thing."
Less than three years after that first fateful trip to the post office, the semi-acoustic psychonauts are up to the hair on their chinny-chin-chins in Gira. Not content with co-producing a self-titled debut for his Young God label, he drafted them into Angels of Light, his main creative squeeze since the 1997 breakup of convulsive beauty-mongers Swans. Akron/Family are pulling double duty on a five-week string of live dates—opening as themselves, then returning to the stage as their enabler's kindred spirits. "Michael keeps saying that we haven't suffered enough yet," says Seaton, who moved to New York from Seattle a few years ago. "'This tour will be easy,' he tells us. 'Your next time out, you'll suffer.'"
Gira isn't talking out of his signature cowboy hat. The singer and guitarist's first cross-country ordeal, a just post–No Wave, early '80s package featuring Swans, Sonic Youth, and Red Decade, found all three bands crossing the U.S., crammed body, soul, and gear into a single van. To make matters worse, Red Decade had a horn section. Swans, too, if a single saxophonist (also featured on their debut EP—take that, goths!) counts.
Adolphe Sax's 1842 invention makes a fleeting appearance on one of Akron/Family's 13 songs, courtesy of avant mack Bhob Rainey, who contributes an untraceable layer to "Interlude: Ak Ak Was the Boat They Sailed in On." Apparent seaside field recordings and rhythmic clinks provide an aurally toothsome roux for a slow-swirling stew of almost-familiar sonic events. "We're interested in exploring the possibilities of pretty much anything that'll vibrate," explains Seaton of the band, which maintains an ever-growing sample library complete with files for key tinkling, chair dragging, and beards rubbing against microphones.
It was Akron/Family's mastery of more conventional weapons—guitar, bass, drums, piano, banjo, accordion, and the like—that led Gira to give them wings. Background vocals, too—lots. He works Seaton, Dana Janssen, Seth Olnsky, and Ryan Vanderhoof like a singing four-headed pack mule on Angels of Light Sing: "Other People," his fourth studio album under the ambiguous aegis. Opener "Elena," a buoyant guitar-and-harmonica-driven portrait of an Arab woman who perseveres in the face of considerable tribulation, finds the Brooklynites unleashing a succession of "bahs" in four-part harmony that wouldn't be out of place on Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE. By "My Friend Thor," they're waxing downright choral.
You suspect Gira pegged the band for eventual collaboration early on. "We heard back from Michael almost immediately after we sent the first package," Seaton recalls. "I think it was two or three discs. He was very supportive, offered lots of helpful advice. One thing was something along the lines of, 'I like vocal harmonies, and you do them well; you should try to incorporate more of them.' Just days after we sent [a third package] to him, we got an e-mail that just said something like, 'This is very interesting. When can we get together?'"
The molding process began in earnest when they started assembling Akron/Family over two years, endowing the rustic sophisticates with a capacity for improvisation that led many of their songs toward epic length and beyond. Gira blew up home recordings in Pro Tools, trimmed, pruned, had band members contribute additional parts, recorded a few things from scratch, and emerged with an album that sounds as though it was cut from a single bolt, not one temporal seam within earshot. Granted, the material at hand throbbed with a bushwhacking playfulness from the get-go.
Mostly, the band hewed to understatement excepting "Lumen." A complex, flutey drone with just enough internal writhing to make fraidy-cats suspect they're being tapped for a trans-dimensional tentacle party precedes the fragile first verse. "Wash out your eyes/You've seen the dirty place/I can't disguise/All of my longing," Vanderhoof intones mysteriously over a single nylon-stringed acoustic. Electric guitars foreshadow impending volcanism, as Vanderhoof sings, "Where's my head/I swear I saw it rolling over there/I'm falling further than I have ever been." He even pronounces "been" almost like "bean." Then there's the wordless love call so impossibly Brit-voluptuous that it might as well be Himalayan. Simply hearing it could inspire Thom Yorke or Chris Martin to retire on the spot.
Easily beard rock's most panoramic fuck enhancement to date, "Lumen" offers glimpses of a field begging to be cultivated; having a surrogate Lucifer to light the way works wonders for the band's chances of reaching it in time for plowing. And Other People is imbued with iridescence galore. A shared sense of labor-intensiveness only makes both Akron/Family's and their mentor's prospects brighter. "Working with Michael reminds me of painting houses with my dad," observes Seaton. "You work! Fortunately, it's doing the thing all of us enjoy more than anything in the world."
M. Gira's Angels of Light and Akron/Family play Tractor Tavern with Suffering and the Hideous Thieves at 9 p.m. Wed., April 27. $13 adv./$15. America, U.S.A. will appear every three weeks.