Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The HAARP Machine - "Disclosure"

Sumerian Records might just be my favorite label of all time - in terms of their ratio of "Bands They Have" to "Bands I Can't Stop Listening To." Even where genre differences separate the artists on their label, there seems to be a common compelling thread to the music Sumerian produces. The whole "Sumeriancore" pejorative aside, I genuinely feel like many of the artists on that label are cut from a similar cloth. It was under this impression that I jumped into The HAARP Machine's debut album with little more than a single song to indicate their direction.

What I found was a pretty even mix of pros and cons.


First off, my interest in this band was piqued by the single "Pleiadian Keys," which was released several weeks ago. I swiftly added that song to my Spotify rotation and even with the album securely in my hands, I can't quite get enough of that one track. It's a perfect index for what the band is like musically, though there's obviously a nice margin for variance.

As I've mentioned just about every time I come across it, I LOVE harmonic minor/melodic minor tones in my music. If it nods towards Middle Eastern sound arrangement, I'm quite likely to overlook a number of other flaws. With that in mind, it seems impossible for me to *not* like The HAARP Machine. Apart from incorporating those chord structures into their music, there's a plethora of peripheral arrangement that lends "Disclosure" a very Middle Eastern vibe. These include numerous appearances of tombak percussion, and a liberal application of the sitar. Further rounding out the "world music" vibe the album evinces is the occasional emergence of the koto.

It seems pretty fair to say that The HAARP Machine is Al Mu'min's show, as he's credited in the liner notes with "Produced by...", "Composed and Arranged by...", and "Lyrics by..." - in addition to being lead guitarist and playing both sitar and koto where it appears. For the purposes of this blog, that really endows the album with the highlights and 'lowlights' - if you will - I'll be discussing. His cultural background informs the majority of the album, both lyrically and musically.

Musically speaking, as I've mentioned before, "Disclosure" is a veritable treasure trove of Middle Eastern musical motifs. And even where it's not calling to mind the soundtrack to Prince of Persia, the album has some great hooks and grooves. The aforementioned "Pleiadian Keys" is a great example of what I'm talking about. The verses are sharp and aggressive, interplay with clean vocals and metal growls underpinning the frantic time signatures. A small pre-chorus splashes into more atmospheric orchestration, and then the chorus leaps into a soaring and triumphant anthem. The title track features a similar structure, with a more groove-oriented angle to the guitar work. Abstract percussion patterns also give "Disclosure" another level of musical complexity, and when it works the whole affair is a joy to unravel.


At 8 tracks and just over 30 minutes, "Disclosure" is woefully underdeveloped. It's an age-old complaint as far as this blog is concerned, but it really damages what this album could have been here. Their style is unique and well developed and I genuinely regret not having more of it to explore, especially given how most progressive metal bands practically fetishize long albums.

The biggest drawback to this album is its lyrical content though. Al Mu'min is a man of conviction, and I greatly respect him for that. But there's a difference between using your music as a platform for change and using your music as the Comments section of a political debate. To be fair, they often stick to poetic turns of phrase to communicate their message. But where they don't, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Take the opening track, "Esoteric Agenda," for example:

"There were no weapons of mass destruction/Or mobile biological weapons labs/The agenda was to remove Saddam Hussein/To reap the oil and establish a base/The Bush Administration made a series of claims prior the/ Iraq War, abuse and misuse of intelligence/There was no collusive relationship with Al Qaeda"

First things first, I actually agree with the sentiments expressed above. But there's no poetry to the construction, it's just a list of statements peppered over some intricate guitar work. Moreover by naming Hussein and Bush in the song, it prevents the song from ever reaching any semblance of timelessness or generally applicable virtue. On top of all that, they're decrying corruption carried out over 10 years ago. It doesn't make the events any less destructive, but it does remove them from relevance. Several moments like this appear on the album, and my frustration is that I agree with them for the most part. But they've made no attempt to apply their skills at musical composition to lyrical composition in these places, and it shows. It's made all the more maddening because elsewhere they evince some wonderful lyrical craftsmanship, so it's not like they're incapable of doing so. Thus the album oscillates between meticulous and sloppy in a way that damn near wrecks the entire thing.


I don't regret buying this album in the slightest. I'm glad to support this band and their label with my money because I want to see more of this kind of material produced. But I am marginally disappointed by "Disclosure" as a whole.

I really don't mind music that's politically minded, nor do I even mind listening to music evincing an agenda I don't subscribe to if the music is good. But The HAARP Machine comes off like that Facebook friend you have who posts nothing but political rants. They're entitled to their opinion, and you may agree with them completely, but before too long it grows tiresome because there's no such thing as a 'laid back' political rant. The whole point is to rage and roar and decry injustices and fume at "the other side." That's all well and good, even necessary at times. But at a certain point you just want to tell them to chill out for a bit; grab a beer, play with a puppy - whatever it takes to unwind.

The HAARP Machine is an undeniably talented band, and the music they make is compelling and fresh on many levels. But it's damaged by a message that's so relentlessly political it almost feels like the band is arguing with you even when you're agreeing with them. And refrains like "Open your eyes" and "Free your mind" emerge articulated in such a way as to feel patronizing rather than inspiring.

I still look forward to what The HAARP Machine does next, and I'll have "Disclosure" on repeat for the next few days at least. I just hope that the future holds, as the old crowd-chant goes: "less talk, more rock."

Or more specifically: "Less axe-grindage, more axe-shreddage."