Thursday, July 16, 2009

Land of Kush - 'Against the Day'

The book is (almost) always better. The “Harry Potter” series, The Natural, The Passion of The Christ… these are examples of that saying. Sure, there are exceptions (The Godfather, despite reducing the female characters significantly, is still superior as a film), but for the most part, transferring a book to another medium is a bad idea. Pacing, spacing, and flavor are all lost, either to create a work that hits all the plot points without any soul or one that attempts to capture the spirit without all those pesky facts. Either way, most adaptations become dependent on their source material. Which is why, at least in the case of the Land of Kush’s Against the Day, it helps to adapt something that’s loose, roaming, and experimental.

Those adjectives could also describe the record itself. The Thomas Pynchon book of the same name is over 1,000 pages long, spans decades and continents, and yet for all its length has the simplest semblance of a narrative. Land of Kush’s record only spans an hour, but it leaps from coherence to ambiance and back almost on a whim. Intended as homage to Pynchon for “permanently fucking my mind” by composer Sam Shalabi, Land of Kush dabbles in orchestral psychedelic pseudo-jazz. With almost 30 musicians employed to recreate Shalabi’s vision of Pynchon’s vision, Against the Day has quite a few instruments at its disposal. How well it succeeds for listeners depends on two factors.

First, this isn’t a “books on tape” translation. Shalabi’s attempts to honor Pynchon’s writing are, oddly enough, mostly nonverbal. Though the record does include lyrics in certain movements, like on sections of “Iceland Spar” and “Bilocations,” Against the Day isn’t a literal adaptation, and could be thought of more as an artistic response to the book. The music conveys certain emotions Shalabi felt while reading.

And, wonder of wonders, it sounds like he spent a lot of time being bored out of his skull. Against the Day drones a lot. And not like shoegaze or stoner metal; Kush makes those concepts sound like tangible pop trifles by comparison. “The Light Over the Ranges,” the opening piece, is almost all buzzing and moodiness. It feels like it’s building towards something, but seven-and-a-half minutes long, it sure takes a while to create anything coherent, or least segue into something that is, namely track two, “Iceland Spar.”

Cue vox and Middle Eastern touches for a few minutes, and then Shalabi and his band return to formlessness by the end of track three, the 21-minute “Bilocations.” But, again, it leads to something. The title track is righteous and furious and rocking. This is the rising action which the record has been leading towards, and with searing guitar segueing into droning synths, it’s a worthwhile wait. “Rue du Départ” wraps it up, though it takes eight-and-a-half minutes to do so.

Against the Day (the book) requires patience. So does Against the Day (the album). But the payoff, track four of five, justifies the slow, maddening introduction. How much it honors the book largely falls into the slippery bullshit slope of symbolism, and perhaps, to a certain extent, it’s better to think of the two as separate but equal.

No comments: