Brad Laner, ‘Micro-Awakenings’
Brad Laner is a musician that isn’t afraid to explore disparate genres and take some rather extraordinary creative risks. Formerly of Savage Republic, Electric Company, notable 90’s shoegaze/noise pop act Medicine, and many, many others, Laner has since expanded his sensibilities into the realm of the avant-garde, incorporating the trappings of electronica, glitch, free jazz, noise, and musique concrète. The four-movement suite that makes up Laner’s 2016 Micro-Awakenings, released on Drawing Room Records, is a culmination of his decades of musical experimentation. His recording expertise and nuanced treatment of tone lend the album a full-bodied richness. Alex Graham and Laner siblings Josh and Julian also provided accompaniment. Micro-Awakenings feels a long ways away from Laner’s shoegazer days, but it’s certainly prefigured by his prior avant-garde explorations like his work with Electric Company and his release of For Magnetic Tape earlier in 2016.
Previous studio albums Neighbor Singing, Natural Selections, and Nearest Suns are more traditionally constructed (for Laner, at least), yet they bear signs of his boldly innovative work to come. Though all four albums display the same subtle dexterity with tone and arrangement, Micro-Awakenings represents a complete deconstruction of the previous three. Here it seems that Laner is combining his myriad stylistic influences into one grand auditory tour, a sweeping sampling of his library of sound effects, collection of instruments and techniques, and formidable mastery of how such beautiful tapestries of music are woven.
Emblazoned with vividly brilliant artwork by Dani Tull, the album cover features a surprised and angry stone-throwing caveman, set against craggy mountains and a tie-dyed supernova of a sky. The choice of a caveman seems fitting given how the album time-travels through genre. If this caveman has awakened suddenly to a new world after spending millennia buried in ice, it would encapsulate the listener’s experience of Micro-Awakenings: vertiginous surges in mood and atmosphere, thrust into such unfamiliar surroundings that are at first disquieting but soon give way to astonishment.
Micro-Awakenings is divided into four Sections, all of which are further divided into segmented streams of musical phrases. Repeated refrains are rare. The shifts in tone come fast, like flicking through slides. A muted ambience will instantly give way to an assault of groove-heavy drumming, little shocks of angular glitchiness, or a glazed wash of synthesizer, then shift just as quickly to a mellow and melodic acoustic guitar. The music has an attitude and a capricious cheekiness — it seems to revel in teasing the listener by serving up the most unexpected of variations.
Carried along by Laner’s sheer inventiveness, the songs vault into whirling electronics and rapidly stuttering percussion before dropping to ominous prairies of metallic, tamped-down feedback. Then, smoothly grooving constellations of guitar patterns will incorporate jazz and bossa nova elements before the whole thing veers back into percussive absurdity. Effervescent synthesizer and buzzing low-pass waveforms are draped over syncopated beats. The sounds that don’t always form melodies, exactly; they are instead more akin to the randomized rhythms made by the objects that make up our 21st century lives. There’s an industrious deliberateness to these sections, like they’re playing over a scene of a bustling factory. Laner seems to find inspiration in the music of cities and traffic, of auto shops and coffeemakers and clinking glassware, dial-up modems, windchimes, sonar, alarm clocks, and all the other jangling cacophonies of modernity. His imagination ventures into the world of the organic, too: looped and delayed samples of a child’s voice, calming water droplets, and dulcet pillows of tone that transmute into the sounds of a rippling creek, bells, and birdsong.
The entire experience of Micro-Awakenings is deeply captivating and demanding of full attention. Somehow, none of the double LP feels disjointed, despite its drastic leaps in style, rhythm, and form. Laner’s vision, as complex as it is, is entirely cohesive. The listener might be lulled into a profound calm before being tossed into a heartbeat-spiking burst of drums and vocoder — but strangely, it’s never to jarring effect. Even when the melodies turn dissonant or ominous, the tones don’t provoke anxiety. Instead, Micro-Awakenings sparks astonishment, curiosity, and, more than anything, a strange kind of wonder.