Genghis Tron Becomes a Real Boy
With, by some estimates, 150,000 illegitimate children, Genghis Khan was really into multiplying. Philadelphia electro-metal trio Genghis Tron, on the other hand, appears to be unifying and decreasing in number, approaching one.
The band's roots are divided. On its first LP, 2006's Dead Mountain Mouth, and even more so on its debut EP, '05's Cloak of Love, there is the Genghis--the power chords, the screaming, the blast beats, the brutality--and there is the Tron: the cold, emotionless, slow techno. There's little detectable logic to the transitions, but that's part of the charm. These two forces are in opposition, but they're not the classic man vs. machine dynamic you might imagine. This is machine vs. machine.
Take "White Walls" off Mountain. It sounds like a broadcast from a really chilled-out civilization of iPeople made of white plastic and dancing in fluid motions and clear weather. But this broadcast is being pirated by a band of lunatic scrap-bots with mismatched Christmas light eyeballs and saw blades for kneecaps. The inhumanly fast blast beats sound like machine guns firing pointlessly at some sort of pristine force field--or like a loop of a particularly clear five seconds of an Aphex Twin song cut with Discharge played at quadruple speed.
There's a certain magic in what keyboardist Michael Sochynsky describes as the "cut-and-stop-on-a-dime" approach. The two warring sides intersect for brief and beautiful moments, like the synth-guitar harmony on Mountain's title track that sounds like a bionic Iron Maiden. Overall, that album is strangely relaxing. It sucks up all the chaos in the room and leaves you at peace. Similarly spasmodic metal-meets-electronic bands such as An Albatross and Mindless Self Indulgence fail to accomplish this effect because, well, they're silly. No funny voices here, just cold, inhuman absurdity.
"Which is something that some people liked," Sochynsky says. He answers the phone while in the middle of paring down--in very a un-Genghis Khan fashion--the three or four keyboard parts going at any given moment on GT's new album, Board Up the House, into something he can actually play live on his upcoming three-month tour.
Sochynsky says the aforementioned absurdity "was kind of gimmicky and almost comical," and he's right. The transitions are sort of amusing despite the generally bleak tone of the music. Sochynsky and his bandmates are wise because they noticed that Mountain is sort of a one-trick pony. The approach has nowhere to grow, really.
So on House, GT set out to make its two one. It goes about this in a number of ways. The most primitive method it takes is simply to decrease the amount of time between the transitions. At one point in "The Feast," Genghis changes to Tron more than once per second. The approach is surprisingly effective at making a unique "melody."
But this strobe-light affect couldn't be sustained throughout an entire album, so GT also employs the musical fail-safe of tension. House opens with a beat that sounds like the pop your speakers make when your computer turns on, and it's quickly overrun by repetitive mono-synth triads that, after about 30 seconds, you can't take anymore, so you welcome the move to a heavy, guitar-driven section.
Finally, GT merges its two previously disparate modes by warning you when a transition is coming. Rather than a broadcast that's intermittently interrupted, Genghis and Tron act as a tag team on House. One catches its breath while the other jumps in the ring, but you can still see him there on the sideline, heaving, then working up the strength to charge in and take over.
This last maneuver requires something new to the GT sound: extremely realistic drum sounds. Drummers signal transitions by slowly increasing in volume or letting the pace lag in a fill. But GT doesn't have a drummer, so guitarist Hamilton Jordan programmed drums the way a drummer would actually play them. (Sochynsky, who normally handles the electronics, says he doesn't know enough about drums to do that.) And then the drum patterns were mixed as though they were real drums by a guy from a band with no electronics in it: Kurt Ballou of Converge.
The only problem is that these subtleties might not translate live. Audience members like to see a drummer playing fast or relaxing and twirling sticks and stuff. It's like an audience behavioral cue. For that, GT now has lights. "We came into some money so we blew it all on lights," says Sochynsky, who hopes that flurries of color will help make up for the lacking visual signals of a drummer.
Now, this "drummer" GT has created between two of its members and some lights sounds strangely human compared to the band's earlier, more regimented sound. And, in fact, Vocalist Mookie Singerman now finds himself living up to his name and singing--as opposed to screaming--during some of the less brutal parts. Even his screams are more intelligible and contain occasional compassionate political commentary: "it breeds this maddening thought that we won't be stopped/ that this century bleeds like the last."
And there's the rub. It's easy to be good at a gimmick, but it's hard to be good at being human. There is nothing all that imperfect about House, but it isn't perfect. In a way, it's Genghis Tron's first album--deem previous efforts Genghis vs. Tron. It's a hell of an effort, and the band deserves much credit for pushing itself out of gimmickry.
And the highs are perhaps higher than those on Mountain. Compare the synth-guitar harmonies in the title tracks: The one in "House" is completely original, unhummable, breathtaking, and manages to top the bionic Maiden of "Mountain." But overall, House is less striking, less fascinating with the band's newly acquired flesh. As Singerman sings the title line of "I Won't Come Back Alive," in perhaps the band's first vocal hook, there's a weakness in his voice. The way he hangs on that last "alive" is slightly cheesy, silly. The man behind the curtain is revealed, and he's not as impressive as the machine.
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