Pitch Control

Experimental rockers Kinski throw a curveball into the sonic outfield

For Kinski, volume may be the very cornerstone of rock. The art of quickly changing from very soft to very loud is as old as music itself, but the Seattle band works this trope the way a superhuman pitcher handles a baseball. You know there's going to be a windup, and you know the ball is going to fly. Beyond that, though, all you can be sure of is that, if you're close to the line of fire, you'd better be wearing protective headgear.

As with baseball, it's what happens after the pitch that matters most. And in the very meat of the motion, Kinski pull out the surprises. With "Steve's Basement," the album opener for their second full-length and Sub Pop debut Airs Above Your Station, they save their favorite trick for first. The track starts with a single guitar ripple--warm, round, and steady. It's joined by another, and another, and then another. Pretty soon you've got this intricate liquid drone, followed by a gently strummed progression straight out of the Spacemen 3 songbook. And just when you're getting lulled and bedazzled, a sonic firestorm roils into your abode, your speaker cones turn into something resembling hay, your cat rolls into the paws-over-ears position, and the lady upstairs has a heart attack. Kinski have struck again.

Volume is just one of many bunnies that emerge from Kinski's babushka on Airs Above Your Station. And every time the rabbit appears, it's a different color. The band executes this quiet-to-loud maneuver often on the album--just as they, and many others, have done countless times before. But by no means do they deny the history of this trick. In fact, they revel in the achievements of their elders, commenting and expanding upon them in ways that can be downright humorous. "Rhode Island Freakout," the album's only track with vocals, sounds as though it could be a tongue-in-cheek sequel to Daydream Nation's "The Sprawl," with bassist Lucy Atkinson's spoken-word interlude going Kim Gordon one better in the deadpan department. And the magnificent vortex that closes "Schedule for Using Pillows and Beanbags" recalls My Bloody Valentine in one of their more overwhelming moments, as well as latter-day Swans at their most gorgeous--only its fuzziness sounds a lot more deliberate.

Racing toward your head at the speed of light: Kinski
Sub Pop
Racing toward your head at the speed of light: Kinski

Even as they emulate their forbears, though, Kinski also hurtle blithely into the unknown. Deviating from the traditional snare-on-the-two-and-the-four backbeat, they move their accents around, especially on mid-tempo rumblers like "Steve's Basement" and "Semaphore." It's music you could belly dance to, or use for magical rituals--assuming you knew how to do either of those things. The group also devotes considerably more attention to guitar melodies, harmonies, and textures than their 20th-century antecedents did. As an instrumental band, they have to: In the absence of lyrics and vocals, those guitar parts carry a lot more weight. And Kinski know how to get beautiful with them. "I Think I Blew It," a lovely piece of 21st-century dronecraft, could be a chemically-enhanced portrayal of a Puget Sound sunset. And, throughout the album, their luscious, drifting intros become entities unto themselves--lovely little drones that could easily stand on their own, were it not for the glory that follows.

Airs Above Your Station couldn't have existed ten years ago, at least not on Sub Pop. At that point, the label was up to its earholes in grunge and money--the notion of signing an experimental band that played instrumentals almost exclusively probably would have struck its employees as laughable. But in the wake of late-'90s fascination with electronic music, post-rock, and krautrock, it's the perfect time for Kinski to help put instrumental music back on the radar again. The collapse of corporate alternative rock has freed Sub Pop from the burden of acting as a feeder system for the majors, bands have stopped viewing their music as an artless vocation, and folks seem to have a renewed interest in vocal-free music. It's this resuscitated underground that enabled Godspeed You! Black Emperor--an instrumental band whose contempt for the conventions of commerce is such that they don't allow interviews--to sell out First Avenue a couple of weeks back.

This is the realm in which Kinski flourish. They can experiment and still remain within the fluid entity of Airs Above Your Station. Ultimately, this ability to shapeshift musically while still retaining a highly identifiable style is Kinski's greatest strength. Let others assume the fixed position like trees or garden gnomes. Airs Above Your Station will be whispering (very, very loudly) "Come away with us. We'll be whatever we want you to want us to be."

 
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