The Umbrella Sequence: Sparkler Cliché
First, the bad news about the Umbrella Sequence: The album art for the local quintet's latest CD, Sparkler Cliché, is a con job. Between the tidy simplicity of the front cover and the inner-flap picture of the band brandishing one of those keyboard-with-a-guitar-neck things (a Moog Liberation, according to singer/keyboardist Ryan Rupprecht), one expects to hear something clean, light, and well suited to synchronized dancing in Flock of Seagulls haircuts. But once the disc goes in, it's clear that any new-wave signifiers on the cover are red herrings. Fancy-keyboard choreography wouldn't even be possible: "If I hold it up, I'll die," Rupprecht recently explained of the Liberation. "It's heavy."
Still, perhaps the fact that the cover is perplexing makes it an apt symbol for the music: Sparkler Cliché seems to generate its own sense of confusion. At any given moment, four or five instrumental parts counterbalance each other. The album winds its way from quirky to delicately pretty to ominous to Guitars of Oncoming Doom in the space of the first two songs. Rupprecht's voice, high and thin, swoops around the noise with lyrics that are as much about sounding cool and creating a mood as they are about literal meaning. The keyboards envelop almost every second of the album--sometimes they chirp, sometimes they shimmer, sometimes they erupt into a fury of futuristic space noise, pushing the song toward its boiling point. Guitarists Nick Sander and Jake Swogger contribute a lightly picked texture in the background, stepping forward occasionally to amp up the emotional pressure with massive descending-note riffs. Drummer Aaron Hagebak and bassist Ryan Masterson lead the band through sudden shifts in tempo and mood that echo an array of anxious thoughts. And together, the band creates the sound of a post-collegiate existential crisis compressed into 53 minutes.
Or maybe pre-collegiate. The Umbrella Sequence are clearly a young band: For starters, their chosen area of operations, angst-through-delicate-layering-of-instruments, is hardly new musical turf. (You may have heard of a certain band from Oxford who once had a hit called "Creep"--they had some success with this sort of thing.) And they don't sound like they've decided exactly who they want to be. Meet them in person and you'll find a bunch of affable guys who seem to be the direct opposites of the overwrought souls on the album. But they do match the profile of the somewhat goofy musicians they're known for being in concert: A recent Umbrella Sequence show featured emotional renditions of Cliché's songs, cut with an onstage squid-eating challenge and women volleying their underwear from the audience.
Yet this isn't a group who catch Jockeys and promote tentacle-swallowing just for the sake of breaking new ground. In fact, they don't concern themselves much with being cutting edge. As Kurt Vonnegut once said, the problem with art is that everybody wants to build, while nobody wants to do maintenance. There's an honorable middle ground between the avant-garde and the plagiaristic, and the Umbrella Sequence uses that space as their stage. They may not be taking music to strange new places, but Sparkler Cliché is a sterling piece of maintenance work on a dynamically moody genre. It glides through different sonic rooms, evoking a frustration that builds, but never quite explodes. And when that slight deviation from form is a sort of liberation, who needs a Moog?
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