There are always confessions to be made at the outset. Seldom are any of them actually made, and never are all of them made, but they are always “there.” The one that I will make right away here is that I never developed any strong liking for Echo and the Bunnymen. It’s not that I actively or particularly dislike them; it’s just that hearing their songs now and then during the 1980’s never really sparked my interest. My consciousness of “popular” (as opposed to “classical”) music in general was very spotty during the 1980’s for various reasons, or you could say “selective” if you’re open to having it sound a bit less negative or indifferent.
The confession is relevant because Poltergeist consists of original Bunnymen Will Sergeant (guitar) and Les Pattinson (bass), along with Nick Kilroe on drums. Their 2013 release, Your Mind is a Box (Let Us Fill It With Wonder) is the second “instrumental prog” disc passed on to me by Brad “I-WAS-paying-attention-in-the-80’s” Birzer. The confession is called for because I came to the disc with that perception: “Oh, this is, like, Echo and the Bunnymen without Ian McCulloch.” … Aaaand get ready for ass-kick number two.
I found a helpful quote online from Sergeant. (It appears several places, but I first found it in a blurb on amazon.com.)
We do not want to fence the project in… with vocal barbed-wire so to this end we are an instrumental band and are very happy about that.
Now, we could argue about whether or not this is too harsh. The kind of containment suggested by the metaphor of barbed-wire could have all sorts of nasty connotations. But let’s not get bogged down by considering them all. There are times when you want fences that divide clearly, that enforce division and containment, right? And there are times when, however right it may be other times, barbed-wire is the last thing you want. To give up whatever it is you are seeing (at the moment) as barbed-wire is hardly to give up division and containment in general.
Following this lead, I’m asking myself: What’s freed up when these guys decide to do without vocals, seen at least from here, now, as barbed-wire? The answer is the kick: On the one hand, a multitude of constraints remain in place; if you expect radical departure, something “free” in the sense of “free jazz,” that’s definitely not what happens. On the other hand (and nonetheless, we might say), everything is freed up! So much of the texture here remains nicely tethered to an “80’s” “poppish” feel. To say that may seem like a put-down, but I think it turns out NOT to be. It’s a revelation for me to hear this instrumental exploration of that feel, placing more emphasis than I’m used to on how broadly prog sensibilities have always been there in a lot of the supposedly “post-punk” or “new wave,” often electronics-laden music to which I paid less attention (but never no attention at all, I now see more clearly). Everything is freed up here in the sense that I can hear the pleasing resonance of those sensibilities better without the “vocal barbed-wire.”
I’m very aware, as I write this, how it may come across as “damning with faint praise.” I doubt that I can wholly avoid that impression, but I hope you will see that it is not meant as such. While it is true that Your Mind is a Box is less category-resistant than the other two instrumental albums I’m considering, it definitely hits my ear as indifference-resistant. Because the members of Poltergeist allow themselves to stretch out in quite specific ways, experimenting without being “experimental” in an in-your-face fashion, I hear this disc as a warm invitation to reconsider that era during which I was spending a lot more time with Mahler, Reich, Penderecki, Glass, Schnittke, Boulez and Zappa. Your Mind is a Box helps me to hear the elements of early prog, funneled through 7o’s Bowie, Fripp, and Eno, moderately seasoned by the legacy of Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream, that kept me watching MTV a fair amount in the 80’s (back when they were a network that played music videos). I would suggest that a major ingredient of the wonder with which Poltergeist wishes to fill our minds is the abiding presence of broadly prog influences in popular music since the 1970’s.
That Poltergeist comes across as this sort of invitation suggests two more things to me: The first thing is that referring to “vocal barbed-wire” in this context involves no particular negative reflection at all on McCulloch or any other prominent vocalists of that (or any other) era. The semantic constraints introduced by vocals are often what allows music to be profoundly accessible to so many people. But music is never only the words that are sung or the voice(s) of the singer(s); it’s much more than that even in a capella music! What one can hear (in the sense of perceiving) more clearly by listening to a delightful romp like Your Mind is a Box is how there is a danger that vocals can be barbed-wire. So the second thing is that this is another way in which the moniker “instrumental” fits this music. It can serve that aesthetically valuable end.
French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty suggested that we do not so much see a painting as we see according to it. Poltergeist give us the wonderful (in line with the intention expressed in their title) gift of music according to which we can hear other music.