Naming such upper-echelon influences as Wire and Joy Division, Chicago act Arks have set the bar so high for their first full-length, The International, that even if the songs themselves weren’t as sub-par as they are, Ian Curtis himself would likely trip over their ambition. What begins as a romping start with the title track, a clean and concise anthem that no doubt riles up audiences during live shows, the energy quickly subsides with the following tracks that introduce lead singer Paul Hornschemeier’s ultra-dense, helplessly ambiguous lyricism that drudges the remaining 13 tracks into art rock exhaustion. Much like that sentence.
Although “The International” remains a promising opener, it’s unfortunate to imagine that it likely becomes but a sturdy crutch for performances that are otherwise muddled with hyper-literate moanings from its frontman. I hate to even ask, but one wonders if Hornscheimer requires lyrics sheet taped to the stage floor to remember how exactly to enunciate lines like, “The Stochastic! Undulate along the waveform.” Or, more importantly, does any of that actually appeal to locals circuiting the dens of downtown Chicago?
All these complaints aside, Hornschemeier occasionally stumbles onto some kooky, well-put turns of phrase—never mind what they may mean—that serve as good a hook as any Chairs Missing-contrived guitar riffs that frequent the album. For instance, the egregiously long subtitle to “Maritime Snakes, Or: Societal Telegram Concerning the Misadventures of ‘Sea Serpent’ Hereafter Referred To in the Abbreviated S.S.”—so named only in the liner notes for obvious reasons—has a playful satire to it, much like a Thomas Pynchon chapter title that suggests wild, but probably innocuous, tunnels of meaning.
As might be expected, though, the song itself is only slightly better than its preceding track, “Cars on Fire,” which marks a deepening low point in the record that is hardly scaled to any relief until near its ending. That reassurance comes with the opening minutes of “The Spoils” that serves as a vocal departure for Hornschemeier—climbing the higher registers with swooning effect—but then drops this for the tired pseudo-glam speak-sing that had already spoiled so many other songs. Perhaps the only saving grace for The International is its keen sense for production that keeps its presentation loud and lean, complementing the strengths and glossing over the blemishes as best as can be done. Regrettably, even the savviest ProTools aficionado can’t save the record from flawed and absorbed songwriting.
Like the album cover that features a set photograph of an office lounge of sorts—three unoccupied chairs surrounding a sleek glass coffee table—the album is anguishedly angular and technically balanced. But even with all their Feng Shui efforts, the Arks leave this room desperately empty and staged.