Subtle, from the very beginning, has been a difficult group to decipher. With debut A New White and follow-up For Hero: For Fool, the Bay Area collective crafted two parts of an intricate and surreal trilogy involving protagonist Hero Hour Yes. This, in and of itself, is somewhat confusing to wrap one’s head around, as the stream-of-consciousness lyrics are inscrutable enough to require a Cliff’s Notes version. Add to that a trio of vocalists trading off hyper speed verses over styles that shift from abstract hip-hop to distorted electro to even rock, while never actually sounding anything like any of those genres. Even when breaking out a full-on banger like “The Mercury Craze,” there’s a narrative about upper class blood consumption and layers and layers of sound to swirl around one’s head while attempting to dance.
Dense and overwhelming as Subtle’s sound and message may be, it’s hard to deny just how magical this truly unusual band is. Sure, For Hero: For Fool was a kick in the head of the most unexpected kind, but rather than sting, it invigorated. The kind of album that revealed entirely new things with each listen FH:FF could be spun repeatedly for days without the listener hearing it in the same way twice. I’ve had two years to mull on it, and I’m not sure I’ve completely taken in everything it has to say, though I most certainly love it. But while the rest of us were still buzzing over that album and its equally wondrous remix (if you can call it that) album, yell&ice, Subtle were busy at work with Exiting Arm, the third piece of the Hero Hour Yes triptych, which changes the game yet again.
Exiting Arm isn’t any less dense, thematically, than anything the band has created on past albums, and in fact, the group is reportedly posting a 20,000-word explanation to this brain-smacking mess on its website. That may come in handy in the long run, but this time around, Subtle has taken on a more strongly melodic approach, which will inevitably lead some to call it the group’s “pop” record. Anyone with a working knowledge of Subtle’s history and methods should understand without much difficulty that a pop record by their standards is still bound to buck tradition. But given the heavy, rolling bassline and vocal hook of the title track, the album comes off as far more user friendly, if still a bit disorienting in all the right ways.
“Exiting Arm,” the song, immediately reveals an entirely new personality within Subtle. It’s catchy, it’s simple, it grooves without herk or jerk—and yet, still abstract as ever: “exiting arm/ the pit and alabaster ascension/ to cut out the middle mind’s eye.” Next in the album’s sequence is “Day Dangerous,” a similarly hazy rock song that brings to mind the dense atmosphere of TV on the Radio. “The No,” however, is a prime example of the contradiction and juxtaposition that Subtle is masterful at conjuring. Musically, it’s a big, noisy rock song, though vocally, finds Doseone spouting out surreally stunning wordplay at breakneck speeds (“a skeptic can be grown in no time/ from the treated torso of anyone torn in two…raw water from the tap and it ought to be/ American for its most doubtful properties“).
The similarities to TV on the Radio are understandable, even expected given that both groups have collaborated in the past, and on a similar note, the baroque glitch pop of Morr Music acts such as Ms. John Soda or label parents The Notwist (who also have worked with the band) shine through on tracks such as the gorgeously static-ridden “Sick Soft Perfection.” The group takes a turn for the eerie with the dark electro-soul of “Hollow Hollered,” which begins with the odd observation “your blood owns no bones/ with mailmen in your home/ holding a knife to your poems.” With “The Crow,” they go simpler and catchier than ever, finding a sonic kinship with Why?’s new album Alopecia, which only makes sense given the two were spawned from the ever-expanding world of Anticon.
“Unlikely Rock Shock” delivers exactly what it promises, that being a startling jolt of rock energy with a buzzing, wobbly bassline and shout along refrains of “Luck locked? Moon shot? Un-god got? Goner hope not.” A softer ambient sound pervades the introduction to “Wanted Found,” which remains one of the album’s most (yeah I said it) subtle tracks, softer in tone, yet still distorted where necessary. Closer “Providence,” however, builds its off-kilter waltz into a mesmerizing sonic fortress, with vocals climbing staircases around one another, with synth and flutes making a haunting avant garde symphony that’s reminiscent of The Cure, of all things.
Much in the tradition of past albums, Subtle’s Exiting Arm is an album that will undoubtedly slowly unfold itself to the listener with each revolution. Yet, where it diverges from the group’s path is in its more immediately accessible nature. There is more than a handful of tracks on here which could make great singles, which is one of scant few compliments that one couldn’t have thrown their way before. This is a good thing; while it may still take repeated listens to pick up on each intricacy, it will take no time at all to jam on Exiting Arm‘s 11 tracks.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.