New math for music lovers: WRCT’s Advanced Calculus is a two-disc set with a few gems, and an assortment of semi-precious songs
by Steven Goldberg
“You’d think that a concept so simple might have flourished. Freeform radio. DJs selected because of their aptness for playing enlightened music for the times they’re in. Audiences listen and respond, learn and are inspired. New music is appreciated, and often created, in response,” reads the CD packaging of Advanced Calculus. This utopian ideal serves as the creed for the freeform radio station WRCT 88.3 FM. WRCT has released this compilation, a collection of music from the independent Pittsburgh scene. Advanced Calculus’ two CDs offer 28 original tracks, each from a different Pittsburgh band, all recorded live on-air at WRCT. A variety of music awaits, though the majority leans heavily toward rock and punk. Disc one is a mixed bag. Of the 13 tracks, 10 clock in at under three minutes. In many cases this is a good thing, but some of the tracks feel too short. The recording quality sounds excellent overall, largely indistinguishable from a proper studio recording. The production exhibits a somewhat consistent issue; however, many of the tracks feature vocals placed very far back in the mix. This renders a good deal of the vocals unintelligible, and WRCT provides no lyrics with the CD or on their web site. Regardless, there are many gems here.
The disc opens brilliantly with “The Burning Bellhop” by Blunderbuss. A heavy machine-like rattle greets the listener first, then a rising wall of feedback, then an urgent guitar riff. Soon the rest of the band joins in for a hard-driving aural assault. Three Speaking Canaries, featuring Damon Che of Pittsburgh band Don Caballero on guitar and vocals, make an appearance with “Summer Band.” Che wails like a drunken Bono and thoroughly beats the listener over the head with the track’s un-hook. SF Firehydrant contribute “Punch One Out,” calling Bad Religion to mind with driving guitars, melodic-but-punkish singing, and sparse background vocals. Weird Paul throws in a wonderful bit of bizarro-rock. With lyrics like “I don’t care how much it costs / I’ll replace the eye that you lost / you and I / you and I / I’m gonna buy you a human eye,” Weird Paul is weird without being sophomoric. He balances a thick rhythm guitar and bright keys excellently, and belts out the song’s quirky hooks with ease, although the breathy backup vocals alternately satisfy and annoy. “Human Eye” along with “What’s French For...” by Arrivals & Departures are the standouts of the first disc. A&D; evoke The Get Up Kids as Brett Styles and Neil Donnelly bang out winding guitar hooks that guide the listener through the song’s varying dynamics. The New Alcindors offer up a pleasant instrumental, “Inseam,” combining surf-guitar riffs and insistent, syncopated drumming with jazzy freakouts. Disc one closes with perhaps its strangest track, “Discharge, Distribute, Dismiss” by Young Steele Matula Trio, a jazz trio of drums, bass, and oboe. Lenny Young builds a wall of oboe with his wild, skittish improvising, making the track sound unique if nothing else. Whether or not listeners can accept the sound of the oboe will largely dictate how much they’ll enjoy this track, but at 8 minutes long and featuring a disappointing drum solo, it’s a tough sell.
Disc two is higher in its highs and lower in its lows. It begins with the soothing synth of “Gemini” by Zombi. The spacey noodling and wind sound effects are immediately reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” but only until the track bursts into a frenzy of drums and funky fusion. “Guardian Renegade” by Lorelei seamlessly drifts back and forth between a tribal dance and a slick rock song. The mini-epic “Dichotomy” by 10 is a welcome surprise. When it gets started, it sounds like the score to an ultra-slick spy movie, complete with a main theme and some explosive action sequences. “Downtown Brown” by Microwaves serves up a wonderful, mutilated guitar riff amidst angry robotic voices. Though the vocals don’t always seem to make sense (“The courtesy phone is using foul language! (foul language!) / The courtesy phone is using foul language! (courtesy phone!)”), the tone of the song always makes them sound like they’re shouting messages of Orwellian doom, with wailing alarm klaxons and insistent self-destruct warnings. “Letter People Show” by Black Moth Super Rainbow is definitely as bizarre as the title sounds. A delicate and melodic intro abruptly segues into a laidback elevator-funk groove and then back again multiple times during the track. A distant voice whispers lyrics and drifts in and out. The last two tracks are both hip-hop oriented, but take different approaches. “UR Not Ready” by Strict Flow takes the more traditional angle, and comes off as cheesy and cliched. With an intro featuring the lyrics “Turn your volume up very loudly. We about to scream some egotistical, testosterone-laced lyrics. Hip hop, check it out,” and a chorus of “You’re not ready / Uh-uh, you’re not ready / Beware, prepare, we here to rock steady,” the track sounds like a parody. The production is slick, but the song largely vapid. “10072002” by Beam has a much more avant-garde sound. It starts out strong with frenetic jungle beats, jazzy bass, and short spoken phrases. At almost 17 minutes, the track works surprisingly well, but eventually falls victim to its own length. The real treat here is the always-interesting drumming of David Throckmorton, though one also has to listen to vocalist Akil Esoon repeat the phrase “illest and sickest” and all variants thereof until listeners might feel, well, ill and sick. WRCT’s Advanced Calculus offers a large variety of local music waiting to be discovered and enjoyed. Most listeners will likely find tracks they will skip, but the experience is still worthwhile. The greatest benefit of a compilation like this is discovering new bands. With 28 tracks spanning genres from indie rock to punk to hip-hop, music fans owe it to themselves to check out this compilation.
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