Published Sep 25, 2018When film critic Manny Farber coined the phrase "termite art," he wasn't referring to artists like Exploded View. A trained painter with a taste for American genre film, Farber exalted small works that emphasized careful particularity rather than "overripe technique shrieking with precocity, fame, ambition." If the French New Wave was too elaborate for him, imagine what he would have thought of a globetrotting trio of improvisatory art-rockers.
Despite appearances, however, Exploded View are devoted termite artists. Their best tracks start from a single point and burrow outward at a deliberate pace. Annika Henderson's Teutonic contralto often draws comparisons to Nico, but her flat delivery belies greater emotional depth. On the band's 2016 self-titled debut, she conveyed everything from wistfulness to playful provocation through the slightest of vocal modulations. Like the directors Farber celebrated, she makes a little go a long way.
On Obey, the rest of Exploded View achieve similar ends through different means. Regrouping after the departure of guitarist Amon Melgarejo, they maintain the economical expansiveness of their krautrock forbears, incorporating new instrumentation without fully abandoning their core strengths. It's hard to reconcile the subdued acoustic guitar on "Open Road" with the piercing synths and barrelling bass of Exploded View, and the gauzy echo that fogged older tracks has dissipated on "Dark Stains," making way for crisp drum pad beats and richer vocal harmonies.
Still, at least a few tracks on Obey build upon old foundations. Henderson's vocals on "Gone Tomorrow" and "Letting Go of Childhood Dreams" channel the same tenderness as Exploded View standout "Call On the Gods," establishing her as a talented medium for melancholy comfort. "Raven Raven" rides out a familiar groove with sharper embellishments, while the title track sinks into the harsh synthesizer washes of the previous album.
If Obey contains a fatal flaw, it's that it can't quite balance these old hallmarks with its new flourishes in a way that feels totally coherent. But like any work of capable termite art, it still manages to set a particular mood that digs its way deep under the skin. (Sacred Bones)