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Predator or Prey

Larval. New York: Knitting Factory Records, 2000. UPC 035828027427.

However clichéd it may sound, in an age of musical acts (it's hard to even deign them "musicians") that are increasingly ignorant of the history of the medium they work within, let alone their own influences (or the influences of the people who program their music), it's amazing to hear a group of musicians, talented in their own right, who so clearly pay homage to their influences. And to do it with such sheer precision and talent only compounds the reception of the music. Larval's third album, Predator or Prey is one of these wonderful exercises in music that knows itself, accomplished by a highly adept and creative group of musicians.

An apocalyptic sounding mixture of 1970s progressive rock (King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Magma), modern jazz (Chicago Underground), and contemporary Minimalist Classical music (Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Adams), Larval defies typical categorization: At once "jazz-rock" or "fusion" seems appropriate, but totally ignores their serious debt to classical music, and "classical rock" seems too connotative of Led Zeppelin, which Larval surely is not. "Orchestral rock" seems fair, but even then, limits the punk and ska aspects, and the jazz, that is so obviously an influence. Larval's contemporaries are difficult to name, but are surely Godspeed You Black Emperor!, John Zorn, and Mr. Bungle, as well as the contemporary version of King Crimson - but by no means is this an exhaustive, or a perfectly descriptive list: if anything, it shows how difficult it is to categorize contemporary avant-garde music. But there, of course, is the proper categorization: Larval is the modern avant-garde.

"One Last Flight," which opens the album, oscillates between mournful strings and frenetic full band expositions; like a trip through downtown Detroit (where Larval is from, in part), "One Last Flight" charts urban decay, the seeming violence in a crumbling building, the inhumanity of modern urban life - as if this is one last flight through Detroit on the way to the homogenized and ultra-white suburbs.

The album's second cut, "The Entity Returns," circulates around a minimalist piano refrain, accenting it with wonderful strings and voice, eventually complimented by drums, bass and guitar in an increasingly menacing piece of music. After three and a half minutes of construction, the music alleviates its tension only to reassert it, adding more atonal qualities to its mix, pulling itself apart until finally it must resolve itself: an understated explosion and escape ("The Entity Returns" returns at the end of the album as "Entity Remix," molded by Detroit native, Carl Craig).

With periods of insanity and atonality and mournful, narrative pseudo-ballads, the album peaks with "Alpha-Thejone." Eschewing resolution in favor of increasing tension and madness, "Alpha-Thejone" is a perfect representation of what Larval is capable of: Carrying the listener upwards through anxious music, and whenever the listener needs the music to end, it continues, only allowing escape or resolution on the music's terms. After six minutes of building, circling tension, when the song finally ends, it seems as if it has always been a presence, that it must continue, that silence is simply not an option.

Building from the unresolved silence left by "Alpha-Thejone," Larval's cover of "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" completes the album (outside of the aforementioned "Entity Remix"). Quiet but noisy, a soulful vocal offsets the atonality of the background music: This is music from the wee small hours of the morning, music from dark, sleepless nights, and in desperate need of the release that only the peace of dawn, with its reassurance of existence, can assuage.

A wonderful album, and one needing more attention from numerous schools of musical thought, Predator or Prey is a perfect example of where music could be, and is going.

Matthew Wolf-Meyer