At Arctic Drones our mission is to bring more recognition to a variety of artists under the banner of “alternative music.” Personally, my coverage tends to lean more specifically toward post-rock and indie-rock, as those are my areas of expertise. So it is particularly exciting to have the opportunity to venture slightly away from my comfort zone and detail something which truly embodies the “alternative” concept. I’ve had such an opportunity recently with Montreal’s Atsuko Chiba, whose second EP of 2016, The Memory Empire, is making a case to be one of the year’s most enjoyably mind-bending releases.
The Memory Empire sees the band indulging in a highly intriguing alchemy which blends space-rock, funk, prog, psychedelia, hip-hop and post-rock into one preciously rare brew. It’s almost like stumbling upon an indeterminate point somewhere between Poly-math and Youngblood Brass Band, except the final result looks nothing like either of those artists. Hopefully that sentence makes more sense once you press play.
The opener “Wasabi Hands” is aptly titled, as it is akin to being slapped across the face by a palm-full of the titular fiery green paste. It’s shocking at first, but then you become undeniably, acutely aware of its presence. It’s safe to say that the song “Wasabi Hands” provides a much more enjoyable experience, however – a definitive declaration of purpose, making it clear that Atsuko Chiba is not playing around. It’s densely rhythmic and propelled forward by Karim Lakhdar’s confident vocal delivery, but while the strength of this opening is what will grab you, it’s the nuances that will keep you around. Piece by piece, the band layers keyboards and guitar melodies until the track eventually elevates beyond the straightforward hip-hop laced funk rock of the opening minute. The song continues to morph and progress almost imperceptibly, never jarring in its shifts but ever-growing until it becomes a diverse, cohesive whole.
It is in this concept that Atsuko Chiba excel on The Memory Empire. The record is wildly inventive and experimental in its aesthetic, but the practical application of ideas reveals a deft sense of restraint. There are plenty of moments when a less mature band would have allowed themselves to fly off the rails into extended self-admiring jam sessions, but instead Atsuko Chiba take the time to thoughtfully build their expanded palette and the result is a record that remains tight and focused even as it drifts from one soundscape to the next. Before you can realize what’s happened, you’ve reached the jaw-dropping conclusion of album closer “Damonsta Titillates,” and only then does the journey make complete sense. One of the real triumphs here lies in the band’s ability to craft a record that allows the listener to become lost in it, but which never gets lost within itself.
Bassist/vocalist David Palumbo notes that the band actively sought to challenge themselves in exploring unfamiliar sonic and compositional territory. They employed a complex arrangement of synths and pedals, thereby creating a scenario in which restraint became a key element, lest they run the risk of muddling the sound beyond recognition. Without regard for genre, The Memory Empire employs abstract ideas as its muse, becoming “a record that meditates on the non-sequitur state of the collective memory in the information age.”
Combined with the Figure and Ground EP, released in March, The Memory Empire reveals Atsuko Chiba as one of 2016’s most thought-provoking bands. Encompassing and embracing the “alternative” label, they have achieved a rare feat in the modern age – proving capable of being both immediately engaging and entirely unpredictable. The Memory Empire is available to purchase from Atsuko Chiba’s BandCamp page.