Variety Lights – Central FlowPosted by Tarin Fasano
Nearly two decades after Mercury Rev‘s David Baker ducked beneath the radar; he’s rejoined the central flow. The former front man teams up with Will MacLean to produce an edgy compilation based around “analogue synths and electronic psychedelia” (Fire Records). The pair named themselves Variety Lights after neorealist Federico Fellini’s first film (incidentally, a flop). This reference is unlikely but apt; fanciful and baroque undertones do linger amongst the synths.
Central Flow is mildly torturous. But it’s also really good. Definitely headphone music, Central Flow is experimental and retro-futuristic. A ramshackle melody held together with browning tape can have a certain charm. Long, muffled cries are twisted and distorted until they become indistinguishable from the machine noises. With awkward grace, Baker chokes on his words and wrings out his syllables. He drifts up or down to painfully tenuous notes. Darkly whimsical and crowded with intricacies, Central Flow reflects the decadence and decay of Fellini.
A couple songs are too claustrophobic. Unfortunately the first song “Starlight” is a good example of this – sitting through it is actually stressful. Please persevere, and then “Establishment” delivers a shock. The vibe is completely different, predominantly acoustic. Sounding more like Grizzly Bear (staccato piano chords) than Kraftwerk, hints of the old Mercury Rev bleed through the synth. Jarring yet lush, neon delineations provide a framework and strings flesh it out.
Central Flow gets masterfully evocative. “Run” is frantic, with a beat like an anxious heart murmur. Dirty guitar strumming, scribbles of synth, and rapidly encroaching hi-hats all cross and then flee the scene. Exhausted and perfectly rhythmic, Baker chants “run till you just can’t run til you just can’t run til you just can’t run til you just can’t run.” “Oh Setting Sun” is a relief, spacious and faded. Yet everything on Central Flow falls apart or spoils. The song develops into sunstroke, delirious and wavering. Piercing synth frames the morose lyrics, “There are times when there seems no point / To sharing what good comes our way / Paranoid or half-destroyed / The dark heart makes the day feel grey.”
The closing track “You Are So Famous” is at once sardonic and sincere: “Happy just to see me / You are the central flow / The sweetness needs salt… You are so famous / It’s true.” Baker digresses into increasingly loosely related phrases, gesturing at mystery and disintegration. Little is revealed, but somehow “You Are So Famous” neatly wraps up this elegy to archaic technology.
Variety Lights’ affinity for vintage synths is different than a college student’s phantom nostalgia for Polaroid cameras. Baker disappeared from the public eye around the same time electronica started moving to the forefront. Variety Lights are older than many of their contemporaries and have clearly spent a lot of time with these instruments. Discordant harmonies wail and rollick and slump along, but patience will yield cohesion. This isn’t smooth or sleek, it isn’t catchy. It’s a baroque take on The Twilight Zone. Baker and MacLean play with weird sounds and get lost in the bizarre spaces they create. It takes a few listens to warm up to Central Flow but why shouldn’t music play hard to get?