First Kings: Exhibit EXE

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https://flamingovapor.bandcamp.com/album/exhibit-exe-2

Have you ever read a great book and thought to yourself, “Man this would make such a great movie?” Only to then destroy that thought because you know Hollywood would fuck it up?

It’s one thing to create a piece of art for another medium. It’s another thing to create a piece of art that is so well made that it would be impossible for any other art form to do it justice. When I read the request for this album, that the songs were originally created as a demo for a video game soundtrack, I was immediately curious. Then after I listened to the album, I thought, “Oh my God this would make a great video game soundtrack.”

To begin with there’s this feeling of childlike wonderment throughout the album. Whether it’s the particular sequence of notes, or the textures of each individual track–everything feels fantastical. When you listen to this album you’re no longer on Earth. In fact you’re no longer in this dimension. You’re immediately transported to something new, exciting, and dynamic.

Then there’s the emotional complexity of each track. Where most songs are emotional roller coasters, this album is an emotional environment. Something so concrete, vivid, and all encompassing that you can almost reach out and touch it. I’ve mentioned many times how music can transport you to other worlds, and this album in particular not only exceeds, but excels in that department.

So when presented with the possibility of this being a video game soundtrack. I imagined the fantastical world it would take place in, a flurry of ideas and new possibilities presented themselves to me. Then I remembered, “The book is almost always better than the movie.”

To illustrate my point we have to go to the first track, Unmade Exegesis. The song starts off with this deep low piano key, which immediately grabs your attention, snaps you out of complacency, and forces you to listen. Then a raspy electronic hum is heard, like the beginning of an electronic thunderstorm. It grows louder, when all of a sudden it’s overtaken by this amazing distorted sounding synth. That sounds so otherworldly, and so alien that it immediately gets the imagination going.

Yet it’s only a hint of what’s to come, a mystery yet to be solved. Like some brave explorer in the depths of some unknown wilderness comes across some strange artifact, a giant foot print of some unknown creature, or some new otherworldly technology.

Then when the heavy bass of the drums starts to kick in. When all the shimmering synths, swirling pads, and mutated choirs sing. It’s only then when you see the scope of the mystery unfold before your eyes. It’s a sense of wonderment and awe, a sense of discovery, and the realization of all the new possibilities–that stirs that excitement in your heart. And this is only the first track.

Next up we have Rampant Wild. This is the track which even if you don’t like video games, don’t like ambient music, or really don’t like anything–that you can’t help but like. This track could work with almost anything. I could imagine that if we were in the 80’s and Kate Bush needed a new single, this would be one of her showstoppers. While at the same time if there was some romantic movie that did a montage of a couple in love it would work perfectly.

It’s an incredibly romantic sounding song. Nearly every synth in this track just oozes this kind of butterflies in your stomach, love at first sight kind of sound. Whether it’s the subtle flute synths in the background, the plucking synth strings, or even that beautiful choir. Everything just screams romance.

It’s at this point where I desperately wanted someone to make this into video game music, and when I also realized that it’s not possible. Well let me retract that. It is possible. Just like it is possible for their to be a movie version of Paradise Lost. Yet it’s when one medium’s strength so completely overshadows another medium’s weakness.

This track doesn’t make you think about love, or look at it objectively. As soon as you hear those synths you are in love. You can feel it, touch it, and see it so vividly and so clearly. You would want any artistic medium that has romance in it to capture those emotions.

And yet when we look to video games, it hasn’t gotten up to snuff. Sure there are plenty of amazing video game relationships. Just like there are plenty of great movies from Hollywood. Yet let’s take any RPG where you can romance one of companions. Does it make you feel like you’re in love? Or are you looking up guides to say the right thing, and seeing if the character is mechanically useful to you? Because let’s face it, if a song sounds as romantic as this, you gotta be delivering on that romance.

Then we get to Interior Versions a soundscape that is so unique, beautiful, and borderline macabre. It’s like the music that would be playing in an underworld lounge. Where all the ghouls, and undead settle down and have a drink. It’s a very specific, and very different interpretation. Yet as I’ve said before this is an album that gets your imagination going. So you gotta forgive me for the liberal interpretations.

The reason I believe it’s able to keep your imagination going wild is that it has the amorphous structure. It appears at points to have a traditional musical structure. Then the track mutates, morphs, and distorts itself into something else.

We can see this in other tracks such as Failed Village, where the synths have this ethereal kind of edge to it. The ethereal nature of the synths gives it a kind of cohesion. Yet this cohesion unravels as the bass is introduced. It feels off as though the bass is playing wrong notes, is out of time, or maybe it’s not even the right instrument. Every instrument introduced after the bass has a musical cohesion. In fact the instruments are not only musically cohesive, they are also structured in a way that makes it sound beautiful. Only to then dissolve into a slowed down musical deconstruction.

Which provides this unique dichotomy. At one point the bass, and musical deconstruction–at the end–creates this sense of unease. Yet there’s these beautiful lush soundscapes. It’s like when you’re a kid and you accidentally watch a rated R movie. At first your terrified because you are told it’s forbidden. That it will give you nightmares. Yet as you watch it, even with the gore, sex, and violence. There is a kind of wonderment to it. An enjoyment out of the macabre.

Then where Failed Village, and Interior Versions is a leisurely stroll down the strange, bizarre, and unfamiliar. In His Museum is a spiritual journey into the unknown.

So how does First Kings accomplish a “Spiritual” sound? Well, we have to look at one particular instrument–the drums. While the beginning starts off with the typical kind of drums you hear on most electronic songs. Then a new drum is introduced. The conga. Now a conga is an interesting instrument. Sped up, it sounds like a Glorida Estefan song. Yet when it’s slowed down, that’s where it gets interesting. That’s where our cultural memory of “Spiritualism” comes into play.

I bet if you were to isolate just the congas alone, and to ask somebody what imagery comes to mind. They’d be saying things like, “Oh, I’m out in the desert in front of a fire. A tribal chief gives me these sacred herbs to eat, and now I’m tripping out.” Okay maybe it’s just me. Yet in our collective unconscious we have this residual memory of this kind of “Spiritualism.” Before organized religion, technology, and even civilization. I guarantee you that during those times they weren’t using Pipe organs to compose their spiritual songs–they were using drums. If you don’t believe me just think of tribes out in the Amazon, untouched by civilization. Are they plugging up the ole strat? Or are they playing on drums? I rest my case.

If you read this blog a lot, I’ve always been fascinated with artists who are able to combine the spiritual, and the technological. It’s that unique combination of synths, and tribal drumming. Except usually when a song invokes those feelings. It’s not with a lush synth soundscape filled with wonderment and awe. Usually there’s some kind of existential threat. Yet not with First Kings, who instead of fearing technological progress, and the reversion back to primitivism–seem to be enjoying it. Not only are they enjoying it, but there’s this sense of wonderment with it. That there’s this new world being created, that just begs you to explore it.

It’s with that sense of wonderment that Curating The Hive which starts off with a sinister synth. It’s so sinister that it made me recall the opening of The Shining.

Now while the opening of The Shining starts off sinister, and ends up being even more sinister. Curating The Hive starts off sinister, and begins to gradually become playful. How does it do that? Well listening to the track, you can hear a sort of eerie kind of synth. A synth wails in the background, this shrill guttural noise. Like the wailing some unknown creature that you’ve never seen before. Then as the synths cheerfully pluck away, bit by bit you realize it’s a creature that you’re not supposed to be afraid of.

That ability to tame a sinister sound into something more playful is an incredible feat to accomplish. Yet it’s that ability to harness in the harsh soundscape into something that has a sense of wonderment is where the true mastery lies. I can’t imagine how many hours it must have taken to precisely create this kind of sound. Yet somehow First Kings is able to layer the synths, arrange the music, and transform the strange into the beautiful.

Then when we get to Becoming Real it’s where you see the synthesis of the strange and the beautiful are fully fleshed out. Where instead of creating an strange sound that gets more tame as the track progresses; First Kings starts right off the bat with the strange and the beautiful. Whether it’s the notes that are being played in a creepy melody, while having this lush beautiful sound. Or a beautiful synth, playing side by side with some strange theramin, that sounds like it’s out of a 1950’s B-movie. It maintains this sense of finding beauty in the strange. Which reminds me of a GOOD Tim Burton film. Where we see strange things. We see ugly things. We see outcasts, social rejects, and monsters. Yet we never see them as being ugly, strange, or as monsters. We see them as endearing, interesting, and even lovable.

Now First Kings doesn’t have Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder, a movie studio, cameras, or even a script. Yet somehow First Kings is able to accomplish this seeing beauty in the strange in a few tracks. While Tim Burton (who is undoubtedly incredibly talented when he’s not being a sellout) needs a whole movie to get you to see.

Then we get to the final track Mould Elegy. Which is an appropriate name. It is by far the darkest and most tragic track on the album. When listening to the whole album, I couldn’t help but feel enraptured by this strange new world First Kings had created. It was a place of beauty, and oddities something entirely new to explore. Yet the strange doesn’t transform into something beautiful, rather it dies.

The beginning of the track creates this swirling desolate soundscape, that’s harsh and brutal. The synths that before created a sense of wonderment, and even playfulness now sound like the last bleeps and blurps of a dying machine. If this song was by itself I would praise it for creating such a desolate soundscape. Which it does fantastically. Yet it’s within the context of the whole album that this song has a tragic undertone.

I said earlier that Rampant Wild was the point of the album where I realized that this album wouldn’t work as a video game soundtrack. Yet it’s Mould Elegy where I realized it didn’t need any other art form. The fact that First Kings was able to take me to this emotional landscape, and somehow to create a narrative, without a script, vocals, or associated imagery is mind blowing.

Yet at the same time I would loveĀ to see another art form be as creative as First Kings, and to use this album as a muse. That’s because this album begs you to be more imaginative. To see the world through different lens, and it’s just inspiring to hear as an artist. And as someone who makes art themselves, if your album makes me want to make more art, then I am going to have to give this album my full recc. Please check it out!

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