Johnnytwentythree – JXXIII
I recently got a copy of “JXXIII”, having seen the highly moving and effective music video for “A Minute’s Warning”, the final track off of the album. Featuring highly distorted washes of shapeless guitar noise, the accompanying video was also suitably chilling: a montage of World War II footage, complete with Stalin and his associates, Japanese soldiers being executed, and soldiers marching through St. Petersburg, interspersed with more modern clips, including latter-day ‘heroes’ Richard Nixon and the United States’ patron ‘saint’: George W. Bush. Featuring split-second text inserts with dire phrases as “Trapped by by the grave, we will not surrender” and “For forty days and forty nights, I huddled with the rest of the Midwest”, it is clear that Johnnytwentythree’s message is not one of hope and encouragement. It does, however, function well as a powerful statement against war while still being an excellent song. With such an excellent promotional movie for the album, the rest of it must be just as good, right? In listening to the entire album, however, it turns out that I committed one of the cardinal sins of musical pursuit: never judge a band by it’s single (even though “A Minute’s Warning” is technically not a single, it functions as such on YouTube and other video outlets).
The band is often favorably compared to older post-rock acts, such as Mogwai, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Death In Vegas, Sigur Ros, The Beta Band and others. As I really am not familiar with most of the aforementioned bands (with Godspeed You! Black Emperor being the only one in which I have actually heard songs from), I cannot say for certain if the comparisons are entirely accurate, but I would hazard to say that they are. Yet, these frequent comparisons to post-rock’s shining stars, in addition to the frequent observation at how closely Johnnytwentythree adheres to the ‘post-rock ethic’, is not only Johnnytwentythree’s greatest strength, but it is also it’s greatest weakness as well.
One of the greatest flaws I have observed, not just with Johnnytwentythree, but with many post-rock bands in general, is the assumption that, for songs to be truly ‘epic’, you have to consistently push them past ten minutes in length. I was even startled to read in various articles that, at least for newer post-rock bands, that if your songs ‘only’ reach eleven to thirteen minutes, then ‘they are not even trying’. What? Generally speaking, it has been my experience whilst listening to post-rock bands, that the longer the songs become, the more stretched the musical ideas become. Either that, or they simply become ‘multi-part’ epics which could have, realistically, been split apart as separate songs without compromising the overall feel and flow of the album. This is especially true for “JXXIII”‘s second song ‘Ghost Soldiers’. At twenty minutes even, it is certainly a huge song. True to post-rock form, the first eight minutes are a seemingly endless crescendo and intensification, featuring floating guitar melodies, pleasant violin accompaniment (though certainly not ‘orgasmic’ violins, as I have seen written elsewhere). The drums roll along at a stately (for back of a better term) ‘militant’ pace, only increasing in complexity towards the eight minute mark. After eight minutes, the intensity suddenly increases and…the main melodic repetition is repeated again, with only the drum rhythm being substantially different. The last seven minutes of the song introduce a nice piano melody, but by then it’s ‘too little, too late’. The ending of the song (in my opinion) is actually quite a bit more interesting than the first thirteen minutes, but by that time, my interest (and attention span) has waned considerably, as I lost interest five minutes beforehand, as the need for length and ‘epic’-ness has instead only produced general boredom followed by bemused interest.
‘Red Bird’, their first song, is much better than the song that follows after it, for several reasons. First of all, the length is a ‘mere’ seven minutes, much more ‘average listener friendly’ than a twenty minute song. Secondly, it accomplishes what it sets out to do, without being needlessly prolonged or repeated. Though the ‘spoken word’ addition is somewhat awkward (and Johnnytwentythree themselves have made it clear that they are in no particular rush to add vocals any time soon). The build-up inherent in the song structure itself is also much more memorable, as it will stick in the mind much more readily than the hooks in ‘Ghost Soldiers’ will. Finally, the end of the song contains one of the strongest violin performances on the album (though throughout the entire album it remains slightly buried in the mix, which is unfortunate, given that it would sound quite a bit better if it were brought into slightly greater sonic definition).
Unfortunately, it would be beating a dead horse to give an in-depth analysis of the album’s other two songs (‘Into The Depths’ and ‘Fall Of Swords’), but ‘Into The Depths’ (thankfully) has a bit more variety underneath it’s shell (along with a strange vocal sample regarding ‘the Holy Spirit’) while ‘Fall Of Swords’ nearly falls into the same trap as ‘Ghost Soldiers’, but is saved by a slightly more energetic output (I would imagine that the Sigur Ros comparisons are strongest on this track).
So, is this album decent? Yes. Is it good? For the most part, yes. But is it worthy of the ‘2007 album of the year’ designation, which many have taken upon themselves to label it? Definitely not. It may be a pleasant post-rock excursion, but it is nothing radically different or better than any of the albums their aforementioned peers have already released. The fact that this release is, on the whole, mostly average is somewhat disappointing, given the lack of pretension on this release as compared to other post-rock bands (except for the band’s theory that their music “focuses on the creative and destructive potential of humanity” and that “This dichotomy is reflected in much of our work”). Plus, their awesome ‘art videos’ easily show that they are not afraid to stand out and make brave statements when they want to. In the end, I believe that this album will be a stepping stone for future albums, in which they continue to refine their craft, so that their next album may be truly worthy of all of the praise this one is currently receiving.
Note: The “A Minute’s Warning” video is not for young children.