So far on Tri Angle we've had the nightmare lullabies of Balam Acab, the fuzzy R&B histrionics of How To Dress Well, the imploded hip-hop of Clams Casino and many other nuggets of weirdness. One of the few uniting factors in the label's nascent ethos, however, has been the reliable presence of pop-calibre melodies. The debut album from San Francisco's Water Borders flips this tendency on its head. Difficult and fussy, the group's melodies are frustratingly tangential and the vocals are often atonal or distorted beyond recognition.
Water Borders aim to be the sonic embodiment of that blurry watercolour painting that adorns Harbored Mantras: vocal samples smudge into rhythmic devices and sounds get lost in the muck. But we can still try to reduce them down to a list of influences if we must: proto-industrial is all over this record, from the demented march of the opener "Tread On Them" to more general characteristics, like how the synths on tracks like "Bad Ethos" flicker and wane, fatalist beacons of light stolen from 20 Jazz Funk Greats. The incorporation of analogue synthesizers and electronic elements connects them to the early works of Coil and Throbbing Gristle specifically. The way the group's vocals trail off and bend into unnatural chord sequences recalls the primal anxiety of early Nick Cave and Birthday Party, and when the vocals get caught up in the processors they sound like the eeriest moments of The Knife ("Antechamber," "Bad Ethos").
But while Water Borders' obvious touchstones are decades old, their songs are powered by a diverse rhythmic engine taken from modern dance music's insatiable restlessness. Their rhythms aren't quite the quantized mechanisms preferred by the people they might crib from, but the album is loaded with odd percussive turns or drum-heavy detours. The thrilling and dynamic "Feasting On Mongeese" stumbles from methodical into a beat that wouldn't sound too out of place next to Blawan or Pangaea, and the howling vocals of "What Wiwant" is undercut by dulcet junglist pounding. It's these moments of rhythmic fruition that are the most promising, and when their penchant for baroque melodrama collides with the twitchy garage references on "Even in the Dark," the result is like little else.
Like some of the best material on Tri Angle, Harbored Mantras is simultaneously compelling and difficult. Its obsession with the macabre is both kitsch and kvlt. But given a chance the album comes alive, more than just a collection of dovetailing influences or hip outsider music references. They feed into the label's darkness, they leech off its preoccupation with the pop mainstream, and they slot right into its weirdness: Water Borders are an atypical band for an atypical label.
Buy Water Borders - Harbored Mantras at
Tracklist: Water Borders - Harbored Mantras 01. Tread On Them
02. What Wiwant
04. Bad Ethos
05. Even In The Dark
06. Feasting On Mongeese
07. See Bank