10,000 Hz Legend

with their 1998 release, Moon Safari, French band Air became the hipster's favorite band to name-drop. They were relatively unheard-of up 'till that time, played cool-as-ice, spaced-out lounge techno, had stylish and iconoclastic animated videos...for God's sake - they came from France! Moon Safari landed on many year-end best-of lists, and Air were crowned as a visionary force to be reckoned with.

While Air decided how to deal with all this adoration, they released a collection of early songs and b-sides to bide time, and scored the Sofia Coppolla film, The Virgin Suicides. Both soundtrack and album went on to become critic's darlings, especially the darkly seductive "Playground Love" single. That move was cause for many people to label them the new Pink Floyd, as they moved further from their bedroom-encounter electronica to a more drugged, band-based sound; decidedly less user-friendly, and more avant-garde. Moon Safari was their Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, The Virgin Suicides was their Obscured By Clouds, and the long-awaited new album was sure to be the second coming of Dark Side Of The Moon.

Not quite. Perhaps taking a cue from Radiohead, Air completely turned everyone's expectations on their head with 10,000 Hz Legend. The album is a grab-bag of styles, influences and sounds, at once coherent and unfocused. Hipsters everywhere mourned the loss of their flagship band.

The main difference between Moon Safari and 10,000 Hz Legend is this: Moon Safari is an album to have sex to, and 10,000 Hz Legend is an album to take drugs to. There are precious few moments on 10,000 Hz Legend that are designed for romantic encounters; the breezy come-ons of "All I Need" and "Kelly Watch The Stars" have been supplanted by the acid-fried psychedelic folk of "The Vagabond" and the glam-rock leanings of "Radio #1." Where sultry females crooned lines such as "You make it easy to watch the world with love," there are now computerized vocals warning you that they "want to patch my soul on your brain." Sexy, huh?

It seems as if Air delights in tormenting their fair-weather fans. "How Does It Make You Feel?" is a complete mockery of Moon Safari and those who are enraptured by it. Seamless choirs and synthesizers are whispering sweet nothings in your ear, but then a computer voice materializes to deliver tongue-in-cheek lines such as "You are the most beautiful entity that I've ever dreamed of." The chorus is one big taunt; it's not a lover asking if their partner is fulfilled, it's the band jeering at the listener, daring them to accept Air's new identity.

The only concession to the Moon Safari crowd is the seven-minute mood-piece that is "Radian." Building from a droning synth loop and wordless "ohhhh-ohhhh" vocalizing, "Radian" explodes in a burst of vibrant harps and playful flutes. Capped off with a lyrical yet understated acoustic guitar, "Radian" is the only song off of 10,000 Hz Legend that you would put on a mix CD for "that special night." Yet it also functions as a joke, too. It's sort of like saying "look what we can do, but this is all you're going to get." It's one big tease.

Most of 10,000 Hz Legend occupies this half-awake, half-dreaming state; the majority of the songs are down-tempo, but certainly aren't meant to be seductive. "Lucky and Unhappy," "Caramel Prisoner," "Electronic Performers" - these tracks and more are the heart of 10,000 Hz Legend, which is the record's biggest drawback. Impressively constructed as they are, at times it seems like Air is too willfully trying to change their sound - they're too forced, not natural enough. Besides providing a frame for noises that seem really trippy, there really isn't much substance behind them.

Lack of quality songs is really the only thing that holds this back from being a truly great record. That fact is even more frustrating when you look at how Air has previously excelled in that area - the songs from Moon Safari and Virgin Suicides hold up under intense scrutiny and many repeated listens, whereas 10,000 Hz Legend just gets flaky around the edges after a few spins. 10,000 Hz Legend has great personality, wonderful production and execution, but the skeleton is just too brittle in too many places. But Air-heads willing to stick with it, 10,000 Hz Legend will reveal a few gems.

"Radio #1" is the album's first true highlight, and sounds nothing like Air's done before. Less Tangerine Dream and more Low-era David Bowie, "Radio #1" rides a rotund groove and percussive organ arrangements. Air makes great use of guest vocalists Ken Andrews and Jason Falkner, resulting in what sounds more like the work of a full band, and less like studio tinkers. "Radio #1" proves that with a strong foundation, Air can pretty much accomplish anything they wish. "People In The City" replicates the sound of that song, albeit with a stronger focus on the synthesizer; less melodic and more rhythmic.

"The Vagabond," which follows, is a continuation of Air's exploration of a more organic sound. Featuring guest singer Beck (yes, that Beck), "The Vagabond" is a wonderful slice of easy-going folk-rock, yet refracted through a prism of odd-ball synthesizers and programming. It also marks the first time Air has traveled outside of the realm of sex, as far as lyrics go. The tale of a drifter who's searching for deeper meaning, "The Vagabond" is brought to life by Beck's keening multi-tracked vocal.

Elsewhere on 10,000 Hz Legend, Air just gets plain freaky, as in "Sex Born Prison." A minor-key dirge is interrupted by a prog-rock explosion of keyboards and fuzz-guitar, followed by a chorus of Japanese girls singing God-knows-what, perhaps a love song to Mothra.

Perhaps if Air had tightened their focus and concentrated on writing a stronger batch of songs, 10,000 Hz Legend would be a truly wonderful trip around the dark side of the Moon Safari. But as it stands, it's an album of modest pleasures and half-baked experiments. With luck, they'll come into their own with this new sound on the next record, and we can look back on 10,000 Hz Legend as a tentative transitional album.

Reviewed by: Keith Gwillim
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01
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