Imaad Wasif with Two Part Beast - "Oceanic" (Strange Hexes)
At the time of this writing, Imaad Wasif is probably a new name to you. That is, unless you: a) were into his former bands Lowercase and Alaska; b) saw him playing with/opening for Yeah Yeah Yeahs on their Show Your Bones tour; or c) live in LA and chanced upon a show. His resume isn't extensive, but it's worth noting that he joined the bigger-name bands he's played with (YYYs and the Folk Implosion) slightly after their zeitgeist-nabbing moment. Strange Hexes is a very good album, and it's a shame that this album won’t see wider distribution because it is self-released, but it's also slightly out of step: it has either missed its moment by about four years, or needs to wait another four for that moment to come. Perhaps this is because the album, with its high symbolism, tunefulness and muscle, feels like a missing link between Jeff Buckley and Unwound's mid-’90s output; this is hardly in step with our decade's nostalgia for the ’90s, which tends to cant (at least ostensibly) toward rave and techno, not towards alt-. Yet Strange Hexes is too fully realized – and more to the point, too apocalyptic – to be anything but contemporary.
Hexes is a more substantial album than Wasif’s acoustic debut. This change is only indirectly the result of bringing on Two-Part Beast, a full-fledged and unusually competent indie ensemble. The songs here are ambitiously constructed, complete with willful, drastic shifts in tone. The album is marked by a sense of urgency, as well as a certain lack of reserve; Wasif's lyrics, steeped in their own symbolism, come off as embarrassingly direct by current standards. ("Unveiling"'s chorus: "She's unveiling, and I love to love her, and I love to love no other.") But they indicate a rare commitment towards conscious and unconscious intentions that's admirable if not always comfortable. And if you think we're getting into slightly mushy territory here, let’s put it this way: their process honors the basic clumsiness and ungainliness of rock music.
In the course of “Wanderlusting”’s five-minute length, Wasif’s vocal delivery jumps between po-faced and fanciful, and the music, which comes on at first as loverboy filigree (the chorus is punctuated by flanged, sparkling acoustic guitar strums), mutates into Sabbath druid rock. For the most part, Wasif's slightly distorted, fluid guitar does as much to develop the songs' rhythmic and melodic progress as his singing. And it does everything to establish the mood: "The nervous nature of the passenger, at the core of my mutation," he sings atop a slightly irregular guitar pattern, which rolls and flashes beneath "The Seventh Seal"'s murk. As the album's understated lynchpin, "The Seventh Seal"'s chorus comes out and says the unspoken thesis behind rock bands dealing in "Big Expression." The word, of course, is "apocalypse," but here it's coupled with "chrysalis." That hope, and the knowledge of painful transformation versus Big Expression's hope-for-hope is the real measure of Wasif's untimeliness. It's also proof of contact between Wasif and his L.A. peers, in particular the PositiveMentalAttitude-punk bands centered around The Smell.
But the point of this record, it seems, is how airtight it can feel even on its most energetic song, "Cloudlines." It's the opposite of Avatar Rock – the kind of music miniature enough to sound great through earbuds, that's listened to as much for its intrinsic musical worth as for what it communicates about you virtually – and it calls on the listener to air it out and open it up. Wasif seems like the kind of guy that's deeply anachronistic but aspires to a kind of universality – the kind of cafe dandy that writes his lyrics on a ponderous typewriter, prefers Hendrix box sets to Can reishes. The topics up for discussion here are tried-and-true: traveling, change, love and longing. And Wasif approaches them with admirable determination, a will-to-renew, such that it would be wrong to accuse him of being unable to countenance Things As They Really Are. While there's much to savor here – Strange Hexes qualifies as an Album in a way few records do at present – the heavy, sustained atmosphere can sometimes get a little cramped.