Though its economy may be in the dumps, Ohio’s underground music scene continues to thrive in these tough times. Like its rust-belt sister, Michigan, the Buckeye state has churned out some famously ferocious noise courtesy of acts like Burning Star Core, 16 Bitch Pile-Up, and Mike Shiflet. Cleveland’s Emeralds may run in the same circles, but they make music of a considerably less fang-toothed bent, channeling the trippy kosmiche spirit of Popol Vuh and Cluster, rather than the blast furnace ethos of Wolf Eyes.
Their last album, a two-track synth drone beauty called Solar Bridge (Hospital Productions), was one of the surprise sleeper hits of 2008, landing on many a music critic’s year-end list. On their follow-up What Happened, guitarist Mark McGuirre and synth players John Elliot and Steve Hauschildt offer more of the same and then some. True to form, the trio continues to draw inspiration from oneiric, early-’70s synth experiments. With its burbling synth swells and weird, jittering electronics, the first five minutes of “Damaged Kids,” the second track on the album, sounds like it could well have been lifted from an early Conrad Schnitzler experiment.
The biggest difference is the emergence of McGuirre, who on previous Emeralds records was submerged in a sea of droning synthesizers. On What Happened, McGuirre’s playing is often pushed to the fore. A track like “Living Room,” which is built around a repeating, undulating guitar riff, has an almost Godspeed-like sheen to it.
The band is at its best, though, when it unleashes its own savagely blissful take on mid-’70s synthesizer drone. A track like “Disappearing Ink” may recall the collaborations between Robert Fripp and Brian Eno, but it has a ragged beauty that makes it something else entirely.