3/4HadBeenEliminated - "Oblivion part III" (Oblivion)
For a few years in the last decade, a gap opened in rock music, and a few musicians — mostly Italians, it would seem, though Dean Roberts was on their wavelength, too — climbed inside and tried to figure out what you could do with the limits of song form. Out of that ferment rose 3/4HadBeenEliminated, originally a three-piece of Valerio Tricoli (voice, tape, production), Stefano Pilia (guitar, double bass) and Claudio Rocchetti (turntables, “sound assembler”), and now also including drummer Tony Arrabito. The group’s first few albums were curious things, “assemblages” of rock form placed under stress, songs seemingly written and then dissected through a musique concrète lens, and subsequently embedded in shifting fields of noise and tape blur that suggest relationships as disparate as INA-GRM, Talk Talk, or the estrangements of ‘70s dub. By the group’s 2007 double set, Theology and The Religious Experience, they’d started to overload the spectrum — Theology, in particular, is a dense, at times intractable set.
Oblivion, on the other hand, is music as disarmament, the point where a collective sloughs off layers of skin. Tellingly, it’s the most unsettled album 3/4HadBeenEliminated have recorded yet, a tense, uncertain listen whose relationship to prior form reminds a little of David Sylvian’s Blemish, the “casting off” of previous life. It’s also a strictly constructed, and some might say laborious, album. For all of its hesitance and silences, and its seeming nakedness, it’s an intricately devised set of compositions; and I would hesitate a guess that it was largely pieced together by Revox master Valerio Tricoli, as his sleights of hand and imprimatur are all over Oblivion. Really, it’s Tricoli’s vision of what a 3/4HBE album could be: elusive, confusing, surprising.
The relationship to dub is still there — there’s a little snippet in one track where the drums play out a simple reggae backbeat before disappearing into one of Tricoli’s echo chambers — but generally, Oblivion has the quartet repeatedly playing on shifting sands. It’s a classic headphone album, in that there’s simply too much detail that eludes the speaker system: the little vocal clicks that ricochet from L to R on the third track; the odd asides and interjections that set tripwires in the background throughout the entire album; the intricacy in the livid wall of noise that the group construct near the end of No. 3, the only time they play with tension-release and crescendo dynamics. Otherwise, it’s all tension. Sure, if you listen distractedly, it could almost pass for ambient scrum in the background, but at some point, Oblivion‘s voids have an uncanny ability to make you turn your ears, focus on the gaping maw of these (non-)songs.
Oblivion‘s a convincing sideways move for 3/4HadBeenEliminated, but it’s not perfect. The vocals can be a little too contrivedly “fragile,” and the occasional jump-cut doesn’t quite work — instead of jolting you out of your skin, it just draws too much attention to the album’s constructed-ness. (Ideally, records like this obliquely flag their construction throughout listening.) But repeated tussles with the album yields a productive confusion that negates the arrogant responses of critics like Keith Moliné, who in The Wire accused 3/4HadBeenEliminated of being “a group endlessly circling around their own nebulous ideas, to no clear end.” He’s right in acknowledging that there’s a fine line between uncertainty and nothingness, but there’s plenty provocative about Oblivion, in its seeming refusal to lay down the law of the auditory experience for the listener. (It’s telling that after 20-plus listens to Oblivion, there are still parts of the album I can’t quite figure out.) It’s another step out for just about the only group I can think of who’ve done anything of note with the rock-concrète template This Heat laid down in the late 1970s and early ‘80s.