Deerhunter - Microcastle/Weird Era Cont. - Classic Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Deerhunter - Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.

by Tim Sentz Rating:10 Release Date:2008-08-19
Deerhunter - Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.
Deerhunter - Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.

A coworker of mine once approached my cubicle – this was a while back – and held up a copy of the Nine Inch Nail’s Pretty Hate Machine and uttered the line “Sometimes it’s just a Pretty Hate Machine day.” We shared a laugh, and it became apparent that her day was filled with frustration, and the only aphrodisiac was Trent Reznor’s most volatile work. This stuck with me for quite some time, and for her anniversary a few years later I presented her with the only album that I went to when I was feeling frustrated – Microcastle which to this day is still packaged with its companion piece Weird Era Cont.

This month marks the 10th anniversary of Deerhunter’s third album Microcastle, and while Weird Era Cont. was released physically later, the two are considered two halves the same whole – originally Weird Era was supposed to be a surprise for fans who purchased Microcastle on release day in October, but due to an error on lead singer Bradford Cox’s part, the second album was discovered and uploaded to file sharing sites quickly. Microcastle was made available digitally via iTunes shortly after the leak in August 2008.

Recorded at the Rare Book Room in New York, Microcastle was the follow-up to Deerhunter’s critical breakthrough Cryptograms from the previous year. Whereas Cryptograms focused on psychedelic textures mixed with sunny pop melodies, Microcastle shifted the approach to a more layered sound, and you can hear it clearly. The album opens with the classic tandem of “Cover Me Slowly/Agoraphobia,” two separate tracks but ones that are always played together. The wall of sound cascades down upon the listener as Cox’s “ooohs” come into focus. Then, a shift to their alternate singer and guitarist Lockett Pundtt.

Every Deerhunter release feels connected in some way. In between Cryptograms and Microcastle, they released the Fluorescent Grey EP, which acted as a segue between the two records. And while it’s impossible to pin down exactly what genre Deerhunter are classified as, there’s a definitive approach to each record that’s inherently theirs. One of my favorite tracks from Microcastle is” Never Stops” which if you listen to Deerhunter’s catalogue chronologically, would be the most accessible rock song they’d done up to that point.

Initially, I didn’t care for Deerhunter. I was in a transitional phase with music after moving to a new, hipper town than the previous town I’d lived in. Local and independent musicians were everywhere, and it was the rage back then. I spent a lot of time at the record store exploring new sounds. When I stumbled upon Cryptograms, I was immediately turned off. This was not the usual rock music I’d become accustomed to. Before that time, I was all about what I conceived to be punk music (it wasn’t), and heavier mainstream butt rock. I had a few good selections on my laptop, but I was mostly devoid of legitimate taste.

The rapid pace I was consuming music lead to a lot of repetition, and I found myself returning to Deerhunter, but this time via a Myspace stream of “Never Stops.” This was not the same band. I must have listened to that song 10 times before I decided this was a necessary purchase. It’s a truly remarkable one at that. Microcastle is an adventure into a world of shoegaze, post-punk, noise rock, and free jazz that it’s unpredictable but still very grounded in the pop world. There’s nothing quite like it out there. It's meticulously arranged, like on “Little Kids” how the pacing is so deliberate as it builds up to the crescendo. Cox’s employs (at least at the time he did, I don’t know if he still does) a stream-of-consciousness approach to lyric writing, meaning that it just comes to him at that time.

There’s a suite of tracks in the middle that all lock together, but the highlight here is “Calvary Scars.” It’s less than 2 minutes and it functions as a template for the sequel to it on Weird Era Cont. Here, it’s soft melodies, a light strumming of the guitar, raindrop like keys – a far cry from “Calvary Scars II” the closing track on Weird Era Cont. which extends to over 10 minutes is a masterpiece of noise and ambience. To reinterpret one of their shortest songs into one of their longest songs may seem silly to some, but the added intensity feels necessary, and after 4 minutes it becomes a swirling, almost danceable cut that you wouldn’t have expected from its opening sounds.

The third act of Microcastle contains four of their most celebrated tracks, and unquestionably their most popular song “Nothing Ever Happened.” There’s not much to be elaborated on “Nothing Ever Happened,” it’s been played at most of their shows, and it has become a staple of indie rock playlists for a very long time now. It can sometimes overshadow the rest of the record because of how massive it is in scope and delivery, and it’s a fantastic composition of theirs.

There’s a brief guest spot from Cole Alexander of the Black Lips on the surf-rock tinged “Saved by Old Times,” which was done via an iChat session. It doesn’t hurt or help the song, as the track is perfect with or without, but for those uninitiated it might be the only aspect of the album that feels a bit strained. Nevertheless, it works its way into the final act and prepares us for the final two tracks. “Neither of Us, Uncertainly” brings Pundtt back as the vocalist, and for me, it’s his best work. Others will talk about “Desire Lines” from Halcyon Digest, but “Neither” is melancholic in nature, and his vocals are paired with a 90s style guitar line replete with fade-ins and outs of Cox’s backing “ooohs,” just like on “Cover Me Slowly/Agoraphobia.” It’s hard to imagine that until their 2015 album Fading Frontier, the two vocalists had never performed a duet, but they did indeed harmonize with each other much like My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher do on Loveless' "Soon," and do so here on “Neither,” which fades to the finale.

“Twilight At Carbon Lake” has an almost ballad-esque feel to it. Distortions aside, Cox croons over a simple and slow guitar line before teasing us and building to an epic climax – only to drop back to the soft vocals and simple guitar line. It rebuilds to the finale, as the band plunges us into the most chaotic noise they could create. It’s the most shoegaze song I’ve heard from them, and there’s so much to take in before it ends. All the while Cox’s soft “ahhhs” continue throughout. And then it’s over.

At one point, folks considered Weird Era Cont. to be a B-side compilation, much like how those same people thought that Amnesiac was a Kid-A B-side album. Well, both of those assumptions are idiotic. Weird Era, just like Microcastle, can function as a separate entity. In fact, Weird Era is far more diverse than its counterpart when it comes to actual songs. Microcastle has a theme, but Weird Era has a multitude of wealth in the Pop region and maybe a bit tongue-in-cheek as a response to Microcastle leaking early. “Operation” is typical Deerhunter, which is not a bad thing at all, it sounds like something from Cryptograms, but steeped in dance and punk.

As they moved away from the noisy post-punk of their earlier material for more sunnier vibes like on Fading Frontier, their writing and lyricism became tighter and more straightforward. A song like “Dot Gain” wouldn’t fit, with its repetitive lyrics, that are hardly decipherable, but Cox uses them here as an instrument, to the point that it doesn’t matter what he’s saying. “Vox Celeste” is probably the only song from this album still played live today, and it’s only the first 30 seconds. Weird Era is an anomaly of sorts – its existence the product of frustration and anger, and while it doesn’t sound like that, it can definitely be felt – primarily in the closing’s chaos of noise.

To me, Deerhunter perfected the sound they explored on their previous work with Microcastle. And while many will rush to defend Halcyon Digest as their greatest work (and it is truly wonderful), I still maintain that the combo of Microcastle and Weird Era Cont. are Deerhunter’s most complete sound, and the reason I adore their work. Subsequent releases have been excellent, but the aesthetic that Deerhunter put forth on this dual release was paramount to establishing their sound – a sound that was ever-changing and bold, and wholly original in a time that seemed bereft of all of those.  

Microcastle/Weird Era Cont. changed the way I consumed music – opting for less of the self-aggrandizing that mainstream music was full of and focusing primarily on the musicianship of independent talent. It represents a tonal shift for myself, a renaissance if you will. It’s subtle, but bold, carefree but serious at the same time. And while I may not understand all of the hardships or emotions specifically that Cox and his band are putting in front of me, there’s a solidarity that I get from both albums that hasn’t been matched since. There are very few albums of the 21st Century that I consider perfect, but both Microcastle and Weird Era Cont. are just that – perfect

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