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Free Moral Agents: “North Is Red”[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/01-North-Is-Red.mp3|titles=Free Moral Agents: “North Is Red”]
Mars Volta fans know Isaiah “Ikey” Owens as a master keyboardist, also lending his talents to the related experimental dub/reggae side project De Facto. But Owens’ own one-time side project, Free Moral Agents, has transformed into a full-time band with a second studio release, Control This. Though his musical associations are enough to give him reputable standing as a versatile and adaptable session player, Free Moral Agents is far from sounding like a complex math-rock outfit.
The band’s music is, however, complex in its own way. Control This is an omnivorous kind of record — as diverse as it is visionary — and is comfortable in taking on different musical personas at once. Over a combination of ambient pop and trip hop, crunchy guitar riffs and avant-garde fusion motifs construct a critical foreground, and the esoteric vocals of Mendee Ichikawa make for a strong and fitting melodic element.
Under the Free Moral Agents moniker, Owens released his 2004 solo debut, Everybody’s Favorite Weapon, on fellow Mars Volta bandmate Omar Rodriguez Lopez’s label, Gold Standard Laboratories. Soon after the solo affair saw the additions of Dennis Owens on bass, Ryan Reiff on drums, Reid Kinnet on the Fender Rhodes, Jesse Carzello on guitar, and Ichikawa on vocals. Owens is responsible for the band’s overall sound, not only playing keyboard but taking lead on production.
Regarding that production, Owens is consistent in giving tracks enough ambient space for Ichikawa’s breathy vocals to effectively clash with the rest of the band’s dynamics. The contrast is heard on pieces like “Sytole,” with its haunting delayed vocals, echoing into a funky break-beat and bass-driven set, finally breaking down into an epic fusion of visceral guitar riffs and swelling trumpet lines.
“Avarand,” another track that draws distinct differences together, takes a number of stylistic twists in a far-reaching arrangement that works in the overall scheme of the album. The heavy pierce from the guitar is the closest on the album to resemble that of The Mars Volta. But like many of the other instruments, it drops in and out, giving the song a blistering nod that comes off meditative rather than spontaneous.
Later on the record, the band brings its experimental flourishes to Sonic Youth’s “Little Trouble Girl,” a cover that not only shows the true extent of its wide-ranging sound but the striking similarities between Ichikawa’s voice to both Kim Gordon and Kim Deal.
But as early as the album’s opening track “North Is Red,” Free Moral Agents establishes a musical energy that rides a fine line between inside and outside the box. There’s a developed maturity within the exotic percussion and groovy horn lines that achieve an exciting urgency, even though the vocals stay cool and collected. By mid-song, everything breaks down, and there begins an assaulting free-jazz alto-sax solo that lasts for the remainder.
In its dissonance, the track becomes definitive in setting the “anything goes” attitude that very much describes the rest of the album. But to think that such an outlook makes for a record without any unifying elements would be a mistake. Control This is not experimental for the sake of being experimental. Owens and co. have found a dark niche where the music sounds inherently natural, not forced. The music here is an eclectic collection of tastefully clashing sounds from an outfit that thrives on deconstructing genres to forge brand-new ones.