About seven or eight years ago, my best friend in high school made me a mix CD with a song by this group Kunek on it. I thought “A Sign of Life” was one of the best songs on the mix, bought their CD, and listened to it quite a bit over the next few years. But nothing more seemed to come of Kunek, and I sadly let them fall into the obscurity of my music library.
Four years ago, I was DJing at KWLC, my college radio station. I often perused the inventory of CD’s we had in our collection, and when I came to the “O” section of the library one spring, I did a double take. A self-titled release by a group called Other Lives… Why did this name sound familiar? When I pieced it together that Kunek was now Other Lives, in some version or another, and that they were coming to Iowa City – only a few hours away – in just over a month’s time, there was no question as to the plan.
I saw Other Lives at The Mill, debuting their 2011 album Tamer Animals and opening for S. Carey, soon before they toured extensively with Radiohead. There was no question as to their brilliance, their musicality, their vision. The music rolled through our bodies, beat our hearts for us; I got lost in their symphonic world. I remember sheepishly talking to them after their set, intimidated by how nice they were, on top of their talent. I wanted to tell them about my radio show, but chickened out, thinking I would come across as some young, fan-girl college student DJ. Yet that’s exactly what I was, yet to be the writer who now comes back four years later to elaborate on that experience and their latest release, Rituals.
Led by Jesse Tabish, over the years Other Lives has narrowed down to its current three members, including Josh Onstott and Jonathon Mooney. And for their third studio release under this moniker, the sound has narrowed as well; it’s been honed, focused on a sharper, more intricate compositional makeup. Compared with the vast, deep and unbridled landscapes of sound in Tamer Animals, the end result of Rituals reflects the influence of time spent with Radiohead and Joey Waronker of Atoms For Peace, who co-produced this album with band members Mooney and Tabish. Like vignettes, the songs on this release create a series of smaller, detailed listening experiences that together make up the bigger picture. And where Tamer Animals came in waves, Rituals comes in beats. The percussive element is persistent, pervasive throughout this album – driving the listener from one song to the next, creating cohesion for the whole.
As elaborated in their own bio,Rituals was also a physical journey for Other Lives. Moving from their native Oklahoma to Portland, Oregon, Tabish comments that Rituals, “…was about the spontaneity of travel and being isolated. For the first times in our lives we were moving off on our own away from our families and kind of coming into our own. I wanted the songs to reflect that new spirit.” Yet if you are familiar with Other Lives’ sound, they haven’t traveled far enough to be foreign to the ear. And thank goodness. The recipe that they have mastered since beginning over a decade ago, mixing classical and instrumental influences with modern alt-indie rock as well as the sounds of their origins in the folk-based Midwest, is one that can only exist through intentional musical growth, the calculated evolution of sound, and just the right voice to top it off.
Spending 18 months writing more than 60 songs for Rituals, the end result is a musical feat. But time and quantity are not the measure of success, the indicator of how to make the best version of something. 14 tracks long, most artists would have split this amount of production into an LP and an EP, but the vision of Rituals needs the time to communicate its story. The length is well worth it, and a testament to their talent, as many bands these days struggle to create over half an hour’s worth of music worthy for a release. But that doesn’t mean every track on this album makes complete sense.
They didn’t leave any of their classical or folk influences behind, but a strong trend toward what I consider the essence of Radiohead (think Amnesiac, OK Computer, Hail to the Thief) makes them more understandable to the wider audience of alternative music today. Yet they overdid in a few aspects this time around, getting a little too ambitious on the singles and the music videos. Some tracks ended up overproduced, feeling forced. Tabish feels pushed on “Beat Primal” and “Ritual,” like words are being put in his mouth, and the sounds aren’t present with you. Even on “Reconfiguration,” the main single, the intro is contrived – failing to connect with the previous tune, “Pattern,” and beginning with a muttering meant to imitate a chant. Nothing else in the album resembles these fifteen seconds in the slightest, and they could easily be done without.
And while the video for “Reconfiguration” is a visual marvel, I always have a hard time when the band is so removed from the concept, and the music takes the place of a soundtrack for the video, instead of the video making something more of the music. Again with “2 Pyramids,” one of the most polished tunes on the release, its shimmering sounds are exploited with fanciful, otherworldly-costumed dancers making a overt display of the music. The theme is split, with both earthly and alien elements; the girl with the headdress looking like something straight out of Star Wars. Music videos are great promotional tools, fun experiments, and great ways to involve visual arts with the music industry. But in these, I lose the emphasis of the music, which is a shame for a band so devoted to the quality of it.
Rituals outdoes itself, however, with every other track. Another more publicized tune, “Easy Way Out,” hails to the sounds of the Dust Bowl in its undercurrent, while lightly layering thoughts on top. Now this one is worthy of a dynamic piece of choreography. The innards of the album (“Need a Line” through “It’s Not Magic”) show the true strength of Other Lives as they are now. In their element, Tabish’s lyrics come effortlessly, like in a dream, and the sounds feel like they’ve always existed. It’s almost as if they woke up one day and just wrote and recorded these six songs in a row. A myriad of instruments, tempos, heavy and light sounds, thoughts, and feelings all come together to tell an indisputable truth – as “No Trouble” plainly states: “I’m older but the rest is up us.”
Like dynamic paint strokes, intimate choreography, and electrifying storms, Rituals evokes the aesthetic experience of life itself in its finest moments. The opening track, “Fair Weather,” is the like the gathering of a rainstorm from a long time coming. And Rituals is that rainstorm: spilling its long-accumulated contents on us in a deluge. Other Lives waited a long time to share this content with us and it is a result no less than the last. Yet there is a sound of uprooting, of displacement in Rituals, both physical and mental; an unsettling feeling of change since the release of Tamer Animals, and an attempt to redefine oneself anew.
How strange, that story seems quite personally familiar.