“Don’t you think it might be a little too messy to actually enjoy?” asked a car ride acquaintance of mine recently after hearing Memory Hoarders, the newest release by New Orleans noise punk duo High In One Eye. I suppose on some level she was right to at least bring it up: Andrew Landry and Evan Cvitanovic aren’t exactly in the business of pleasing ears, certainly not those of the casual listener; with unrecognizably muffled vocals and every guitar effect piped through a Line 6 amp, HIOE exists almost purely to make noise. But I’ll give my friend credit for how she framed her assessment, even if unintentional. She wasn’t talking about noise; she was talking about messiness, which is a different animal altogether.
Is High in One Eye messy? Does she even know what “messy” means when talking about punk rock? Though I wanted her to love the record as much as I’d come to, I really had no good way of winning her over. So, I asked the only question I could, knowing full-well how stupefied it would leave her: “Have you ever heard Whippersnapper?”
The only reason that question or the band in that question – a defunct Lagwagon/NOFX clone from the late 90s and early aughts – is relevant to the enjoyment of High In One Eye in any way is that in 2002, Whippersnapper made a swansong record, Appearances Wear Thin, in which drummer Pat Kerr abandoned his traditionally tight, jaw-dropping pop punk techniques in favor of some strange, badly recorded and drunkenly executed arena rock drum work. For years I hated (not just hated, openly shit-talked) that record specifically because Kerr always annoyingly seemed to be just a little out of step with the rest of the band or, at his best, would shift tempos so freely that not even singer Andy Munn knew exactly where to place his vocals. It wasn’t until four or so years after the fact that Kerr’s work on that record became one of my favorite drum offerings of all time, by which point I had realized that he wasn’t out of his element but quite the opposite: in the same way that avant-garde guitarists have been toying with negative space for decades, Kerr was subtly stealing the record with negative rhythm, creating anomalous underlayed drum melodies totally independent of the musical subject matter being sung and strummed, but no less accessible or addictive. After all, listeners instinctively know where a punk beat would otherwise go, so why not leave it up to their imagination?
Whippersnapper’s drummer was certainly neither the first nor the last person to so wantonly engage in such experimental frolic. But without that little tidbit of crude perspective enforcing my understanding of modern punk drumming (I’m sure that weird Dave Holland shit from Judas Priest’s Screaming for Vengeance can offer something similar), I – like my friend who complains of High In One Eye’s apparent messiness – would probably have no clue as to why Evan Cvitanovic and Andrew Landry might in fact be one of the tightest, most lock-stepped creative units making music in New Orleans.
Granted, there was a particular time in the last couple of years – when contemporaries Caddywhompus were beginning to subtly veer from their experimental roots and craft encapsulated pop – that High In One Eye certainly began to appear messy in comparison. It’s no secret that Cvitanovic and Landry enjoy the weirder side of things, and – like the aforementioned ‘Whompus – theirs is an interesting deconstruction of pop music, albeit to much vaster and stranger extremes. The not-so-subtle secret at this point, however, is that through six years of exercises in abrasive dissonance, as well as nine releases of varying length and stylistic origin, the duo has slowly but surely begun to flirt with, of all things, “accessibility”. Not surprisingly, Memory Hoarders is the closest High In One Eye have yet come to crafting traditional breeds of punk and rock and roll. So, if “messy” was ever a valid adjective to describe High In One Eye, I’m sorry friend in the car, but this record is the furthest thing from it.
Not to get too carried away, the record is certainly every bit the “experimental post-mathrock death pop” that it purports to be. But with Chinquapin Records’ in-house recording guru Ross Farbe at the helm, High In One Eye seems to have found the coherent personality they’ve been lacking for far too long. At times the marriage is an odd one. “Weep” and “Indifference”, songs that would probably otherwise thrive on their rough recorded edges with screeching cymbals that drill holes in listeners’ eardrums and strings that exist solely in the low and high end, take on a different life under the blanket of Farbe’s production: instead of jagged edges, he creates pillowy low fidelity textures that often resemble an aural blur rather than a blast. In other places, the soft, demure edges aren’t simply interesting or striking but absolutely revelatory. The spacy, low-key single “Clausula” allows Landry’s doubled guitar to breathe while, for possibly the first time in High In One Eye’s existence, you can almost hear what he is singing. And on closer “G-Deny”, Farbe manages to highlight Cvitanovic’s penchant for creating the kinds of rhythms that not only set the beat but seem to exist as separate melodies in their own right.
The most striking detail of Memory Hoarders, however, is its uniformity. From that uniformity High In One Eye manages to avoid the demoishness that plagues the majority of their recorded work, regardless of production value. Above all else, there is a sense that this is less the end product of directionless experimentation than a calculated attempt to derive a collective musical character from their library up to this point. And in that regard the record is a stunning success. As a genuine representation of the band outside of their semi-legendary live show, I’d be compelled to hand a copy of Memory Hoarders to an uninitiated listener before sending her anywhere near High In One Eye’s back catalog.