The Sound of Ambivalence: Exploded View at Rough Trade NYC
Exploded View is a self described international project fronted by the artist known as Anika (Annika Henderson), a strikingly alluring British-born singer currently living in Berlin. With her Mexico City-based collaborators Hugo Quezada and Martin Thulin, the group has released two full albums and an EP on the Brooklyn-based Sacred Bones label. In support of their most recent effort, the long player Obey released in September, Exploded View—with an additional fourth member, the musician Paulina Lasa—hit the road this fall for their first ever North American tour, which included a stop at Rough Trade NYC in early November.
Having followed Anika since the release of her intriguing 2010 self-titled LP, a collection of dark and minimal post-punk-ified covers and originals made in collaboration with the Bristol-based band Beak>—which includes Geoff Barrow of Portishead—I’ve been expecting even greater things to develop around her movie star-like charisma and icy cool voice. Exploded View however, is not yet great. Further channeling a variety of early ‘80s, decidedly British post-punk and industrial threads, their recordings are very much examples of record collector music; calculated, knowing recipes, in this case mixing some Pop Group and PiL, with maybe a sprinkling of Throbbing Gristle, some psychedelic folk rock, and, to my ears, a generous helping of early 4AD. All-in-all it’s a very appealing mix, and while there’s a lot to like there, it was my hope that the live experience would transcend the somewhat constrained quality of their recordings.
As it happened, Exploded View seemed to bring even less energy and enthusiasm to the stage than they put on record. Perhaps, given their nature as an international project, they don’t actually rehearse much, or even play together often. And as with many artists today in our technologically oriented, content saturated society, it seems that the studio is their true site of performance, while the live concert event is a reverse engineered simulation of the recording. Like many of these studio-centric artists, Exploded View don’t appear to be natural performers, or even natural musicians, and the performance was not entirely a success. Though in the post-punk tradition, lack of traditional musicianship and performability is de rigueur, I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed at times.
Nonetheless, as the band patiently proceeded through a broad sampling of songs drawn from their full catalog, it was fascinating to see the musicians, Anika aside, continually switching instruments and roles from song to song. Quezada, the apparent musical leader, spent much of the time on guitar, sometimes playing bass and synth, while Lasa played mostly synth, some bass, and occasional guitar. Thulin remained mostly on the drums, with a foray or two on guitar, and it was refreshing to see a band with such flexibility. Their performance was mostly faithful to the recordings, and for the most part competently executed, but again there did not seem to be a great deal of enthusiasm, and at times the tempo noticeably dragged. Even their strongest songs such as “Orlando,” “Dark Stains,” and “Sleepers” did little to rise above the air of ambivalence. And what I found most puzzling was the somewhat low volume (for a post-punk band) that I can best describe as a consistent and unwavering mezzo forte, which went along with a similarly consistent tempo moderato.
And maybe that’s the point. Serious artists of today can hardly be faulted for expressing the ennui of our time, which is much like that of the post-punk era they seem to be channeling. Anika herself, through her quiet monotone voice and aloofness, seems to fully embody this disconnected weariness many of us are feeling. And given her unique presence and peculiar beauty, it’s all the more poignant to imagine what might have been, or could be in a healthier climate.
But alas, our climate and time are anything but healthy. Given these conditions, Exploded View offers a particular vision of a contemporary group, a kind of distant, cosmopolitan anti-band that exists largely beyond borders and categories and doesn’t seem to care much what you think about it—a band built on ambivalence. For them it rings true, and for one evening I kind of enjoyed it, even as I wanted it to be more. It will be interesting to see what comes next for Exploded View, and for Anika, who will be back in New York for a solo appearance at Elsewhere in January. It all has promise, but based on this one subdued appearance and the rather small audience that turned out, it may not be this configuration that ultimately realizes the tantalizing potential Exploded View suggests. Whatever happens next, I’ll certainly be paying attention.