It would be interesting to see a comprehensive list of every group that has ever been referred to as “an exciting new band from Brooklyn.” A borough that once upon a time birthed the likes of Masta Ace and Adam Yauch (R.I.P.) now regularly spits out melancholic guitar rock outfits (Grizzly Bear, Beach Fossils, The National, The Hold Steady, Blood on the Wall), amorphous creative powerhouses (Dirty Projectors, TV On the Radio), relentlessly talented hip-hop artists (El-P, Sean Price, Talib Kweli), and everything in between. Light Asylum fall into the “everything in between” category.
The duo, Shannon Funchess and Bruno Caviello, caught a considerable amount of attention last year for their aggressive, fog-filled live performances as well as their first proper release, In Tension. There was a flurry of coverage. Most of it lauded the group’s raw industrial pop and made comments like “dark yet accessible” and “Grace Jones meets Ian Curtis.” Thus, Light Asylum found themselves in that precarious realm wherein the buzz for a band far surpasses the amount of material they’ve produced and no one is quite sure whether their debut LP will be as good as anticipated or largely disappointing. Light Asylum don’t quite disappoint – the album is a fierce collection of dark new-wave that is propelled by Funchess’ personality as much as her voice – but their eponymous debut is far from the masterpiece that some might have hoped for.
“Hour Fortress”, the album opener, lays down a base of electronic drums and churning synths over which Caviello unravels a hypnotic lead. Throughout, the duo stacks moody pop melodies (in the vain of what you might find on a Crystal Castles or Moonface record) on top of perpetually driving rhythms. This is most evident on songs like “Pope Will Roll”, “At Will” and “End of Days”. Tracks where the gothic synth lines combined with Funchess’ unnerving growl makes for a futuristic, dystopian sound that gives me the same feeling as when I know someone is watching me. In other cases (“IPC”, “Shallow Tears”, “A Certain Person”) Light Asylum’s soundscape becomes more hopeful, catchy, and downright triumphant.
The upshot of Shannon Funchess’ strangely dynamic vocal range is that Light Asylum essentially has three vocalists. For much of the album, Funchess’ vocals are an unmistakable baritone that immediately makes any lyric sound ominous. On songs like “Heart of Dust” her voice becomes a dreamy and, well, relatively normal falsetto; conversely, “At Will” and “Pope Will Roll” find her spitting and growling, channeling what must be some kind of deep frustration.
Much has been said about the uniqueness of Funchess’ voice. It is distinctive, to be sure, and at times it makes for a fascinating instrument in and of itself, as it’s mechanical tone melds with the industrial instrumentation. But on songs like “Angel Tongue” she borders on sounding like someone doing a drunken impression of Men Without Hats. It is almost farcical. I am a big believer in the idea that an awkward voice employed passionately can ultimately be the most enjoyable (see Stephen Malkmus, Scott Walker, David Berman) and maybe I need more exposure to Funchess in order to come around; but, for me, when her bellowing stops sounding like a natural extension of the mood she is trying to convey it becomes a distraction rather than a draw.
Ultimately, Light Asylum’s debut has some stellar moments (“IPC” and “Shallow Tears”) and it is undeniably unique, but it is hard to commend it much beyond that. Many of the songs bleed together and the raw energy that makes their live show so captivating isn’t captured nearly often enough. However, there is something unsatisfying about sitting in my slippers critiquing an album that produces lines like “go tell the man we are the freedom fighters/ Fuck em/ Take it!” It is an album best left to its own devices that will captivate some, frighten others, and inspire a number of quotes along of the lines of “of course they are from Brooklyn!” At which point Shannon Funchess will find the man who said that and eat him alive.