The main problem facing Broken Spindles doesn’t stem from a lack of ideas. Indeed, it’s quite the opposite. Joel Petersen (taking time out from his full-time job as The Faint’s bassist) proves that he’s quite adept at wrangling all manner of skronky, twitchy sounds from his analog synths and drum machines. Unfortunately, it sounds like he decided to put all of them on tape, creating a listen that’s as frustrating as it is interesting.
First of all, Petersen does deserve kudos for stepping out from underneath his other band’s hefty shadow with reasonable success. A good deal of Broken Spindles does sound like it could easily be a Faint remix, or the leftovers from a late-night session at Presto Recordings (such as the guitar-laced “Empty Bottle” or “Connection In Progress”). But a good deal of it doesn’t, and it’s this material that often contains the album’s most fascinating moments.
But therein lies the problem. Much of the album feels like an attempt to cram as many synth patches, glitchy beats, and electro-fusion elements as possible into 48 minutes. Songs jump from idea to idea, creating listen that feels incredibly fractured and ragged. I often found myself scratching my head at the twists and turns the album took, and often, it seemed, right when the song’s initial idea was hitting its stride.
“A Dinner Party Ambience” starts out with the same crushing, static-textured rhythms you’d expect on a Mental Destruction album, with a dulcimer slowly tempering the song’s harshness. Unfortunately, just as the song is starting to get interesting, Petersen washes it all away with a placid mix of ebbing drones and muted atmospheres that completely undermines the energy that had been building.
This is more keenly felt during “The Oldest Accident,” the album’s most sublime and beautiful moment. Imagine, if you will, Sufjan Stevens remixing Seefeel with handbells. Layer and lovely layer of glorious bell-like tones ring out over a glitchy framework, creating a glass-like lattice that, unfortunately, Petersen ends after just 2 minutes. As with “A Dinner Party Ambience,” the song fades away into bland atmospherics, another gorgeous idea aborted before its time.
When Petersen does decide to stretch things out with “Twitching and Restless,” it’s in the worst possible way. A haunting dulcimer melody (the dulcimer is Broken Spindles’ secret weapon, adding an interesting naturalistic sound to the electronic mix), more modem-inspired twiddlings à la Sufjan Stevens, and a loping, Boards of Canada-esque bassline combine to form the album’s finest moment. All of the sounds that Petersen has explored up to this point come full circle.
But alas, Petersen slowly weeds out those elements, slowly reducing the song to little more than a metronomic pulse and what could best be described as the sounds of an analog synth as its transistors are removed one by one. Ultimately, the song just becomes a wasteland of analog noise and weakened beats. And it does so for nearly 10 minutes.
If I sound unduly harsh, it’s just because the album frustrates me. There are so many cool ideas that feel barely investigated. Concepts like those in “The Oldest Accident” feel like they were passed on just when they were getting interesting, in order to make way for the next cool preset or turn of the knob. Some of this could be attributed to the album’s origins as a soundtrack for a friend’s short film. Many of the album’s sudden shifts may have corresponded to visual cues, such as scene changes. But releasing this as a CD implies that the material can also stand apart from the visuals, an assumption that doesn’t always seem correct in this case.
I’d love to hear more from Petersen, and I think he’s done a fine job of staking a sound that seems comfortable for him and yet doesn’t feel like a pale imitation of his other band. But next time, I hope Petersen displays a little more patience with his music. The quality is there, without a doubt. There’s no need to overwhelm it with unneeded excess.