I often feel obligated to throw up a red flag whenever I see a band coin a name for a new genre. Most of the time, the term feels woefully out of place, more wishful thinking than anything else. At worst, it’s a shameful ploy to try and invest their music with more depth than it actually has. I sometimes think that bands wishing to create their own genre should try a simple lithmus test — just tell a couple of people the new genre name and gauge their reaction. If they give you a blank reaction, a raised eyebrow, or even the slightest bit of a sneer, you might want to rethink your strategy. Chances are, going ahead with it will only give folks the wrong impression of your music.
For example, Frantic Mantis and the fusion of punk and ambient rock that they’ve termed “datapunk.” Now, if you didn’t know anything about the band — for example, that it features members of Division Of Laura Lee, Frodus, and Decahedron, or that there’s a good deal more punk than ambient rock in the mix — “datapunk” might conjure up images of Front 242, Nitzer Ebb, Covenant, VNV Nation, etc. Or perhaps the sort of music one might hear playing in the background of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. In other words, nothing that at all resembles what you actually hear on Data Is Not Information.
However, if you can get over that initial gaffe, than what you’re left with is an actual attempt to inject some forward-thinking elements into the punk mold. The album’s foundation might still be choppy, distorted guitars, screaming vocals, and explosive change-ups, but you’ll also find plenty of electronic elements, digital sonic detritus (think the sounds of Nintendos, laptops, and modems getting eviscerated), disembodied samples, and a handful of atmospheric textures.
Lyrically, there’s a morbid fascination with modern technology and society, and their alienating, dehumanizing effects on humans — as evidenced by such wordy titles as “Obsessive Online Community Drones“or “2600 Meeting At Pentagon City Mall In 1994.”
Really, it’s nothing that revolutionary — electronic musicians and laptop dabblers have been using these elements for years — but within the context of Frantic Mantis’ punk background, is does actually lead to some intriguing and exciting moments. When it works, that is.
“Obsessive Online Community Drones” begins with a riff that could’ve come from The Faint’s Danse Macabre before growing into something much bigger and more progressive (think Passafist’s quirky brand of industrial rather than the recent electroclash craze). “Dark Horizons” begins with discordant shards of guitar and moves at a rather ponderous pace, before the song moves past its initial boundaries into more expansive territory.
“Economy Is The Enemy” bursts out of the gates with a synth-laced freakout one would probably expect more from Frantic Mantis’ labelmates The Fall Of Troy. However, it turns on a dime, transforming into something slower and more insistent. Languid, atmospheric guitars drift out of one speaker while brittle, piercing guitar sparks ricochet out of the other, catching the listener in the crossfire. The heavily-accented spoken word bit gets a little tedious at times as it attempts to communicate a sense of modern anxiety, but the music remains tense and arresting throughout, resembling a choppier, more corrosive form of Radiohead.
However, there are many other moments where the band’s sound just doesn’t work. Either it becomes too “experimental” and obtuse for its own good — “My Eyes Feel Too Large For The Sockets“ ‘ dense soundscape, with its industrial assembly line loops, seem far more intense and alienating than it actually is — or the band takes things way too seriously (or seems to, at least). “The Brooding Polychromes…” is all 8-bit gameboy samples, static washes, and flurries of synth noise, but it sounds too random and pointless to have any effect (though I’m sure it looks really good on paper).
I’d consider “Soundlurkers” tongue-in-cheek but the band obviously takes its references to humans as “ugly bags of water,” random screaming and grunting, and the gloomy metal riffing very seriously. Never mind the fact that such riffing feels more akin to the something you’d hear on the NES than anything truly metal.
At times like this, the music feels more goofy than anything else. Which undercuts Frantic Mantis’ attempts to explore in a meaningful and substantive way the modern, relevant themes that they claim to be dealing with in their music. Perhaps if I was feeling a bit more open to the notion that the band’s approach was ironic in nature — that maybe they chose to cripple and undermine their music with technology (samples, loops, and other “datapunk”-y stuff) in order to expose technology’s crippling effects — I’d be more willing to go along with it all. But irony has never really been my strong suit, and so I think I’ll just stick with OK Computer.