Long Fin Killie – Houdini
Houdini, Long Fin Killie‘s 1995 debut, is an absolutely relentless display of technical virtuosity grafted onto a typically British post-rock sensibility. That means elements like spaciness, repetition, attention to texture and mood over melody, and a general disregard of verse/chorus/verse are all in effect. Those elements, however, are rendered secondary to Long Fin Killie’s demanding barrage of metronomic instrumental interplay.
Witness, for example, the minor-key, vaguely folky acoustic guitar lockstep that is “Corngold.” It’s got all the hallmarks of a typical British post-rock song from that genre heydey: there’s a circular song structure, semi- or entirely unidentifiable instruments and sounds (I would be shocked if that was a cimbalom panning around in there, but it sure as hell sounds like one), and an extremely strong, well-developed aura of mystery and space, but it’s all detail sprucing up the driving purpose of the thing, which is kept central. “Corngold” remains hypnotic, but it’s in a decidedly focused, honing way, not in a diffusing, dreamy one.
The same could be said everything on this album, even “How I Blew It With Houdini,” a gorgeous, pristine centerpiece burbling with layer upon layer of complexly intertwined instrumentation. Though it’s a profoundly mellow, relaxing song, rich with detail that slowly unfolds and unwinds over its nine minutes, it never feels dense or unfocused. There’s a purpose here, too.
Psychedelia is usually considered “drug music.” The reasons for this are many and obvious, with the otherworldly moods both psych and drugs evoke being the primary one. It’s perhaps unusual, then, that Long Fin Killie’s music, undeniably psychedelic, evokes a nearly aggressive sobriety. Even at its dreamiest moments, of which there are many, songwriter Luke Sutherland’s music maintains an almost inhuman precision. The same occurs when the band swings the other way, unleashing nearly unhinged blasts of aggression (such as on the dizzyingly busy “Flower Carrier”) that are nevertheless, ultimately, tightly controlled. Instead of mind-melting, space-expanding solos, the band’s skill is harnessed inward, making repetitive riffs of astonishing intricacy and detail, with the complex, airtight drumming patterns in particular recalling jungle’s surgical exactitude. (This comparison isn’t a reach on my part; Long Fin Killie’s final album, Amelia, made this connection explicit with live-drumming Amen breaks all over the place. It’s really kind of breathtaking to listen to. Sutherland’s subsequent project, Bows, is also indebted to jungle.)
I’m tempted to be lazy here and just quit without explicitly explaining just why/how Houdini is “psychedelic,” but, given my previous paragraph, I must. Here it is: There’s no druggy feeling, sure, but that reaching-beyond element is absolutely 110% in effect here, not just in the final product itself (the songs), but in the way those songs are constructed, which demonstrates a restless, heady curiosity. Also, the hypnotic introspection characteristic of so much psychedelia is completely present and dazzlingly effective. Long Fin Killie in general, and Houdini in particular, demands close listening. Ultimately, what Houdini is about is a group of musicians taking their considerable instrumental skills, merging them through their synergistic dynamics, and methodically building a platform to stand upon and touch the sky.
Too Pure: A Note About the Record Label
Houdini was released on Too Pure, a UK-based label that had a staggeringly impressive post-rock/electronic run in the mid-90s, releasing classic albums by Moonshake, Pram, Stereolab, Laika, Seefeel, Th’ Faith Healers, and Mouse on Mars. This lineup, with its fearless approach to experimentation with new sounds and new studio techniques, epitomized what made the era (from roughly 1994-1998, with outliers of a couple years in either direction) my favorite in the history of music. Houdini is just one brilliant star among many in the Too Pure firmament. (For the record, Too Pure might have the best, deepest stable of underrated releases, pound for pound, of any record label I’m aware of. Might be fun to write about…)