I knew almost immediately that Dave Halverson's Fragments of What was one of those albums that was either really good or really bad. The pretentious minimalist cover, the presence of an "intermission" (although I must say that I do prefer "intermissions" to "interludes"), the brilliant song titles such as "Omicron", "Cursed by Robot Gods", and my favorite "In the Name of the Higher Quadrivium"... there was no way for me to be wrong. An album this pretentious either lives up to the obscene expectations it creates or flops completely. It's inescapable.
But I guess it could also fit into a third slot; that of the ironic mockery of the pretentious. And now think about it - any song named "In the Name of the Higher Quadrivium" has got to be a joke.
Oh, aren't I clever? Why yes you are Andrew! I bet I fooled you on that one. It's hard not to expect yet another "impression of the pretentious artist" when we're so constantly pelted with them. But this is the real thing, a pretentious album and nothing more. And somehow it succeeds. What's more, it inexplicably does so in the most understated fashion. The bare instrumentals of Fragments of What don't go out of their way to make a statement of some sort, and at times one must wonder whether Halverson is trying to pass on a message at all. My filthy habit of judging books by covers got the worst of me today, as I'm stuck wondering whether Halverson wrote these songs with a certain meaning in mind or wrote them as simple musical experiments. He certainly pushes boundaries with his constantly varied, mostly indefinable blend of sound. The defining characteristic of this album is the clever idea that there shouldn't be a dominant melody in any of his songs. Rather than give us one sound to remember a song by, with the others merely supporting and reinforcing the effect of this dominant melody, Halverson features melodies that somehow make perfect harmony in their competition to come out as the primary sound. In this way there's nothing to remember his songs by; and this only merits repeated listens. (That's a good thing.)
Of course that can't apply to the whole album, though. In some songs ("Omicron," "Farmers in the Spirit Field"), one gets the hint of a dominant sound, although luckily these melodies are constantly changing as to not make the songs mere odes to a catchy beat. In his "intermission", entitled "The Fair", it's quite obvious that the song is built on a theme. (The theme would be that of a fair for those of you who score low on reading comprehension standardized tests.) But the contrast with the rest of the album is forgivable and even interesting, as contrast tends to be.
The only thing that really mars the album's obvious creative sound is the use of a very basic drum machine whenever rhythm sections are called for. While every other sound on the album sounds foreign and fascinating, the flamingly synthesized, programmed drum beats pull you a bit farther back into musical reality. It's not a nice feeling when you think where the album would be without it.
One drawback like that, though, isn't quite enough to spoil such an original effort. All in all, Fragments of What fails to live up to the expectations it creates. It defies them, sets off in a new direction, and impresses us anyways. (A superb project.)