High Wire Act

The Swords Project has its experimental cake, and eats it too.

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In case you haven't noticed, there's a lot of heady, ambitious stuff going on in independent music these days. The comparatively raw purity of pop, punk, garage and other more aggressive guitar-driven stuff that defined indie-rock for much of the '80s and '90s has made ever more room for increasingly experimental, complex and imaginative sounds.

Maybe the community that heralded Sebadoh, Pavement and the like as the true alternative has given way to a new generation with its own ideas as to what constitutes the current fringe. Maybe it's a reaction to the fact that semblances of such styles, along with garage-rock and guitar-pop, have ascended to the corporate airwaves and begun a seemingly endless series of dumbed-down iterations. Maybe it's just that underground musicians have tired of the simplicity, and their talents and boldness have increased along with their boredom.

Probably, it's all of that shit.

With experimentation, however, always comes the question of expression vs. noodling, of voodoo vs. science. Is there a point where the drive to innovate eventually trumps the conveyance of emotion? DJs, proggy ensembles and artists who work from a primarily electronic palette are often described by rock fans as "cold," lacking the sense of human communion that they consider music's reason for being. As more and more musicians incorporate electronic elements and use their instruments to create daring new sounds and rhythms, the notion of what one expects both to give to and get out of music becomes more of a consideration.

Some acts dismiss such notions; they believe music unbound by the idea that experimentation robs its power. Some acts obsess over the balance, taking every comment to heart and reverting back to tried-and-true songwriting standards when their more out-there efforts are met with mixed reviews. And some acts just trust their instincts and experience, mulling the concept but ultimately confident that what they produce will resonate.

"All of us respect music quite a bit, and we all listen to avant-garde records, but we also really appreciate pop records, and I think that shows," says Corey Ficken, bassist and vocalist for The Swords Project. "That there are six people who have very similar tastes in music, but at the same time, those tastes span genres and time periods."

The Portland, Ore., sextet's second record, Entertainment Is Over If You Want It, manages to balance austerity, intellect and warmth more naturally than just about any other pseudo-progressive post-whatever combo currently touring the clubs and recording for an imprint with absolutely zero major-label ties (in this case, Brooklyn's Arena Rock Recording Co., an outfit co-owned by former Tampa scenester Greg Glover). At once atmospheric, complex, and immensely creative — yet both catchy and instrumentally quirky enough to engage those who demand one or the other — the seven-track disc better than ably dabbles in multiple hip styles.

It's ultimately one style, a cohesive high-wire act that never falls into the confines of any of the subgenres it evokes. Fans of off-kilter, jazz-inflected improvisation might consider it as such, while proponents of highly textured soundscapes will hear them in The Swords Project.

Ficken says the desire not to stray too close to the orbit of any one category is definitely a part of the band's methodology.

"Those conversations definitely come up, and I think sometimes we become self-conscious of it to a fault … maybe we self-edit a little too much, or are conscious of the fact when it's paying homage to something too exactly," he says. "But I'm proud of the new record because it's hard to reference it right off the bat — there are some obvious things in there, but for the most part, in this day and age, when people are focusing on specific genres, we consciously tried to make something that has its own sound, or a different sound."

While the group grew out of a largely improvisational side-project for members of a couple of previous Portland bands, the songs on Entertainment Is Over If You Want It are well-constructed, dynamic affairs. There certainly is an overt experimental/post-rock vibe, but it's offset by the kind of inherent organic appeal one might more readily associate with far more traditional songcraft. Fickens credits the grounded feel to the fact that most of the band's members have played with one another over the last eight years or so. Each understands that song ideas brought into the fold will be wildly mutated, as members are allowed ample input on the way to a finished tune.

"We use a lot of different songwriting tools … we all take a lot of liberties with each other's songwriting," he says. "It's kind of expected that it's gonna be dismantled. [There is] lots of interaction between players in developing the songs. We don't feel like we have a lot to prove as individual musicians, so we don't each hold on to our own stuff."

The Swords Project's layered, electronic-tinged side is nurtured by a recording process many purists would find sacrilegious. The band actually records more than what ends up on the final track, then strips away what they consider extraneous until they find an acceptable balance of essence and esoterica.

Live, the band's use of two drummers and every instrument they could possibly fit into a van ("Every night we pretty much move an apartment," Fickens says with a laugh) accentuates the songs' high and low changes, rendering the disc's somewhat continuous feel far more dynamic in concert. The differences between how the material is presented on record and in the set are not an accident — like everything else The Swords Project does, it's a combination of conscious consideration and the ability to offset that with letting nature take its course.

"It's a little more bombastic, we hit people over the head a little harder, and they seem to appreciate that," Fickens asserts. "But we purposely made the record a little bit softer. We didn't want it to really jump out, we wanted it to sort of creep up on people."

Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected].

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