Album Review: Lucky Dragons, Existers

Put on your headphones; it’s time to listen to Lucky Dragons. Existers, the latest effort from duo Luke Fischbeck and Sarah Rara, can be heard any which way, but the album benefits immensely from the space and texture that a pair of headphones can afford. On headphones, you can almost feel the notes pinch you, as the album opens with an otherworldly pulsation of clicks, whirs and delicate synths that will have your mind glued to its seat. Forget structure. Forget lyrics. Simply appreciate the subtle, haphazard somethings that populate your ears.

Fischbeck and Rara, whose performances  are characterized by audience interaction, take the label experimental seriously. According to hawksandsparrows.org, “the name ‘lucky dragons’ is borrowed from a japanese fishing boat caught in the fallout of hydrogen bomb test at bikini atoll in the 1950’s” (sic). At times, Lucky Dragons’ music can sound like an elemental fallout. But if Existers is an eighth grade science experiment, it’s the marshmallow gun of science experiments. Lucky Dragons might not typically see the largest of stages, but when they get the chance, they deliver.

The second track, “what you see is what you get,” opens with hand clapping that, like the first line of a poem, lays out a rhythm to which the remainder of the song responds, and off of which it builds. Halfway through the song, a timid base appears that’s so subtle it’s breathtaking. At times, the album can be challengingly subtle, but it’s important, at least once, to resist the urge to let the music become background music. It’s great music to throw on while you do whatever you’re doing, but it’s meditative and intellectually stimulating if you allow it to be.

While the album tends to shy away from the human voice, four of the album’s seven tracks incorporate vocals, ranging from the soft chanting of “no weapons” on the final track, to an eerie, soothing murmur on “real fire” and “festina lente.” The fittingly titled “mirror makers” is a robotic track whose aleatory wandering is squashed midway by a domineering, regimented synth. On just the next track, an earthy xylophone synth washes over, illustrating the tonal and atmospheric range of such a short album. And though the album is nearly over before it starts, this is its strong point. Despite coming in at just 21 minutes, Existers requires patience, and by cutting the album short, Lucky Dragons lend the album more immediacy, reminding you to savor every note.

In an interview with Jessica Hopper of the Chicago Reader, Rara said, “Our main focus is often on the social contract between people gathered in a space and between ourselves and the institution or venue.” It is obvious that for Fischbeck and Rara, there’s more to the music than what’s etched onto the record. As Hopper points out, Lucky Dragons are not just a band, they’re “an art project, a social experiment, a magic show.”

The social element of Lucky Dragons is certainly not absent from Existers. On the album’s first track, Rara sings, “this is for the existers / this is for the doers / the repeaters / and the [creepers?] / this is for the [straighters?].” These lyrics, essentially the only of Existers, frame the album with a social justice rhetoric that grounds the randomness in a more concrete dialogue. Then again, half of these words are muddled, and the lyrics aren’t exactly belted to begin with. In other words, the elevated declarations that “this is for the existers” is there if you want it, but if you’d rather let it fade into the beats and repetitions, you’re more than welcome.

To their critics, Lucky Dragons’ multiple personalities detract from their music. Music blog juggernaut Pitchfork, for example, will have you believe that Lucky Dragons “is not really a band,” as Brian Howe wrote in his review of Existers, which he gave a 4.8 out of 10 by the way. (Oh what a far cry from the Pitchfork of 2008, who gave Lucky Dragons: Dream Island Laughing Language a 7.4)! But this is not a review about the downfall of Pitchfork. It is a review to remind everyone that the word “artist” is not just a column in iTunes; it can also be the designation of innovative musicians who aren’t afraid to think outside the box.

— Adam Greenberg

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