The Attraction to All Things Uncertain
The smartest move Chris Vrenna ever made in his career was to leave Nine Inch Nails. Though primarily known as a wildly innovative percussionist, Vrenna is a true pioneer of industrial/electronic rock who’s also made quite a name for himself as a much-sought-after producer and remixer for acts as varied as Smashing Pumpkins, Rasputina, The Wallflowers, and Cold, among numerous others. Honestly, the man has a blistering work ethic that puts most of his peers to shame.
For his first solo effort, recorded under the name Tweaker, Vrenna drew deep inspiration from the painting that graces the CD’s cover, (and whose title, Elliot’s Attraction to All Things Uncertain, Vrenna appropriated for this loose concept album), which depicts a be-spectacled character resembling Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, seated before an old fashioned manual typewriter and a cup of coffee. Since the narrative is subtle and sporadic, it’s possible to let your imagination have a field day when it comes to deciphering the plot, but suffice it to say that Elliot has an elliptical relationship with the world around him, one that Vrenna brings to tacit realization. With the understanding that Chris Vrenna operates in a creative domain where synthetic soundscapes are just as important as the bass and guitar, nothing is held back when it comes to musical experimentation.
On the album’s opening track, an alluringly menacing slice of industrial pop noir titled “Linoleum,” David Sylvian’s smooth baritone gives voice to Elliot as the listener gets a first peak inside the protagonist’s fragmented psyche. From there, Vrenna segues seemlessly into the pleasantly queasy, nocturnal vibe of “Years From Now,” fusing sound-bites, samples, loops and every gadget in the technical toy chest with an unequaled musical facility. After only two songs, you’ve got a pretty clear indication of the degree to which Reznor and Vrenna collaborated over their eight years together and the resultant mutual influence that makes it difficult to deduce exactly who’s the chicken and who’s the egg.
“Swamp” is (appropriately) densely percussive and very, very loud, as it flows into “Turned,” with DJ Swamp adding texture to a non-harmonic cut and paste piece that could have come from The Residents’ CD-ROM game, Freak Show. Likewise, the song’s seductive pulse and carnivalesque keyboards further the narrative of one teetering on the brink of an emotional crisis.
While most of the selections are instrumental, “Happy Child” has Will Oldham lending his wavering, apprehensive vocals before “The Drive-Bye” — an eerie percussionless interlude — provides the portal to the album’s second half, where a third and final guest vocalist makes his impressive mark on Vrenna’s twisted tale. “Take Me Alive” and “After All,” the two cuts fleshed-out by Shudder To Think’s Craig Wedren, showcase the singer’s soaring, emotive vocals that positively shimmer with passion and personality. Wedren’s performance falls comfortably between Sylvian’s and Oldham’s.
As the journey to the center of Elliott’s mind comes full circle, the album hits its emotional apex on “Full Cup of Coffee,” which simultaneously evokes feelings of both gentle comfort and heartbreaking loss, like a call from the mothership that beckons a lost alien voyager home. The Attraction to All Things Uncertain ends with “Come Play,” a lively dance track where Vrenna mischievously varies the song’s tempo with acute precision, up and down like a roller coaster. It’s worth noting that there’s a great deal of heart and soul imbued throughout the thirteen tracks that make up this record despite the fact that it was likely produced entirely in the digital domain.
With the release of The Attraction to All Things Uncertain, a remarkably ambitious, artistically accomplished and emotionally rich entry in his lengthy discography, Chris Vrenna can now add the title of conceptual solo artist to his already impressive resume. High fives all around on this one.
Six Degrees Records, PO Box 411347, San Francisco, CA 94141-1347; http://www.sixdegreesrecords.com