Or: “Why I Keep Buying Idea Fire Company Records”
As many of you are not aware, Idea Fire Company (IFCO) has a new record. Or so the story goes, as IFCO appears to be the most notoriously obscure band to make regular appearances across a host of experimental music media in the United States and abroad. It seems every time I read a review, check a promo blurb online, or peruse the numerous essays by Scott Foust himself, mention is made of being ‘under-rated’, ‘under-appreciated’, ‘obscure’ or ‘ignored’. Of course it makes little sense that references of this type could be numerous. It may be that my reading habits err to the narrowly consumed (possible); it may also be that in our vain attempts to categorize music that often defies categorization we fall upon the genres ‘art brut’ or ‘outsider’ and couch its patterns of consumption in the relevant way (also possible); of course, it may simply be legit (likely).
Indeed, had I not heard of them through word of mouth over 10 years ago, it’s possible I would have only now stumbled across them while trolling through the older discography of one of contemporary electroacoustic’s current darlings: Graham Lambkin, with whom they played alongside in Tart and The Shadow Ring about 300 years ago. One can never quite tell if it’s a case of critics favouring IFCO’s music over a wider audience, or if a silent (let’s be honest) minority consumes their songs with disregard for the oblivion offered them by society at large. Whatever the case, they’ve been doing it for a long time, and I’ve purchased/stolen/listened to pretty well every single Idea Fire Company record, CD, 7″ and cassette that exists. Why?
To briefly return to IFCO’s reception, alongside those references to obscurity are affectionate words relating the singularity of vision, intimacy, love and care, and humour omnipresent in Scott Foust and Karla Borecky’s music. At a time when irony (in the Kierkegaardian sense, not the Morisettian) has disappeared down the rabbit hole, it is these traits that continually attract us back to Idea Fire Company. Post-popular music is a scene where a good number of artists are either amateurs home-recording utterly forgettable vaporwave-influenced faux-analogue synth loops or adepts pursuing their 2nd post-graduate degree while producing sterile hyper-conceptual -isms. While recognizing the contributions made by both poles, there is often little middle ground to be found. And that it is precisely where IFCO mines for material. Their experimental tracks never lack interesting harmonics and textures, their melodies are always backed with some fascinating dissonance or another, repetitions are presented with purpose and improvisations with tact and direction. These two old-timers still make albums when everyone knows the album is dead. They are the guilty pleasure that evokes no guilt. Why?
Let’s use The Synthetic Elements as a case study. The first impression is of its presentation as a cohesive whole: blocks of looping low fidelity rhythmic synthesizer open and close each side of the album; it’s instrumentation is limited to piano, radio and synthesizer; it’s timbral palette is more specific still, with the slightly distant reverbatory characteristics of a confined recording studio coming through in every track; the mix continually matches the amplitude of Scott’s radio et al. with Karla’s piano; it is an ‘album’ in the most structurally formal sense of the word.
Between the four pieces of the eponymous ‘The Synthetic Elements I-IV’ series are four longer (let’s call them) songs, played in a style typical of the IFCO era that Foust himself has described as ‘chamber music’. The title ‘The Uncertain Lovers’ perfectly characterizes its music: slightly hesitant in execution, exploratory in amplitude and tone with notes occasionally played out of key, coy with its lilting and disjointed melodies. ‘The Waiting Room Three’ is a plunge into darker territory, with both Karla and Scott committing to a small, repetitive, and highly rhythmic selection of chords, synth wobbles and muted vocal bursts. The second track on side B marks a slight return to the melody of ‘The Uncertain Lovers’, with a change from major to minor key, but keeping more of the rhythmic elements of the previous track. Last of the songs is ‘The Sinking Ship’ – complete with Morse code (it doesn’t quite sound like · · · – – – · · ·, but frankly it’s been years since I operated a telegraph, so what do I know). Karla and Scott are back to a more dynamically monolithic and rhythmic structure, but without the wonky introversion of ‘The Waiting Room Three’. Instead, the playing is brusque, forceful, punchy and determined. Karla switches from more complicated melodies to slowly hammering major chords while Scott’s percussive synth stabs bang out 3 or 4 notes in 6/8 time over-top of the stuttering telegraph producing a nebulous swirl of beat patterns. Between the title and the music itself, ‘The Sinking Ship’ may as well be Idea Fire Company’s modern anthem.
A feature common to many Idea Fire Company records is their consistent juxtaposition of harmony and dissonance. As you can now tell, The Synthetic Elements has this in spades. Many of their previous albums use a variety of instruments and techniques to contribute to both welcoming and alienating the listener. Both Scott and Karla take turns leading the music from agreeable melodies to eerie wavering drones on Music From The Impossible Salon. However, The Synthetic Elements has refined this process to a point where each musician and sound source is really responsible for only one or the other. A fascinating balancing act that also plays out between tracks, meaning the song order and structure itself is worthy of study. Tracks 2 and 7 are in major key, with 3 and 6 in minor; but 2 and 6 are the more complex melodically and dynamically, while 3 and 7 are the more repetitive and rhythmic works. Even the track titles play with these themes, as ‘Happiness Hunters’ is in D minor but ‘The Sinking Ship’ is in C major, resulting in what would be a sort of gallows humour if it weren’t so damn uplifting.
The result is a deceptively simple album that finds Scott and Karla each more entrenched in their own individual vernacular than ever before and yet still managing to produce a cohesive, fascinating and beautiful dialogue. This is why I keep buying Idea Fire Company records.
You can also find a (rambling but amusing) conversation between Scott Foust and Crisis of Taste label founder Thomas DeAngelo below.