Review: El Ten Eleven – “Tautology I”

The first chapter in El Ten Eleven‘s new three-part musical journey seems to be written entirely in the third person and drained of all impulse for narrative twists. Kristian Dunn, the duo’s very adept guitar and bass player, said he wanted Tautology I to “represent what my teenage years were like, when I was full of testosterone and depression”, according to advance materials. But there’s not much first-person subjectivity on the album, and little emotional cataclysm shines through in arrangements of the record’s six tracks.

The songs are nothing less than masterfully initiated. Album opener “Entropy” could be used as footnotes in a research paper on math rockers concocting variations on a theme. But, when it comes to the raw surging energy and sweat and grit and folly of youth, the record is wanting. To top it off, Tautology I lacks the prescience many have come to expect of adulthood, of hindsight and, more so, of the authorial voice, that idea that even a narrator learns something through experience. As theses go, the new material inadvertently seems to suggest El Ten Eleven have been making variations on the same record for years, which, some detractors may say, they have.

Say what you will of the band’s tactic of carbon-copying loops ad infinitum on a more straight-forward song like Banker’s Hill single “Phenomenal Problems”, but, when you take the journey with that song, it moves you in all the right directions at the proper cues. It’s a road-map. Well, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Tautology‘s first installment (II is due 10 July, III on 18 September) doesn’t surprise listeners enough. These guys often are mentioned in the same breath as Sigur Rós, but they come nowhere near eliciting the same sense of post-rock mystery or musical sorcery, despite their chops. The whole process of composition and release just seems, here, a little more rote than that.

Again, though, this should be stressed: that doesn’t mean it’s a mission to abort. “Division”, the fifth track, sounds like a Trans Am outtake as performed by Explosions in the Sky – technically proficient, yes, but also blistering-hot to the touch. “With Report” plods along with more of a thud and a wallop that you’re used to hearing from El Ten Eleven, although it doesn’t live up to the slash-and-burn retorts of its opening riff. “Jejune” starts, appropriately, somewhat timid but quickly darts into schizophrenic terrain with hyper-compressed percussion and addictive bass. “Moral Dynamite” features a perky bass theme that’s lifted from the Knack.

All well and good, all well and good. What’s odd about the record, though, is what it says about youth and adolescence and maturing when it seems to be saying very little. For a band like El Ten Eleven, who rely so heavily (even defiantly) on structure, one would think a reminiscence of formative years would entail some element of building – and not completing – a foundation. None of that’s on display here. The songs are fully fleshed out and reasoned within an inch of their lives. Sure, they are occasionally a little rougher-edged than usual, but they offer few commentaries. If they did, why does the band end an LP ruminating on angst with more than two minutes flirting with silence?

If the first installment is any indication, Tautology will be a feast for longtime fans of the LA band but nothing grandiose beyond that. This is not a concept album for the dawning 20s. Then again, maybe it’s apropos. The duo coined its name after an airliner, the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar. And the new record is a lot like airports and air travel – it takes you places, even far-flung ones, but it can be frustrating in how cold, clinical and process-driven the designers have made something as magical as flight. – Justin Vellucci, PopMatters, May 7, 2020

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