The release of Kingdom Technology documents a huge leap forward for Tunabunny, a very likeable Athens, GA outfit that up to this point has been pretty easy to pigeonhole. Continuing to play it safe could’ve resulted in additional quality music, and some of it perhaps might’ve ended up great, but it wouldn’t likely carry the same weight as these 14 uneven but highly stimulating songs.
I’ll admit to salvaging a few nifty things from trash cans or discard piles over the years. My haul’s included boxes of records (naturally), a lamp (still works), a bowling ball with bag (high game 246) and a swank velvet painting of a Doberman pinscher. Never have I partaken in purloining from a dumpster though, and mostly for reasons that should be as plain as the nose on one’s noggin; the desperation of hunger aside, without knowing that an item of value happens to be in one of those frequently malodorous metal receptacles, why would one venture inside?
Artists are notorious for displaying eccentric behavior, but I’m guessing Ted Kuhn of Athens, GA realized something was up, or maybe better said that he knew something was in there, before undertaking his dumpster dive. The scoop here, to quote label Happy Happy Birthday To Me’s press notes, is that Tunabunny’s fourth album Kingdom Technology was “recorded in the band’s living rooms by drummer Jesse Stinnard on a slightly-damaged $2500 sound input device fished out of a University of Georgia dumpster by local artist Ted Kuhn.”
This wouldn’t be more than an amusing anecdote except for the massive change on display in Tunabunny’s sound. 2013’s Genius Fatigue saw guitarist/vocalists Mary Jane Hassell and Brigette Herron, bassist Scott Creney and newcomer Stinnard considerably raising the bar on their ‘80s post-punk/’90s indie rock gush, an achievement secured through consistency.Kingdom Technology finds them undergoing a startling progression, brandishing peaks and valleys of worth that are nonetheless reliably fascinating.
Out of the starting gate “Airless Spaces” features a thick yet insistent rhythmic pulse and lilting vocal waves, but its most remarkable component is oozing electronics that seem to almost instantly decay upon creation, an effect reminding me of the aural bleed from a Walkman with dying batteries. It nicely blurs the distinction between out-of-date and futuristic, and in combination with an overt dub influence the song registers like a low-budget sci-fi soundtrack produced by the Mad Professor.
It provides Kingdom Technology with a downright striking beginning, and as it nears conclusion noise reminiscent of a jet engine emerges, lending an aspect of musique concrète to the equation and underlining Tunabunny’s boldness of ambition. Second cut “Canaries in Mineshafts” immediately tangles with opposite extremes, its 1:19 combining Pink Flag’s lesson of brevity and the sort of edginess found in the work of the crucial Rough Trade post-punk acts circa-Wanna Buy a Bridge?
That latter comparison is the most important, for “Save it Up” quickly throws another curveball. Though post-punk elements do remain, particularly in the recurring lyric “I use my anger in a positive way,” the song essentially offers lo-fi dance-pop that’s admirably intriguing and actually quite enjoyable in isolation.
In fact, while the whole sounds a smidge like an unearthed demo tape recorded by Kate Bush in a damp warehouse on the outskirts of NYC sometime around 1987, the experimentally-derived eclecticism is stretched just a little bit too far. Three songs in, and Kingdom Technology connects like a thoughtfully-sequenced compilation.
Though it’s a dangerous tactic, the “sampler” strategy is not unheard of in album-creation, and can occasionally produce a gem. Springing directly to mind is Unrest’s 1988 LP Malcolm X Park. That exceptionally hep Washington, DC group began their existence in this wildly disparate mode, and after joining up with Bridget Cross tightened the focus onto pristine guitar-based indie pop (and a few digressions, natch), but interestingly Tunabunny follow an inverse trail of development, knocking out three uncommonly strong albums of post-Riot-Grrl rock prior to this unexpected wrinkle.
But I certainly don’t want to promote the idea that Tunabunny deliberately set out to make a record that impacts the ears like a comp, or specifically a disc where all the entries sound as if they come from different bands. More accurately, they clearly felt it was time to broaden their overall scope, but when most act upon this urge they generally undergo a handful of hackneyed maneuvers, and to be blunt, they start getting boring.
And boredom is one reaction Kingdom Technology consistently avoids. Of course, experimentation this restless insures that, in addition to a wide stylistic spectrum, not everything will attain equal standards of quality. For example, “Different Jobs” recalls the Brit DIY era but never rises above the level of mildly interesting.
However, just when nervousness starts setting in, “Power Breaks” arrives to deliver the LP’s strongest track since the opener. For reference points, the best one is possibly “Essential Logic,” though the most absorbing facet of the tune is easily the utter oddness of the unceasing, somewhat motorik rhythm. The brittle/clinical atmosphere is a joy to hear, especially on headphones; Kingdom Technology might be lo-fi, but the production by Jesse Stinnard is arguably its slyest attribute.
Compared to “Power Breaks,” “Good God Awful” unwinds as relatively normal, though during its one minute duration the angularity does creep up on the lobes (it also ends abruptly). “Tete-a-Tete” is next, coming-off like a Deep South Throwing Muses if they’d self-released their early stuff on homemade cassettes instead of recording for 4AD, and “Coming For You” is an out of the blue pop-rock nugget with densely-packed post-Ramones guitar to match the catchiness.
“Not New Years” is fairly minimalist, consisting mainly of a repeated lyric enveloped in an audio fog, and it’s a haze thick as soup. Likewise, “Empire” initially seems to be a dose of skeletal sing-along strum. In reality, it’s a sonic mesh that even incorporates non-trad use of sampling tech. And while a few of the selections here manage to defy a straightforward relationship to other bands, “Chalked Up” is audibly influenced by fellow Athenians Pylon, and to pleasant result.
There’s not much to be said for short mood track “Terminal Departure” except that it adequately serves as linkage for a pair of larger tunes, with “Bag of Bones” being a return to dance environs. Body music is by its very nature repetitive, but Tunabunny blend this feature with a cyclical chant of a resonant line that helps to significantly increase the value of the whole.
The danciness (and vocal repetition) of “Bag of Bones” joins with “Save it Up” to poke holes in my admittedly flimsy “sampler” concept, though if structurally similar, they do unfurl quite differently. Plus, in extending to over six minutes, Kingdom Technology’s final cut notably bookends with opening track “Airless Spaces.” But only partially, since the first piece’s unusualness gels to provide effective entry into the LP; by contrast, “(They Say) This Is Where Our Dreams Live” is a fragmented, emotionally raw and at times discomfiting finale.
This is a release defined by range and daring, but it also evades succumbing to the random, a point greatly underscored by the culminating forcefulness of its closer. Kingdom Technology has sheer greatness in it; indeed four of the numbers here qualify as Tunabunny’s finest work. But the ambitiousness also brings imperfections. Thankfully, the damage these faults inflict on the whole is minimal, and it’s possible that the lessening factors may even decrease over time.