For a label that originally claimed to be “doubling down on its own stupidity” when expanding its roster, Nefarious Industries has become a powerhouse when it comes to releasing unconventional and experimental rock. While Rusk is less abrasive than many of their labelmates, they possess the same kind of experimental approach as others that call NI home.

Rusk consists of identical twin brothers Brent and Derek Gaines, the former on drums and the latter on guitar. Originally starting out as the math-rock duo Jerkagrams, the change in moniker also denotes an evolution in sound. On Om Improvement, they are also joined by Ryan Pivovar on bass and Zachary Paul on violin. A whole slew of other friends pops in and out with their own contributions.

Om Improvement gives the word “experimental” its meaning back. Not that this is the most radical music ever produced, but each song sounds like a theory being tested, each operating according to its own logic. Album opener “Mythomania” marries an unconventional but transcendent falsetto vocal to what sounds like the build-up from a post-hardcore song. The result is powerful but frustratingly short.

The second track, “Cheat Day,” is allowed to stretch out and take its time to develop. This time a female voice chants a word (sounds like “Deanna”) like a mantra before finally launching a proper verse. Meanwhile, the drums and guitar create a simple bed of sound upon which other instruments, including strings and bass guitar, are slowly layered. About three-quarters of the way through, the harmonies start to push themselves into more challenging configurations, and what had been a pretty but lightweight song becomes darker and denser. Before things completely fall apart, most of the instrumentation drops out and the song whimpers to a close. The constant mutability of the song proves fascinating.

“Priggish” is an instrumental that would have fit in nicely on Tortoise‘s TNT, while “Banana Brain” takes a turn towards Low-style slowcore, albeit with a more orchestral touch. Perhaps the most fascinating song is “Aye Aye,” which combines a skeletal postpunk groove with sections seemingly inspired by the chamber prog of groups like Univers Zero and Art Bears. The back half of the tune deconstructs itself into a session of free improv, with violin and saxophone dominating the squall.

The album concludes with the more introspective “The Escaping Elk.” A lone guitar figure kicks the tune off, finding an unexpected middle ground between Ali Farka Touré and Bon Iver. Eventually, the guitar drops away and we are left with a drone and washes of cymbals. When the guitar returns, it is joined by the violin and they gently explore the sound space with raga-like phrases. Eventually, the drums creep back in and begin playing more conventional beats. The whole thing builds to a climax that sounds a bit like prime Dirty Three.

Rusk is unmistakably informed by the indie rock bands of the Nineties like Mogwai, Tortoise, Low, and Dirty Three. It’s certainly no coincidence that Tortoise‘s John McIntyre recorded and mixed the album. But the Gaines brothers only uses these influences as a jumping-off point, and are quick to establish a persona all their own. Each song could serve as the DNA for a whole album on its own and Om Improvement sounds like a greatest hits album culled from a discography that doesn’t exist yet.

Todd Manning

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