Having been set wild (and free) on their last record, it sounds like Akron/Family has disappeared. After the resilient edge and earthen stomp of 2009's Set 'em Wild, Set 'em Free, the band has gone otherworldly on S/T II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT. The album is all about escape, and from the sound here Akron/Family has found some new haven far from anything remotely close to the real world.
Always sound-noodlers, Akron/Family constantly swirls effects around the trio's tight, intricate arrangements. On Shinju TNT, though, the balance seems to shift, particularly in the first half of the record. Keys and effects -- including layered samples from the bands early recordings -- sound like the foundation to the songs, creating a fuzzy expanse that the players worm their way into. Opener "Silly Bear" owes more to the white-noise Americana of Kurt Vile and the War on Drugs than to anything Akron/Family has done before. But it builds convincingly, establishing the fever-dream feel (and brilliant vocal melodies) of the entire record, before sliding us into the sun-drenched, drowsy comfort of "Island."
Moving through these songs -- from enclaves hidden within mountains to far-off islands to new, unexplored shores -- everything is getting left behind, and the album as a whole drifts from wishing for escape to fighting for it to hard-earned catharsis. As a whole piece, Shinju TNT may be the most complete record Akron/Family has made to date. It occasionally contracts -- see the folk haze of "Cast a Net" or the fragile calm of "Canopy" -- but mostly this record swells, building a subtle energy as it goes.
The expanse of its sound, though, sometimes takes away from some of the band's impressive precision. No matter the chaos they've created before, you could always hear the intricate rumble of Dana Janssen's drums, Miles Seaton's labyrinthine bass lines, and Seth Olinsky's effortless guitar riffs. Here we get the rippling notes that open "Another Sky" and the buzzing guitars of "Fuji I (Global Dub)" to remind us of their impressive chops. But where other records delivered unruly peaks, here we get gauzier, and perpetual, expansion -- almost as if the band is slowly ascending that volcano on the album's cover. It might make for a more lasting resonance to the whole, but it also makes for less stand-alone knockout moments. Like the music, the lyrics also work more in their overall feel than their details. Diverging ideas of escape and community will win you over, but you might stumble in moments over silly bears dancing, or ideas on the connection between fate and panhandling.
Then again, maybe Shinju TNT is supposed to be taken as a whole, maybe these 13 pieces are movements and not traditional songs. Even without an "Everyone is Guilty" to knock us out, the overall effect of this album is impressive. The record rewards patience, even moreso than other Akron/Family records, and confidently travels its own path. Following an album that deals in surviving the hard times of this world with an album that escapes all that by constructing its own, puzzling atmosphere is a risky move. But it turns out Akron/Family makes a noise that's going to reach you no matter where it is they've run off to. And when your ears start ringing, you might not even mind.
Experimental beard-rock kings Akron/Family have spent the last several years brewing their own particular blend of freak-folk, post-rock, psychedelia, and free-form skronk to a level of perfect weirdness. Early reports on their 2011 album indicated that Akron/Family had topped themselves in terms of freakiness. Their label admitted that even they couldn't decode the band's agenda, releasing a press release saying, in part, "This album is titled S/T II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT. We have no idea what that means." Those who think it means that these diehard sonic eccentrics are keeping things as amiably odd as ever are probably not far off the mark.