Taken out of the context of their albums (including 2006’s For Hero: For Fool and 2004’s A New White), the disparate elements of Subtle are uninviting and hard to grasp. (I saw the Oakland sextet perform in Madison, Wisconsin, and frontman Doseone menacingly paced the stage, rapping — over electric cell0 — to a skull he was holding, and feigned like he was going to throw blood on the crowd.) To truly appreciate the power of this band, you have to let yourself completely enter the world of rapper-heroes named Hour Hero Yes, where beats are nonexistent but atmospheric synth-romps are plentiful, where all musical styles are there for the taking, and where prose takes precedence over hooks. A world like ExitingARM, Subtle’s solid third album.
ExitingARM furthers Doseone’s story about Hour Hero Yes, a rapper who is fighting off a foe that’s not quite defined. Dose said in October that ExitingARM is about the world into which Hour Hero Yes fled to near the end of For Hero: For Fool. What that means is your guess. Dose even put a 20,000-word almanac up at exitingarm.com to serve as an outline for the three albums. That doesn’t make the storyline any clearer, either.
But when Dose drops opaque lines like "Exiting arm/ The pit and alabaster ascension/ To cut out the middle mind’s eye" on the effervescent title track, it’s clear he’s the only one who needs to know what the song’s really about. If Dan Bejar or James Mercer or Kevin Drew or Win Butler had written that line, a thousand blogs would be heralding him as the best lyricist in indie rock. But since it’s a rapper, it’ll likely go under-appreciated.
But just when you think you’ve got a beat on where the album is going, the band drops the triad of the sweltering "Day Dangerous," the pounding "The No" (with Dose showing off his lightning quick delivery) and the hovering "Sick Soft Perfection," three songs that jump around styles so quickly that it makes the case for Subtle as prog-rap group.
The fundamental problem with the album is that there aren’t many edges to grab onto as the band ventures through the haze. Except for first single "Unlikely Rock Shock," which boasts the album’s lone catchy chorus, and "Providence," which sounds like an outtake from Return to Cookie Mountain, more chourses would have done ExitingARM justice. Not that every track here needs to be radio-ready, it’s just that with the themes being so dense, another morsel to take with you would have been welcome.
But you get the sense that that’s the point here. Subtle aren’t looking to be rap superstars, or even indie-rock superstars. They’ve set out the invitation for you to join them. If you get it, come inside and enjoy. If not, they’ll be back with more skulls, more fake blood, and more songs about imaginary worlds soon.