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'Floating World' within reach

BY DEREK BARBER

Published October 30, 2006

Anyone who has ever seen Mt. Pleasant's own Anathallo perform live will know that they're quite the theatrical rock band. Onstage, band members act out scenes of electrocution, sudden moments of death and even "synchronized swimming." Truth be told, their latest album, Floating World, contains plenty of theatrics to go around.

Mike Hulsebus
Road trips are not the same as living out of a van. Even going on year three. We swear. (Courtesy of Friendship)

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Primarily influenced by a traditional Japanese folk story (the tale of a magical dog who is shot, burned and then miraculously returns from the grave), the album is laced with handclaps, church choir harmonies, cymbal swells, marching band snare drums, a full horn section, and everything-but-the-kitchen-sink percussion. (On second thought, the sink may actually make an appearance.)

But theatrics alone hardly do Anathallo justice. Within Floating World's 14 tracks is an underlying thread: a heart-felt sincerity and an honest passion for musical creativity. While an uninformed listener might be tempted to label Anathallo as merely a Sufjan Stevens knock-off (ahem, pitchforkmedia.com) or as na've newcomers attempting to capitalize on the current trend of broad instrumentation and folk-sensibilities, here in Michigan, we should know the truth of the matter. Anathallo are certainly no upstarts to the independent music scene. Theirs is a sound that has been honed and cultivated over the past six years.

As the title suggests, Floating World is a testament to Anathallo's ambitiousness - an album that nudges and prompts the listener to explore the musical landscape the artists have created. As seen in tracks like "Dokkoise House: with face covered," this is a lush world held loosely together by handclaps and chanted verse. The track opens in 7/4 with descending electric guitar and glockenspiel lines. But as a common occurrence within the album, the song modulates through more than a single key center and (dare it be said) "floats" along with not only grace but a clear intention.

Another standout is "Hoodwink." The song's introduction creates a darker tone with a serpent-like, puzzling guitar line coiled neatly around "metal chain percussion" and Matthew Joynt's crooning. But it isn't long before the piece unravels into a frenzy of major chords and arpeggiating trumpets.

Although an accomplished and seamless transition, the movement still might beg the question: Wait, how did we get here? Is this still the same track?

Not that these kinds of questions hinder Floating World. They help make the album what it is: complex.

And in truth, this is not a record for the impatient. While there is much to be enjoyed without having to delve too deeply into the musical or (perhaps more significantly) the lyrical elements of the album, there always appears to be another layer.

For example, in order to sing along with some of the catchier melodies, one may not need to know that "O Hana" means "the color" in Japanese, or that "Us'te shon shon" means "Don't desert me." Nevertheless, this knowledge only serves to enhance the listener's understanding and appreciation for the songs.

And the songs speak for themselves. "Hanasakajijii (three: the man who made dead trees bloom)" marches along with a steady pulse complimented by guitar hammer-ons and Joynt and co.'s falsetto harmonies. After more bouncing, the singers take center stage and begin a series of intimate vocal rounds.

Perhaps the most punctuated moment within the album is the final track "Kasa no Hone (the umbrella's bones)." Taken from a Japanese death poem, a traditional haiku written to serve as the personal summary of the life of the poet, the track is sung entirely in Japanese. The vocals begin with Sigur R