Strange Burden
(Acrophase Records)
Add date: 7.16.2024
Release date: 7.12.2024

Acrophase Records
Apple Music

It’s tempting to intellectualize Font, the Austin-based quintet whose driving music of sampled stabs, dance beats, and euphoric choruses could be labeled with all manner of hyphenated pseudo-genres (“art-rock,” “dance-punk,” “noise-pop”). However, their music quickly makes clear the inadequacy of those kinds of labels. As drummers Jack Owens and Logan Wagner lock into a co-constructed groove, Roman Parnell’s bass bridges the kinetic back line to multi-instrumentalist and environment-shaper Anthony Laurence. From this density emerge frontman Thom Waddill’s associative lyrics and electric-shock dance. They chose their name because it’s the archaic word for “fountain”; it implies both an abundance and the receptacle that holds it. To watch the band is to experience a tension of excess and containment as each member pulls the music into something that transcends its starting terms. Discordant, sinister minimalism transforms into an anthemic chorus of pulsing synths; wall-of-sound guitars give way to a clubby 808 beat against which the drummers push and tug.

They officially released only one song, the razor-sharp “Sentence I,” over the course of the first two years of their existence (besides a set of Bandcamp demos the members posted simply to practice with which were, unbeknownst to them, passed around the Austin underground scene like samizdat). The mystery surrounding them seemed only to increase their allure. They built a reputation on the pure creativity and force of their live performances, and they rode this excitement to shows across the U.S.; bills with bar italia, Water From Your Eyes, Horsegirl, and CHAI; and a slot on the main stage at Austin City Limits.

Font’s debut album Strange Burden shows the band both translating the intensity of their live shows into the studio and polishing the surfaces of their music to juxtapose and dislocate genres with a quick-footed, nearly pop-art sensibility. Patchworked over years of improvising, playing, recording and re-recording both in studios and at home, Strange Burden is the fever-dream document of Font’s nascent stage. It careens from precipice to precipice, revelation to revelation; over the course of a lean 28 minutes, the record covers a dizzying amount of ground. It draws from the past – New Wave, No Wave, rock, punk, pop – but rejects nostalgia, relentlessly pushing their influences into the future.

Thom and Jack started playing music together in college in a cover band. They continued this throughout college. It was a big band – a nine piece at one point, with multiple singers, horns, and percussionists – and they’d play for hours at a time. There was a big emphasis on improvisation, and practices would last for hours. They played Stevie Wonder, Blondie, Winehouse, Talking Heads – anything with a groove, and often to raucous houses packed with people spilling beer and buckling the floor. They maintain that, in hindsight, this likely had a big effect on their eclectic attitude to genre, and why they would become drawn to post-punk. The early addition of Anthony to the lineup bridged their improvisational and performative sensibilities to the world of sampling and recording.

In the spring of 2021, Anthony, Thom, and Thom’s partner at the time moved into a run-down house in East Austin and started a multidisciplinary DIY arts space called All the Sudden, based in the empty warehouse in the yard. They would host visual art shows, concerts, and performance art. Their first full-band practices were in the round in that booming metal warehouse. It was at an All the Sudden event in the winter of 2021 that they met Logan Wagner, who was a clear kindred spirit and was quickly assimilated into the group. By SXSW 2022, they’d added Anthony’s longtime friend and collaborator Roman Parnell to the band, cementing the current lineup.

That year, they referred increasingly to Talking Heads’ writing process with Brian Eno for Remain in Light, where the rhythm section would lay down grooves and loops for Eno and Byrne to later structure and write over. The first real flash of success with this process came with “Hey Kekulé,” the blistering and irresistibly dancy lead single for Strange Burden, which was a big step forward for the band and how it could live and grow together as an organism.

Thom’s lyrics draw from dreams, automatic writing, mythology, and childhood. He begins with rhythm and emotion and sound rather than subject. He loops the music, hits record, dances around and sings nonsense until a vocal part sticks. Then, he fills in the syllables as quickly as he can with culled lines from nonsense poems, scribbled phrases, and whatever occurs to him in the moment of movement and singing. His process is influenced by Ashbery, Mallarmé, and Rimbaud. Sometimes there’s a frame story or scenario, such as in “Sentence I.” He explains: “I had read an article about Seth Michael Ferranti, an LSD dealer from the 90s who’d been caught and then faked his own death and spent years on the run following the Grateful Dead around the nation before he was finally apprehended. That was a container that I could fill with associations and emotion. Much later I realized I was drawn to it because that story resembled in certain ways a recurring dream of mine.” But for other songs, as with “Natalie’s Song,” the lyrics are meant to serve only a sonic function. “What I found was that certain images and associations would emerge naturally, without intention,” he says. “Also, the phrases would be informed by whatever it was I was thinking about at the time. So a picture does form. But it isn’t for me to interpret. I think of the lyrics more as artifacts of a process.”

Regarding the lyrics for lead single “Hey Kekulé,” Thom explains: “I had recently read that Cormac McCarthy essay ‘The Kekulé Problem’ about a German chemist who dreamt an ouroboros and realized the molecular structure for benzene was a ring. McCarthy writes: ‘Why the snake? That is, why is the unconscious so loath to speak to us? Why the images, metaphors, and pictures?’ This sentiment informed many of the ideas and images and emotions I took into the song. Given the reference in the name, it is, I guess, the most referential and direct song about what I’m interested in as a lyricist and performer on the record.” But Thom is quick to clarify: “As with the other songs, there is no intentional meaning to the symbols, references, phrases, and images I use. I’m only trying to channel something. I could do that here because ‘Kekulé’ was one of the first songs where the 5-part machine of the band really began to whir – I had a hand in almost none of the music for the song. The beat, the piano part, all of it came from the band, and because it was a truly foreign container, I could simply release and respond.”

“Release and respond”: this a central ethos for the band, an injunction for both themselves as musicians and for the listener. This, for Font, is a form of radical vulnerability. Font’s music is at once a rejection of irony and of self-mythologizing confessionalism; it remains doggedly sincere even in its opacity and eccentricity. For Strange Burden, both the process and the product embrace mystery and risk to intense and exalted effect.