Chaine Infinite, the newest EP from Free Moral Agents, is intimidating on first listen. It’s loud and rough, and it seems to exist firmly in the post-Yeezus electronic/R&B landscape, where we’ve remembered that noise exists, where industrial sounds and ideas have filtered their way into clubs and jam sessions everywhere. It makes it a difficult release to categorize. Free Moral Agents has always straddled a line between electronic R&B and jazz freestyle, and that line gets even blurrier here, with those industrial and dancehall sounds moving around and over Mendee Ichikawa’s haunted vocals Ryan Reiff’s drums.
Chaine Infinite feels like an EP full of ideas, a release that in most circumstances would have me talking about how it gestures toward an exciting fuller realization of them in full-length form. That made it all the more tragic, then, when last week Isaiah “Ikey” Owens, keyboardist, producer, and driving force behind Free Moral Agents, died of a heart attack while touring with Jack White’s band in Mexico. He was only 38. Ikey Owens was a well-known fixture in the Long Beach music scene, where he became one of the longest-running members of the Mars Volta, serving as their keyboardist for ten years. He was also a prolific producer, working with acts like Crystal Antlers and local favorites BLXPLTN. He was an impressive and dextrous talent.
As Ikey’s last release, it’s hard not to read Chaine Infinite as a showcase to his talents, a reading that both fits the EP well and undersells its merits. Ikey’s production is precise and menacing, but the power here is in the way all the moving pieces work together, his distorted keys mixing with Ichikawa’s voice in a way that feels viscious. The opening track, “Moonchild,” is a strong synthesis of elements that define the entire EP, Reiff’s insist pounding drums underlying dancing saxophone bursts to create an oozing, sinister jazz tune. “Dead Heart” continues in a similar vein, with Ikey’s keys feeling Stevie Wonder-esque in a plinky, energetic way. These tracks heavily emphasize the eerie, husky power of Ichikawa’s voice in a fashion that reminds me of Purity Ring, using the unsettling beauty of the vocals to highlight their dissonant elements.
The title track is where the EP really starts to open up, and it becomes retroactively clear that the record’s early intimidation factor is at least partially a camouflage act, peeling back to reveal powerful melodic hooks. These first three songs present a coherent vision for Free Moral Agents, a three-track statement that works excellently as a unit. The last new track, “Requiem for my Dance Hall Queen,” is something else entirely, though. It’s easily the EP’s most aggressive and alien moment, leaving Ichikawa’s vocals aside to focus on building a disorienting soundscape around saxophone and keyboard. It sounds like a dancehall sinking slowly into hell, or melting as the molly kicks in. If I have one beef with this EP it’s that this song ends earlier than you want it to, fizzling in a manner that’s memorable if not a bit disappointing.
The release is rounded out with a live version and a few remixes of “Ageless” off of 2010’s Control This. These are nice but not particularly notable, with the exception of the dreamy take on the track by rockstar producer Hudson Mohawke. It’s sad that half the EP’s track length is devoted to rehashes of one older track, but these remixes do serve as a good reminder of the craft and complexity that goes into each song Free Moral Agents has put out. In light in particular of Ikey’s tragic passing, it’s a welcome reminder. The final, “Simple” remix strips the track down to its barest elements, all voice and bass, and it ends in a slow drone, like HAL9000’s death knells, an ending that makes you think about ending in the abstract. Chaine Infinite may be an ending for Free Moral Agents, it’s hard to say. If it is, though, it’s a memorable one.
Jake Muncy is a freelance writer, editor, and poet living in Austin, TX. In addition to writing for Ovrld, he contributes to The AV Club, is the Games Editor of Loser City and his writing can be found anywhere else he can convince people to post it. You can contact him by email or twitter, where he tweets regularly about video games, the Mountain Goats, and sandwiches. He has very strong feelings about Kanye West.