Since dropping on Philadelphia’s thriving experimental music scene in 2006, these virtuosos have already compiled a beefy resume. A grant from the American Composers Forum, a slot at John Zorn’s The Stone, legions of fist-pumping fans. But the real accomplishment comes in the form of their music. Normal Love packs an incredible amount of musical diversity into their compositions, making the cliché of postmodern pastiche too weak a descriptor. Plus, we’re not talking about some guy huddled over a laptop and dropping nostalgia-bomb after nostalgia-bomb by just glitch-quilting his whole record collection. Nay, we’re talking real artful synthesis of deliciously obscure influences, from death metal to satanic funk to West African minimalism to…um…the boss music from Contra.
A-side “Severe Confection” draws heavily from the interval-hopping style of bourgeois-shocking dissonance. If it isn’t serialism, it’s damn close. Also worth noting is that “Confection” was penned by Dustin Hurt, brains behind the excellent Philadelphia experimental music non-profit Bowerbird. If you’re tired of grinding, atonal chords and a total abuse of the metrical form, I hear you. But it’s the gentle shift of predictable expressive forms that saves this band from sameness. Take midpoint of “Severe Confection.” After several minutes of rhythmic acrobatics with notes practically suffocating the aural space, a pregnant pause emerges, almost awkwardly bare. For a moment, you think they’ve cleverly pulled the plug, given us the ol’ get’em when they least expect it. And then, rising out of the silence, a slowly growing chord of male voices, groaning more than singing, and then—wham! Three more minutes of skronk. A severe confection, indeed.
It’s moments like that that make Normal Love easy to, well, love. You can marvel at their technical prowess (which is, to say the least, daunting) or the jaw-dropping complexity of their compositions, but you’ll be missing the whole picture. As bassist Evan Lipson once put it, “everybody always comes up to us after shows and are like, ‘Whoa what was that chord you guys were playing? Was that a [insert very academic chord]?’ But it’s not at all about that.” Truer words have never been spoken. Here’s a band that mixes its musical progress with playfulness, joy, intensity, humor, and a restless hunger for new combinations. Sure, if you go see Normal Love you’re going to see a bunch of guys hunched over practically pitch-black sheet music. But you’ll also see them do it passionately with smiles on their faces and witty crowd banter. Plus, you’ll be surrounded by a bunch of drunk hipsters in someone’s living room. Carnegie Hall this ain’t.
B-side “Ndugo” (whose title I hope, but haven’t confirmed, is a reference to Jack Nicholson’s African pen-pal in “About Schmidt”) really underscores Normal Love’s playful side. The onslaught of muted plucks in the beginning verges on silly without losing its access to the realm of the awesome. Throw in an unexpected dynamic explosion, a Varèse-like siren glissando on the violin and skittering snare rims, and we’re getting into some truly bizarre shit.
Believe me, liberating “difficult” music from the confines of the academe is no small feat. There are probably plenty of over-educated detractors out there who would object to Normal Love’s lighthearted approach to the avant-garde, just as there are probably plenty of Zs fans (or former members, rumor has it) who can’t believe that such serious music should be sharing bills with a bunch of Nuggets-worshipping art-school dropouts with asymmetrical haircuts. The difference, of course, is that Zs is deadly serious, whereas Normal Love brings something else to the head table. It’s called heart.