Listening to the Calgary band Women is an uneasy experience. The band has released two albums, a self-titled debut in 2008 and last year’s Public Strain, both of which are marked by an atmosphere of sustained tension. On its surface, the music is not blatantly off-kilter or esoteric. Aside from occasional sampling and some lo-fi studio effects, Women gets their sound from the basic framework of guitar, bass, and drums. The music does not broadcast its intentions to break away from the norm; rather, it hardly acknowledges that such a norm exists, and that is all the more unsettling: On these records, disorientation is the natural state.
The principal source of the band’s impact is the asymmetrical rhythms that feature in their songs. This is hardly significant in itself, of course: By now, once-exotic meters like 5/4 and 7/4 are old hat to fans of math rock, in which entire songs are built around quick rhythm changes. Overuse has made these meters sound gimmicky. Writing songs that place an uneven rhythm at the fore, many bands intentionally exacerbate the jarring effect this provokes in the listener. In doing so, of course, these bands betray in themselves the same discomfort with which they are seeking to confront their audience.
What sets Women’s approach apart from these others’ is that it feels so natural. The band gives off a sense of themselves as being at home in the skewed rhythms they choose. Rather than abruptly dropping a beat at the end of a measure to create a bass line in 7/8, bassist Matthew Flegel will extend his phrase to fit the measure. The band’s approach is a kind of deceptive minimalism, as if it were trying to put up a respectable front. Thus a standard eight-bar measure will separate into two unequal sections of three and five beats, and a phrase will appear in a song in 2/4 that repeats every three measures. The band can achieve monumental effects simply by letting the bass drum fall on the upbeat.
The nonchalance with which the band pulls all this off is what makes their music so compelling, as well as so eminently relevant. The band perfectly reflects the current moment, in which math rock’s rhythmic experiments have gone from radical to de rigeur. Women is not a reaction against that music, but rather a validation of its enduring appeal. The band’s audience consists of listeners whose introduction to jazz may well have been the odd meters of Time Out by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, an audience for which the term “indie rock” recalls the angular guitars and irregular rhythms of Slint’s Spiderland as much as the more classic rock-inflected sound of Pavement’s Slanted & Enchanted. What at first seems unprecedented in Women’s music is in fact the reflection of a diverse and ever-expanding canon.
This relationship between the band and its forbears might explain the tension that permeates both Women and Public Strain. Women has inherited the call to challenge what came before, but their music has none of the enthusiasm for this enterprise that marks similar projects by earlier bands. What once might have sounded like joyful rebellion takes on a weary quality—it’s as if the band had no choice in the matter. Previous experimenters brought a kind of order to their dismantling of secure rhythmic structures. The idea was not to eliminate these structures, but to enlarge them, to move outward from the center without losing sight of it. Women’s music has none of its predecessors’ sense of volition. With no center to ground it, the songs move ever outward, like continued iterations of a chaotic equation. Propelled by some force, the music moves inexorably away from a point of origin that has itself come to seem arbitrary.
The shift is at times imperceptible, a gradual step past the threshhold, like venturing into the maze of lower Manhattan from the relative order of numbered streets north of Houston. And yet the sheer quality of Women’s records exerts a stabilizing influence. The interplay between guitarists Patrick Flegel and Christopher Reimer rivals that of Television’s Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd on Marquee Moon. Loops of howling, industrial feedback combine with grating, rubber-band tones to achieve the kind of pristine grittiness that John Cale once coaxed from an electrified viola. Like a monolithic expressway overpass, or scrap metal lit up at sunrise, Women’s music has the melancholy beauty of urban decay.
The cover art on both records captures an aspect of this feeling. Women features a photograph of a massive, synchronized group exercise—individual action reduced to an eery mass spectacle. Public Strain’s cover is no more comforting: another photograph, this one depicting distant figures obscured by a blizzard. The album’s first track seems a commentary on the image, with its mocking title “Can’t You See.” Bleak as these images are, they are remarkable for their grandeur. Confronted with such immensity, the people in these photographs have lost all individual will, but it’s possible that they, and the listener as well, have discovered something else: awe.