Using music as a device to discuss the qualities and features of physical places, without the assistance of lyrics, sounds like an adventurous concept nonetheless destined for the dustbin. However, in the hands of Montana-based Modality it somehow works. The band’s newest album, Particle City, conjures three-dimensional spaces with an adroitness probably reserved for dudes that grow up in geographically astounding places. Modality’s hometown of Missoula is known as The Hub of Five Valleys for its location at the convergence of five mountain ranges, and the state of Montana is the fourth largest in the US but the seventh least populous. It makes sense that its denizens would have a heightened sensitivity to the different ways space feels when it’s either empty or occupied. This distinction between structure and space comprises Particle City’s main thematic tension, and it uses a template familiar to modern indie and electronica to explore it.
In “Plaza,” melodies and sounds clutched from diverse sources summon exactly what the title implies – a picturesque, humbly bustling plaza full of life and urbanity. At times it resembles the tinny, bland music emanating from a nearby café’s speakers. Expectedly, before long something more menacing emerges. The intentional familiarity of the first couple minutes worth of sound disappears into something that feels bigger and less/more human. Space’s intentional arrangement succumbs to its inevitable sublimination into expanse and chaos. Would it make me a punk-ass to say that the last whip of reverb sounds like a cosmic wind howling across the interminable desert plains? Okay, I won’t say it then.
Like “Plaza,” “Outskirts” describes what its title says it will. It works similarly, too. Across a rolling drumbeat a guitar plays a bluesy outlaw riff which is awesomely kinda scumfuck-y. The noisy emptiness from the end of “Plaza” defines the outskirts’ borders, and the song eventually moves beyond the outskirts of traditional blues and country music and into what we can I guess call the outskirts of the outskirts. The way this album toys with the concept of borders and structures vs chaos it’s easy to imagine that at least one of them is pretty familiar with Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy or Blood Meridian.
Of all the places which animate these concerns Modality could turn its attention to the least surprising is the graveyard. “Cemetery” is one of a couple tracks on the album that is pure ambience. It also demonstrates the way in which noise and experimental music can explore large, sort of profound ideas that most modern music can’t. Completely lacking sentimentality and cinematic in scope, “Cemetary” sounds the way Sergio Leone’s empty plains look. Components that smart of New Age tropes fade in and out somewhat distractingly (sometimes this cemetery feels more like a cheap spaceship), but it still manages to pretty successfully replicate the feeling of night and longing in a way that will resonate with any adult that was once a mildly emotionally disturbed youngster that spent too much time wandering around a cemetery at night wondering to her/himself about the meaning of life or whatever it is that youngsters wonder to themselves in cemeteries.
Particle City achieves its goals on a few different levels. It’s eminently listenable, aesthetically ambitious, and clear and concise in the way it communicates its ideas. Its best song is maybe its most confusing. “Channels” oscillates between understandable pop conventions and mystical, Enya-ish noise. As difficult as it is to surmise what, if anything, it means the song still instils a tangible feeling in the listener. By describing physical locations it locates a physical space inside the listener, and that’s pretty cool.
Check out Modality’s new album on Bandcamp.