Recognized for their expansive musical palette, which includes jazz and improvisational roots, fuzz-filled freakouts, spacey ethereal drift and bubbling worldbeat, Akron/Family is generally associated with the Brooklyn freak-folk movement that emerged in the mid-'00s. After forming in 2002, they signed to former Swans frontman Michael Gira's label, Young God (also home to freak-folk flag-bearer Devendra Banhart), and explored various territories on each of their first three albums.
Their self-titled debut offers quaking, ramshackle country-folk sprinkled with odd sounds and background textures, occasionally interrupted by clanging percussion. The second release — a split album with Gira's band Angels of Light — wades into a rockier mien colored by loose-limbed psychedelia, shambolic group vocals, noisy blasts of skronk and rambunctious folk-blues. The third, 2006's Meek Warrior, recorded with avant-jazz drummer Hamid Drake, is enveloped in a polyrhythmic haze of afrobeat, discursive jazz-psych, vocal chants and build-and-release dynamics.
But 2007's Love Is Simple, their first album not produced by Gira, proved more retrenchment than advance. Singer/guitarist Ryan Vanderhoof left the band shortly after the album's release, forcing the band to improvise a lineup. (They eventually invited experimental musician Greg Davis and North Carolina trio Megafaun to back them on tour.)
"With Love Is Simple we sort of tried to fold them all in on each other and present it as a cohesive format," says singer/guitarist Seth Olinsky. "I don't think Love Is Simple is bad, but I do think it was slightly formulaic, and that had Ryan stayed, it would've taken us longer to get out of that groove."
After tour they had to adjust to life as a trio. It produced not only changes in the sounds they wrung from their instruments, but vocally as well, where Vanderhoof had done much of the heavy lifting. The transformation is apparent throughout Set 'Em Wild, from more frequent harmonies to a less scattered sound.
While drawing from similar elements, it's groovier, tighter and particularly exultant, like graduating from stoned to tripping. They've produced themselves for the first time, and from the sweet, marching "River" to the rolling, multi-passage psych-rock parade of "Gravelly Mountains of the Moon," it sounds like the product of mad but exquisitely choreographed scientists ransacking the spice rack to flavor their bitches brew.
"I don't know if [Set 'Em Wild is] total reinvention, but I think it is reflective of the chaos of that reinvention," says Olinsky. "It was just a combination of a lot of chaos. There's the chaos of us trying to figure out new ways to create and be different, and just approaching things in a new and an open way, combined with us self-producing."
The plan for the next album naturally goes in the opposite direction. Known for their live shows, which swell with energy and synapse-snapping excursions, they're doing their best to create a live album in the studio by unveiling newly written songs at shows and allowing the fans to get involved in the creative process — drawing from the spirit and response of the audience, and then reproducing the final result later.
"Hopefully by the time we go into the studio it will be more about just performing the hell out of this music and making it sound as good as possible, as opposed to going in and experimenting and composing in the studio," he says. "You're pulling all these different colors and ideas and reference points and creating this psychedelic hodgepodge of things that's weird and fun. And I think there's just a little bit more direction in where we're at now. More clarity and communication"
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