Subtle albums take hours of absorption before they even start to make sense, but they aren’t “growers” in the traditional sense of the word. That’s the kind of tag you usually apply to something slight, acoustic, or droning—something that shows restraint. But on 2006’s For Hero: For Fool, an album that simultaneously defied genre and created one, Subtle absolutely waylaid listeners with both their volume and their unfathomable musical know-how. ExitingARM immediately stands out as a less viscerally jolting experience, the extreme hard lefts straightened out to right angles. But while it lacks the breakneck thrill of hearing the Bay Area group jump from booty bass to freak folk to IDM within the span of a minute, by incorporating every texture into one they can call their own, this might be the band’s biggest success yet.
Even within the genre Spirograph of For Hero, you could still siphon off genuine hooks and discernible themes, namely the commodification of the body (“The Mercury Craze”) and the soul (“Midas Gutz”). Sans lyric sheet, exitingARM can be intimidating and inscrutable without super-serious attention or prior investment; for example, it’s pretty important to know beforehand that this is the culmination of a loopy, three-album character arc. Though not officially associated with the Anticon collective, Subtle encompass the paradox presented by most of their acts: ARM is most likely to disappoint those who come expecting a (New York) hip-hop record, even if the first single, “Unlikely Rock Shock,” comes off like “Planet Rock” with its finger stuck in an electric socket. “Day Dangerous” and “The Crow” bear more in common with shoegaze; in fact, the closest analogue to current rap music comes on “Hollow Hollered,” wherein Subtle tumble down a mine shaft with Dälek, who are arguably a metal band at this point. Demanding total immersion, ARM is the ultimate nerd-out experience: Those who prefer a more financially intensive Subtle fanship can acquire the accompanying comic books and board game. Those don’t feel like cheap cash grabs, however, so much as necessary complements to a record that’s immensely satisfying over time: a true grower.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 13, 2008