Free Moral Agents is an offshoot of Mars Volta keyboardist Isaiah Owens. It is a gathering of musicians, brought together for a one-off project that ended up being a permanent band. In interviews, Owens (who can also dubiously add the Long Beach Dub All Stars and Sublime, of all things, to his musical resume) says that while on a break from Mars Volta, he bought a bunch of recording equipment, got some friends together and released albums under Gold Standard Laboratories, Mars Volta band mate Omar Rodriguez-Lopez's label. Control This (formerly titled The Honey in the Carcass of the Lion) veers between over-produced, difficult, and interesting. For a beginner at production, Owens does very well, but the issue is that while Control This is eclectic - a true mashing together of drums, keyboards, and electronics - it comes as a solo album in which he wrote ten different songs for ten different projects.
This makes Control This suspect. When the only description you can give of a band is "having no real genre", it can mean they play a long-winded jam-style sound without direction or interest. It can also mean they’re a perfect collection of talents, each bringing something to the table in a manner that forces you to listen to the album all the way through. Groups should have a style to them; an ideal that they can work within and from which they may take departures from time to time, yet never stray from the expression that lies in their hearts. Free Moral Agents gathered so many different flavors that the result is an at times bland entree. You don't necessarily regret eating it, but you don't want to eat it again.
Control This isn't a bad album by any means. Vocalist Mendee Ichikawa, has a voice reminiscent of a darker, more gothic Annie Lennox in tone and delivery, which is versatile enough for the music. The leadoff track, "North is Red", has this interesting Middle East meets Bauhaus meets jazz sound, with unfortunate high school poetry for lyrics (there are mantras like "never really liked sunny days" that make you know the pretension of what you're hearing). It works within the context of the music, but you don't really want to listen to it more than once. The lyrical content of the majority of the songs doesn’t match the stellar musicianship. I’m not saying every song should flow like stanzas from Ginsberg, but repetitive passages used in a somewhat half-hearted attempt at art, or dramatic effect, can come off as trying too hard to be interesting. It makes better songs like "When I Smile" lose its effect, especially when Ichikawa’s voice is so powerful.
One of the most interesting tracks on the album is the weird, creepy "muzak" cover of Sonic Youth's "Little Trouble Girl". It's like the sound of machines trying to feel, and it is the most adventurous track on the disc. It's the soundtrack to a life you live, albeit a life that you may not necessarily want. The Free Moral Agents’ cover captures a truly different version of the song (a trait that all cover songs should have), while keeping the original core of “Little Trouble Girl”.
Control This sounds great as individual songs, but is all over the place as a whole work. It's not horrible by any means (even though "Dragon Prow" does come oh so close to jacking the bass line to Poison's "Unskinny Bop", which, in contrast to Owen's resume makes his career even stranger), it's just that you can't really have a blanket opinion on something that holds no unifying elements. Everyone's all very talented at what they do separately, and when they come together it all depends on what instrument is at the forefront as to whether it's good. If you like the Mars Volta you'll be disappointed with Control This. However, if you like guitar-driven, world music elements, hip hop samples, gothic feelings, distorted guitar, jazz and the seven thousand other styles that the band presents here, then you may just want to pick up this album.
1. North is Red
2. Sound at Sea
3. Dragon Prow
4. When I Smile
5. Six Degrees
7. Gem From a Broken Rock
9. Girls with Glasses Only Please
10. Little Trouble Girl (Sonic Youth)
12. Cherry Cove
13. Looking for Laren Hill in Lakewood