With The Empyrean, John Frusciante reached a watermark in his solo work with a hugely complex and textured opus that many hold as the defining moment of an engaging, diverse career. So how could the songwriter possibly provide a follow-up to this mammoth of a record?
Well, it’s simple. He didn’t.
The next official release after the 2009 album came in the form of the Letur-Lefr EP followed closely by the full-length PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone, both hitting the market in 2012. With these recordings, Frusciante steadfastly embarked towards a type of electronica music which he termed as “progressive synth-pop.”
While in some ways this could be seen as a radical departure for Frusciante’s songwriting, it could easily be said that his work has been leading up to this point in many ways. Indeed, the influence of electronic music has been evident from as early as To Record Only Water for Ten Days and later in the collaborative album with Josh Klinghoffer, A Sphere in the Heart of Silence.
The main difference between the 2012 releases and these two previous entries is that while TROWFTD and Sphere had a more down-to-earth singer-songwriter feel with electronic elements added to it, Letur-Lefr and PBX sound as if the electronic elements played a significantly larger part in each composition. In other words, they sound much more experimental and free from popular music conventions than any of the previous Frusciante works.
What’s more, elements of rap and hip-hop were incorporated into each of the new records with a number of guests MC-ing through certain songs. Again, considering Frusciante’s work with the Chili Peppers and his documented influences of hip-hop through the years, this isn’t entirely an unexpected twist.
All of that being said however, when placed beside the rest of the artist’s discography, these works do certainly stand apart from anything that came before it. But difference is far from being a bad thing. The important question is how do Letur-Lefr and PBX perform?
The truth is that both releases are a bit of a mixed bag. Although Letur-Lefr is, of course, entirely composed by Frusciante, his presence in the songs is lacking. It is felt in the two songs that bookend the EP, “In Your Eyes” (not the Peter Gabriel song, though that would admittedly be pretty cool) and “In My Light,” which are the only two pieces that feature lead vocals by Frusciante, and subsequently, they are the two stand-out tracks. But the main problem is that the rest of the EP feels like an experiment in fiddling with electronic techniques that may have been a fun, interesting foray if it were something just recorded for Frusciante’s amusement, but as a public release, it’s somewhat forgettable.
PBX improves a bit on this front. With a lot more pieces that feature his lead vocals and less guest musicians taking the forefront, at least it’s a little easier to call this one a “John Frusciante record” rather than “just some weird experiments with some hip-hop MC guest spots … oh yeah, Frusciante’s on there too.” That being said, there are some issues here that were on the preceding EP as well.
While it is surely admirable for any songwriter to venture outside of their pre-existing formula, the incorporation of electronica elements to the songs here are often less than effective, sometimes even chaotic. The record contains many moments when the layering of samples and drum loops is far too busy and disorienting for the listener to maintain interest in the positive aspects of the material. Sure, perhaps you could argue that disorientation is something that was intended, but another could easily counter that argument by pointing out that such an intention was more off-putting than inspired.
Not to entirely damn the album, PBX does have its moments. “Mistakes” and “Uprane” in particular stand out as highlights of the material presented, and they do contain some nice performances by Frusciante.
All in all, Letur-Lefr and PBX remain interesting and bold experiments, but it would be difficult to say that they are great or particularly memorable albums.
There is one footnote to add, however. The following year brought us the most recent Frusciante release – An EP entitled Outsides.
The new EP traverses similar turf as its two recent predecessors, yet Frusciante seems to be reaching a more harmonious grasp of electronic music here. Contrary to the previous mentioned records, Outsides is much less cluttered, certainly more earnest, and within the three songs that comprise the release, it is clearly a Frusciante-esque effort. And though it’s difficult to define why, this is an element that was, at times, sorely lacking from the 2012 albums.
While Outsides isn’t exactly a perfect EP, it is at least a recommendable listen, and out of the three recent additions to Frusciante’s catalog, it remains the most effective and the most promising for whatever comes next in this ever-unpredictable career.
Rating: 2 out of 5
Highlights: “In My Eyes,” “In My Light”
PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone
Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Highlights: “Mistakes,” “Uprane”
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Highlights: There’s three songs. Just listen to the whole thing.
A Sphere in the Heart of Silence
Rating: 4 out of 5
Highlights: “Walls,” “Communique,” “Surrogate People,” “My Life”
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