Editorial Note: This was originally written and posted as five separate album reviews. It functions as a retrospective and a discography review.
Link to Matt Aspinwall’s side of the split: https://bandcamp.com/download?id=2141216390&ts=1504398671.1591462948&tsig=2dbe75dc5beab0611396d08fe9aa5dbc&type=album
The Brave Little Abacus is hard to pin down. They were eclectic, energetic, experimental, odd, off putting, and above all else, they were remarkable. What The Brave Little Abacus is not, however, is well known. Self-releasing almost all of their music, playing in legion halls, and forming slightly ahead of the emo revival scene, TBLA were mostly overlooked and underappreciated during their time. Creating some of the most challenging, intimate, and delightful music ever put to tape for half a decade somehow wasn’t enough – the band never broke out of their local New England scene, and sadly released their last record and played their last show in 2012. Combining mathy, sporadic, and unorthodox music ripe with complex song structures and a distinctive use of keyboard, TBLA filled a niche that The World Is a Beautiful Place & I am No Longer Afraid To Die would later capitalize on. But outside of the fact that both bands are from New England, and have a keyboard player, there really isn’t any way to compare TBLA to The World Is… or any other band for that matter – they occupy a space all to themselves. Since their demise in 2012, The Brave Little Abacus has since been discovered by many internet music listeners hungry for fresh, genre defying content. However, TBLA’s post-breakup following remains small; it’s much more intimate than the popularity fellow emo band American Football has enjoyed recently, and it’s not likely to result in a reunion or comeback record. The Brave Little Abacus are gone for good, and what they left us, a demo, a split, two full lengths, and an EP forms one of the most compelling discographies of the 21st century. In only five years, The Brave Little Abacus developed into an unsung force, and it all started with a demo.
The Brave Little Abacus’ debut Demo? is not a great place to start with the band. Its cacophony of multiple instruments, voices, samples, and noises, raw production, and unpredictable song structures makes it difficult to slip into to. It’s clear from the opening salvo The Brave Little Abacus are unlike any other band you’ve heard – in the first 60 seconds, TBLA spews out video game sounds, yelps, harmonized vocals, and instrumental action that fervently alternates between calm acoustic and aggressive guitar, drums, horns, and gang vocals. If that sounds overwhelming, that’s because it is, as The Brave Little Abacus’ labyrinthian songwriting and unfiltered full-blast energy take some getting used to. Lead vocalist Adam Demirjian’s vocals are buried in the mix, the background vocals are constantly peaking, the lyrics are bizarre, and the music is all over the place, yet The Brave Little Abacus’ charm and clever songwriting transcend the demo’s particularly rough presentation.
Much of The Brave Little Abacus’ music exists in this idiosyncratic ether between genius and beautiful, and nails-on-a-chalkboard. TBLA’s music rides the line between experimental and pop, crafting music that is equally challenging and rewarding. Underneath the yelping, the Ren and Stimpy samples, and the eccentric and raw music is a well of passion and character that would remain constant to The Brave Little Abacus’ work. Demo? has a few too many ideas crammed into its 15 minutes runtime – ideas that would be fleshed out in later releases – but has enough heart and character to adequately set the template for a nearly flawless discography.
It’s astonishing how much progress The Brave Little Abacus made going into their sophomore release, especially considering that it came out the same year as their demo. The Brave Little Abacus really found themselves on the split – the songs are tighter, the vocals are more prominent, the guitar playing is killer, and all of this is done without sacrificing the playful exuberance of the demo. The Matt Aspinwall side is not outdone by TBLA.
I know a lot of Brave Little Abacus fans that haven’t heard the Matt Aspinwall side, which is a real shame because its bizarre blend of electronic instrumentation and waaayyy off key vocals makes for a distinctive and charming listen. To my knowledge, Matt Aspinwall is simply the solo project of TBLA keyboardist Zach Onett, featuring backup vocals by Adam. The stripped back, traditional song structures and music are a nice contrast to TBLA’s side which is arguably the band’s most progressive output. The lyrics are more traditionally emo than TBLA – mostly about lost love, depression, and being alone, but the close to cliche lyrics are charming thanks to Zach and Adam’s sloppy yet poetic delivery. The little flourishes like the pitch shifting and cut up vocals of track three and the Spongebob and Office Space samples emulate the wackier, pleasurable aspect of TBLA’s sound. The Matt Aspinwall side is seriously overlooked and every bit deserving to be paired with The Brave Little Abacus.
The Brave Little Abacus’ side is their most sprawling progressive complete with labyrinthian song structures and all but one of the tracks cross the five-minute mark. There’s some serious arpeggio wizardry on “Untitled,” and legit shredding in “Good Atmosphere,” but it’s never flashy, and Adam’s restraint is the most impressive aspect of his guitar playing. The production is much clearer which helps foster TBLA’s atmospheric quality. The lyrics are less abstract and much stronger than on the demo; Untitled is the band’s strongest lyrically up to this point, “Is this disease kicking in or are the headphones letting me know who it is that I am Checkpoint’s blocked by the sea. Everyone seems so sad, or is it me? Or is it the small huntress with the kite because I don’t know what to think of all the consumers inside her small figurative heart. Would somebody else hold the rifle for once? is this disease kicking in or are the headphones letting me know who it is that I am? Checkpoint’s blocked by the sea. Everyone seems so sad, or is it me?” Even the weirdness is amped up, like the chopped up yelping over a fucking steel drum in “Good Atmosphere.” Both sides work on their own, and as complements to each other, which is all you could ask for out of a split. In less than a year The Brave Little Abacus seemed to reach peak form, but there are still progressions to be made, and their best work still to come.
Masked Dancers is a conventional record, or at least it’s The Brave Little Abacus’ attempt at a conventional record. I would call it mature, but that tends to be a loaded term which implies inherent superiority against playful, fun, and inventive work. Meditative is a better word, it paints a better picture. The songs on Masked Dancers take their time, they’re slower, more progressive, and are more about “being there” than “getting there.” The Brave Little Abacus’ three longest tracks can be found on their first full length – they’re long, drawn out, and take their time, but they’re never boring. “A Map of The Stars” is the closest TBLA ever came to a single. The bouncy grooves and energetic vocals display The Brave Little Abacus at their most fun and infectious. After an all over the place demo, and a challenging split, Masked Dancers is an easy-to-get-into moody, atmospheric change of pace. Masked Dancers is still weird, there are dialogue samples from the seminal 1988 anime film Akira in a couple of tracks, and a pitched up yelp used as instrumentation – both are strange and delightful. Masked Dancers has the least standout moments, but it’s The Brave Little Abacus’ most consistent and focused record. It’s their most relaxed release, and their easiest to get into – if I were to have a glass of wine to any of their records it would be this one.
The Brave Little Abacus was a band perfecting their sound and gearing up to take over the world; Masked Dancers is an impressive bridge between the band’s early work and their masterpiece second full-length record. The longer songs fully take advantage of TBLA’s curiosity, and their constant changing up of instruments, tones, sounds, and atmospheres.The full band doesn’t come in until the four-minute mark of “I See It too,” and the explosion of sound is well worth the wait. The musical changes from a single chord, to shredding arpeggios and tapping, to acoustic guitar, to a goddamn horn section, all supplemented by inventive keyboard playing, and then back to the one chord and the atmospheric keyboard, and it’s all so fresh, so exciting, so irresistible, but the song’s not over, next comes in one of the best keyboard riffs in emo, and an insane drum beat, and a chord progression that drives me nuts. It’s hard to imagine a band so on top of their game could possibly top a debut like this, but The Brave Little Abacus isn’t one to adhere to expectations.
It’s hard to properly talk about a classic album without dipping into hyperbole. Even the act of writing “classic album” is loaded. But it must be done because Just Got Back From the Discomfort-We’re Alright is the most underrated, underappreciated classic in all of emo. And so it becomes dicey trying to argue that an album that almost no one has heard is a classic. The Brave Little Abacus never spread out of their New Hampshire based scene, it’s just one of those things – a band that flies under the radar, doing great things and experimenting to an empty room. Please bear with me as I write many typically hyperbolic statements because these statements are undoubtedly accurate in this case.
Just Got Back From the Discomfort is a life changing record. Wow, so I guess I’m starting with the most hyperbolic statement possible. I wouldn’t be the same human being if I had never heard this record. OK, that’s even more hyperbolic. It’s hard to explain why an album is important to me personally. No matter what words I choose, the way I structure my sentences, the metaphors, the flowery adjectives I use, all that can really be said is that I love this album, it’s pleasing to my ears, it’s soothing to my soul, and I have a very strong attachment to it. I can make claims that it’s important for its genre, but I know for anyone that doesn’t like emo, it’s going to be a challenging listen, and it’s perfectly fair for anyone to not like the way it sounds. Just Got Back is most certainly a challenging record – it’s a big part of why I’m so drawn to it. The first couple dozen listens were difficult, I liked it, but I didn’t love it, I skipped tracks, it lost my attention, but I kept coming back. It kept exciting me in new ways, like how it subtly repeats and references ideas, themes, lyrics, and melodies. The “Way before now” refrain in the closer hits that much harder because of its appearance in the opener. “When I say I’m sad I mean it” imprinted on my brain, the shaky vocals, the droning interludes, the Malcolm in The Middle samples, there was always something that felt fresh and new, even after 100 listens. And after 100 listens it became my favorite album, it forever glued itself to my consciousness.
Just Got Back is the culmination of everything The Brave Little Abacus accomplished throughout their career. Having experimented so much with eclectic instrumentation, TBLA knows exactly when to implement a trumpet, or a keyboard, or a guitar, or a sample, or even the jump sound from Sonic The Hedgehog. From the boisterous horns in the opener to the shaky, bendy guitar in song two, to the rapid fire vocals in the 10th track, to the bumpy percussion, gloomy keyboard, and soaring vocals in the closer, every song has its own flavor. JGB defies genre every chance it has. The toy piano, the accordion, the 15+ different synth tones, the “Pet Sounds of emo” is a melancholy grab-bag of sounds and tones that all mesh together into the same mood. JGB is musically diverse in a way that was unparalleled by the band, unique for the genre and exciting for music as a whole.
The sloppy, lo-fi production adds to the challenging nature of the record. The kick drum is inaudible, the snare sounds like trash, and the mixing is all over the place. It’s difficult to sink into the music because of the distracting production, but Just Got Back is that special kind of grower where you start to get past its flaws until you eventually love the unconventional sound of the record. The poorly produced rhythm section does allow the vocals and eclectic instrumentation to come into the limelight. It becomes hard to say whether the album would be better, or perhaps worse with better production – it would certainly be less unique.
There are samples from the early 2000s single camera dramedy Malcolm in The Middle at the end of the first and last tracks and during the bridge of the penultimate track. I loved Malcolm as a kid, so I connected with the samples immediately, they, along with the show have a very similar vibe – emotional, yet playful. Not taking itself too seriously, sad, but with moments of levity. The first, spoken by Hal, “So, now a relationship that was totally meaningless and trivial is over. It’s hard to get too upset,” followed by Dewey’s musing, “Is your brain big enough to get your feelings hurt. Me neither,” then a speech given by Cynthia to Malcolm “You hate everyone. To you everyone is either a moron, or a creep, or a poser. Why do you suddenly care about their opinion of you?” followed by Malcolm’s retort “Because I’m shallow OK…I want people to like me,” and finally, Malcolm’s response to his own question, “You want to know the best part about childhood? At some point it stops.” Much of the lyrics reflect the sentiments found in these samples, the awkwardness of growing up, figuring out who you are, figuring out you don’t like who you are, coming to terms with insecurities. “This is my resignation from the s-c-e-n-e, I said ‘no’ once, got stabbed in the back, while they said ‘relax’.” Critiquing one’s self to the point of self loathing and rumination, “I hate the way I talk,” and, “You’re not listening, I said ‘stop,’ because it’s come to be too much I can’t just pile aesthetic-perceptive dilemma, over-analytic demeanors, feelings of lonely worthlessness and unproductivity atop the other, allowing each to bleed through their fabricated boundaries, and become one more thing to.” At first, the samples might seem like cheap ways to insert emotion into an album, like setting your dull student film to post-rock. But the samples only serve to reflect back the emotions already found all over the album. They’re supplemental, the album could stand without them, but they fit well with the lyrics, and their presence adds another layer to an already deep album.
Adam’s vocals are a big part of the appeal of the album, but they also pose the greatest challenge. They’re nasally, Adam has a lisp, they’re rough around the edges – they take some getting used to. I’ve heard his voice described as “Spongebob meets Isaac Brock,” and I don’t think that’s far off. After many listens it becomes obvious that Adam’s voice fits the music perfectly. The appeal of his strong confident, atypical voice grows and grows when the listener discovers how essential they are – the lyrics hit harder because of the way they’re delivered, and the music is that much sweeter with Adam’s voice layered over it. I’m not even going to pretend like I understand the meaning behind most of the lyrics, but they’re so evocative and flow so well it’s easy to decipher how they’re supposed to make you feel. Adam’s lyrics and vocals ask a lot out of the listener, but digging to their stunning core is well worth the effort.
Just Got Back From the Discomfort-We’re Alright is the most exciting and challenging album of the millennium. I know that’s a tough pill to swallow, but I feel like the fact that a one paragraph specialist such as myself was able to cobble together seven paragraphs justifies my statement. The Brave Little Abacus put their everything into JGB; the stellar execution matches the grand ideas. It’s a perfect album by a near perfect band, and it breaks my heart that TBLA broke up a year after its release. It saddens me that there’s only one more part to this story, but at some point it stops.
At first glance Okumay is a disappointing way for the band to go out – it’s short, simple, bare, and it’s not a “revelation” like Just Got Back From The Discomfort. Okumay was an anticlimactic way for a band like The Brave Little Abacus to go out. It’s three new songs, one cover, and hardly groundbreaking, the songs are much simpler, bare, stripped back. But once I freed myself from lofty expectations and comparisons, I started to realize I might be approaching it wrong, and it hit me that three of the four songs (all but the cover) are among TBLA’s best songs. Okumay is not experimental in any way, it doesn’t advance the band’s sound. It doesn’t even attempt to live up to JGB, and that’s what makes it perfect.
Okumay is fun. It’s The Brave Little Abacus’ least challenging, most pop oriented record. Keyboard is often a secondary instrument for TBLA, hanging out in the background, providing atmosphere and counterpoint, but on Okumay, Zack’s ‘boards carry the music. Upbeat keyboard riffs and Adam’s most polished vocal performance to date make Okumay an experiment in what The Brave Little Abacus would sound like if they were a “normal” band. They have the songwriting chops to pull off the stripped down sound; There are no samples (OK one, but it’s short), no weird stuff, no bullshit, just four fast and furious emo tracks. There’s really nothing new to be found, but that’s OK because Okumay is icing on the discography-cake.
Despite their limitless appeal, The Brave Little Abacus remains largely unknown. I hope with all my heart that starts to change. It took a decade after fellow emo greats American Football broke up for them to catch on, so there is hope. It’s disheartening knowing that a band with such potential broke up, that a band whose whole discography is strange and exciting has so few fans. I take solace that the average TBLA fan is a devoted fanatic, but our numbers are still alarmingly thin. The Brave Little Abacus is important to me, they’re important to the genre, and to music in general: And that’s it, two full lengths, an EP, a split, and a demo. A legacy cemented. Pound for pound TBLA is the best emo band that ever was. Perhaps Adam and company were too ambitious to succeed. Adam said it best with, “Ambitions always double the weight of the world.” Eclectic, fun, challenging, catchy, The Brave Little Abacus where everything an emo band should be, but they’re dead, dead and buried, gone forever, a blip on the radar, a cult project that likely will never generate money, but that’s OK. What we have is enough. In the morning I’ll be fine.
You’re not listening, I said “stop”
Because it’s come to be too much
I can’t just pile aesthetic-perceptive dilemma
Over-analytic demeanors, Feelings of lonely worthlessness
And unproductivity atop the other
Allowing each to bleed through their fabricated boundaries
And become one more thing to
Notice me before it’s too late and too far away
From when I dreamt of explaining to you
That you are an everywhere
That caused these words I’d somehow type
My fingers, feet and diaphragm, all screaming
And as things grew more complicated
Conscious expansion cultivated
The books’ ideas, songs’ polyphony
Texture, content danced around me
And unlike all the events staged
The puppeteered facade I’d made
This was naturally extraordinary
And grabbed me from the ordinary
Now perceived reduction theory
Of where we are
It made less sense and appeared
Beautyless, which I guess is it’s defense
Not that any simple allegory transcends
My inability to relate, it’s this ability to relate that
Provides the socially obligatory things that I
Want to re-learn why we’re friends again
I thought you knew
I can pile one atop the other, it just feels bad
It just feels bad to realize you might hear something
In the quietest of nights
There are two of me and
One of them will say “Hannah”
Way before now