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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Group of the Altos Goes Big

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An oft-employed mentality these days seems to be the back-to-basics approach, where bands unearth straightforward styles championed by acts from previous decades. That simplification is presumed to lead toward a rawer—and therefore more authentic—sound that when done correctly comments on contemporary culture, not just the past. Milwaukee's Group of the Altos (also known simply as Altos) strove for that primordial aesthetic right from their inception in 2003, although they intended to go all the way back.

Eschewing the common bass/drums/guitar dynamic every rock band utilizes nowadays, Altos leader Daniel Spack and Tom Duffey experimented with particularly basic musical techniques. "We would really get into metal sound on concrete or something," Spack recalls. "When Ken [Palme] joined the band, we didn't even let him touch his guitar for a year." This minimalism was an attempt to better understand how different sounds worked outside the contemporary perception of music and free the members to focus on crafting melodies without considering genre.

"All the bands we were in before were always based on music, like how to write a song and play it," Spack says. "This wasn't about that. It's about why sound sounds that way, and how two sounds sound together. We took it back to nothing, and then slowly turned it back into music, somehow."

This past July, Altos placed the finishing touches on their first official release—nine years after the project began. There's definitely an avant-garde quality permeating their self-titled record, but the obscure material comes through fairly conventional means. The band achieves its sound not through digital effects or distortion, but through sheer instrumental density.

"We learned you could get greater intensity of sound by adding another person rather than hitting a pedal or something," Spack says. "For years that's all we focused on—how to make six people sound like the most gigantic thing in the world without using any effects. As soon as we figured that out, we started adding more people."

Today, Altos features an array of instruments, with 12 members in all. The band can fit comfortably on few local stages—heck, some places don't even have enough seating at the bar. But that size can seem misleading after listening to the record. Altos isn't crammed with noise; rather, various melodies are given enough room to saunter before amalgamating near a song's peak. That's not to say melodramatic shifts in volume or tone run rampant like in other post-rock acts, either. A seamless mood flows through an album that's gentle yet gloomy.

"I think everyone in the band comes from a creepy, dark place, so ultimately that's what our music ends up sounding like," Spack says. "We're always trying to fight the fact that we write horror music."

For a band that's constantly evolving, the latest step has been incorporating lyrics into songs, which Spack says he was hesitant to include until encountering some advice about treating the voice purely as musical accompaniment.

"I started working with [Justin] Vernon in Volcano Choir and I learned too much about how that can be beneficial," he says. "I never thought vocals had been interesting to work on, and he taught me a different side, where voice doesn't need to participate in a way outside of the music. That was a big lesson for me to learn."

Frankly, it's astounding that Altos even ended up releasing an album. Spack had been against the idea since day one. His plan was to compose and perform a different 45-minute set every show, embracing the ephemeral and garnering immediate reactions from audiences. He relishes that instant communication between listener and creator and aspires to engage with those who pick up the record.

"I only hope I get to meet them all and talk about what happened when they heard the album," Spack says.

Group of the Altos celebrates the vinyl release of
Altos at Stonefly Brewery with Christopher Porterfield, Cedarwell, Jim Winship and Neil Gravander on Saturday, March 10. The album is currently streaming on altos.bandcamp.com.