Album Review: Roomful of Teeth’s “Render”

On the cover of Roomful of Teeth’s sophomore album “Render,” a florid sketch glitches away into a black void. In the same way that this artwork, by DM Stith, mediates a traditional visual medium through a digital process, the vocal octet’s newest album, released April 28 by New Amsterdam Records, reimagines the human voice and its global traditions through 21st century compositions.

“Render” follows their eponymous debut, which earned the group two Grammys, and earned composer and band member Caroline Shaw a Pulitzer Prize. With their singular collage of vocal timbres and ensemble groove this time around, Roomful of Teeth lives up to expectations.

Ensemble director Brad Wells contributes two stand-out songs, including the title track “Render.” With its unending bass drone and intermittent wordless tangles, the song is a walk down a melancholic line of people. Wells gives us a glimpse of each individual’s ideas and hiccups, but keeps us from speaking to any single one at length.

Wells’s “Otherwise,” on the other hand, is a mish-mash of vocal techniques and euphoria. A growling bass groove hurtles along with belted, female shouts reminiscent of the Bulgarian folk tradition while baritone Dashon Burton’s operatic solo line soars above all else. The title suggests an alternative, a separation of sorts, but the thrilling vocal juxtapositions imply an unexpected togetherness.

Missy Mazzoli’s “Vesper Sparrow,” the opening track, features a similarly prominent groove, utilizing the same growling “beem bam” bass as “Otherwise.” Unlike that song’s extroversion, hesitation or reverence in “Vesper Sparrow” grows out of the title’s religious connotations.

Aside from Wally Gunn’s three-movement “The Ascendant,” the songs on “Render” feature few words; the band instead explores the extent of their vocal abilities through various vowels — and coughs, pants, grunts, yelps, etc.

Along those lines, William Brittelle reduces his text in “High Done No Why To” to nonsense streams of monosyllabic words while maximizing the band’s potential for mercurial technique and style. The song itself is nothing short of a kaleidoscopic monster, stomping through pop and classical references on its way to catharsis.

Roomful of Teeth take a step away from their previously a capella — voices only — approach with Gunn’s “The Ascendant.” Laid back drums pull along simpler song-writing in “The Fence is Gone,” while cymbals enhance the climax in the album’s closer, “Surviving Death.” Rhythmic hockets in the first movement, “The Beginning And,” reference experimental vocalist Meredith Monk — a clear influence on Roomful of Teeth’s work.

As a multi-movement work scattered throughout the album, “The Ascendant” seems to be the follow-up act to Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Partita for Eight Voices,” the multi-movement work featured on the band’s first album. Although the three movements’ consistent use of percussion and poetic text give the whole album some sense of continuity, the work is not nearly as attention-grabbing as the vocal, mathematical and orgasmic theatrics in “Partita.”

On the whole, “Render” stands up to its forerunner with an almost frightening approach to what some would consider the most human form of music-making. Their deeper growls, fiercer pants and more cutting belts fly around us, but they hold us all together with beat-driven cohesion and a few moments of powerful emotional impact.

Referring to the album’s title in an NPR interview, Shaw explained, “For me, it’s this idea of seeing sort of distinct particles slowly come together and create an image.” Any ear even moderately open to experimental vocalisms can surely join this composite.

 

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