Today’s post is about a hometown act—Altered Axiom. Jacob Taswell, the human behind the music, is from Bethesda, MD and just graduated from Yale. You can find his Bandcamp here and stream his music on various platforms.
Jacob Taswell wanted to make a statement with Insulation Kit. Self-released last month under the moniker Altered Axiom, the album is a bold first venture into electronic music for Taswell, who recently graduated from Yale with a music degree. With a 45 minute runtime and tracks that stretch up to ten minutes, Insulation Kit is a fully-formed product on arrival, audacious in its scope and intricate in its details. Created with the 2016 election in mind, the textures are anxious, unsure, and, occasionally, hopeful.
Of course, Jacob could have told you most of this himself. The exhaustive write-up on the Altered Axiom website details the backstory and motivations—both musically and emotionally—behind the recording of Insulation Kit. His approach is thoughtful and carefully calculated, qualities that extend into his music. The record is balanced—sequenced with the more accessible songs in the first half and the more experimental toward the end, while maintaining a cohesive arc.
Before going any further, I feel a need to say that I’m no electronic music expert. I try out the marquee electronic albums every year, but it’s rare if more than a couple are repeated listening for me. I like guitars and lyrics, I guess. This is all to say that my analysis and reaction to this music are mostly intuitive and not based in expertise. Not that Insulation Kit is purely electronic, though. Taswell’s background is in jazz and classical and he describes Altered Axiom as “frozen jazz.” Typical jazz solos are common throughout the album, playfully interwoven with the electronic backdrops.
Insulation Kit starts with “On a Far-Off Shore,” a collection of anxious noises that cut in and out as the song’s foundation patiently builds, setting the tone for the rest of the album. Many of the songs emit an uneasiness—the droning at the beginning of “From Seeds” is eerie, the voices on “Insulation Kit” don’t sound totally human as they vibrate in and out of focus, and there’s something off about the laughs in “Channel Comfort.” But there is also a peaceful quality to these songs by virtue of the melodic instrumentation. Taswell is an excellent pianist and composer throughout the record. His arrangements are fleshed-out and loose, providing a bright contrast to the synthetic repetition of the foundation.
There are political motives outlined on Altered Axiom’s website, but there is only one explicit reference to the mess in Washington on record—an answering machine message from supreme villain Paul Ryan on “Aftermath.” The recording represents taking action despite the feelings of dejection and fear projected elsewhere on Insulation Kit. Feeling lost was common after the election, with promises of exclusionary policies on the horizon. In the album backstory, Taswell writes that he wanted to “shout into the competitive chaos of America that [he] could say it better.” This is subtle protest music, focusing more on the collective American mood than catchphrases or direct anger.
Insulation Kit feels like a movie soundtrack to me. I found myself visualizing imaginary scenes that didn’t exist—walking around a creepy house, riding a train through the country, working in the lab on an endless project. There are everyday noises (various scraping, jingling, rattling) sprinkled throughout that encourage these visuals. The atmosphere is often dramatic—this is definitely a serious album—but there are also moments of playfulness and excitement (I’m thinking of the extended solo on “Aftermath” and the drums on “From Seeds”). It’s not ambient music, but the composition on Insulation Kit leaves room for the listener’s personal thoughts to occupy some of its space. It will be a different movie for everyone, and that’s Insulation Kit’s biggest success.