Much in the way the instrumental intro to The Dismemberment Plan’s “The City” suggests the feeling of idly watching lights blink from green to red while stuck in K Street traffic, Imperial China takes the idea of a “D.C. sound” to a thrilling, literal extreme. The D.C. trio first paid homage to its hometown’s architecture (and drummer Patrick Gough’s background as an urban planner) on the cover of its debut EP Methods, while tracks like “Corrupting the Integrity of the Grid,” off 2010’s long-player Phosphenes, drew inspiration from urban cacophony. If Pierre L’Enfant had been cryogenically frozen and just happened to thaw out in time for this weekend’s Sockets Records showcase, his favorite band on the bill would probably be Imperial China.
Like Phosphenes, the band’s latest, How We Connect, is a heavy record. I don’t mean that in the metal-fingers sense of the word, but rather to say that this music’s got weight: An Imperial China song is the sonic equivalent of something you wouldn’t want dropped on your foot. Most of the tracks start with a simple riff or rhythmic loop that gathers mass with each layer—buzzing synths, pummeling percussion, and finger-tapped notes that call to mind the frenzied, mathy riffage of Don Caballero or Marnie Stern. Still, for all the brute force behind a track like “Limbs,” it’s surprisingly light on its feet. A combination of muscle, steel, and agility, the album sounds like the kind of thing Optimus Prime might pirouette to.
How We Connect is fittingly titled, then. It’s a testament to the tightness of the band, which includes Brian Porter (vocals, guitar, bass, keys, and samples), Matt Johnson (guitar, bass, and percussion), and Gough (who cut his teeth in Pitchblende in the early ’90s). The trio’s live show has always showcased their technical precision and creativity, but How We Connect (recorded by Devin Ocampo at Inner Ear Studios) displays these virtues even more confidently than its predecessor.
That confidence might explain why Porter does more singing on this record. There’s nothing as blistering as the hollered vocals of Phosphenes opener “All That Is Solid”; Connect keeps Porter’s vocals lower in the mix. And although the lyrics are often indiscernible, there are moments when the album feels a bit too wordy. Porter’s vocals best serve the songs when they repeat simple yet enigmatic mantras. “Bird calls to me/Bird calls it’s up to me” he repeats on the slow-burning “Bird Calls,” the meaning slipping blissfully away with each hypnotic iteration of the line.
The mini-epic “In a House in a Head” is one of the band’s strongest. Beginning with a celestial swirl of synths, the song quickly builds into something formidably sturdy. Once Johnson’s propulsive riff comes in, it feels like a building being made in fast motion. Porter’s refrain finds a connection between architecture and the human mind: “In a house/In a head/A memory is everywhere.” It’s a fitting tag line for the LP, a compelling piece of brick-and-mortar rock with a human pulse. —Lindsay Zoladz
Buildings, Imperial China, Protect-U, and Cigarette perform at Black Cat Saturday at 9 p.m.