With their name, Conjjjecture are telling you up front they expect you to stumble over them. A sui generis outfit of four, the group have set upon an untapped strain of topical, punk-bred electronica that takes its cues from dub, jazz, and even trap. Their instrumentation — guitar, bass, trumpet, and vocals played over programmed beats and samples — invites few direct parallels to contemporary music, referencing several genres without obeying their overt rules. And while what they're doing is pop (or not far off), listeners of their first record, Living For Dead Labor, will have to wade through some disorienting tensions and formulas in order to meet them there.
There's a reason we tend to reserve the term "project" for bands that lack a live drummer. Replace the most human element of a pop song — its pulse — with a machine, and suddenly the entire dynamic shifts. The musicians are no longer playing with each other in a mutually enforced conversation, but alongside one another at the mercy of mechanized time. All ten songs on Living For Dead Labor are clamped onto slow, lurching, repetitive tempos. Most of them are without a definitive melodic lead, a task that falls to the twisted adenoidal snarls of vocalist (and programmer) James Cooper, the timbre of which, like a distant cousin to John Lydon, is easily the ugliest involved. That's not a diss: in the absence of drums, it's entirely the voice where we look to find the band's soul, and if he crooned like a well-coiffed popstar or copped some weird m.c. stance, it'd sound like just another crappy machine. Instead it's raw and human.
Right or wrong, you get the sense these are Cooper's songs, that the rhythms and colorations of bassist Stefan Hanson and guitarist Jacob Lowry, both formerly of the complexly energetic punk band Huak, are stitched on after the fact. Ditto with trumpeter Justin Klajbor, whose moody peals are well integrated on "Monad" and "Phobophobic" but too often sound islanded from the rest of the group. As novel a sound as this is, the formulas on Living For Dead Labor can become a little transparent. At track one, "Phobophobic" uses up some of the record's most realized ideas, and it isn't until track five that we hear a different drum tone, as the meditative "Clock O'Clock" makes excellent use of a splintering, trip-hoppy beat. It's those and "Monad," where Hanson, one of the most exciting bassists in town, bestows his instrument with a tone filthy enough to match Cooper's bilious confessions. Their pop moments are nice, but it's clearly not where they're most comfortable. It's the forays into dirtier, slower, heavier where Conjjjecture leave their mark.
If all that sounds laborious, you have to think it's meant to. And then you have to think why. Conjjjecture know the answer, even if it's not always totally clear on this record. Regardless, this is an exciting, pathbreaking band. They won't work for everyone, but who among us will?
LIVING FOR DEAD LABOR | released by Conjjjecture | playing at SPACE Gallery July 12 | with Mast | conjjjecture.bandcamp.com