Back in the 1990s, James Brooks was guitarist for Appliance, a fine post-rock band that sadly never got as much attention as they deserved. Mining an updated Krautrock vibe better than most, the album Manual, in particular, was a personal favorite of the time. Following the band’s final release in 2003, Brooks spent his time as a successful visual artist until last year when he reappeared solo under the name Land Observations. Drawing on his interests in geography and architecture, he released the EP Roman Roads I-III, from which this similarly-titled album obviously continues its themes.
From Brooks’s British location, the Roman roads stretch all the way back to the center of the historical Empire, necessary for both conquest and the tenuous connections afterward, from what was a far-flung colony at the time. The album’s initial track, “Before the Kingsland Road,” plays like a brief prelude before we’re taken farther afield on the pastoral “Aurelian Way” and onward.
These instrumental guitar tracks are based on looped, repetitive motifs, establishing pulsing, metronomic rhythms over which the guitar chimes and rings. Simple, yet elegant, Brooks brings a sort of geometric shape to each piece — it’s not too difficult to imagine the construction of each song as a series of intersecting lines on paper, dotted with the ascending or descending notes applied atop the initial loops.
“From Nero’s Palace” rides a tick-tocking set of four notes, like a see-saw, as calmly plucked tones play out over it, while “Via Flaminia” percolates slowly, its rhythm a gentle low-string picking with spacious, reverb-coated notes ringing brightly at an up-and-down angle. The most motorik song, harking back most strongly to the likes of Neu!, is “Appian Way,” which feels like the album’s pivot point.
With only one piece longer than five minutes and none as long as six, Brooks is to be commended for brevity. The songs don’t stick around long enough to wear out their welcome, even though each is constructed on a fairly slim frame. They wouldn’t hold up over a much longer stay, which is perhaps ironic given the project’s theme. It feels like a backhanded compliment to say that the eight songs here are pleasant, but it’s the truth. They fade to the background all too easily, which is a bit of a shame considering the careful work put into the interlocking patterns. “Appian Way” is the only one that raises the energy level above a medium pulse, and it stands out for that reason.
It’s too easy to say that Roman Roads feels overly calculated, but there’s no doubt that a sense of polish hangs over the album, as if the rough edges have been carefully filed down. It would be nice to think that something unexpected might happen, that everything’s not quite in control after all, but that sense of mystery is lacking here. It’s a fine album, but after each listen I find myself wishing a little more had happened, that more of the human behind it all might shine through in unexpected ways.
By Mason Jones