Simon Crab was one of the founding members of Bourbonese Qualk, who were easily one of the most strange and compelling bands to emerge from the ‘80s underground. They were also sometimes one of the best, but they never quite achieved the stature in the post-industrial canon that they deserved. A good part of that is probably due to their constantly shifting and eclectic style, though they seemed to perfect their singular mélange of electronic music, mutant funk, gamelan, and experimentalism by 2001's On Uncertainty (their final album). With After America, Crab essentially picks up right where his band left off (though sans funk), offering up a distinctively kaleidoscopic and uncategorizable fantasia on the evergreen theme of America's decline.
I was not quite sure what to expect from Crab after what was essentially a decade-long hiatus, but I am very happy to report that After America seamlessly embodies the very same "anything and everything is fair game" aesthetic that made late-period Qualk so great. What Crab does is very different from self-conscious genre-hopping though: there is no "look what I just did!" showiness or attempt to blow my mind with how adroitly he can juggle seemingly disparate threads, nor is there any clumsy appropriation of "ethnic" music to heighten the exotic or psychedelic aspects of these pieces. Instead, Crab just sounds like an artist with very wide-reaching and unusual tastes coupled with the ability to skillfully assimilate those elements into something all his own. That is a truly rare combination.
Curiously, there truly is no common factor that unites After America's best moments: sometimes Crab's bizarre synthesis works brilliantly, sometimes it just works well. My personal favorite piece is probably "Saccades" which sounds like a blearily soft-focus, slowed-down hip-hop anthem. The following "Wintex-Cimex 83" is another stand-out, combining an ominous, mechanized crawl with wild live drums and a languorous flute melody. I suspect that both Discogs and I may have those two song titles reversed, however, as there is a 20-minute piece called "Saccades" that Crab released in 2013 that includes part of the alleged "Wintex-Cimex" above. In any case, they are still both great. Yet another highlight comes much later on the album in the form of the woozy guitar and organ reverie of "Pareidolia."
Elsewhere, Crab successfully delves into a noirish strain of dub ("Useful Idiots"), sublimely hallucinatory and submerged-sounding ambiance ("Foreign Objects"), ominously robotic sound art ("Stammheim"), and gently burbling electronic grooves (“For Jian-an”). In other places, such as "A Whole Distant World," Simon and long-time collaborator Andy Wilson weave something that resembles an achingly beautiful film soundtrack augmented with field recordings. There are also a few instances that recall Crab's work with Bourbonese Qualk, such as the sinuous groove and druggy haze of "Kropotkin." In still other pieces, After America sounds like an ambitious evolution upon that past work, a feat perhaps best exemplified by "Lullabye," which sounds like a dub techno piece that has been shattered and stretched into skittering otherworldliness.
With very few exceptions, Simon excels at just about everything he tries with After America. While there are a few pieces that seem weaker or less inspired than others, the album’s only real shortcoming is a highly subjective one: Crab rarely allows any of the individual pieces much time to grow and evolve; rather, the album is a collection of short vignettes that explore just one theme for a few minutes until a new vignette appears. However, it is abundantly clear that that was a deliberate artistic decision rather than a compositional failing, so it is not particularly fair to critique After America for what it is not (a collection of songs). Crab seems to have achieved exactly what he set out to do with this album, composing a complex, unusual, dynamic, perfectly sequenced and occasionally moving suite that adds up to a very rewarding whole. I would have been happy just to have Crab back to making albums again, but he unexpectedly seems to have returned at the height of his powers.