Prinzhorn Dance School are a rock duo from Brighton, England. They’re also the most wonderfully beady-eyed band in recent memory, looking at every last thing that crosses their path with the blank objectivity of befuddled aliens, or sometimes birds. I’m not kidding about the birds, either. There’s a track on their new album, Clay Class, in which band members Tobin Prinz and Suzi Horn wrestle with one of art’s classic topics — the fact that we humans are but animals with a weird and fleeting purchase upon the earth, destined to die and be replaced by more humans who will themselves die and be replaced, etc. Here’s what the band has to say about that endless line of bodies: “To the vulture, it’s agriculture.” Then a question: Would you look a child in the eye and accuse her of usurping your place on the planet? Followed by advice: “Just pick up your things and leave.”
Don’t worry; it’s not as horrifically bleak as all that might suggest. The band’s just extremely good at drawing things — even big things — using stark, simple lines. That goes double for their music, which sits somewhere out toward the limits of rock minimalism. Prinz and Horn seem to share the same obsessive, sealed-off approach to recording; they’re fixated on the pure raw sounds of their instruments, the tone of a string vibrating or a drum being thwacked in a mostly empty room. In fact, they seem like total Luddites about that sort of thing: Horn says her bandmate once reminded her that “laptops are for offices, keyboards are for cruise ships.”
So on their self-titled debut, from 2007, the songs were pared down to the barest number of moving parts: bass, two or three drums, a few notes plucked on guitar, and the overlapping shouts and declamations of Prinz and Horn, all held together in tense, itchy patterns. They’re not big on chord changes, or melodies, or songs that drive forward; the music’s more like clockwork, and the songs find other, sneakier ways to develop. If the band’s to be believed, they holed up and wrote over a hundred of these little song-machines for each album. When you listen to the records and hear the obsessive detailing of the tracks that wind up on them, that claim seems entirely plausible. Music full of empty spaces and the sound of English people barking is, inevitably, not for everyone, but this act’s debut was a strange and magical thing: the sound of musicians peeling away much of what we expect from a modern band — even a minimalist English post-punk band with shelves full of records by Wire and the Fall — and feverishly building something surreal in its place.
The project seemed complete and unrepeatable from its start, but Clay Class, out this week, is a welcome return for the band — solemn and pensive, often beautiful, and wrapped around big themes. Suddenly the duo’s attention is fixated on the cycles of nature, and mostly the parts where things fade away. Their music’s less edgy and more complex; just a few extra notes of color and harmony leave them sounding positively symphonic compared to five years ago, and instead of yelping and twitching, they speak softly and cruise ominously along. When Prinz sings about “skinny trees, naked in winter,” it’s hard not to hear that as a description of the sounds branching around him.
The strange thing about music this unadorned is that it can never really tell you how to feel about what you’re hearing. There’s no emotional guidance, no swelling strings to underline poignancy, no nothing; it’s the sonic equivalent of deadpan. One of the best songs on the group’s debut, “I Do Not Like Change,” seemed to be written from the perspective of an autistic boy, announcing his preferences about the world. (“I like to memorize facts!” “I do not like touch!”) If you’re like me, you might hear it as a joyous song — a happy anthem from a perspective you don’t expect to hear in song. But you might not, and the song will do nothing to steer you one way or another. It’s hard to think of a theme that matches better with that feeling than the cycles of nature, aging, and death examined on Clay Class — right down to the song that’s punctuated, throughout, with Horn impassively repeating “your fire has gone out."