For early solo releases, David Vassalotti chose a moniker intended to symbolize nearly nothing: ( ). Working under the stranded, vacant parentheses—the empty aside to nil—Vassalotti issued the False Xmas EP in 2010. A bedroom new romantic statement, regal melodies chime through chintzy keyboards and the guitarist’s quivering voice hesitantly asserts itself. As ( ), Vassalotti thought he’d recede behind the music, that his vinyl debut might begin a disappearing act. “That’s a battle I’ve always fought with myself,” he says. “I think people put too much emphasis on the artist and not the art.”
Broken Rope, Vassalotti’s new solo album, appears six years after False Xmas and under his full name. For the first time, he’s on the cover. It’s a stark, monochrome side-profile snapped in Croatia by Carson Cox, Vassalotti’s band mate in Merchandise. The Tampa group was on tour supporting its 4AD-released After the End, a hard-earned indie coup that involved about eighteen months on the road and, partly due to Cox’s outspokenness, many media engagements. By contrast, Broken Rope arrives without tour dates via Hidden Eye, an imprint of Wharf Cat; Vassalotti recently wrote to me that he prefers email interviews.
(Offhand, I responded that, years ago, he interpreted my written recollection of a dream, which appeared in a fanzine feature. Vassalotti replied, “Since you let me into your unconscious mind that one time, I’ll make an exception.”)
Broken Rope’s title references the French composer and noise progenitor Pierre Henry. “In this documentary I was watching, [Henry] talks about looking through all of his tapes for ‘the sound of a broken rope,’” Vassalotti says over the phone. “There’s a lot of symbolism in ropes, like an umbilical cord, which ties to the first track on the record, ‘The Trouble With Being Born.’ Rope is often a symbol of time. The breaking of rope could be death, transcendence, liberation.”
Potent symbols, improbable sounds—it’s an apt title for the album, which probes pop’s threshold for noise on one side and locates clarity through hazy dissonance on the other. The track order is a gradation in accessibility. Early on, there’s the soured glam swagger of “Lady Day Redux”; the balmy but bitter pop of “Ines De Castro”; and pirouetting leads of the slinky “Drawn & Quartered”, which casts Vassalotti as the estranged heir to Felt guitarist Maurice Deebank. Though the artist wishes to deemphasize himself publically, Vassalotti is urgently, palpably present on recordings. His vocals on Broken Rope are at once hushed and strained, like secrets struggling their way out into the world.
However, the flip side of the album is comparatively abstract. It features cutups of field recordings, errant melodic motifs, and improvisational sessions, some of which date back to 2009. The centerpiece of the latter half is “Maly Kitezh”. Timpani drums batter against spectral keys and supple guitar in the ascendant first passage, followed by a jarring volley of mechanical percussion and a downtrodden, murky afterglow. It’s among Vassalotti’s most moving pieces of music. Characteristically elusive, Vassalotti says that with Broken Rope and its predecessor, 2011’s Book of Ghosts, he preferred working on the b-side.
“I wasn’t consciously making [Broken Rope] a follow-up [to Book of Ghosts,] but I’ve noticed a lot of similarities,” he says. “They’re both very depressing, pessimistic things. Thematically, I think they’re both about trying to find truth and meaning in the world. Even though every sign indicates there’s nothing, it’s important to keep fighting against that and searching.” That inquisitive spirit colors Broken Rope’s lyrics, where images of dogs and swamps appear alongside historical allusions to Russia, Portugal, and Spain. Beyond literary truth seeking, Vassalotti likens the intrepid multiculturalism to psychic globetrotting. “That has a lot to do with leaving Florida in my head.”
Vassalotti, 28, grew up in Brandon, a suburb of Tampa, and studied literature at the University of South Florida. In the late-2000s, he played guitar in Cult Ritual. Part of a wave of hardcore bands emphasizing relative anonymity while social media supplanted the old underground networks, Cult Ritual records endure as mighty, sweltering things, largely owing to Vassalotti’s guitar playing, which mediates The Brainbombs’ thuggish noise and Void’s thrilling instability alike. He learned to revere sound’s physicality. Vassalotti’s tenure in Cult Ritual atomized into myriad Tampa groups, including Dads and Neon Blud. What was momentarily one of the country’s most fervent underground rock scenes—teeming with bands that doubled as multimedia collectives, à la Destroy All Monsters or Monitor’s World Imitation Productions—is little remembered aside from diminishing Sonic Youth comparisons, with the exception of Merchandise.
Close friends and collaborators, Carson Cox and Vassalotti started playing music together in 2005. Cox recorded Cult Ritual and drummed in kindred hardcore acts. On Book of Ghosts’ insert, Cox is thanked “for listening.” In Merchandise, whose first vinyl EP appeared in 2009, Cox emerged as voluble front man with the emotive croon, contemplating punk ethics and the tyranny of genre tags in countless interviews, especially after the profile-boosting 2012 full-length Children of Desire. Vassalotti was never as visible as Cox, but his expressive, versatile guitar playing animates Merchandise records just as much as the lead vocals. The dynamic is Vassalotti’s design.
“Definitely pretty much everybody I’ve played in bands with lives in the Northeast now. I don’t have much of a connection left to the scene that was once a big part of my life,” he says. Broken Rope was recorded while he and Cox still lived together. Cox was the first to hear it. But Vassalotti has since moved to Sarasota with his partner. It’s about an hour south of Tampa and, as he notes, not far from the swamp. “It feels pretty isolated down here, but I’ve never been tempted to move up to the big city.”
For the title track to 2010’s False Xmas, Vassalotti made a music video. A tribute to creative domesticity, it depicts eggs and tape recorders as similarly essential fixtures of a home. A razor on the edge of a sink segues to a hammer and a cheap keyboard on the bed. Stains on a mattress cut to drawings on the wall. Momentarily, there’s Cox in a doorway. The camera scampers throughout the home, flitting between small objects before settling on one last scene: an acoustic guitar, a crate of books, and a laptop in a dim bedroom. The floral cover of New Order’s Power, Corruption & Lies hangs on the wall. On a loop, a blurry figure moves wraithlike across the frame, appearing and then disappearing.