As a native Northern Virginian, two conversation topics I've grown weary of discussing in my lifetime are: the Redskins (but, I'll spare you that headache) and the dreaded “D.C. music scene” discussion. It's a talk that often induces impassioned rants about Fugazi and the “good old days” of Dischord's heyday via several unresearched assertions; All too often several of the city's best bands get left out of the debate, and a serious dialogue about the real issues of disorganization and discouragement get deferred. But every year the Sockets Records showcase comes along and accomplishes two rare feats: unity and a sold out show.
This past weekend, standing by the bar at the Black Cat, I watched Imperial China make their disparate influences fit together with greater success than ever before as they brought to life their latest, and best, full-length, How We Connect. Where Phosphenes felt like a charming but ultimately disjointed set of experiments, Connect sounds like the eureka moment where a consensus is found amongst the shared sweat of these three very different musicians as they finally prove their strange hypothesis. Veteran drummer Patrick Gough's angular art-rock zen, guitarist/bassist Matt Johnson's raucous punk fury, and guitarist/singer/synthesist Brian Porter's electronic soundscaping coalesce into a vibrant fusion that owes as much to Travis Morriston's anxious good humor as Pitchblende's noisy post-punk hangover.
It's a feat of diplomacy that requires as much virtuosity in performance as creativity in arrangement, as though their day job expertise of law and city planning are at play drafting a treaty between the furthest corners of the Washingtonian musical landscape and its old and new guards. It's an agreement that spurs equal cheers from scene stalwarts like Beauty Pill's Devin Ocampo (who engineered How We Connect) and younger vibers like Protect-U (who shared the stage with Imperial China at the recent Sockets showcase). The giddy thrills of the front-end tracks “Limbs” and “In a House in a Head” are prime examples of a harmonious marriage between abrasive hardcore hiss and momentous rhythmic bliss.
That's not to say that the long arm of Dischord has released its grasp; some of the best tracks– particularly the paranoid rocker “Revolter” and its breakneck tom rolls, barking vocal confessions, and shrill guitar spasms– could easily fit into that label's legendary mid-90s aesthetic. But there's a huge difference in personality that comes out in the drift of longer anthems like highlight “Bird Calls,” whose bright blend of King Sunny Ade guitar shimmer and Beaches & Canyons birdsong hints at an optimistic everyman tension bubbling under a seemingly harsh surface. It feels like the opposite end of the same spectrum that Ian MacKaye's stifled, suburbia-sick primal scream therapy lies on. Imagine if D-Plan's realist anecdotes kept their insulated charm, but lost their sarcasm, only to drif to those moments when you're stuck on the beltway absent-mindedly daydreaming the spiritual.
If anything, the only low points come when Brian's vocals get washed out; his shouting David Byrne caricature is such a key personality on this record and I feel like an increased presence on mid-way jams like “Redux” could have made those tracks leave an impression as memorable as the searing, soaring front and back-end highlights. Nonetheless, Imperial China have a lot to be proud of; the architecture required to connect the landmarks of their ambitiously broad palette is worthy of applause no matter what scene they're a part of.