You are forgiven if you don’t imagine the hills of North Carolina being a hotbed for cutting edge electronic music and concept albums. I certainly didn’t. Caleb Hanks, otherwise known as The Clerk, will soon disabuse you of that notion with his sprawling fifteen song collection entitled Xander-Vi1. It definitely has its own merits, but the album is intended to be heard and viewed as an extension of Hanks’ accompanying graphic sci-fi novel The Clerk Chronicles and definitely works well as a concept album – though listeners looking and listening for a clear cut linear narrative on this release will likely be disappointed. Others who revel in imaginative musical compositions and dramatic structures will find much to admire on the album, however, and Hanks’ confidence with the material is unmistakable. It’s accurate to describe this release as a labor of love for Hanks – he’s responsible for more than just the writing and performing, he’s likewise taken on the production chores for the album and it’s a better outing for it. The care and attentiveness he’s lavished on Xander-Vi1 is obvious.
After the opening electronic salvos of “The Sounds”, The Clerk makes his capacity for flexibility clear by bringing guitar to the fore in a big way with the second cut “Atlas_”. There are no pretensions towards virtuosity with this track; the guitar is merely another color he draws from to fill in the song’s picture for listeners. We return to more familiar territory for the title song and its hyperactive percussion helps it hook into listener’s consciousness. The sci-fi themes he leans on to realize this release are accessible even to those without much grounding in the genre; even a cursory listen to the lyrical content stresses that this work has enormous humanity rather than being obscure and focused on genre devices.
“Scanning the Infinity” shares some similarities with the title track, namely its approach to percussion, and stands out further thanks to its manic pace in comparison to the more big canvas numbers. The vocal is notably relaxed in comparison and the care Hanks take with his phrasing gives the song an emotive quality you might not readily suspect. “Ghosted” has the same virtues working for it vocally, but the effect is even stronger thanks to a nuanced arrangement emphasizing atmospherics but never losing sight of its musicality. A common criticism of electronic music, for some, is that it sounds cold or sterile when compared to more traditional instruments, but Hanks overturns that idea quite conclusively with tracks like this.
“Aura” is one of those aforementioned big canvas numbers. It manifests his musical ambitions at or near their absolute zenith and embodies the title well thanks to the glittering array of electronic sounds he orchestrates to make the track fly. There is certainly a bit of progressive rock sensibility behind this collection, never overtly pronounced, but you can also hear the song craft that makes these cuts stand out through the flash and color of its electronic sound. “The One” has a slightly darker tinge than many of the other songs without ever immersing itself in moodiness; it is far more melancholy than despairing and illustrates, once again, how Hanks brings a strong emotional tenor to a style not normally associated with vulnerability.
It highlights the strength mentioned earlier in this review – despite the science fiction tropes strewn throughout these fifteen songs, Xander-Vi1 never loses sight of the fact that it is an imaginative ride focused on people and their experiences. Caleb Hanks, the erstwhile Clerk, has written and recorded an album that grows on you with each successive hearing and has the durability to return to its riches again and again.
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