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Xiu Xiu -- Angel Guts: Red Classroom
by Alex McGrath on February 3, 2014
Angel Guts: Red Classroom, Xiu Xiu's 9th studio album, is named after the 1979 Japanese erotic film, notorious for its gratuitous use of violence alongside pornography. The album very much lives up to its title. Xiu Xiu has made a pitch-black album, one that takes the side of the aggressor more often than the victim. Tracks like the churning "Stupid In The Dark" and the horrific "El Naco" insist upon their malicious nature, imploring the listener to step further into the night. Angel Guts is a relatively large shift in style from Xiu Xiu's previous work: it is dark and graphic; it does not mumble; it is self assured. It is the sound of Jamie Stewart adopting a more muscular sound, one where noise comes off as more powerful than painful. And seeing as Jamie Stewart usually operates on a spectrum of not-OK to very not-OK, it is a fundamental shift in tone of the Xiu Xiu project. This is most visible in "New Life Immigration," a love ballad in which Stewart actually sounds like he's in control of the situation, and the guitar-and-synth-vomit that defined 2002's Knife Play is relegated to a background role.
That is not to say that Jamie Stewart has gone soft; being a Xiu Xiu release, Angel Guts has very much to do with trauma and pain. Angel Guts is obsessed with violence and physicality to an extent that few albums are, describing bodies in great detail on "Black Dick" and sexual violence on "Cinthya's Unisex" in very graphic detail (the chorus of the latter is "NONONONONONONONO").
Xiu Xiu's greatest songs all have a certain tenderness or weakness at their core, the hopeful, shimmering guitar line of "I Luv The Valley OH!" or a lyric like "I don't know why I'm turning red" from "Homunculus." Moments where the listener could elucidate the true nature of the song's subjects beyond the pain and noise. These moments are all but gone in Angel Guts: Red Classroom. The album's most sentimental track, "Botanica de Los Angeles," is slow burning and epic but in more of a filmic way than a late night diary-outpouring way. And it's interesting to hear Jamie Stewart's voice recontextualized into these widescreen settings. He sounds like a narrator, not a victim, singing in a shaky baritone reminiscent of Scott Walker's.
Angel Guts betrays Xiu Xiu's existence as a truly queer band, one who sought to illicit empathy towards the ugliest subject matter, deprived sex, cross-cultural violence, you name it. Angel Guts is a record that seeks to describe rather than resolve and its descriptions are truly stunning and visceral. Angel Guts frames trauma as an end in itself, it does not give the listener space to empathize. It is an album devoid of hope: and it is left very much unresolved, the harrowing scream of closing track "Red Classroom" going unanswered.