Divided By Zero by 3rd Line Butterfly is an album without set boundaries or definitions. The album’s title works as the perfect moniker for a piece of music that’s jagged at the sides as it tries to spill beyond defined lines. We have here a painting of varying landscapes and textures, the one thread connecting everything is the nature of the album itself.
It’s ambitious to put a 10-minute track as the opening. “Awaken” is a slow build, like a sunrise that doesn’t blind you with its rays as soon as the clock says it’s time to wake up. It creeps over mountains, dives into the crevices of valleys and the ripples of lakes. The difference between this brand of build-up, however, is that unlike many this stays on one road. There aren’t much in the way of transitions, the song maintaining its composition for much of its duration–perhaps allowing for a few spaces of slower quiet or adding a few sound effects to illustrate the acceleration of the day as the song reaches its apex. That being said, the song itself is rather beautifully compiled, a blast of energy to counteract the calm simplicity of Nam Sang-ah’s voice.
From that point on, Divided By Zero takes a hard turn to the left. Going from the typical construction indicative of the “indie” label to techno plucked from the early 2000s. It’s quite a daring transition, one that while bold doesn’t necessarily work right away. Following the slow burn of “Awaken” to then the crunch and warble of techno with “Put Your Needle on the Groove” is jarring enough to take the listener out of the album for at least a song and a half. But by the time the first iteration of the chorus “Sense Trance Dance” comes around, a certain level of normality is reestablished, and the listener is better prepared for abrupt transitions as they come. Which is the case when we go from thumpa-thumpa to the scattered serenity of trance.
There’s a certain amount of chaos that went into the creation of Divided By Zero. As Sang-ah and bassist Kim Nam-Yoon declare in, “Only thing I know, when I dance I’m alive. I’m losing my mind. I’m speaking out loud” (“Put Your Needle on the Groove”). The album itself seems built around this idea of constant movement, a constant flux of varying energies. As with the sudden transition between the first and second song, that scramble of sounds and movements doesn’t always translate. There is at times a lack of cohesiveness that while it works in terms of the album’s scope, it also forces the listener to remove herself if just to find some stability. Tracks “Present” and “Emotional Disabled,” for instance, do not lack for any sort of beauty or even power. However, their impact suffers from placement (and perhaps in the case of “Present” lackluster delivery when placed next to the more emotionally dynamic songs).
Be that as it may, the moments when not only the shift in focus but the shift in vocal color shines are brilliant and absolutely superb. As with track “Ex-Life.” Sang-ah’s voice is absolutely magical, floating from audacious chest voice to head voice at the chorus’s peak, before settling back into a powerful declaration. The elegance of the composition here seems tailor-made for the breadth of Sang-ah’s vocal range. She sits in a first alto for most of the album, peppering moments of surprising first soprano throughout. I am reminded of Feist, or at times Sara McLaughlin, with her throaty natural voice and those times when she reaches for her higher register.
Again with track “Zero,” we find Sang-ah in an almost rapturous state with her vocal delivery. As she proclaims in the chorus, “Is there no way? Divide by zero.” There’s an element of hopelessness, a resignation to having nothing and being unable to find a solution or even a way to navigate through the darkness. Her voice expels in bright bursts and cracked ice, as if stepping out on a fast-frozen lake only to realize there are spots in the middle that are stretched too thin, as in her voice, as in her sanity. The music matches in desperation from first note to last, illustrating the scream in Sang-ah’s lament.
Divided By Zero is about transition. The title suggests it’s an album impossible to define–as in mathematics, dividing anything by zero provides an error (after all, you can’t divide something if there’s nothing to divide by). As such, there’s no one genre to define 3rd Line Butterfly’s sound or their eighth studio release. As each song transitions, so does Sang-ah, her voice wrapping around the music, ebbing and flowing with the tide of each composition. Though the back and forth between aggressively emotional and softly placid doesn’t work at every part of the album, one could argue that’s the point. Life doesn’t fit in smooth niches, and neither should music. In that way Divided By Zero succeeds as a complete concept, delivering more than just an abstract theme, and providing the listener with some truly beautiful music.
Genre: Rock | Release Date: 1/6/2017