Tautology I is the first in a three-part album which math rock duo El Ten Eleven says will be fully released before 2020 ends.
My first thought is that Tautology I sounds like if Soundgarden was still around in 2020. The opening track, “Entropy,” has enough of a late ‘80s to early ‘90s alternative rock vibe that I’m half expecting the late great Chris Cornell to chime in at some point. His epic voice and melancholic angst would fit perfectly with this aggressive tribute to what some would say was the greatest era for alternative and grunge music.
In this sense, El Ten Eleven’s new experiment is an undeniable success. In guitarist and bassist Kristian Dunn’s own words, his primary intention with Tautology I is to "represent what my teenage years were like, when I was full of testosterone and depression."
That pretty much sums up the entire feel of Tautology I, a 30-minute masterclass in modern math or post-rock storytelling. Fans of El Ten Eleven expect nothing less, especially those who are intimately familiar with how Dunn makes good use of his guitar pedal collection. Dunn’s Boss OC3 Super Octave has dedicated guitar and bass jacks to accommodate his multiple roles in the band, along with a drive mode for crunch distortion, and a Polyphonic Octave mode for staying within a particular note range – all of which are in full display in the first installment of Tautology. While El Ten Eleven’s extremely calculated angsty aggression is perfectly expressed in “Entropy” and “With Report,” this isn’t to say that that’s the only thing you can expect from this album.
“Moral Dynamite” opens with a psychedelic meditation accompanied by steady percussions, almost similar to Chris Ianuzzi’s progressive electronic psychedelia. “Division” is a red-hot throwback to the extreme experimentation of alternative rock luminaries in the early ‘90s, with Dunn using different guitar and effects combinations to provide a groovy backdrop to his own “electric vocals.” Meanwhile, Tautology I’s last track, “Lassitude,” is a glorious monument to teen angst, culminating in a calming display of Dunn’s ability to make electric guitars sound like mutated violins. In short, the whole album is an undeniably masterful math rock tribute to what some might call ‘post-alternative,’ equal parts nostalgic and characteristically experimental. However, there’s a reason why I can’t justify giving it a perfect rating.
Not surprisingly, drummer Tim Fogarty perfectly accompanies Dunn’s ruminations on bass, guitar, and pedalboard. This is something that’s expected of the duo’s almost 20 years of collaboration. Since El Ten Eleven was formed in 2002 and released their first self-titled album in 2004, they’ve come up with more than 10 albums and EPs – all of which are technical masterpieces worth listening to. With that being said, it takes more than virtuoso skill to make an indelible dent in the shifting sands of math rock.
To be fair, perhaps this is because Tautology I is just the introduction to the band’s three-part Tautology series. El Ten Eleven says they’ll release parts two and three sometime later during the year, with the former representing adulthood and the latter representing the quiet rumination of maturity and old age. With how well Dunn and Fogarty achieved their goal of expressing teen angst in Tautology I, I’m sure they’ll deliver on Tautology II and III as promised. And if not, they will most likely still be extremely likeable, balanced, and well-produced albums – just some of the perks of being in the post rock game for almost two decades.