The cover of American Gothic offers yet another take on Grant Wood’s classic, oft-parodied painting of the same name. This time, in place of the old couple standing proudly with a pitchfork, we get a Halloween-ready kid in flannel shirt and skeleton mask, brandishing a plastic axe. But I have to wonder if Jenks Miller and Nicholas Szczepanik were also thinking of the 1988 shlock-horror flick American Gothic. “The family that slays together stays together,” its tag line warned. Miller and Szczepanik aren’t family; in fact, they don’t even live in the same state. They created this album by trading audio files over the Internet. But the five tracks here certainly slay, doling out drone and noise at such a high level, you’d guess these two had been stabbing at it for a while.
Separately, they have: As Horseback and under his own name, Miller has long treated sound with the reverence of a disciple and the energy of a marathon runner, while Szczepanik’s audio letter to his father, Dear Dad, was one of 2009’s best drone works. Together, the two push themselves into an array of sounds and approaches that feel at least as wide as what either has done alone. Parts of American Gothic are like hypnotherapymeditative, restrained, pastoral. In other places, aggression and harshness come quick, like video of growing weeds sped up by time-lapse techniques. In the case of one track, “White Light,” the yin-yang sonics wrestle each other, with somnambulant drone slamming into swaths of dramatic dissonance.
It’s a little unfair to separate the styles here, though, since everything Miller and Szczepanik do sounds filtered through one common vision. Such cohesion makes the most surprising moves here, like the quiet, clicking, Oval-like minimalism of “Ossuary Dub,” sound natural and time-tested, while turns that could otherwise come off as cliché, like the hearing-test tones that open the album, feel oddly fresh. Together, such moments create a kind of cross-country journey through abstract sound, traversing the many ideas and images it can conjure. Think of American Gothic as a windshield’s-eye view of some rich sonic scenery. Cross your fingers that Miller and Szczepanik set off on another trip soon.