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First Listen: ACME – Synths, Beats & Psychedelia 

On June 25th at 9:13am, Chris Naoum, the man behind Listen Local First, posted in our new music Facebook group a teaser video that a band called ACME (A Company that Makes Everything) had put out to promote their new album. It was only a few minutes long, but it had everyone in the group buzzing about these guys, and I left the comment, “I’m so very intrigued. If you out anything else about them, let me know.”

But when details about the duo were hard to come by, I decided to track them down myself. After a few emails back and forth, I invited them to the BYT office after-hours so we could chat and so that I could listen through their album with them on the office’s ridiculous sound system. Then, for funzies, I invited fellow All Things Go writer Alex Anderson along to take pictures and check out the band with me.

So last Monday, I buzzed up Cheakaity “Che” Brown and Joshua Davis, the two “older than 16, younger than 25” year olds that make up ACME, to the second-floor office and, after some awkward pleasantries, we sat down and chatted. I learned that the two DMV-area natives had met via a mutual Facebook friend, and after dabbling with other projects that they admit the other disliked, found themselves working on beats that eventually filled out into songs together.

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When I asked Che, who was in a “crap load of bands” that were more pop-punk and rock based, what helped spur his musical maturation, he was quick to cite the legends from Abingdon: “I heard Radiohead and I said I’m never going back…I heard the opening riff of ‘Airbag’ and I was…” His thought went unfinished because, as if reliving the original moment, he closed his eyes and hummed along the signature guitar line. “‘Myxomatosis’ from their Live From The Basement special on VH1 also really blew me away.”

The boys are quick to rattle off their influences and don’t shy away from the fact that those influences are direct inspirations for songs. When I let them know that after hearing their teaser I told friends that they reminded me of “TV On The Radio meets M83,” they were quick to acknowledge that those were definitely bands they were listening to when they were writing and are even quicker to show their excitement over the comparisons. But while their inspirations are apparent, what’s special about these two local kids is that their charming obvious fandom, sincere humbleness, and youthful naivety is bolstered by the perfect combination of free-spiritedness, passion, and, most importantly, talent.

Now, before I get into their actual music, there’s a bit of advice I’d like to pass on when listening to this album. Play it loud. Louder than you might want to at first. And on a good sound-system (or at least through decent headphones). I was lucky enough to be in an office with a subwoofer that makes water glasses shake like Jurassic Park, and it helped me realize that ACME, like Sleigh Bells (first album) or M83, is best consumed at a slightly uncomfortable level of loudness. Not only does it amplify the bombastic nuances of their songs, but it elevates the tension and emotional peaks that infiltrate their style of music. So crank it to 11 and pay attention.

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“What should listeners expect when hitting play on Synths, Beats & Psychedlia for the first time?” I ask, genuinely curious, as I had only a two-minute teaser to go off of, and I wasn’t exactly sure what I had gotten myself into. “Expect nothing,” Josh immediately crows back to me before softening the blow with an “…I hate to be cliche…” After a few quick seconds of pondering over his own answer and deciding he isn’t happy with it, he adds, “…or everything, then just be either disappointed or blown away.” Che chimes in, “Either have an open mind or a closed one that’s going to get kicked down.” So we turn on the speakers, queue up the album, hit play, and I settle in, notebook in hand, doing my best to expect nothing.

Josh and Che hit it out of the park when it came to selecting “Around The World” as the EP’s lead-off song; it’s a bright, anthemic bit of disco pop that is everything I loved about The Knocks’ early material, and Che’s surprising high-register vocal abilities are a pleasant surprise given his fairly gruff speaking voice. About a minute into the song, I look over at Alex who is snapping away on his camera and share an unexpected, uncontrollable smile with him; we know we are hearing something special. The percussion and horn heavy outro is an especially nice unforeseen bit of musicianship that only hints of things to come. For a group that claims their “underground fame came from [their] parties,” they have their dance floor jam with this song. (When describing those parties, Josh, with a straight face, asks me, “Have you seen Project X? It’s like that, but there’s no pool.”)

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The next track, “Lightning” is their M83 homage, with soaring synths and soothing vocals. It’s a stark contrast to “Around The World”, but it’s effective in showing the kind of diverse range ACME plays in. The horn lines, arranged by jazz-enthusiast Drew Kid, play a prominent role in the shape of the song, melding and stretching away from Che’s vocalic wail. I ask if Che or Josh, who are both self-taught multi-instrumentalists, played the horn lines, and they tell me that, while Che is learning trumpet and sax, they aren’t there yet; “It hurt my face,” Che comically admits, “but usually we just play what we can to the best of our ability.” I laugh along with them and think to myself that for two kids whose goal is to “just make something [they] would want to hear [themselves],” they’re going to do something a lot more than that in the future.

“Save The World” kicks in with a light but ominous introduction and settles into a dark groove that backbones one of Che’s more stark vocal arrangements. As I catch myself spacing out a bit, the complex rhythm pattern and an assertive bass line suck me back in and ground a song that could have easily floated away from them. Then, about two and a half minutes in, as I begin to think the song is over, a torturous siren of a synth cuts across everything and leads way to a glamorous, luscious breakdown that magnifies all the previous elements of the songs to a level that causes Alex and I to instinctively look at each other. Instead of smiling this time, we both stare aghast at what we are listening to. Alex mouths a silent, exaggerated “Wow.”

“Turn Me On” originally harkens back to the danceability of “Around The World” with a tribal, four-on-the-floor beat and a repetitive chant comprising the vocals. It actually reminds me of “Can’t Hold Me Down,” which is a compliment; one of the main reasons I dislike Macklemore is that he wastes Ryan Lewis’ incredible production skills and imaginative beats. Thankfully, instead of a mid-level rapper, this driving instrumentation is adorned with complimentary haunting echoes that give this song a personalized life and spirit. That is, until the dissipating breakdown, which after the first two songs, I have come to expect from the two. What I never see coming, though, is the beautiful cacophony that blows through the song’s ending. It isn’t M83 elegance, it isn’t Radiohead devolution; it’s Reznor-esque aggressive dismemberment. It’s eye-widening. I can’t even look at Alex because I’m too busy trying to process what is going on myself.

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“Do you ever worry about going too far when it comes to breakdowns like that? You tip-toe the line really well, but do you ever worry about falling off?” I ask them, still amazed at what I had just heard. “He pushes me,” Che begins to explain, but he’s cut off by Josh who counters that “it’s a thing about trust,” to which Che immediately agrees with: “Trust and mutual respect.” They may be young, but they come across as brothers in arms who understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses, who have gone to battle together and come out stronger because of it. “I think he’s one of the sickest dudes I know,” Che brags. Josh sheepishly smiles back at him.

As “Howl”‘s opening piano line begins, I get noticeably giddy at the prospect that they might be taking on “Karma Police,” but the TV On The Radio-infused ballad that follows is a worthy consolation prize. It literally howls away through a down-tempoed, soulful track before being galvanized into a schizophrenic breakdown that exhausts me by its ending. With the album done, I am left with nothing but the feeling that I experienced something exquisitely unique. I was grateful for the opportunity and thankful that Alex, a fellow passionate music lover, was there to experience it with me.

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I don’t know if I waited an appropriate time after its ending to fully process it all, but I closed my notebook, placed it on the desk in front of me, and looked them both as dead in the eye as I could. I then told Che and Josh what Alex and I had known since the first song: ACME had made something special and they were destined for greatness.

Before we had listened to the album, Che explained, “I didn’t set out to make THE perfect album, I set out to make MY perfect album.” And his perfect album, made with the help of his compatriot who asserts that when a fan once claimed ACME “changed [their] perspective on life” it meant they were officially successful as a group, has a bright future ahead of it.

They were wrong when they said their audience should “expect nothing” though. They should expect something; something very special.

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