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The view from the 1,000th floor

On their debut album “Look Down,” The Tallest Building in the World has crafted an expansive sonic landscape, part “Office Space,” part “The Wall” writ vertical.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

On their debut album “Look Down,” The Tallest Building in the World has crafted an expansive sonic landscape, part “Office Space,” part “The Wall” writ vertical. Composer Isaac Marion has constructed a fanciful Borgesian backstory for it in the liner notes and on his Web site. The story serves as metaphorical girders on which he hangs songs of alienation, relationships and slices of life that comprise the floors of an infinite office building whose inhabitants are indifferent to the goings-on in the shrouded upper levels.

In the ’80s, the concept album went the way of Neal Peart’s mustache, having been razed by punk a few years prior.  Few labels would market an album in the genre until bands like Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead began producing themed albums in the ’90s, and recent successes from Gorillaz to Green Day have made the style acceptable again. “Look Down” is loosely conceptual, and most of the songs stand independently. 

The album opens with “Glaciers (A Hymn from the Thousandth Floor),” seen through the eyes of an office worker driven by ennui to find his way to the 1,000th floor observation deck. From there he observes the world and the lives of those below. Isaac accompanies the piece on piano and with a drone instrument of his own invention, something he calls a “Mototron,” which looks like a cross between an Appalachian dulcimer and a sewing machine.  Jared McSharry, the other half of the band, chimes in on guitar.

“Souvenir Bullets” finds a couple defiantly united against a sinister world, assaulted by crossfire but taking it all in stride: “Sit with me in the dark / Let those bullets fly,” they say. When life gives you bullets, make bullet necklaces.

Jared’s guitar comes to the fore with an infectious hook that begins “Pulling Eighty,” about how readily some people become wage slaves:  “If I work when the office is burning down I just might earn double-time.”

Darker songs permeate the album, depicting the volatile instability of an emotional recluse, desperately searching himself for flaws to extricate, a self-described “defective product,” someone compelled to demand real or imagined necessities at gun point.

On the last track, hope breaks through.  In “Final Thoughts (While Falling),” our errant observer chooses to make the plunge back into the world, accepting the good with the bad, “a self-imposed optimism,” according to Isaac.

The mood ranges from fey, wispy melodies to aggressively shrieked vocals. The multilayered approach contrasts with his choice of percussion, using lo-fi blippy electronic sounds that bring to mind The Postal Service and their ’80s antecedents. Other cinematic influences like Mum and Massive Attack are in evidence. Isaac professes a continued fondness for epic movie soundtracks, something he discovered in his early years. Jared’s contributes chimey guitar textures on several cuts, though some bombastic passages betray his grunge roots. 

Isaac is a busy guy. He runs two Web sites and two blogs, and has written a book. He designed the album, and illustrated it with original artwork. He plays in two other bands, Mindhead and Rebels and Scientists along with Jared. 

“Isaac’s kind of a mad scientist,” says Jared. “He worked out some of the parts on a small keyboard while driving to and from work.”

He also went to elaborate lengths to collect some of his sounds, with friends pounding on benches in an empty arena, and sledgehammer-meets-computer monitor demolitions.  In quieter moments he works in a home-built Theremin and glockenspiel.

The tracks are tightly strung together, bridged by swirling effects, reverberating drones and slithery backward sounds. There is much attention to detail, both in composition and album design.  When taking such risks on a self-produced album, there is bound to be a misstep or two. The vocals lack presence at times, and I could do without the annoying skipping CD effect on “The Assignment.” The latter is unfortunate, since it contains the best line on the album: “…all the sadness in the world is sitting in a pile on my desk high above the world.” 

Despite the complexity, the duo reproduce the sound quite capably live using an impressive array of delay lines and effects, and an assortment of instruments. They perform in winking mockery of corporate culture, wearing matching ties, under the fanciful conceit of being the T.W. Building’s Mainland Commerce Department. They are a band to keep an eye on, and with luck, their stock will soar.

To learn more about The Tallest Building in the World, visit: http://www.myspace.com/tallestbuildingintheworld.