12 Rounds

Addicted to Noise Review of My Big Hero


By Tony Fletcher

In this modern world of sound bites, quick fixes and instant gratification, pity the poor artist who makes music laden with subtleties. Especially when they’re unknown. After all, it’s one thing when your favorite act decides to make that “difficult” or “personal” album, knowing full well that you, the faithful listener, will play it often enough for its complexities to lodge in your cortex. But when a new band comes along and layers its songs in waves of erudite textures and elusive melodies, who’s going to give it time to breathe and grow?

So we welcome 12 Rounds, the English duo of vocalist Claudia Sarne and instrumentalist Atticus Ross, who have come from nowhere to arrive at Nothing (Trent Reznor’s eclectic label) with a record that is equal parts gothic, electronic and alternative-rock without sounding quite like any one thing at all. This lack of easy comparisons provoked one British reviewer to describe Sarne as “Eartha Kitt on crack,” quite apt for a singer whose silky tones suggest sensuality while her erotic lyrics come wrapped in barbed wire. Witness this couplet from “2 Miles,” a slow-paced song with a Delta-blues guitar line: “When I’m feeling down I’ll saw off both your hands and lick the sweat off of your feet.” (And that’s one of the love songs!)

“When I’m feeling down I’ll saw off both your hands and lick the sweat off of your feet,” Claudia Sarne sings.

I could suggest that 12 Rounds sound like an even more dense Curve, but the most appealing way to describe the act is visual. Anyone who saw the recent gothic television extravaganza “Merlin” need only imagine Natasha Richardson, who played the sensual but duplicitous Queen Mab, fronting an electronic-rock band at the turn of the millennium, to get the picture.

But if goth-rock was all 12 Rounds had to offer, there wouldn’t be much to get excited about. As Mab herself found out, the gothic kingdom is very small these days. That’s why the musical arrangements surrounding Sarne’s barbed missives are so important.

Balancing an avant-garde approach to found sound (chain saws, human breath, a fly) with a love of harsh electronic technology (fierce drum beats and tempered keyboard sounds) and an ongoing respect for conventional instrumentation (guitars and bass), 12 Rounds want to appeal to all of us. Yet in shirking the kind of melodic hooks or melodramatic bombast that’s required for a hit record these days, they run the risk of being ignored by everyone.

Still, a single listen to My Big Hero is enough to convince a sophisticated listener that something unusual is going on here. A couple more airings, and songs begin to shed their dark cloaks and reveal their curvaceous body lines: the sinister single “Pleasant Smell,” the uptempo, rock-out “Sunshine,” the almost evil contrast between subtle (if bloody) verses of “Bovine” (“put me in the juicer and drink me”) and its screaming Hole-like choruses. It’s a journey that requires some devotion and patience, but one that eventually pays off.

My Big Hero is a heroic debut — once you get deep enough inside to discover it