When I first threw This is Not the Ending, the latest album from Chicago indie rock band Information Superhighway, into my CD player, I was doing it only semi-blindly. The prog rock band with the name trapped in late 90’s nostalgia is highly regarded and I had a bit of familiarity with their work, as well as the independent work of vocalist Leslie Beukelman and composer Rob Clearfield. My greatest fear was that Clearfield’s mellow, densely textured melodies would end up shackling Beukelman’s soaring, versatile voice. I needn’t have worried.
Beukelman’s versatility is a rare gift in itself, and through four years of training at Roosevelt University in vocal performance, Beukelman is a musical jack of all trades and a master of every one of them as well. She and Clearfield also have the strength of their chemistry, the crux of Information Superhighway, and so they can anticipate and bounce off each other very naturally. This isn’t to detract from the work of their talented bandmates, bassist Patrick Mulcahy and drummer John Smillie, but Beukelman and Clearfield are the faces of Information Superhighway. They are associated with the band the same way Aerosmith is synonymous with Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, The Rolling Stones with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and Gun n’ Roses with Axl Rose and
In the songs on This is Not the Ending, Beukelman operates under her own musical instincts. Clearfield, Mulcahy, and Smillie create the rhythms and Beukelman cuts loose as she sees necessary, restraining herself sometimes and letting her voice tear across the sky at others. Clearfield, playing the mad tech wizard, assigns himself to an assortment of instruments. Yes, guitars are keyboards are normal, but accordions and singing bowls are not.
A singing bowl is a concave metal bowl which the, uh, singing-bowl-ist taps and strokes with a short wooden rod. It produces a variety of high-pitched musical sounds through vibrations. It can produce sound at a constant rate if the rod is moved consistently along the edge of the bowl’s rim. I heard the singing bowl in the background in a few spots throughout This is Not the Ending.
An apt description of Information Superhighway’s music would probably be Pink Floyd without the painkillers and weed. The closest This is Not the Ending comes to traditional fast, hard guitar rock is Almost Morning, the opener. Beukelman lets her voice build gradually by verse, Clearfield becomes Trent Reznor with his experimentation, even adding a few repetitive guitar riffs in the middle, and Smillie spends the song hammering away in an impossible paradox; he attacks his drum set with the precision of Neil Peart, and also the ferocity and reckless abandon of Keith Moon.
The four remaining songs on This is Not the Ending are more traditional of Information Superhighway’s sound. The music in general isn’t quite as hard, and instead of blasting through songs in a blistering rage, the band lets the music drift and play out to a more organic conclusion. At times, the music drifts like a whisper, with the softness and speed of a single cloud on a sunny day, almost hovering. The Real Things, Soft and Not Knowing, and Your Voice – Part II do this more than the fourth song, This is Beginning – which is more experimentalism – but all of them are based in that basic setup.
Soft and Not Knowing is the album’s first single, probably because it’s the only one cut for the length of a single. It clocks in at 3:27 in a collection of songs which are otherwise all over six minutes. It also has a much more mainstream sound. I assume it was meant to be that way because it doesn’t do anything to challenge its audience. There are no sudden melody disruptions or key changes. The band plays it completely straight, and so it’s heard like a pleasant lullaby.
This is Beginning features a lot of sonic whooping and whirling. Clearfield channels Trent Reznor again, and Smillie goes to town on his drums.
Beukelman is the clear star in The Real Things and Your Voice – Part II. The music is more relegated to the background than in the other songs, and it frequently fades in and out. The Real Things is the more experimental of the two, featuring white noise and and Mulcahy on an acoustic bass. Your Voice – Part II is my favorite song from This is Not the Ending. It’s a soft, soulful jazz ballad with the keyboard as its main backing instrument, and Beukelman sings at her introspective best. It’s another one which could be described as having a more mainstream sound.
Their name may be trapped in the late 90’s, but Information Superhighway’s music and originality are well ahead of the curve. Their acclaimed status in Chicago is well-earned, and it’s well worth the effort to hear them when swinging by Chicago. After all, they’re huge in Afghanistan.