aqualife, "Admiral in Distress"

Admiral in Distress is not what one would expect from Andrew Stuart "Stu" Cline. The affable, soft-spoken fellow is known to many in the Quad Cities for his cheerful work behind the counter at Ragged Records and his half-deadpan comedy routines. He's also made a name for himself from his journeyman stints (mainly on keys) in a number of QC bands from varying spots on the progressive spectrum. They include Ice Hockey, Ronin, Grandfather Confusion, Dynoride, Giallows, and, most recently (and almost vexingly), with emotional, melodic rockers Mountain Swallower.

The debut album by his solo project aqualife (released on April 10) will surprise even those who've been following that band's music. The two releases on his Bandcamp page besides Admiral are a 14-minute keyboard excursion and a four-song low-fi demo of songs that made the album but bear only some resemblance to the final product. Admiral in Distress is the end result of four years of live performance as aqualife and close to a decade of composing, as well as an amalgam of songs unfit for other bands or unused ideas that found an unlikely home on the varied yet cohesive effort.

It's also the result of a lengthy and highly "cursed" recording process. Cline was in a car accident 11 days after recording commenced in December 2018. Fortunately, he was unharmed, but then both producer Ian Harris and Cline lost their jobs within several months of each other. The latter's job was washed away when the Walpurgis Day flood of 2019 spilled through Davenport's poorly constructed HESCO barriers and swamped Ragged Records' flagship store on 2nd Street. Yet worse was to come.

Due to the work-intensive nature of the recording (Cline recorded all instruments to analog tape and then painstakingly layered all the tracks with Harris' assistance) and the busy schedules of both men, lengthy breaks were taken between sessions. During one such break, the two returned to Future Apple Tree Studios in Rock Island to find that roughly a third of the album had been taped over – by children singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

"That was the greatest cosmic joke that's ever been played on me," reflects Cline, "'cause I love 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game' and all the pageantry of the ballpark. We took this little sabbatical and we're coming back fresh and prepared to make some music, and we're listening back to what we had laid down on tape. I was thinking about changing the reverb on this guitar a little bit, and then all of a sudden the track stops and it goes into children screaming 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game' – for six minutes. It's so funny. It's truly insane … . These kids came in to tour the studio and they ended up on the record."

Apparently, a tape box had been mislabeled and its contents set on a reel when a group of children touring Future Apple Tree happened by, and unwittingly laid down joyfully shouted renditions of "Ball Game" and "Baby Shark" over part of Admiral in Distress. Cline and Harris managed to take it in stride, soldiering on and even using the gaffe to their advantage – a (fortunately unrecognizable) piece of "Baby Shark" is used to disturbing effect at the end of a song. "That was a very surreal moment," Cline remarks, yet an oddly fitting one for a surreal album. The album's creation was fittingly wrapped up in March, dovetailing with one last disaster as the coronavirus pandemic hit stateside.

Admiral in Distress flows like water when on in the background, but a concentrated listen with no distractions reveals the sheer density of the arrangements as well an oppressive, dread-laden atmosphere that pervades every track. In addition to vocalizing, Cline plays guitar, bass, synthesizer, organ and other keyboards, saxophone, drums, and melodica. The prevalence of guitar was what surprised me the most – I knew Cline as a keys man, not a guitarist.

Less surprising was his citing of the influence of This Heat, the trailblazing English post-punk deconstructionists and collage artists. Also influential was the 1981 album Potpourri by P-Model, and the 2012 four-song release Sports in General by Minnesota band Victor Shores. As Cline says, their approach “borders on through composition, where there's no repeating parts. I just thought that was so cool, just like how these songs feel like emo epics, but they're so short … . They have so many ideas packed into them but they flow so organically." Take out the "emo," and Cline's comments on Sports apply perfectly to the songs on Admiral.

"Every Bug You Meet" opens with a clang and a jarring, almost industrial rhythm – no warning, no intro, just a straight jump into the "verse." It shifts into an almost major-key rising theme that seems to add horns; the song climbs ominously to a stop seven seconds shy of two minutes. It's like a bite-size King Crimson song. I needed to stop the album to process what I'd just heard. For this reason, the album would not translate well to a vinyl release. One must be able to pause to collect one's thoughts before proceeding.

"Every Bug" starts like putting in a videotape of a '90s disaster flick that hasn't been fully rewound – no context, just immediate tension and unease. The scene on the screen is the bridge of an aircraft carrier as a beetle the size of a cruise ship lurches out of the ocean, the suggestion of some equally monstrous/mutant but possibly benign entity to stop it, then … nothing. The tape cuts to a scene from a completely different B-movie; its soundtrack is "Roz," a weird little '90s stoner ballad thing with lethargic vocals that speeds up into bongwater-damaged dark melodic rock.

"Dead Mall" evokes the sensation of being spun out on caffeine or a bad acid trip in a dark purple and blue and green video shoot in a '90s mall. It's driven by a steady Iggy Pop beat with weird, off-kilter, wobbling synth and layers of sounds that are hard to distinguish. Brit-sounding vocals call out from a ghostly distance, echoing from somewhere in the back of a boutique clothing store and echoing around the food court "No way out." Blacks and blues and purple undulate, you stagger, unable to get balance in this weird seasick swaying … video static, colors washed out and bruised. The eventual entry of guitar is Devo-esque, and the song just kind of ends.

This one was a last-minute addition. The lone digitally recorded track on Admiral was recorded by Jeff Loder of the Last Glimpse in about five hours. While the lyrics on the album are largely an abstract afterthought, "Dead Mall" has concrete inspiration – a recurring dream of Cline's. "A lot of other people have the same dream I do where they're walking around an old abandoned mall. I don't know if that's just like a '90s-kids sorta thing." But Cline's dream takes a different turn; he visits the arcade, "going into the coin returns and finding all these rare silver coins." It's a weirdly positive outcome for something that inspired such a dark song. "Dead Mall" is perhaps the most "normal" or “listenable” track on the album, and a good place to start for the curious.

"Focal Point" is slightly more minimal but no less dark. Synth-pop pulsing under slow twang guitar, then light overlay of synth that gradually adds little major bits to the progression … but only little ones. Slightly. What is the focal point?

"Wex Its Now" could be a Murnau slow-dance ballad if it didn't immediately fall into back into the darkness from whence it came. This album is just dark and ambiguous shapes forming out of an ominous, palpable unease. Slightly more "normal" chord progressions drift out like smoke for a while, played out with spaghetti-Western guitar, but the feeling of being exposed to a rotating strip of disquieting shapes, which change like amoebas in a petri dish or the patterns on Rorschach's mask in Watchmen, is all-consuming. It ends on the aforementioned clip of wayward children screaming an unrecognizable snatch of"Baby Shark."

"Pocket Square" starts as a slightly more normal, simple keyboard interlude with electronic drum pulse gradually increasing in volume. A minute or so in it becomes more dissonant, with the addition of what sounds like a buzzed organ over the preexisting keyboard layers. Somehow it is more ominous for its simplicity, brevity (2:15) and lack of vocals. The next track, "Cyanotype," is a corrupted, stately little ballad thing that could pass for a more regular song if it weren't so evil.

"Cafe Nervosa" is a great instrumental, and my favorite song after "Dead Mall." Crashing, dissonant, surfy post-punk guitar leads into an actual riff! Possibly some organ thrown in? Wild, harsh, train-horn brass rips in, out of nowhere. Cline claims he created this by laying five sax notes together into a giant chord, and calls it the best thing he's done musically. This track is straight aggression. It's another serving of bite-size Red-era King Crimson, but more repetitive and less clever. A messed-up little dance thing reminiscent of a Can goof comes in near the end, fading and distorting like a dying, sinking radio. Great instrumental.

"Worm World" is a chiming guitar-based thing, Tom Petty through a glass darkly with weird drum machine and murky Englishman vocals. It serves as a run-up to "Skew Line," the album's closer and perhaps the most normal song after "Dead Mall."

Rather than distorting the listener's sense of time with long, meditative, or spaced-out jams, aqualife completely warps it through the sheer density of its arrangements and unexpectedly short songs. Twenty-nine minutes is an inadequate measurement. In terms of cohesion and the breadth of its artistic intentions, Admiral in Distress is absolutely a full-length, fully-realized album. If it were any longer, it would take twice as long to unpack everything that goes on over the course of its 10 paranoid songs.

At least on the surface, the public image of Andrew Cline is that of a happy, goofy fellow with a slightly odd sense of humor. Those who know him will be all the more surprised when confronted with such an intense piece of musical work. "I didn't realize how bleak this album was until we'd finished it,” he says. “I was mostly focused on the faster, punkier songs. In my mind, I just had it as a 'It'll sound like a Fugazi/Modest Mouse record.'”

His producer, though, had other ideas. “Ian said, 'People are gonna ask if you're okay,” Cline says with a laugh. "I was like, 'Oh, no!' It hadn't struck me … . It is a very depressing sounding record."

Ever the comedian, though, Cline had the last laugh with the album's title. "That came from that King of the Hill episode where they're all trapped in the airport. Dale Gribble goes into the Admiral's Club, and he calls himself Admiral Rusty Shackleford. Then he gets locked out of the airport, and he starts shouting, 'Admiral in distress!' I think that's my favorite line in the whole series. You hear it and it's like, 'Oh, that's a pretentious-sounding prog album title,' [but it's the] dumbest origin."

Andrew Stuart Cline and aqualife can be found on Facebook. aqualife's music can be found on Bandcamp, where it can be streamed and downloaded for free. Cline has considered a cassette release, but if it happens, it won't be for some time. The album is well worth paying for. If you're feeling generous, name your price and give it a listen. You won't be the same afterward.

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