When I first met Stephen Agustin it was at Chinatown’s Here Today, a now defunct vintage clothing store, which doubled as a tiny space for local musicians ranging from the avant-garde to the I Never Leave My Bedroom variety. I don’t know what songs he played specifically, but it was simply his voice and guitar layered in not-so-simple reverb that ran on for a good 17 minutes (which in shoegaze-y terms is more like six-and-a-half real life minutes). By the end of his set, I was both dazed and impressed. I went up to him afterwards and said, “That made me feel like I was walking on the moon, good sir,” shook his hand, then waltzed back over to the venue’s potluck table and ate my third plate of Zippy’s chili. Okay, so, yeah, I was also a little drunk. Whatever. Rock ‘n’ roll.
Fast forward two years later and we have the release of his first studio album, Motion and Rest, originally a solo project, re-recorded in LA with a newly formed band, The Fourth Wall, comprised of guitarist Kasey Shun, bassist Paul Brittain and drummer Kimo Short. When I finally listened to these new recordings, I was totally sober mind you, but became just as easily intoxicated by the familiarly earnest vocals and hard-strumming melodies as if it were the first time I’d ever heard them. And from a technical standpoint, it is.
The 11 tracks here have its expected studio polish allowing for Stephen Agustin and The Fourth Wall to show off their innate understanding of song structure, breathtaking harmonies and a classic rock sensibility for a soaring guitar solo. With the guidance of veteran producer Manny Nieto (The Breeders) and industry standard technology they’re able to harness a more complete sense of closure for every song, some of which tended to meander slightly in their earlier live versions. “Anywhere Is Anywhere” is a chief illustration of this, a song that has so much going on in it sonically, it’s somewhat hard to believe it’s over in just under a satisfying five minutes.
Though most noticeable here on the record is the fragility of Agustin’s voice, which has gained confidence in itself over the years, disguising less of it in distortion and letting it shine through with Motion. None of these embellishments have exactly “grounded” Agustin’s sound (there’s still all that atmospheric heaviness supported by the ethereally confessional quality of his lyrics from his solo days), but simply enhanced it, as it should–to shape its edges somehow and tame its ambitiousness in the best way possible, like capturing lightning in a bottle. Except with 11 tracks, they’ve managed to do it 11 times, a noteworthy feat for a debut by such young musicians.
Listening to the album repeatedly over time, you can’t help but think Agustin’s greatest instrument, though not to take away from his guitar or vocal abilities, may in fact be his penmanship. With the opening lyric off the principal track “The Big Bang Phenomenon,” Agustin sings, “I was born / Now existence is taking my life,” setting the tone for an album that’s largely obsessed with authenticity–in art, in science, in society, in romantic relationships, in personal feeling. About halfway through Motion, when Agustin reflects on the elegant standout “Beware the Furnace,” singing, “Beware the silence / Every mirror is a knife / Makes you feel like you’ve got time, child / Makes you feel like you’ve got time,” it’s self-evident with every song Agustin writes he strains to live life to the fullest, but somehow can’t without first dissecting the definition of that word, “fullest.” In this sense, the record somewhat deviates from its classic rock aspirations, sounding more like an obscure piece of work fitting for the shelves of an indie Portland bookstore, nestled under Philosophy. It’s a big theme to tackle for a new band, but will resonate with anyone who dares to be sincere, to be vulnerable, to be uncertain. That’s my take away, anyway, from Stephen Agustin and The Fourth Wall’s Motion and Rest: There are worse ways to go through life than to never have questioned what you’re even doing here in the first place.