albums - dec 2011
If your iPod-fried attention span is, like most people’s, having trouble committing to full-length albums these days, Roberts & Lord have tapped themselves firmly into the jugular of your zeitgeist and may even have found a solution. ‘Eponymous’, their debut album, is a swirling kaleidoscope of wacky sounds; squelching, tweeting, buzzing and throbbing its way through an analogue haze of psychedelic mischief. It caters for those with little patience by fidgeting with them through a montage of clashing elements - each track a new novelty. Roberts and Lord approach pop in the same way that Jamie Lidell approaches soul – with an eccentric imagination in the studio but enough personal style to glue the fragments together into a whole, breathing entity.
The obvious duality of human, Jack White-meets-John Lennon vocals set over a 21st Century computer soundscape creates a layer effect that reflects another modern phenomena - the strange synergy of man and technology. Like The Postal Service, Roberts & Lord create their tracks many miles away from each other through a string of mail – an unusual work process that shows in the synthesized kinship between voice and backing, as well as being yet another sign of the times.
‘Eponymous’ has clearly been a whole lot of fun to make and its only a matter of time before albums like this are criticised as ‘self-indulgent’ or branded as ‘bedroom music’. Roberts and Lord’s obvious defiance of this type of criticism, along with their brazen silliness, make it easy to chuckle along with them and assume their music is a joke at the expense of people who take music too seriously. However, I think their philosophy runs deeper - there’s something deliberately irrational about their freeform juxtapositions of bizarre ideas.The new age spiritual vibe the album ends on is the real clue - its a message to people like me - stop trying to rationalize everything and just listen.
Hollandaze is a bit of a loner's album, references to exclusion and not fitting in ("I’ve got a busted lip / I’m gonna sit down on my own” on 'Busted Lip' and "I don’t wanna be alone with me / I don’t wanna be alone with me / Does anybody wanna be alone with me?" on the 6-minute 'Seedgazer', replete with creepy opening, metronomic driving beat and the menace of PiL's first album), and songs so raw and deconstructed even for garage-rock, this kind of stuff has been called 'avant-rock' by magazines like The Wire. Musically, it's an album of peaks and troughs for me.
Odonis Odonis is the solo project of Toronto-based musician Dean Tzenos, the album Hollandaze culled from a collection of demos, and then recorded in Vancouver with the help of Colin Stewart of Black Mountain, out in Britain on the indie label Fat-Cat Records. Tzenos takes surf rock as a starting point on the title track and the intro's very redolent of Dick Dale's King Of The Surf Guitar, but then the song veers off sounding like some crazy hybrid of The Cramps, The Birthday Party and The Pixies. Tzenos vocals are dark and distorted, sometimes more a growl than a vocal. It's a nice opening coctail and certainly a blueprint for the rest of the album, wild hollering and cranked up guitars (and whatever else comes to hand: hammond organ, drum machine, electronic effects etc.) with a bunch of hi-octane tunes delivered at breakneck speed. It's the nihilism of Hollandaze which grates slightly, like the famous scene in David Fincher's 1999 film 'Fight Club' where they let the car veer off the road at will; when Hollandaze is dark, it's simply too dark for me!
'White Flag Riot' is a good example: 3 tracks in and it shoots out of the blocks like The Clash's 'White Riot', but then bumbles and rants away like crazed Mark E. Smith of The Fall, guaranteed an early demise. 'Busted Lip' and 'Seedgazer' caught the imagination of reviewers but are overrated, the latter certainly creepy but dragging on and in need of some sort of distraction, a film like Lynch's 'Eraserhead' or 'Lost Highway', for example. He's drawing on the dark edge which a lot of old 60s garage-rock and psychedelia had, but spinning it out like post-modern indie-artrock legends Wire. But where are we going I wonder?
'New World' starts off like it's heading down the same dead end, but then goes a bit bananas in the middle with wild guitar pyrotechnics and feedback, so somehow he's U-turned the whole thing! Suddenly the album is injected with life, 'Handle Bars' also wild and explosive, with some more back-to-basics garage-punk and pyschedelic Duane Eddy guitar twanging, and also nice little Shangri-La's touches with the backing vocals. 'Basic Training' screams with siren guitars and suggests Tzenon just won't go quietly! 'We Are The Leftovers' has that back-end-of-a-party feel to it, when nobody wants to go home, but 'Ledged Out' thankfully surfs back and fades before 'Tick Tock' closes the album and we're back to post-modernism again, all Wire influences or is that Atari Teenage Riot or Killing Joke, I always preferred the former myself.
There's a menace and unpredictability about Hollandaze which make it an exciting 30-minute listen, but it's not always clear what Tsenos had in mind. He sounds like a man on the edge, pushed too hard and he's likely to explode. No wonder he wants to be left alone, this is an album so raw it jangles the nerve-ends. But production is needed even to create the perfect illusion of raw energy, as Blur showed with their deconstructed eponymous masterpiece in 1997, unleashing Coxon's snarl guitar on 'Song 2'. Odonis Odonis Hollandaze could benefit from the same sort of controlled aggression ... the lion needs taming!
What is Americana? For Paul Hiraga, it’s the whole landscape. In ‘New Great Lakes’, his third album under moniker ‘Downpilot’, he paints a heart-breaking picture of his hometown - grey, drizzly Seattle, while infusing it with enough southern charm to turn a bucking bronco into a ‘my little pony’.
From start to finish Paul’s blanket of intimate melancholy is ruggedly beautiful; full of dreamy chord sequences and warm, rustic production. The modest accompaniments to his guitar and piano (brushed drums, an ancient sounding melotron, glockenspiel and so on) are understated and restrained, suggestive of immense power but never satisfying us with the full whack– one of my personal favourite musical effects.
The only thing that taints Downpilot’s music for me is that it’s too easy to see where the influences come from. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy has obviously contributed the americana sentiment, with the more tender moments of Wilco and R.E.M filling up the rest. His dusky pipes are a dead ringer for Ryan Adams’. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with having your heroes (especially with such sublime taste), I can’t see that Paul would be left with much if his were taken out of the equation.
For me, avant garde music is a thorny topic. I studied music at a university that was obsessed with the stuff, and remember many lessons as being a little like having my eardrums sandpapered. In one classic incident a new teacher asked for our initial opinion to a particularly hideous piece to which I cockily replied “I think it’s pretentious bollocks”, only to find she had composed it herself. Surprisingly, however -despite my calamitous slagging off - I am actually a big fan of experimental music. I love dissonance when used in the right way, I love chaos and unpredictability and I love music with an intellectual stimulus, as long as there is also a visceral, expressive ingredient.
Zoft are a brutally non-mainstream two-piece from Brussels, whose debut album ‘Electrically Haunted’, a jagged fusion of math rock, musique concrète, black metal and minimalism, is in many ways the musical equivalent of a Saw film. From a loose rhythmic framework they dip into utter chaos, spiralling into a beserk, tormented frenzy but always in control. They slacken the chains on their inner demons just to seize them back again – much like the tension and release of the aforementioned movie. Also similar to cinematic horror, the bloodcurdling chaos of ‘Electrically Haunted’ is convincing at times but ultimately synthetic, constructed for effect, meticulously calculated. Its abrasive, atonal riffs embrace only the most dissonant intervals, unlike something truly chaotic like serialism or Cecil Taylor’s free jazz. They’re wilfully unpleasant, more akin to atonal metal than typical avant garde. Bars are typically stretched to unusual sizes like 9/8 or 13/8, filled in with mathematically pondered syncopation. The whole thing reeks of intellectuality, of mechanism.
But perhaps there is meaning in the method in the madness– the title of the second track, “L’Homme Machine” is a reference to a text by the 18th Century materialist philosopher Julien Offray de La Mettrie, who argued that humans are like machines: robotic and soulless. Zoft’s music is designed to sound more chaotic than it actually is – perhaps ‘Electrically Haunted’ is an articulation of Mettrie’s theory, a claim that all human chaos is pre-programmed - no expression is free. Or maybe they just like making a racket.
Track 1. 'Schizophrenia'. Lots of very fast piano playing. Lots and
lots of it. Is this an instrumental? No, there's a vocal, also very
fast and sort of high pitched, to a point where I suspect the involvement
of quantites of helium. Track 2. 'Half Crazy'. Lots of guitars, and
the vocal is taken at a (very) slightly more discernible pace. I'm
not really getting it about Jukebox The Ghost, although there's definitely
an energetic wit at play within their songs and they can certainly
play their instruments. Singer songwriters gone US college radio Math
Rock is probably what they are, reminding me of several (one in particular,
The Spinto Band, whom Jukebox are touring the US with just now) US
college radio Math Rock bands, whose music is characterised with fast
musicianship and literate, angst ridden relationship-type lyrics.
Ben Folds is a notable influence at work in Jukebox The Ghosts songs,
and while he isn't a performer whose music figures very prominently
in my own collection, it's impossible to deny either his or Jukebox
The Ghosts talent, or indeed enthusiasm. Jukebox The Ghost discard
ideas as soon as they present them and there's a very fast paced and
tuneful argument taking place across the eleven tracks on 'Everything
Under The Sun' that I somehow feel I'm intruding upon. There's also
some very fine keyboard playing that's probably the albums most notable
strength, and one or two quite good tunes. It's all sort of over before
it really starts though, and is perhaps best listened to while jogging
or involved in some other mildly strenuous pursuit.
This, if you were looking for an atmospherically produced, evocatively
folk styled album of Irish-based music, is a bit of a find. The only
even remotely accurate comparison I think I can make is with the music
of Clannad, there's a very similar mood of misty romanticism that,
where Clannad would drift off into soaring vocal harmonies, is here
backed with some vaguely eastern sounding electronica to properly
give 'Foxlight' a less traditional folk sound. This is done with considerable
skill and there's a depth and clarity to the songs of Iarla O Lionaird
whether they're electronica based (The Heart Of The World) or more
traditional (Fainne Geal An Lae). With twelve co-credited musicans
assisting him - names I'm sure I'd recognise were I more familiar
with modern folk music - the musicianship is superb and the production
avoids overly glossing the songs in the manner that Enya made her
own a few years ago, although there's a similar tone in some of the
tracks (notably on 'For The Heavens) particularly when the piano is
the more prominent instrument.
Loud, anthemic, melodic, fast rock. Do we still refer to bands of
this kind as Emo? The press release says Alt-Rock but if 'Lots Of
Trouble ...' were a phone book, it'd have My Chemical Romances number
on every page. So you already know if you'd even consider listening
to Take The Seven and if you don't then you'll probably miss out on
some impressive guitar noise, expressive lyrics, massively powered
choruses and just about everything you didn't ever like about bands
such as Funeral For A Friend, The Blackout, MCR and even Blink 182.
There are actually seven tracks on the album and the only thing I'm
less than entirely keen on is the sleeve artwork, a wererabbit dragging
a half chewed cuddly toy across a dystopian post-apocalyptic landscape.
That'd work on the sleeve of something a bit more Grunge but if this
is your kind of band, don't let the nasty creature on the sleeve put
you off what's the best album of its kind I've heard for a while.
I'll say this for whoever it is that designs Jim Krofts album sleeves,
they know what they're doing with cardboard. If only it was on 12
inch vinyl, with its neatly cut out outer sleeve from which slides
a semi-monochrome gatefold, complete with a lyric insert, it really
is quite impressive as sleeve designs go nowadays. I seem to recall
that Kroft's 'Landing' album, which I also reviewed here, was similarly
well put together. Back to me arguing about 'do I listen to it or
just look at it?' Onto the stereo it goes. Click. Whirr ... no I didn't
forget to take it out of its packaging, that's the noise my clunky
old computer makes.
The spirit of Atlantis's Mistress Of Ghosts is captured in second track 'Mata Hari's Kiss', a song staged in 3 parts, with classic metal riffs jostling with metronome-like guitar chimes redolent of progressive rock legends King Crimson, the song building to a booming finale with a Dave Gilmour-styled lead serenading the whole thing and a beautiful piano coda right at the end ... visions of bikers taking off into the sunset! This is mood music really, largely instrumental, bandleader Gilson Heininga is taking us on a journey: elements of classic-, progressive- and (if you're ready for it?) post-rock combine to create musical soundscapes with a strong sense of time and place, add to this the dark shades of Massive Attack's 1998 classic Mezzanine or Nine Inch Nails' 2007 industrially-hewn Year Zero, and 'Mistress Of Ghosts' is a film soundtrack searching for its screenplay ...
It's the Dutch band's second full-length release on the British label Field Records, following 2007's Carpe Diem, similar in scope and style although following a more classic Prog Rock trajectory, a concept album about loss and decay, with notable songs 'Constantinople' and 'This Is Our Time Of Death' becoming popular among the metal fraternity as cult classics.
This type of music probably won't appeal to everyone. I kept asking myself 'Where's all this going?' but it's the wrong question, best lie back and enjoy the ride as the music reels you in. Atlantis are a sort of modern-day Emerson, Lake and Parker, fusing all sorts of influences, like Dutch legends Focus, classic post-rock Godspeed You! Black Emperor, some of the orchestration even sounding like indie-alternative rock band Sigur Ros, and the ubiquitous widescreen rock vision of Pink Floyd, of course.
Opener 'White Russians' is powered by sludgy hard rock but drenched in electronica, but then Heininga ratchets up the intensity over the next few tracks, with 'She Loves All' rising gently with spooky spoken female vocals in the middle, then 'Mascara's mechanical piano arpeggio accompanying the pomp rock grandiosity of the band over its 6 minutes before fizzing out, followed by 'Sweet Venom' meandering around a bass and synth riff but sounding more like an electronic drone. 'To Catch A Voyeur' again grows quietly and climaxes like something from Godspeed!'s second album in 1997 F-sharp, A-sharp, Infinity. 'Mistress' on the other hand has the haunting orchestration which Sigur Ros and many others have used so effectively, before they turn up the heat again, drums tend to pound relentlessly throughout Mistress Of Ghosts. Just when the album threatens to implode under its own steam, the atmosphere returns with 'Inhale The Sun' growing in intensity like Massive Attack's 'Angel' with some Cure-like guitars at the end, and finally 'Give Me One More Hour' maintains the tempo and provides a lively climax to the album.
Heininga worked largely on his own on the earlier release Carpe Omnium, but he's gradually added a band and broadened the sound for Atlantis's live shows. They have toured with similar-minded artists like 65daysofstatic, Oceansize, Caspian and label-mates Maybeshewill. A lot of care was obviously taken in the production and mixing of Mistress Of Ghosts by Wouter Nagtegaal and Magnus Lindberg to create just the right atmosphere. And it works: it may not wash with the iPod Generation but you're sure to here this music some time-some place in the near future!
On the eve of Fallen Empires’ release - Snow Patrol’s sixth studio album - both band and label made somewhat of a fuss about an apparent new musical direction. An anxious lead-singing Lightbody asked fans to “stay open-minded” whilst salivating record executives hinted at “club-friendly drums” causing fans to wring their hands in both anticipation and concern. So on listening the question remains, where’s the club-friendly beef? Be in no doubt that this record resides firmly under the “if it ‘aint broke don’t fix it” category.
Opener ‘I’ll Never Let Go’ starts with a babbling synth line but this, coupled with the energetic title track’s flirt with a drum machine, does not a new direction make. In fact, it’s more of the same with …Empires. Swooping violins and mutli-voiced choruses pepper every track as Snow Patrol skilfully demonstrate no-one does Snow Patrol quite as well as Snow Patrol.
Single ‘This Isn’t Everything You Are’ is anchored around the kind of gigantic chorus that comes as standard with this five piece. ‘The Weight of Love’, ‘New York’ and the opening track all basically play the same game. There’s no doubting Lightbody’s impressive ability to write a pop hook but there’s only so many epic anthems one man can gurn out before begins to feel disingenuous.
At times the band overtly pander to their chart expectations. ‘Call out in the Dark’ is weak but has an infectious chorus that Maroon 5 would envy (no wonder it was released as a single) and ‘In the End’ is an out and out Coldplay belter.
It is only when the band rely on the introspective that moments of true depth at last emerge. At times this is done with aplomb: ‘The Garden Rules’ is a beautiful, folk love song with dual male-female vocals, and this winning formula is repeated with the atmospheric ‘Those Distant Bells’. Yet at times this approach is handled clumsily. ‘Lifening’ is some flimsy nonsense with inept lyrics such as ‘Ireland in the world cup, either north or south, ‘Fan Club on the jukebox, the birds and yes the bees; this is all I ever wanted from life.’ It’s a bit naff.
There is no arguing that this is a beautifully produced album that sparkles at every turn; but if Indiana Jones and the Last crusade taught us anything it’s that sometimes the most holy of objects don’t sparkle. …Empires is a fair album that will please fans but it feels like a band trying to discover new territory by simply doing what they did before, but louder. They hint at moments of true greatness but it is always though a fog of commercialism. Yet crucially, for all their verbose gestures, the band still sound alive. They’re searching for some kind of musical answers and whilst it might not be what all of us are looking for, it’s near impossible not to find some merit in this bloated charmer. 6.5/10
Ten years since their debut track appeared on Ninja Tunes’ ‘Xen Cuts, Loka release only their second album. Following the departure of co-founder Karl Webb, Mark Kyriacou regrouped with members of the live group and set about creating ‘Passing Place’. These original ideas were then taken to Thighpaulsandra who engineered, co-produced and assisted in scoring the album.
‘Entrance’ acts as a perfect sampler for the album, showcasing the releases’ eclecticism in one two-minute track, starting as a cinematic, often dark, brooding track and concluding as an acapella vocal. The funkier side of electronic music, Ninja Tunes’ forte in recent years, is present in full force during ‘As The Tower Falls’ and ‘The Tower’ with their sun drenched, swinging and swaying rhythms. ‘The Art Of Burning Bridges’, in stark contrast to its two predecessors, is sparse, slow building but equally captivating. ‘Temporary External’ and ‘The Beauty In Darkness’, both featuring the vocals of Lido Pimienta, immediately remind of ‘Debut’ and ‘Post’ era Bjork respectively, the latter before delving into layers of brass soaked instrumentation. Closing track ‘Exit’ is another simply beautiful instrumental track that draws the curtains of proceedings gracefully and with great dignity.
As can normally be expected with Ninja Tunes’ releases, this is an album dripping with quality and innovative arrangements. Heavily dosed with interesting rhythms and often leaning towards jazz, this is an album that is difficult to categorise, with the exception of being classified as a very pleasing release.
As if this isn’t a daunting prospect; a modern progressive rock album that lasts over two hours. A genre I’m generally scared of dabbling in; due to premonitions about becoming one of those balding old men in black band tour shirts from the nineties. Alas, Amplifier have established themselves as a great rock act, and I think it’s important to draw a line between the progressive rock of earlier decades and that of now. This double album, which started life as two individual albums, is Amplifier’s first record in nearly five years and is completely self-funded and recorded. Now there’s a feat.
The first disk starts with a track of feedback and noise and and doesn’t get going until the second track; ‘Minion’s Song’. It features a twinkling guitar lick which soon moves onto the piano beneath psychadelic lyrics, which climaxes with pounding floor drums, cymbals and strings. But just as the non-proggers mutter “I’m not convinced” to themselves, things start to hot up. The lurching riffs of ‘Interglacial Spell’ and ‘The Wave’ are much more linear in composition than those tracks deeply rooted in early prog. These in fact, are just good rock songs. The fact they’re seven minutes long is irrelevant. The title track is a gentle bass-lead tune with Oceansize-like licks scattered throughout, and lasts nine minutes. The disk ends with ‘Trading Dark Matter on the Stock Exchange’ which boasts eleven minutes of playtime and is possibly my stand-out track from the disk; it exemplifies every aspect of the album thus far that is enjoyable. Nice guitar riffs, good effects, rhythm, vocal melodies, and a great overall texture when the bass drops. When all the intrument parts are playing (unsure how many overdubs are present) but there’s a really nice subtle hazey flange effect going on.
Disk two kicks off with ‘The Sick Rose’ whose main riff has Eastern influence and features a guitar sound well on its way to becoming a sitar. All this intertwined with this deep rumbling immersing hazey flange. ‘Interstellar’ opens with a child’s toy but soon develops into another lurching riff, with ‘The Emperor’ and ‘Golden Ratio’ following. This disk ends with ‘Forever and More’, a rallying cry amidst a mess of snares which drops into that now classic flange bass haze.
In it’s entirety the album is a good listen and a great journey, and individual tracks have their own merit too. There’s a vast array of thick textured riffs as well as softer picking, there’s great vocal melody and harmony, and your typical prog-rock lyrics about the cosmos and all that jazz. It isn’t as weird or experimental as core prog itself but in places it does draw on the early days of this genre. All in all it’s just a solid rock album, a long time coming. 7/10
Richard Knox (Glissando) and Freédeeric D. Oberland (FareWell Poetry) have combined to create a musical passage through the North Pole explorer diaries, inspired by stories of heroic feats and impending disaster.
‘Sleeping Land (Pt I) begins the story and initially appears full of hope, promise and glacial beauty. Strings sweep astride an anticipative drone. However the optimistic outlook changes suddenly as ‘Mist’ hints at something amiss with its intense and eerie undertones. ‘Sea of Bones’ is chilling and unsettling throughout, soundtracking the horror befallen by many. The despair and darkness is captivated astonishingly during ‘The Wreck of Hope’ before ‘Sleeping Land (Pt II) paints the final pictures of desolation and loss. Purely instrumental throughout the actual range of instrumentation is as entrancing as the music itself with Richard Knox documented as playing the screwdriver along with companion organ, bowed cymbals and glockenspiel whilst Freédeeric D. Oberland is credited with the playing of crystal glass, crackle, dulcimer and analog electronics.
This is a bleak album chronicling tragic escapades but within this sombre mood is great beauty and an incredibly controlled intensity. Richard Knox and Freédeeric D. Oberland have managed to build on their momentum of inspirational recent releases to produce their most ambitious, and arguably each of their finest, work to date.
By far their most gritty album of the series, Cowboy Junkies release the third album of four in this “Series”. The only reason is I use quotation marks round “Series” (I’ve done it again) is because it is so different from their previous two. You really do feel that they are taking you on a journey. The first track, Continental Drift, has a very dirty and raw sound; a grungy distorted guitar driving its way round 5 minutes of heavy drumming and singing similar to a serious, slightly angry Chrissie Hynde. Pretentious as it may sound, the album conjures up an atmosphere akin to a harsh, battering storm, and one feels like a lonely traveller, lodging in a feeble shack, with only hope that the shear strength of the storm weakens. Honestly, you feel quite tired by the end of the first song.
Although less drumming, track two features more of the reverberating guitar only with more echo. Depending on your imagination, or indeed patience, you may find the repetition of “It’s too damn heavy” slightly too much. As someone with who lacks either imagination or patience (can’t work out which) I find myself agreeing with the lyrics, “You’re quite right. It is too damn heavy. Let’s just move on shall we?” It is very much recommended however that cynicism is held at bay. The album has a lot more to offer.
If you find yourself the other side of track two, you can catch your breath and enjoy 3rd Crusade, a rhythmic and altogether more enjoyable song to listen too. Indeed as the album progresses, there are glimmers of brightness and patches of darkness. Despite the album consisting of 8 songs, it is heaving with ambition, storyline and meaning. It is full, vivid and intense. Really this should be listened by anyone who likes driving at night time, anyone who needs music to inspire them to paint images of hurricanes, or who likes to thrash by themselves. Or, of course, anyone else.