Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Inner Surge's final offering a fantastic metal farewell

February 28, 2010

I’m gonna be straight-up honest: this album has haunted me for the better part of two years. I’ve had people run off with copies of this album. I’ve lost this album in a move. I found this album six months after the move. Then Inner Surge broke up. Then I felt guilty that I hadn’t reviewed it before they broke up and put it on a shelf. Then I found other music from before the move and I reviewed that, making me feel guilty about not reviewing Inner Surge’s An Offering. So I pulled it out, even though it came out in 2008. Once I get this CD reviewed, there will be no more skeletons in Independent Clauses’ closet. And that’s a good feeling.

Another thing that pretty much sucks about me failing so hard at reviewing this is the fact that it’s absolutely great. I know that one review doesn’t make or break a band, but every little bit helps when you’re up against the forces of evil/the music industry. Okay, enough with the angst. On to the music.

Inner Surge’s An Offering is a highly intelligent metal album. This isn’t banging and thrashing for the sake of banging and thrashing; this is a political album through and through, and everything serves that purpose. From the titles (“Halliburton Piggies,” “The Monroe Doctrine,” “Stimulus Response,” “The Empire”) to the lyrics to the overall mood of outrage, this is an incredibly well-concerted effort. This is what Rage Against the Machine would sound like if it ate a metal band.

An Offering is the sort of metal I like: it’s heavy, but it’s very melodic and rhythmic. It’s recorded incredibly tightly, with guitar effects, distinguishable vocals, singing, and yet plenty of double pedal and head-banging crunch. “Interahamwe” is the best track to display all of this, as the songwriting swings from reverbed sections accompanied by non-kitschy spoken word to screamed sections underpinned by double pedal and crushing guitars. Then it segues into a quiet section complete with found sound of a crowd screaming (or a guitar effect simulating such) and whispering. And it all flows perfectly. It’s friggin’ great. It’s right along the lines of System of a Down, and that’s a high compliment.

Inner Surge is less herky-jerky than SOAD, but they replace that innovative move with endless variations on their vocal style. “Light a Fire” features vocals that sound as if spoken through a megaphone, dramatic singing, ferocious yelling, low singing, and all-out screaming. Their total control of vocal performance elevates this album above many other metal albums.

I’m sorry Inner Surge had to go, but at least they went out on the highest note of their career. From the fantastic riff of “Halliburton Piggies” to the brutal machine-gun rhythms of “Stimulus Response” to the marching, staccato riffing and rhythms of opener “The Monroe Doctrine,” this is simply an amazing metal album. I’m not saying that just because I’m notoriously and egregiously behind on reviewing this. I’m saying it because it’s absolutely true. This album is a statement, and it’s a completely solid one.

If you like political metal in the vein of System of a Down, Rage Against the Machine, or the like, you can still purchase Inner Surge’s An Offering here. Band leader Steve Moore said in Inner Surge’s farewell address that this is “an album I am proud of to this day.” He is right to be proud. It is definitely one of the best I’ve heard. You can (and should!) check out his new band The Unravelling here.

Lucky Soul's lead single is a slice of breezy yet engaging pop

Lucky Soul is a pop band. There’s nothing indie or rock or anything else about “A Coming of Age.” It is unabashedly, undeniably pop music. But it aspires to a bit more than your standard verse/chorus/verse mentality. The first single off their new album of the same title is a breezy, summery bit of happiness that doesn’t exactly conform to traditional pop structures.

There are melodies here, for sure; the female lead vocalist is assured of her skill and displays it well. But there isn’t a massive vocal hook that will have you screaming it out in your car. Instead, there’s an overall mood that makes me want to go drive Pacific Coast 1 (which, as Lucky Soul is from Britain, is a foreign concept) with the top down. The dramatic strings and angular, unusual lead guitar line lend this mood, as well as melodies more memorable than the specific vocal line. It lends the song much more atmosphere and replay value, as the worth isn’t in one line or chorus that can get played out.

There’s plenty to enjoy here. If this is the tack that Lucky Soul has tracked for the rest of the album, we’re in for a real treat when it drops. Thoroughly enjoyable pop that will leave you smiling. You can download it here.

The formula for Room Full of Strangers ain't new, but it ain't broke

Room Full of Strangers‘ sound owes a lot to Smashing Pumpkins. Singer Mick “Dagger” McIuan growls, roars and hollers like a slightly less nasal, young Billy Corgan. The guitarists (who go by pseudonyms, in true rock fashion) adhere to the subdued verse/megadistorted chorus/shrieking guitar solo formula of rock music that Corgan and co. thrived off for years. But that’s not all there is to their sound.

Whether directly channeling grunge (“Part of Me,” “FTLO”), stomping through ’80s arena-rock (“The Night Could Never End”), or  blasting out rebel-minded punk rock (“American Dream”), these guys rock with attitude to spare. The band really lets it ride on “American Dream,” churning out a fist-pumping, holler-along anthem with a four-on-the floor drumbeat and charging attitude.

You don’t always have to innovate to be great. Room Full of Strangers don’t do anything that hasn’t been done before. But it’s exciting, fun and passionate; what more do you want in a rock band? Oh, you want political awareness and band members in ski masks? RFOS has those too. Get on it, suckers.

New Grenada shows songwriting skill but covers it with distortion

February 27, 2010

New Grenada doesn’t have the same dark sound that most early nineties grunge bands had, but they do have an aesthetic in common with them: they write pop songs, then distort their guitars and play them at ear-deafening levels. The disappointing thing about Energy Shortage is that New Grenada’s non-distorted tunes far outweigh their distorted ones in quality.

Songs like “Lightning Bolt” and “Modern Communication” are pop songs that wouldn’t sound much different from the Fountains of Wayne if they just dropped out the mega distortion. All the distortion serves to do is make the songs more bland; these songs are very diverse in the songwriting ideas employed, but covering half the album in a massive wall of distortion makes half of those decisions negligible.

But the other half of the album is excellent. The slow and quiet verses/wild and frantic chorus of “Years of Decay” show what can be accomplished when the wall of distortion is used sparingly. The low-fi intro to “Pitfall” makes the rest of the song great. The totally acoustic “I Hope Not” is one of the most memorable tracks here, although it can be argued that it is only so noticeable because of its starkly different surroundings, and not because of its songwriting merit.  I would disagree, but it is an arguable point.

What’s not arguable is that “It Doesn’t Matter Now” is the strongest artistic statement here, combining a fuzzy sample with a clean electric guitar, accordion, saxophone and trip-hop drumming to create a song that sounds like the Rural Alberta Advantage on uppers (which is no small feat). It’s the track that hooked my ear and kept me listening. With songwriting skills this unique and interesting in their arsenal, it boggles me that the band would want to go cover everything by stomping on the distort pedal.

Energy Shortage is inappropriately named; there’s no shortage of energy anywhere on this album. Even though I’m not the biggest fan of their songwriting choices, they pull them off with an undeniable passion and energy – even the acoustic-based tracks.

New Grenada’s ten-song LP Energy Shortage is not my favorite release, but the band is talented and has a lot of songwriting skill. It will be interesting to see where they go with their next release, as they set up two distinct directions the band could go: off into the rockin’ future, or more toward their less-distorted songwriting selves. Only time will tell.

The Jim Ivins band releases warm, exciting pop/rock

The Jim Ivins Band‘s five-song EP is expertly constructed late-nineties and early 2000s pop. The Goo Goo Dolls, Mae, Train, and more of their ilk are all sonically referenced throughout this EP. To some, that’s the kiss of death. To me, it’s pretty stinkin’ awesome. I may be a sucker, but I’m friggin’ in love with Train’s hit  “Hey Soul Sister,” and I’m excited about the Jim Ivins band.

The connection to Mae is very strong, as Jim Ivins and Dave Elkins have very high, warm voices and similar melodic ideas. The connection to the Goo Goo Dolls comes through the recording style, which punches the acoustic guitar way up in the mix and puts the electric guitar behind it as support. It results in a very full pop sound, but not in a wall-of-sound way. When you hear it, you’ll know it. You’ll most likely like it, too; it’s a very warm, pleasing sound.

The songs here are great on their own merits, too. Some albums make a great sound but create interchangeable songs within it; that’s not the case here. “The Chance” has a wonderful chorus hook that will stick in your head. “Back to Reality” has a great guitar riff throughout the chorus that will make you want to put the song on repeat. “How to Hold On” has a melody that Relient K would have been proud to write, and that’s high honors from this guy.

Jim Ivins Band’s self-titled EP is a bright, warm, charming release. I can see myself rocking this in my car on a road trip with the sun shining down. It’s the type of music that just begs to be sung along to. Pop songs may only be three minutes long, but if you put them on repeat, they last a whole lot longer. So it goes with the Jim Ivins Band.

These New Puritans create a thorough and complete aggressive art vision

February 26, 2010

When I’m stressed, I have terrible nightmares. I have methods of combating them, but none of those methods include listening to These New PuritansHidden. The album sounds like the soundtrack to a nightmare. The music is not intentionally horror-themed, but it is the most ominous, terrifying music I’ve heard in years.

These New Puritans are not a normal band. Their sound could loosely be described as electronic, as they traffic in beats, rhythms, synthesizers and electronic noises. But the amount of live instruments they use transcends the term electronic; there are several types of drums, guitars, brass bands, and more. Instead, they create a musical world, where everything works according to how they envision it. This isn’t a rebellion-minded rock band; this is what These New Puritans thinks a rebellious-minded rock band should sound like. And boy, is it terrifying.

The creepiest parts of this album are in the juxtaposition of heavily rhythmic drums against choral arrangements. The drum rhythms are confrontational and violent, placed against sounds that otherwise would not be considered harmful. The terrifying “Attack Music” includes the sounds of actual knives scraping together placed against sounds like a clarinet, bassoon, modified voices, and group speaking/singing. “We Want War” features ominous chants of the title against the sounds of a coming battle. This would be the best battle rap beat of all time. “Orion” is almost “Attack Music” reprised, as the synthesized vocals play a very similar role and the music is similarly distressing.

“Fire – power” is less distressing and just plain cool; the competing rhythms and melodies feel like MGMT trapped in a gunfight. “Canticle” is a short instrumental for wind instruments that serves as a breather before jumping back into the aggression with “Drum Courts – Where the Corals Lie,” which is one of the strangest compositions in the whole album. An incredibly low synth accentuates a continuous tom roll, which is then covered by an orchestra that slowly builds in volume. There’s also a whispered rap happening over all of this. Then everything stops and there’s a woodwind duet accentuated by a 8-bit video game noise.

If that last description makes you want to hear the album, this is going to be a great thing for you. If it makes you scratch your head and wonder why you’d want to listen to it, you’ve got your answer. I straight-up don’t like this album; its post-apocalyptic vision stresses me out. But the reason it’s able to stress me out is that its vision is so thoroughly and perfectly constructed. Other than the perplexing sunshine-and-unicorns dream sequence that is “Hologram,” this is a masterfully constructed experimental art album.

These New Puritans built off everything and nothing when they constructed this album; none of these ideas are brand new, but I am 100% that no one has ever combined them in this way before.

Like Clockwork delivers a straightforward dance-pop singalong for the win

Like Clockwork is easily one of the most confusing artists I’ve ever encountered in my nearly eight years of writing Independent Clauses. I discovered him years ago as a lo-fi artist churning out tunes in a variety of genres. I guardedly praised his work, then waited for more. Since then, things got weird. There have been rumors of albums, double albums, and even triple albums. I’ll occasionally receive a single e-mailed to me with no text, just the mp3. Sometimes there’s a PR guy involved. Sometimes there’s not.

As of late, he has dramatically improved his vocals and reinvented himself as electronics-backed dance-rocker. His last two dispatches in this vein, “Oh My God!” and the most recent “Hands Up!”, are both awesome. But after rumors of all this material yet to be released, his iTunes page still only holds testament to a handful of singles, a couple EPs, old albums, and collaborations. Jesse Astin is a head scratcher, for sure.

But that doesn’t mean that “Hands Up!” is. On the contrary, it’s quite straightforward. A head-bobbing beat complete with handclaps forms the base for burbling synths. Astin’s assured, snarky vocals come in bright and clear over the beats and bring in the chorus, which is appropriately huge. There’s synths, guitars, backup singers, and guys yelling “Hands Up!”  It’s a pop gem. If you don’t feel like moving when you’re listening to it, you’re probably no fun. Cause this song is just ridiculously fun. Mid-tempo, glee-filled, pop-techno fun. I’d check it out at iTunes; it’s worth your ninety-nine cents. And until the next Like Clockwork album appears, this is what we got.

Shorthand Phonetics gets instrumental, releases best album of career

February 25, 2010

Okay, if you tuned in yesterday, you saw me tackle Shorthand Phonetics’ Errors in Calculating Odds, Errors in Calculating Value. I said the songwriting was awesome but that the album was too long because the vocals were difficult. For those of you looking for the promised treat at the end of the last review, here it is: Shorthand Phonetics’ Score no. 1 “Dream:Chase” in A major, op. 17, for Three Electric Guitars, One Bass Guitar and One Drum Kit is an album that’s one-fourth the length of Errors and totally instrumental. Basically, everything good about Errors is here and none of the bad.

The rock that Ababil Ashari so aptly writes is displayed in unadorned splendor here. There’s no lyrics or vocals to get in the way; just pure songwriting. Ashari strays from his pop-rock idiom some and moves toward Explosions in the Sky post-rock, but it couldn’t be more pleasing. For the post-rockers in the room, standout track “Act II: Middle, c. Your Dexterity Modifier is Just Right / Captain’s Armband / Display of Badasstitude” is much closer to Unwed Sailor’s optimistic melodies than Explosions’ moody ones, but not enough people know of Unwed Sailor. There is an awkward rock solo at the end of the song that doesn’t fit, but for the most part, there are glorious melodies that fit perfectly in the context of the song throughout.

But, like Errors, there are some incredibly poignant quiet moments as well. “Act II: Middle, b. XP From a Sage Expy (Terrific Speech 3) / Ease In (Taking a Level in Badass)” is strikingly well-composed as a minimalist piece. The fact that it segues perfectly into the aforementioned instrumental rock track is awesome.

It’s worth note that the entire eighteen-minute album plays as one song; it’s also worth note that there are composition skills at work here that go beyond “I can write eighteen straight minutes of music!” There are musical themes that are advanced, repeated, modified and re-introduced. There is ebb and flow of mood and emotion. This is, simply put, a classical piece of music in the rock idiom (just as the far-too-clunky title espouses it to be).

The only thing that I can really compare this to is The Programme, a Tulsa band that died an early death after releasing the best instrumental rock concept album about time travel that I’ve ever heard. And that’s high praise, because the Programme has often sat in the “favorite band” seat in my head. There are still weird, idiosyncratic moments in this release (like the weird and annoying feedback of “Sad Panda Dies…”, although when considering the epic moment that comes after the feedback, it can be admitted), because it is a Shorthand Phonetics release. But this is easily the best Shorthand Phonetics release I’ve ever heard, because it plays to every one of their strengths and eliminates all of the weaknesses. This is epic, fantastic, inspiring music. If you like epic rock’n’roll, instrumental rock, pop-rock, or generally exciting music, you need to check out the epic Score no. 1 “Dream:Chase” in A major, op. 17, for Three Electric Guitars, One Bass Guitar and One Drum Kit.

Shorthand Phonetics release talented pop with difficult vocals

February 24, 2010

My relationship with Shorthand Phonetics is somewhat complicated. That’s all right, though; almost all of Shorthand Phonetics’ lo-fi rock’n’roll proclaims the ins and outs of complicated relationships (or lack thereof).

See, Shorthand Phonetics always has and probably will always have an aesthetic that challenges listeners. Ababil Ashari, mastermind of Shorthand Phonetics, writes and plays with Jeff Mangum-esque disregard for other people’s conventions of what is good and not good. Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is Jeff Mangum’s masterpiece because it is a total, singular vision that no one else could possibly have put together. While Ashari’s works haven’t reached that level of mastery yet, each release of hyper-distorted, giddy, super-emotional, crazy-long-titled pop and rock’n’roll songs comes closer and closer to reaching perfect idiomatic success (perfect idiomatic success: in which it doesn’t really matter what everyone else is doing, because what the band is doing is so awesome. See also: The Format’s Dog Problems).

Errors in Calculating Odds, Errors in Calculating Value is by far the most unique release that Shorthand Phonetics has revealed yet. From songs whose full titles are 50 words long to ten-minute songs to Firefly and anime references, this album is a distinct vision from Ababil Ashari’s mind. The whole low-to-mid-fi thing is over an hour long, as no song drops below four minutes in length. Several run for more than six minutes.

The length is the ultimate problem with Errors. It’s not the length of any particular track that does it in, but this much Shorthand Phonetics is hard to take in one sitting. The songwriting is consistently good, although a bit abrasively recorded. It’s the high, occasionally grating vocals that get in the way. For a few songs, the unique and exciting epic power-pop covers the problem. But tracks like “To the Girl I Think Might be Similar to the Girl Flight of the Conchords Were Thinking About When They Were Writing “The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room)”” just have grating, screechy vocal efforts that cannot be redeemed. It’s just too much to ask of listeners.

That being said, there are moments here that shine when pulled from the hour-plus context. “Fear and Loathing in Jikyoku-to” is one of the best songs that I’ve heard by SP (although I have by no means heard them all, as SP is quite prolific). Its riff and melodies are engaging, resulting in head-bobbing and much approval. That’s the primary thing that’s different about Errors: there’s a lot more headbobbing than rocking out. And that’s just fine, as tunes like “The Hardest Achievement” and “Fear and Loathing…” are excellent. The melodic solo intro to “Natalies for Glasses IV…” (which is the song with the fifty-word title that I’m not reproducing here) also is excellent, except for the untuned bass guitar in the back guitar (remember kids: lo-fi doesn’t have to mean sloppy).

To sum up this review: Ababil Ashari of Shorthand Phonetics is an incredibly talented pop songwriter recording in a low-fi manner with a voice that’s hard to take in large doses. In 1998, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats was an incredibly talented pop songwriter recording in a low-fi manner with a voice that was hard to take in large doses. Then he grew up some and became amazing. Not saying that’s the road that Shorthand Phonetics is going to take, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the next ten years produce some great stuff from Shorthand Phonetics. If you have a high tolerance for unusual vocals, then Errors is in your department.  If you don’t, then tune in to tomorrow’s review, in which you will receive a treat.

Garage rockers Rachael release a solid, grungy EP

Rachael’s I Bet You Like Drugs Instead of Sex EP  inhabits the space between Nirvana and Silversun Pickups. Their gritty, grunge-flavored rock with boy/girl vocal trade-offs picks up the attitude but not the volume of Nirvana’s work, while the guitar sound evokes Silversun Pickups without the emotional undertones.  Rachael is a garage band at heart, and there are few, if any, overtures or underpinnings. Anything they wanted to say they said straight-up.

“Juditha” features Mike’s snarling vocals against Olg’s sung ones, couched in an urgent, sinister tune.  Highlight  “All You Need is Lead” comes closest to evoking Silversun, as the guitarist kicks in the reverb and fills out the track with some dense melodic work. Morose slow burner “Going Up in Smoke” shows a different angle of their sound,  letting the songwriting take precedence over rocking out; it’s a valiant effort that struggles in laying too much weight on the vocals, which aren’t well suited for this type of song.

I Bet You Like Drugs Instead of Sex is a great EP. It shows a lot of promise in the songwriting, performance, and production style. There are still things to work out, but Rachael has showed that they have solid ideas and are able to execute them well.

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