1. “Ich Cetera” – Austin Stahl. There’s not as much instrumental indie-rock in the world as I would like. This entry in the genre is a road-tripping song, a friendly and adventurous little tune underpinned by a stable drumline and guitar strum pattern. The Nick Drake-esque piano line is lovely as well.
2. “Retro Kid” – Retro Kid. “It comes into my head / the need to dance” is the refrain on this sleek, low-slung electro-pop gem. If all electro-dance were as slinky and winding, I might be out at the club more often. (And by the club, I mean “me in my living room, playing electro-pop at full blast”.)
3. “Stuck Between” – Klara Zubonja. An almost overwhelmingly twee introduction opens into an exuberant indie-pop track that’s a cross between the sass of Lily Allen, the coy subtlety of Regina Spektor, and the punchy arrangements of Ingrid Michaelson.
4. “Be Here Now” – Annabelle’s Curse. Genre-busting indie outfit Annabelle’s Curse returns with a song that, well, busts genres. There’s some alt-country, some indie-pop, some grungy indie-rock, and more crammed into this flowing, atypical song structure. Viva la invention.
5. “Pocketknife” – The Anchor Collective. The vocal melodies are front and center in this indie rock track, as not even a crunchy guitar section can take my ear away from the comforting, comfortable melodies that play out over the mostly-dreamy arrangement.
6. “Beth” – Paul Whitacre. Every now and then a song comes along that jumps out of the pack and says, “Listen to me!” This folk-pop tune with country guitar leads is a breath of fresh air in a crowded field, from the lovely melodies to the deft arrangement to the carefully organized lyrics to the immaculate production job. This is top-shelf work, people. Jump on it.
7. “Memorial Day” – Palm Ghosts. Dawes-esque Americana meets REM-style ’90s guitar-rock jangle in the sonic equivalent of a well-worn, trusty jacket. You may not have heard this song before, but it will feel familiar and great as soon as you do.
8. “Rosanna” – Mike Llerena. This song has punk rock vocal tone and melodies, doo-wop rhythms, and alt-country guitar tone. All three of those genres have heart-on-sleeve tendencies, and they’re on full display here in this “sad, spurned lover” lyric set. If you’re into 500 Miles to Memphis, you’ll be all up on this.
9. “Savior’s Hand” – Colin Onderdonk. Powerful vocals and a spartan arrangement consisting almost entirely of rumbling toms and wiry string bass creates a sonic environment that mirrors the lyrics that describe a weary traveler in an ominous, dangerous land.
10. “The Conversation of the Street Lights Will Pass as Quickly as Our Words” – The Bowling Alley Sound. This stuttering, wide-eyed, major-key post rock tune includes burbling guitars, soaring bass work, evocative (and high quality) found sound / spoken word clips, and a delightful sense of motion through the whole piece. Fans of The Album Leaf, Delicate Steve, Adebisi Shank, and other major-key post-rock will find much to love in this.
11. “The Naked Mind” – Ryan Svendsen. I’ve never heard a piece composed entirely of looped, layered trumpet lines and percussion. The trumpet is naturally an instrument prone to brash melodies, long melodic runs, and alternation between mellow and sharp tones, and all of that is on display here. There’s a hypnotic groove to the piece through the repetition of the theme that is only increased by the eruption of the percussion partway through. Adventurous listeners: rejoice!
12. “Himalaya” – Klangriket. By including lots of atmospheric, foley-type sounds, this song becomes both a minimalist soundtrack and the movie it is scoring. It’s a distinct, unique, very adventurous sonic experience that blends classical, post-rock, found sound, and soundtracks together.
I review a lot of music. Like any person who does a particular action thousands of times, I’ve come up with better and more refined ways of accomplishing this task. For me it means listening while doing certain types of other actions, keeping track of any stray thought whatsoever I have while listening, and so on. But sometimes an album comes along that blows up my method. Post-war by Last Builders of Empire forces me to encounter it on the creator’s terms instead of my own, which results in a really satisfying listener experience and (as you’re about to see) a relatively difficult writer experience.
My natural reaction to post-rock is to describe the quality of the sounds and point out the defining characteristic of those sounds. Post-War resists that. The post-rock here is largely dark, heavy, and emotional; it aims for the widescreen angles. The band’s scenes are framed by delicate guitar work; they often build from sweet, subtle beginnings to heavy, dissonant, distorted conclusions. That all sounds like standard post-rock fare, right? That’s because the individual aspects of the sound aren’t really the point of the album (as opposed to, say, an Adebisi Shank album, where they are 100% the reason to listen). The care and attention that Last Builders of Empire invest in the details of the songwriting and wordless storytelling are what make this an engaging, enveloping listen.
The band wrote this work with a specific arc in mind; this isn’t a haphazard collection of songs without context. Set up in a tripartite “Inferno,” “Purgatorio,” “Paradiso” format, this album seeks to be a whole unit. (This is why it is so difficult to talk about its individual songs or even the individual sounds.) Yes, this is a fully-realized achievement, an album that has the plodding dissonance of “Huida Hacia El Sol” as an equally important part of the album as the urgent, yearning “Quiet Like a Knife.”
Closer “For Those Who Have Faith” brings both of those leanings together, pairing a yearning guitar line that finally edges its way over into a major key with a thumping, low-slung rhythm section. The middle section represents a style closer to the soaring, upbeat Lights and Motion style of post-rock than the heavy, brutal Godspeed You! Black Emperor style. It’s still very clearly Last Builders of Empire, but they’re able to transform their songwriting accordingly to fit their overall arc. By the end they’ve come back around to their home base of dark, heavy, dissonant, and emotional–which presents an interesting conclusion to the album. Perhaps “Paradiso” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be–returning home from war is never easy.
Post-war by Last Builders of Empire is not the sort of album you can digest in one song or even one sitting of the whole record. It’s an experience that you have simmer in and immerse yourself in. Last Builders of Empire have taken the time to craft their art in deep and thought-provoking ways, which I always appreciate. If you’re into post-rock, Last Builders of Empire should be on your to-hear list.
I’m a big fan of two mid-era Jimmy Eat World records, Futures and Chase This Light, that perfectly captured the blend of riffs, rhythmic variety, clever vocal melodies, and mood diversity that I’m looking for in rock. The Slang have a ton of sonic similarities with Jimmy Eat World, which makes me a huge fan of their self-titled EP. Opener “Far from Over” has a vaguely disco opening before dropping into a guitar-laden groove that manages to keep energy going through a midtempo tune (an admirable feat).
Lead single “Feels Like Work” nails the quiet/loud dichotomy in creating a solid radio-rock tune. It feels mature, powerful, and not kitschy–especially when the lead guitar lines come in. The vocals take the lead in “One Step at a Time,” which makes it feel even more like a Jimmy Eat World song. Throughout the EP, there are strong riffs and a great sense of control that keeps this from turning into pedestrian rock. The Slang has an x factor that’s hard to quantify in rock, but it’s very clearly there. If you like thoughtful rock’n’roll that doesn’t turn into sterilized thought experiments, The Slang will scratch your itch. It’s melodic comfort food for me. I look forward to hearing much more from The Slang.
My love affair with enthusiastic, optimistic, instrumental punk/prog/post-rock (which I’ve been calling o-prog) began when I heard The Programme in 2005. The band’s lone album is still one of my favorites. So when Fang Island came along and blew the cover off the genre in the public’s eye, I was ecstatic. A wave of bands came to light who were (and had been) doing similar things under the cover of no one caring. And So I Watch You From Afar, All Tiny Creatures, Adebisi Shank and more have all come up on my radar since FI blew up. And now, Mental Architects is in that space as well.
Mental Architects‘ appropriately titled album Celebrations skews more toward the guitar acrobatics of Adebisi Shank than the punked-out work of ASIWYFA and Fang Island. But the band also puts more oomph behind the sound in terms of volume and distortion than All Tiny Creatures’ minimalist, sparkling constructions. “Launch the Avalanche” has a straightforward rock base before they add a layer of mysterious guitar; “Here is Where, Where Better” pairs a herky-jerky post-punk riff with the unusual rhythms and time signatures of post-rock. They can throw down when they want to, and no one would complain that it’s not rock. But they also love polyrhythms (“When Sound Turns Into a Person He Becomes One of Us,” oh wow) and tension-building (“Caves of Keys”). There’s a lot going on in this release. Side note: the humorously titled “Meth-rock” seriously sounds like the frantic sort of music I’d expect to hear in a Megaman video game.
As I was listening to these incredible tunes, the idea of the cover song came up in my mind. In pop music, it’s relatively simple to play someone else’s song: you learn the chords, put a spin on it of your own, and off you go. But with Celebrations, covering would be more along the lines of classical music: you’d have to really try to play this. And that’s a great thing. I love to hear a band making technical, interesting, challenging work for themselves that ends up being a ton of fun for listeners. It makes Celebrations a great listen, because even though I couldn’t often tell what was going to come next, I knew it was going to be delightful. And that’s the best type of release.
Just like IC puts out its year-end best-of list in February, my half-year best-of doesn’t hit until August. This list includes the music I covered while at the Oklahoma Gazette.
If you would like to see this list visually, I’ve created an Independent Clauses Pinterest page that also includes the best artwork that’s crossed IC’s path in 2011 and a list of best books about pop music.
16. Chad Valley – Equatorial Ultravox. ’80s dance-pop revivalism that captures both the playful nonchalance and wistful romanticism of the first disposable music era.