Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Milo's Planes / Honningbarna

June 8, 2013

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So, I allude pretty often to my pop-punk roots. I don’t cover it too much, because I mostly stick to the tried and true of my youth, but every now and then something smacks me upside the head and says, “COVER ME.” Milo’s Planes, everybody.

The British punk two-piece is a thrashy, trashy, somehow-still-melodic delight. The hooked me with melodic guitar and bass lines, then amped my interest up by bringing in hollered/distorted vocals, thrashy drums, and mega-distorted background guitars for “Blank Canvas.” By the middle of the song, it feels like the whole thing is going to dissolve into a massive trainwreck; then it resolves into a wicked bass groove … before actually dissolving into a mishmash of distortion. It is absolutely glorious. The rest of the four-song I’ve Lost My Voice Already makes tweaks to this formula, from the more recognizable song structure of “Inhalers” to the frantic pop blast of “The Day We Almost Made It Home.” This is sludgy, lo-fi, emphatic, personal, wild punk, and I love it for that. You know who you are. Go get Milo’s Planes.

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And now, for something even farther outside of what I usually cover. By way of introduction and confession, I harbor a gigantic crush on Refused’s “New Noise.” I am cool with the rest of The Shape of Punk to Come, but I get shivers every time I hear Dennis Lyxzén yell, “CAN I SCREAM? YEAH!” I can’t listen to it when I run or I will injure myself by pushing myself too hard. True story. Honningbarna‘s Verden En Enkel at times sounds just like Refused, and I absolutely love it.

Honningbarna knows it’s got dues to pay: opener “Dødtid” has a similar run-up intro before the lead singer screams out “AHHHH!” and the band comes crashing in. (Honningbarna sings in Norwegian, which sets them apart from their Swedish forebears.) AFI, who inherited some of Refused’s sound, is an apt marker for Verden En Enkel as well; Honningbarna can throw down crushing guitars, but they also never saw a group-yelled chorus that they didn’t like. The band’s motives seem more to motivate than destroy eardrums, as the rocket-speed riffs of “Fritt Ord, Fritt Fram” and “Fuck Kunst (Dans Dans)” show a punk band with sonic debts rather than a purposeful recreation of 2000s-era hardcore. They also employ the punk technique of including children’s vocals at several points to make counterpoint the dark mood. At their very AFI-est, Honningbarna sounds like it should be on tour with Davey Havok and co. right now: “Offerdans” has a rapidfire vocal delivery, pounding drums, and an awesome bass solo that would fit perfectly on Sing the Sorrow.

So if you’re into dark, noisy, hardcore-inspired punk, then Honningbarna needs to be on your radar. They really know what’s up when it comes to crafting strong songs out of aggression and melody. I will be running to this album for a while.

2013 Singles Jam, v. 1

January 16, 2013

Fusing the rhythms of The Tallest Man on Earth to the full arrangements of modern folk-style indie bands like The King is Dead-era Decemberists, Sukh’s “Kings” is an immediately comfortable and lovable folk gem.

Ra Ra Riot has me dancing like a fool to Prince-style falsetto in my office. Also, the phrase “robot hearts” appears. Yes. Yes, indeed.

Ugly Kids Club has been a bit of a chameleon, exploring mega-fuzzed out pop a la Sleigh Bells in as many ways as they can. “Get It All” gives their crunch a bit of new wave touch and a bit of AFI-style anthemic gloom.

Quick Hits: Chris North/The Pizza Thieves/Stream City

November 27, 2011

Chris North, who previously fronted folksters The Points North, has a new dream pop project under his own name called The Story of My Light. In a James Blake/Bon Iver synth-laden era of dreamy music, North sticks mostly to acoustic guitar and reverb (lots of echo) to achieve his intended mood.

He also breaks from the former pair by having a full, low voice that expresses in its cracks and breaks, not in falsetto warbling. The result is a 9-song, 25-minute collection that deftly balances the weightlessness of dream state with the heft of real instruments (saxophone on “Liberation Sound,” low flute on “Cold Company”). There are some ups and downs throughout the EP, as North doesn’t balance all the parts of the sound against his vocals perfectly yet, but the overall effect is good. An intriguing starting point for future releases.

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I praised The Pizza Thieves‘ “Real American Boy” as a post-Pixies wonder, and their debut follows up on that promise. Hippopotamus employs skronked-out surf rock guitars, reverb, howling vocals, and propulsive drums to wrest a mighty, fidelity-irrelevant noise out of just two members. A surprising amount of keys and acoustic guitar (“Skeleton Bride,” “Run, Run, Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Rabbit Run!”) could point in a future direction, but the majority of this one is gleeful thrash and mash.

The amount you’ll enjoy Hippopotamus is directly proportional to how much of your listening time is spent to bands like Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees; at 55 minutes, casual fans of surf-damaged garage rock will check out long before the 7-minute “Vitrification/Pt. 2” (check the intentional nod/debt owed to “Where is My Mind”) wraps up. But it’s a fun blast for as much as you can take.

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I’ve been going through a personal pop-punk revival as of late, but I’ve found the outer extremes of what my current self enjoys in Stream City‘s Welcome Paramnesia. The hyperkinetic snare-drum gallop and mashing guitar strum that the band starts uses as a foundation is standard SoCal fare, but the Danish band incorporates touches of metal (“Shores of Lethe,” “Hello Gravity”), folky melodic interludes (“Paramnesia”), faux-Gothic harpsichord (“In Limbo”) and Irish/klezmer/old world traditional violin melodies (“Fisherman’s Tale”) to differentiate from other bands. The result is a varied six-song effort that plays out like a less-morbid AFI or a less drama-intensive My Chemical Romance at twice the speed.

Update: I Can Hear Myself Levitate

October 6, 2011

The excellently-named I Can Hear Myself Levitate has dropped a new EP, A City Submerged. While it does retain elements of the radio-friendly rock mashup sound I reviewed so favorably last May, ICHML has pushed its own boundaries in song construction since their last outing.

These four tunes skew much more toward a tension-filled post-hardcore (a la the soon-to-be-broken up The Felix Culpa). Even though the band has largely eschewed traditional v/c/v song structure (or at least masked it quite well), the poppier moments of the sound like the artier moments of AFI’s more recent albums. Opener “Saints and Converts” takes familiar sounds and spins them in delightfully unexpected ways, playing with audience expectations. “Empires” employs a similar tactic, although it does ratchet up to a huge ending with a whoa-oh male chorus. But by that point, it’s what you want to hear!

If you’re not into the emo/punk/post-hardcore sound ca. 2000-2006, you aren’t the audience for I Can Hear Myself Levitate. If you did come of age on dime-a-dozen emo/punk bands, you’ll love A City Submerged. At four tunes and 14 minutes, it’s exactly the right length to enjoy legitimately and fully (nostalgically or currently) without losing interest. I Can Hear Myself Levitate, like A Road to Damascus, is a band that reminds me why played-out sounds became overdone in the first place: when done well, those sounds can light me up with adrenaline.

Cosmonauts' theatrical rock is ready for the big time

May 19, 2011

With an EP named “The Disfiguration of Emily Malone” and tunes named “The Rapist of Hemingway Home,” “The Funeral of Allison J. Sherman,” and “The Lovers of Kerosene Lane,” you’d be forgiven if you think at first glance that Cosmonauts is some sort of brutal metal band. Instead, the band creates radio-perfect rock’n’roll that draws on the history of pop music and shares ideas with My Chemical Romance.

First things first: I really enjoy My Chemical Romance, so that’s praise in the previous paragraph. MCR does a great job of creating breakneck tunes that straddle the line between theatrical and over-the-top while crafting immediately memorable melodies. While Cosmonauts may have some room to grow in the “immediate melodies” category, everything else lines up neatly.

The four songs here are 25 minutes long, and the shortest of them is 4:51. The band has no censor, and that’s mostly for the better. Opener “The Rapist of Hemingway Home” is a distorted doo-wop tune, complete with soaring French horn in the non-chord-mashing parts. The title track is an AFI-esque soaring rocker, which fits them quite well.

But it’s in “The Lovers of Kerosene Lane” that the band excels. The nine-minute track has the most gripping melody of the batch, a motif that is repeated with multiple phrases (“Kerosene,” “Loving me,” “Burning me,” etc.). You will have it stuck in your head, don’t worry. It starts off with a punked-out MCR rager, but then drops into a piano waltz before jumping off to other things. Yes, the band has MCR’s love for unusual genres as well.

Cosmonauts’ vocals are high, but not boyishly high. The vocalist strikes a neat analogue to Gerard Way; the tenor tone is not quite as fervent, but tones of condescension and desperation are easily noted as similar.

These songs have a lot of stuff packed into them, and while Cosmonauts does stretch its chaos out over larger palettes than MCR (who usually pack their insanity into four minute chunks), there’s still enough whipsaw changes to make any fan of theatrical rock grin. If Cosmonauts could trim their song lengths a bit, they’d be a shoo-in on radio. This band is ready for the big time.

I Can Hear Myself Levitate delivers a memorable, creative, genre-mashing EP

May 25, 2010

There are residual benefits to not listening to the radio. I don’t get overexposed to songs, so I never tire of good tunes (I still love “I’m Yours” by Jazon Mraz months after people can’t take it anymore; ditto for “Hey Soul Sister” and “Beautiful” by Akon). I also never get burned out on genres. If you’re making good pop-punk, I’m still able to rock out to it; I haven’t been burned out by its overexposure on radio.

Which is probably why I’m so enamored with I Can Hear Myself Levitate’s EP What is Left. ICHML has a sound that incorporates AFI’s darkly theatrical musical bent, Coheed and Cambria’s prog leanings, the high-pitched vocal preenings of Fall Out Boy and a low-slung form of guitar-centric rock’n’roll. They even dabble in some post-hardcore at points during the album. If heard with an uninterested ear, it wouldn’t sound much different than anything else on radio. The ear would hear the chunky guitars in the choruses and dismiss everything else that’s happening. And that’s sad, because ICHML have a lot more to offer than simple Boys Like Girls/Angels and Airwaves songs.

Take “Body Heat,” for example. The song sets up a distinct mood from the get-go, setting up the fast-paced drums against a moody, wiry guitar line. They pump it up for the chorus, but they never let the mood of the song change from an insistent, dark, patient piece. Mega props to the guitarist for not letting the song change mood. Its unique feel even amongst the tunes here gives it “standout track” moniker. “The Artifacts” plays with similar moods, but it doesn’t do it as effectively, as the song relies on the vocals instead of the guitars to create the mood. The vocals are great, but the evocative and pensive type of vocalist is not the type of vocalist they possess. Thankfully, they catch this by the end of the song and feature some tight guitar work in the back half of the tune.

“Eskimo Kiss” features jagged, intricate, organized rhythms against a smooth vocal line; the juxtaposition is immediately memorable. The vocal antics are especially memorable here as well; you can almost see the vocalist leaning out into the crowd and gesturing wildly. It’s another excellent song.

What is Left is a great EP. I Can Hear Myself Levitate presents a good snapshot of who they are and what they can do. The only thing I can particularly complain about is that the vocal style is very much a love it or hate it proposition. From beginning to end, they show instrumental chops, songwriting skill, creative energy and passion. What else could you want out of a rock band? Not much. If I Can Hear Myself Levitate gets to the right ears, we could have a serious contender on our hands. Watch for them.

A Road to Damascus' pop-punk is highly enjoyable

April 19, 2010

Even though it’s been raining for the last few days, summer is indeed coming. And that means it’s time for summer music. It’s just hard to rock the Bon Iver with the sun shining and the windows down. Then again, I wouldn’t really consider Last Tuesday, Relient K or The Bee Team during the doldrums of December. Everything in its right place.

A Road to DamascusSo Damn Close EP is an excellent slice of summer music. Pop-punk with enough pop to roll the windows down but enough punk to keep the energy high, the three tracks here sport a sheen that could be construed as annoying if you weren’t taking it at face value. Don’t try to read anything in to these songs; they’re not made for it.

But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t great tunes. The vocal melodies of “So Damn Close” are bright without being sugar-coated, perfect for singing along. The darker mood of “Sweetheart” evokes AFI in all the right ways, from the dour but catchy chorus to the breakdown in the bridge to the minor but not dissonant guitarwork. Equally as catchy as the first track, but in different ways. That’s what I want out of a band.

“Sang 3” yanks Yellowcard’s rhythmic and melodic shtick, but it does it with so much enthusiasm and candor that it’s entirely forgivable. While not the best track here, it’s certainly enjoyable and interesting. It features the only moment on this EP to give me shivers, at 2:40. I won’t ruin it for you.

A Road to Damascus’ So Damn Close EP is loads of fun. The tracks are fun to listen to, beg to be sung along with, and would almost certainly inspire fist-pumping at a concert. There’s not much more that I want out of a pop-punk band, and I don’t think that’s much more than the band wants to be. Highly recommended.

FFHH tries to break from the pop-punk mold

November 19, 2009

I grew up listening to pop-punk, so I have a fondness for it that goes far beyond the marginal toleration most reviewers give it. I also grew up listening to local bands from faraway places like Baltimore. So, FFHH (which is now going by the abbreviation of their former title Faster Faster Harder Harder) has several legs up on the competition with their Baltimore-based pop-punk.

FFHH is much more AFI than Blink-182, though. The lead vocalist occasionally strikes an almost uncanny resemblance to Davey Havok, especially in “Calm Down,” “My Vision” and title track “All the Lights.” When he drops into his lower register, it’s not as apparent, as in “The Landing.” When his vocals don’t ding the RIYL meter in my head, the musical resemblances to A Fire Inside fall away as well; but the music is not strong enough to withstand the vocal tone similar to Davey Havok’s to stand out while that vocal tone is happening.

That’s one of the strengths and weaknesses of this album; it’s easily taggable within the dark punk zone. There are conscious steps outside it, as “Start Again” is a lumbering, epic-sweeping intro track that features female vocals prominently. “Accident Scene” features a different vocalist, an upbeat tone, and more female vocals. “Count Down” is a five-minute instrumental track that never gets boring. It fits perfectly in the flow and feel of the album. And it segues right into “The Landing,” which is one of the best tracks on the album. If they can put together more songs like this, they’ll be very successful. The melodies are solid, the bass work is tight, the drums are efficient, and the guitar work is mood-building and rocking in turns. This is how they should be composing all the time.

FFHH has a lot of promise. They are skilled musicians, and their ability to form melodies is undeniable. They have the skills necessary to be a great rock band, but they need to get over some blocks in their way. Several tracks on All the Lights are excellent, but they’re held down by a bunch of songs that are just okay. I would recommend that you go see a live show of theirs (because this stuff would have to translate excellently) and download “Count Down” and  “The Landing” from iTunes. If you like AFI, you should definitely invest in the full thing; you’ll love this. I’m interested to see where FFHH goes from here.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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