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The post-rock of Afterlife Parade’s AWE series is achingly beautiful

February 23, 2015

Afterlife Parade started out as an artsy, experimental indie-rock group. Death & Rebirth is a wild, scattered, and often-powerful debut released in two parts. The band turned right around and dropped A Million Miles Away, which contains some of the most spot-on, adrenaline-pumping, emotion-charged pop-rock I’ve heard in years, losing some of their sweeping arrangements but amping up their melodic bonafides. Where did the tumultuous, textured, enigmatic, dramatic work go? Well, it all made its way into AWE: Volumes 1-3.

AWE is a set of three impressive five-song instrumental post-rock albums. Each of the three holds to a different theme (the passing of a day, the cycle of seasons, the span of a life), and each of the 15 songs explores a different mood of post-rock song. I know that sounds ambitious, but it’s true. What’s more impressive is that they sound seasoned in every single style. They’ve listened to a lot of post-rock, and their tunes distill a lot of post-rock ideas into (often) short spaces.

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Volume One (about the passing of a day) opens with “Dusk Whipers,” a glacially-paced but gentle tune that builds on soft keys and ambient space until it reaches its apex. It doesn’t get heavy, which leads neatly into the perky, Devotchka-esque melodies and quiet-but-insistent rhythms of “Stretching Sunlight.” Here and elsewhere, they layer individual sounds expertly to create moods.

“Mount Sol” relies heavily on pizzicato strings to give it a Balmorhea vibe, while “Day’s End” builds off tape hiss, melancholy finger-picked guitar, ephemeral keys, and ghostly voices. (It’s like a post-rock Bon Iver.) “Midnight Waltzes” closes the set with a regal, stately solo grand piano performance. It’s a gorgeous, remarkable set all on its own, and there’s still two more!

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Volume Two is a much grander affair than Volume One; where the first one was done in under 20 minutes, the follow-up is near 40 minutes long. Their interpretation of the changing of seasons is much heavier in tone than their sound of a day; Volume Two opens with the bass-heavy, ominous “Solstice” anchored by an ostinato piano line that is transformed in tone via the layers added to it (like LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends”). “July’s” spends several minutes developing a complex Latin-jazz percussive beat created by electronic and human drummers before transforming the connotatively-celebratory mood into an eerie soundscape that feels like a forest closing in on you.

“Fall Euphoria” is still pretty pensive at the beginning, but it transforms the uncomfortable vibes and percussive dominance of the first two tracks into a tender, beautiful piece that’s reminiscent of the Album Leaf. It’s a remarkable, deft, expert turn to move directly from one to the other through the same piece. Its wistful overtones lead into the nine-minute “Slow Cold,” which is exactly what it says on the tin. (Post-rock fans are nodding their heads.) It closes with a dissonant solo piano piece that experiments with the way that humans hear and interpret dissonance, holding out notes that don’t necessarily go together for long periods of time before resolving them. It’s basically modern classical music, and it’s remarkable. It’s not one of my favorite pieces emotionally, but musically it’s one of the most impressive.

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Volume Three is quite different than the second; it barely covers 15 minutes. However, it’s the most emotionally evocative of the three for me. Covering the span of a life, it starts out with “Tippy Toes,” a 96-second tune with ukulele, toy piano, shaker and other small instruments that remind me of Lullatone’s twinkly, beautiful, but not pandering work. It’s a wonderfully charming start to the piece. “Hopscotch” is a perky tune built on guitars that is again reminiscent of Devotchka. It captures the freedom and uncomplicated joy of play in a surprisingly poignant way. A little growing up leads us to “Sixteen,” which combines confident ’80s-style electro beats and synths with some gently exploratory guitar work.

“Youngblood” is a more tentative work, scared even–showing the difficulties of growing up and getting out into the world. The sound is ambient, with bits of sound coming in and out at seemingly spontaneous times, but never sounding fully like a cohesive unit. The purposeful off-centering of the work tells a strong narrative, especially in the context of the pieces that came before it. A blaring organ starts off “Sage,” but it soon gets layers and layers of keys on top of it, turning it into a woozy, vaguely funereal dirge tinted with specks of joy. It’s a bold, risky conclusion to the release, and I like it.

The three releases in the AWE series are each incredibly beautiful. The fact that one band made music of this many varieties while also being able to throw down incredible pop-rock tunes points to an intimidating, towering talent. The songwriting is amazing; AWE is amazing; Afterlife Parade is amazing.

Phratry Week: Terminal Orchestra

July 23, 2011

The last post in Phratry Week covers the quietest material the Cincinnati label puts out: the contemporary classical/acoustic post-rock of The Terminal Orchestra. “Contemporary classical” is a foreign phrase to most indie rock listeners, but “acoustic post-rock” means pretty much the same thing, but with some context.

A telling fact: this sextet lists one person (Anna Eby) dedicated solely to “bells.” Other credited instruments include violins, bowed stand-up bass, and classical guitar. This is not your normal band, and the music they release is not your average sound.

The strings play a large part in making up the sound, being on par with the acoustic guitar in the melody duties. Composer Jesse DeCaire is credited with guitars, percussion and conducting/arranging, and while there are percussive elements (“Fall Song”), the first and the third are the primary items of importance.

The Seasons is eight songs long: a song for each season, with an introduction/interlude preceding each one. DeCaire chose to represent the seasons as an ode to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, as it “is situated in just the right place, geographically, to allow for four distinct seasons.”

“Summer Song” is the first of the seasons, and it’s a portrait of a lazy summer instead of a hyperkinetic one. It’s a touch on the morose side for what I envision of the hottest season, but it’s a pretty song nonetheless. The waltzing middle part does evoke summer nights extremely well.

“Interlude No. 1” is a walk through crunchy leaves that leads into “Fall Song,” which is surprisingly martial. It has a bit of an ominous feel to it; I suppose that with a brutal winter coming on, fall in Michigan must feel a little bit foreboding (in Oklahoma, it’s the most anticipated season of the year). The guitar and strings interlock nicely here. There are no vocals in The Terminal Orchestra, but the acoustic guitar takes up the melody mantle.

A desolate, cold wind blowing starts off “Interlude No. 2,” which leads into “Winter Song,” the bleakest of the compositions. The violin takes a lead role here, shuttling the listener through the slow, pensive piece. This is the winter I know: the song goes on for eight minutes without very much variation in tone. The soloing violin keeps the interest level up, but it’s definitely a bleak winter.

And then, finally, it’s time for “Spring Song,” which is 15 minutes long (the whole album is only 40 minutes long). If I was going to visit the Upper Peninsula, I would certainly do so in the spring, because DeCaire’s musical transcription of it is the most beautiful of all his pieces. Adding a rumbling tom into the guitar/violin duology, the hopeful song sounds similar to some of Josh Caress’ earlier works. Caress used to live up there in Michigan, so it’s not surprising that the two have a kinship. The song still has a fair bit of sad to it before the optimistic conclusion, but perhaps that’s just life up in Michigan. Or maybe that’s just spring.

Fans of Balmorhea, first-album Bon Iver and orchestration will find much to love in Terminal Orchestra’s The Seasons.

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

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