Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Glacier: Dark, towering post-rock with great attention to detail

September 18, 2014

Post-rock can be divided roughly into two arms: the stuff that fits easily on film scores, and the stuff that doesn’t. The former is no less artistically viable (Explosions in the Sky!) than the latter: it’s just an easy way to differentiate the priorities of the band in question. Glacier does not traffic in triumphant earworm melodies. Instead, the band creates fully realized soundscapes that include found sound, spoken word, instruments that sound like air raid sirens, and lots of empty space in addition to guitar and drums. Some post-rock accompanies the movie: Glacier‘s post-rock is the movie.

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They’ve dropped two releases at the same time: the 18-minute Black Beacon and the 32-minute Kirtland. The entirety of Black Beacon is one ominous track that sounds perhaps like night during World War II, due to the eerie air raid sirens at the beginning of the track. They move from using the instruments as soundscape tools to a prolonged section of bleak, trudging, stomping, burdened rock that is genuinely towering by the middle. It’s post-rock for people who like post-rock for post-rock’s sake. I know that seems like a self-evident statement, but Glacier is in a whole different ballgame than (IC faves) Lights & Motion: L&M is concerned with beauty, light, and airy arpeggios, while Glacier is concerned with heavy, slow, moody, dissonant things. (Their respective names are also perfect representations of their differences.)

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Kirtland is a little peppier than Black Beacon, taking less time to get to towering walls of noise. Opener “You’ll Love It Here Forever” drones not by low-level buzz and hum, but by hammering the same riffs and rhythms for a good long while (like a certain post-metal band with a currently unfortunate name was fond of doing). In short, it’s got way more riffing than the former album. The 21-minute title track of Kirtland returns more to the moody element, dedicating the first minute to no more than four chord strums and some truly evocative wind noises and tape hiss. The careful construction of the background noise (again, like a movie would) sets up a very particular mood that Glacier expands throughout the track. It’s the sort of attention to detail that people who’ve heard a lot of post-rock will really appreciate.

If you’re into moody, dark, heavy, occasionally thundering post-rock, Glacier is ready to help you out.

Antarte / Tango in the Attic / The Boxing Lesson

July 9, 2013

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Much post-rock goes for the quiet-loud-quiet or quietest-to-loudest methods. Antarte‘s Olio Su Tela doesn’t often do either, preferring to stay in the quiet-to-quiet method most of the time. It would be easy to slap the label ambient on this and go on, but that’s not exactly what’s happening. This is quiet post-rock; music that plays off the assumptions and structures of rock but applies them to different ends. Ambient builds off electronic ideas, of which there are few to none present. Instead, the Italian outfit wrings emotion out of acoustic instruments (as well as the occasional electric guitar) in unusual ways, resulting in atypical beauty.

The band does have crescendoes and diminuendoes; this isn’t a shapeless, formless mass. But these songs don’t reach for the towering rushes of adrenaline like Sigur Ros or Explosions in the Sky; closer “Controluce” never gets louder than what would constitute the middle of your average post-rock song before concluding. But that doesn’t change how wonderful it sounds. “Cenere” does have a loud section, but it’s a surprise amidst the smooth, gliding bass and guitar lines that this album is full of. It’s what makes both “Cenere” and Olio Su Tela so memorable: it inverts expectations at every turn. This is a beautiful and surprising collection of tunes, and that doesn’t come along too often.

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Every now and then I weary of indie-pop, because it feels like everyone’s just beating a dead horse. But, in 10 years of doing this reviewing thing, someone has always come along to restore my faith in the genre. Tango in the Attic is that band. Their four-song EP Crushed Up takes the pep of Tokyo Police Club and filters it through an offbeat, unusual vision of what indie-rock can be. The result are songs that I can recognize instantly, hum effortlessly, and think about heavily. That’s a pretty good trifecta. The band delivers the goods from opener “Sellotape,” which plays with the stereo feature of my headphones and the joy of seemingly-erratic rhythms, to the extended hazy coda of closer “Crush.”

The Scottish lads’ vision of music is one where artsy collages and poppy melodies share the same space: where chillwave and pop-rock aren’t diametrically opposed, but layered; where inscrutable sections of composition resolve into propulsive, infectious guitar-driven epics. And that’s all in the opener. The incredibly memorable “Easybones” feels like a progressive R&B track before the Tokyo Police Club guitars come bursting in. That section is followed by one that is anchored by marimba. I could go on, but I think you get the point: this is creative, fascinating music that is also good for dancing and singing along with. I highly recommend Crushed Up.

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The Boxing Lesson first endeared themselves to me as a trippy, woozy, psychedelic outfit. They have completely morphed out of that on Big Hits!. Instead of handing out mushrooms, they’re mashing with hammers: the riffs throughout this album are absolutely in keeping with the album title. “Eastside Possibilities” throws down the gauntlet, showing that this trio is about the rock this time around: the big, fat, buzzy, hooky riffs are delicious.

This album is less interested in SanFran guitar-rock scuzz and more about stomping, classic-rock-esque riffs. But this is by no means a Jet album or anything: this is a profoundly modern record that happens to have huge guitars dominating it in the best way. “Tape Deck Time Machine” is a charger that gives the drummer a workout; “Better Daze” allow aliens to descend for 39 seconds before powering into a swaggering, chunky riff. The guitarwork on “Red River Blues” sounds like the inverse of the riff from “Better Daze,” and it’s totally awesome. The whole album is full of dark, huge guitars, and it’s just a ton of fun. The notable exceptions: 9-minute opener “Endless Possibilities,” which has a dreamy feel and an orchestra backing it up, and “Breezy,” which is a pop/rock tune that is exactly what the title suggests (especially in contrast to the rest of the “dim streetlights/aliens/danger” vibe). Both are cool additions to the album, instead of being detractors, which is a job well done all around.

If you’re into big, dark guitars; rock moves; and lots of hooky melodies from the instruments and vocals, Big Hits! should be on your to-do list. I really enjoy it, and that’s from a guy who doesn’t cover much rock at all (because I got bored of it). So this one’s a pretty strong recommendation.

A new definition of post-rock

November 12, 2012

There’s already a genre called post-rock, but I think that’s not thinking big enough about the term. Post-rock implies an ideology shift, a movement past whatever “rock” meant. While the genre that includes Explosions in the Sky, Godspeed! You Black Emperor, Tortoise, and Mogwai definitely was one of the earliest adapters of the “after rock” mindset, their cinematic music should not be allowed to lay claim to the whole of the term.

I hope we get to a day where every band is “post-rock,” and no band subscribes to the hollow myths of “rock” as they were once sold to us. The part of the rock mythos that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is the big rock move: the idea that a big guitar riff is its own explanation. (Think of “Immigrant Song” or “Thunderstruck” for the best examples of this, or any hair metal song for average to poor examples of this idea.)

The antithesis of the big rock move is thoughtful consideration of how riffs work together with other things as part of songwriting, not necessarily to rock less, but to mean things. In a sense, thoughtful consideration of riffs may even cause them to rock more, because “meaning something” often produces a more real emotional connection with listeners than a big rock move and thereby heightens the pleasure of experiencing the riff.

Here are three bands that are thinking about how riffs combine with other things to make meaning, even though none of the three would be in the “post-rock” genre. (There are also a whole boatload of sociological ideas associated with the “rock star” that I’m thrilled to see go the way of the buffalo, but they are for another day.)

Autumn OwlsBetween Buildings, Toward the Sea is a spiritual descendant of Radiohead’s OK Computer. Radiohead’s masterpiece subverted big riff rock by making the monster guitar licks serve the moods they wanted (mindless and frantic in “Paranoid Android,” grating and brittle in “Electioneering”), and Autumn Owls do the same thing. The angular, slightly dissonant guitarwork in opener “Semaphores” fluctuates between nervous uncertainty and frightened certainty, situating the listener right in the middle of Autumn Owls’ ideas. Autumn Owls’ instrumentals and vocals have a symbiotic relationship, with the oft-deadpan vocalist coming off like Cake frontman John McCrea fronting an apocalyptic art band instead of sardonic pop one.

The music, vocals and lyrics can’t be separated: the album is full of frightened surprise (see the lyrics and heavy guitar entrance in “Unconvinced”), malaise (note the gently rolling sounds and “ignore the tension” line in standout “Kiss the Wine”), and ominous confusion (the spiky, tense “Quarantine”). When they let the guitars go, they do so for a reason; when the drums rattle, there’s a reason for that. They don’t do things simply because that’s what rock does; they’ve put thought into every last bit of this album.

Between Buildings, Toward the Sea is an incredibly constructed record, full of intricate patterns and delicate touches. Whether it’s a guitar glitching (and there’s a lot of that), a voice being modified, or deceptively pretty melodies being eerily contrasted (“The Arched Pines”), Autumn Owls know what they’re doing. This is easily one of the best albums of the year.

I was searching for this application of the term post-rock when I reviewed both of Ithica‘s previous releases. Ithica creates beautiful tunes that float amorphously between genres: industrial beats, pretty synths, and deeply emotional vocal melodies create an unnameable amalgam. It results in beautiful, haunting music with real depth. St. Anselm’s Choir comes together flawlessly, as incisive lyrics are delivered by a vocalist with astonishing control of emotive tone and inflection over a brilliant soup of vocal samples, synthesizers, and drums. The songs are set up to have impact similar to rock songs, as “riffs” come in and then leave, giving way to verses and choruses. But the sounds that compose these structures are atypical, giving the tunes the unique quality of feeling altogether new and intimately familiar at the same time. I can’t speak highly enough about these six songs. Rare is the fully-realized vision that crosses my desk, but St. Anselm’s Choir is that unusual EP.

On first glance, The Foreign Resort‘s Scattered and Buried might seem an odd place to talk about the post-rock ethos: distorted bass and dark guitars abound. On the other hand, their sound is a Joy Division-esque new wave/post-punk one; both genres have a history of sticking it to the man.

But the thing that pointed out their diffidence toward the big rock move was how closely tied the vocal tone was to the timbre of the instruments. When the arrangement surges, so do the vocals; when the vocals tremble in uncertainty during “Lost My Way (2012),” so do the instruments. The frantic tempo and tough bass rhythms of “Buried” are mimicked by the vocals–or is it the opposite? That inability to determine which element is the most important is what makes this distinctly post-rock to me; the vocals aren’t serving the guitars, and the guitars aren’t serving the vocals. The song is all, and each of the elements contributes to that. This creates a wildly enjoyable set of tunes, from the fragile beauty of “Rocky Mountains” to the club-friendly synths of “Tide.” The remixes make the release even better. Highly recommended.

I build sparse yet sturdy songs, as well as Collapsible Mountains

July 10, 2011

I Build Collapsible Mountains is on the shortlist of favorite band names I’ve heard this year. While I was expecting some sort of post-rock (a la Godspeed! You Black Emperor, Explosions in the Sky and Moving Mountains), I was pleasantly surprised to find a chill collection of acoustic tunes in this self-titled EP.

Luke Joyce, the Scot behind IBCM, has a pleasant, calming voice that matches the gentle, acoustic backdrops he sets. Even when he ropes in a full band arrangement for “To the Dark,” the sound still feels intimate.  Still, the best moments come when it’s strictly guitar and voice. Joyce’s songwriting stands up impressively on its own.

Joyce prefers fingerpicking to strumming, and that makes a big difference in how his songs come across. The movement in the melody lines provides the bit of compelling interest that isn’t supplied by his aforementioned voice; a bit of auxiliary melody via bells (“Rails”) or atmospheric synth (“Where We Go Tomorrow”) is the icing on the cake. “Switches” uses reverb as almost its own instrument, and the forlorn feel he conjures up is the darkest on the EP, which deals in pleasant shades of grey.

Fans of Damien Jurado will find many similar traits in I Build Collapsible Mountains, especially in the cultivation of emotional atmosphere through use of space in the sparse arrangements. If there’s more in this vein (i.e. he doesn’t go all rock band on us), things look very bright appropriately moody for IBCM. One to watch.

Industries of the Blind makes gorgeous, freeflowing post-rock to love

May 12, 2011

Industries of the Blind‘s “Chapter 1: Had we known better” is just over thirty minutes of heavily orchestrated post-rock. It’s split into three parts: 13 minutes, 5 minutes, and 13 minutes. It’s important to note that, because if you didn’t pay close attention, you’d feel that it’s all one piece. Seeing as they did in fact title it “Chapter 1,” I don’t think it’s too out of place to consider it all one piece.

“I Just Wanted To Make You Something Beautiful” is the final track and the second of the 13-minute pieces. It follows a predictable but desirable post-rock formula: start with forlorn guitar, bring in the strings, slow build from there to crashing finale. If post-rock were a country, Industries of the Blind would be making their way through Sigur Ros, with Explosions in the Sky coming up over the horizon.

There are no vocals, and that, along with the fact that the 30+ minutes are only divided into three (or one, as I previously noted), it’s hard to pick out parts of this to admire or criticize that would really mean anything to you. But it is helpful to note that the composers were on to something with the title of “I Just Wanted To Make You Something Beautiful” : the half hour is absolutely gorgeous.

Put it on repeat and you’ll fall asleep (and have beautiful, Michel Gondry-ian dreams, I bet). Put it in on in your car and you’re suddenly in a Wes Anderson movie. Put it on during a party and you’re in the weird slo-mo part of a Charlie Kaufman film. I have no idea what would happen if you made out with this in the background, but I would sure like to find out. This is the type of music that dramatic things happen to. It’s really good.

If you like post-rock, you should check out Industries of the Blind. It’s not going to blow your mind like Isis or The Non, but it’s not going to require as much effort on your part either. It is music to be heard and loved. Get it here for “essentially free,” as they note in their website. They only ask that you share it and/or donate if you love it. And you should very much do both.

Of the Vine makes reverent, moving post-rock

April 11, 2011

Post-rock band Of the Vine‘s self-titled debut album is 25 minutes long. It is broken up into five songs, but the distinctions are relatively meaningless. This is best experienced as one 25-minute opus. And opus it is.

The thing that sets Of the Vine apart from other post-rock bands is their use of real piano. They treat the upright as a vital part of the sound, not just atmosphere. You may say that other post-rock bands have done this, and I would agree. But the weight that members give the ivories in their compositions differentiates.

I do not mean weight in a percentage amount; the piano is not a heavy hitter in several of these songs. But when it appears, there is a feel of awe and reverence surrounding it. It’s not reverence for the instrument itself, but an underlying feeling that compelled the notes. This transfers over to the rest of their composition: The guitar carries the mantle when the keys are not around, and the rhythm section is imbued with a welcome sense of drama. But it stems from the upright.

It’s this reverence that makes the album so incredible. It’s inescapable; whether distorted guitars are hammering away Explosions in the Sky-style or single-note clean guitar melodies are abounding, there is life here. There is something other that comes through.

The band’s name and liner notes point to the fact that they are Christians; I’m one, too. It is refreshing to hear a band that claims the name of Christ make truly excellent music. Most Christian music is garbage, and to hear people combating that is a joy to my soul. Religious or no, I would wager that any fan of post-rock will hear the life that bursts through the tunes.

And they are brilliant tracks, constructed with an ear toward drama and mood. The whole album builds and ebbs, ranging from elegaic piano to a metalcore breakdown (their words, not mine). What’s most incredible? Those two parts I described are back to back in “War.” And it works perfectly.

Of the Vine’s post-rock is some of the most moving music I’ve heard all year; they draw on incredible songwriting skills to make varied and interesting pieces that never miss an opportunity to awe the listener. And it’s most impressive that the compositions are what make the jaw drop, not just hooks. This is great composition. I sure hope that it takes Of the Vine less than four years to craft their next work. You can and should stream it here.

Quick Hits: Goonies Never Say Die

January 8, 2011

Goonies Never Say Die, despite having a goofy name, play some serious music on No Words to Voice Our Hopes and Fears. They play post-rock that’s heavy on the rock, calling to mind the theatrics of Muse and the guitar bombast of Explosions in the Sky. This means they are less heavy on the arpeggiated riffs and soaring melodies than other bands, as they prefer to crush the distortion pedal and mash it out. There’s nothing wrong with the approach (“Monument to a Moment That Never Should Have Passed” is awesome), but it leans closer toward the headbanging thrall of metal than I like to hear. The band can still drop in clean, beautiful sections (“Paul” comes to mind), but again, the emphasis is on the rock and not the post. If you like your thoughtfulness with the rock horns raised, get on this.

tHE POLES' metal/rock has the soul of an indie-rock band

March 1, 2010

Yesterday I praised Self-evident for perfectly capturing indie-rock. Labelmates tHE POLES have a similar mindset, although they swing out to further extremes than Self-evident does. tHE POLES’ Twelve Winds sounds like a metal band with the soul of an indie-rock band.

If you play Self-evident right into tHE POLES, it works perfectly. Both bands have a middle-of-the-road stance when it comes to mood and volume. Neither band dedicates the majority of their time on one extreme or the other, preferring to play in the middle ground. tHE POLES, though, have a decidedly more dissonant idea of where the middle is. It’s still not chugga chugga very often, but “We Dine in White” features a Tool-esque bass riff, pressing drums, and dissonant rhythm guitar in addition to the calm, melodic guitar work on top of it all. It is this dynamic that tHE POLES play with the entire album; the tension between gritty sounds and pretty ones. And while there is rhythmic interplay here, it’s not nearly as pronounced as on the Self-evident’s Endings. That’ not what they were going for.

No, this album is all about mood, from the rough-throated vocals to the clanging rhythm guitars to the weird keys that come in at places. Especially toward the end of the album, tHE POLES get into a groove, cranking out several tunes in a row that ebb and flow at an incredibly natural pace. These songs feel like they already existed and were simply captured out of the air by the band, such is the ease with which they seem played and recorded. From the coming-out-of-the-bunker weariness of “Night Has a Smile” to the lost-in-the-woods paranoia of “Gasoline” through to starts-at-nothing-ends-at-thrashing build of “Fire in the Woods” and even on further, tHE POLES have constructed intense tunes that thrash your psyche more than your ears.

This is less likely to stay in my permanent rotation because it does ratchet up toward the heavier end of things, and it’s a rare day that I dial up a heavy album for the heck of it. But if I had to listen to heavy music, this is where I’d want it to be at. These songs are occasionally heavy, but thoughtfully so. They more often fall in that in-between space where it’s so hard to stand out. And tHE POLES stand out in that space, which is a testament to their songwriting skills. Definitely an album to check out for fans of MeWithoutYou, Explosions in the Sky, Isis, and other metal/rock that cares more about mood than ripping your face off (although it does enjoy the face-melting once it gets there).

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.

Their Planes Will Block Out the Sun have more than just a cool band name

February 9, 2010

Confession: if you have a cool name, I will listen to your band. I listened to White Dancer by Their Planes Will Block Out the Sun because, well, that’s a heck of a lot planes.  Say it out loud. It just flows. See? Undeniably awesome.

Their music fits their name incredibly well, but not in the way I would expect. I expected some brooding, epic post-rock (perhaps only because the names Explosions in the Sky and Their Planes Will Block Out the Sun go together thematically). Instead, I found meticulously-crafted, calculated indie-rock.

The members of Planes have their sound down on this album. They start off with a mood cornerstone, like an arpeggiated guitar riff, a synthesizer, a piano line, or some combination of those. Then they build on it. A snappy, precise drummer adds the backbone of the sound. Buoyant bass lines bring a lot of energy to the otherwise very organized sound. The guitars add a layer of mood, not often strumming consistently. The vocals dispatch the lyrics with a disaffected, almost sinister intonation. When the band takes darker turns, the vocals truly get pointed, but throughout there’s an underlying disdain and sarcasm that comes through in the lyrics and/or the melodies.

The whole sound is incredibly tight. It’s hard to compare to, because none of the comparisons are exactly correct. “The Flood, The Dead, The Escape” brings to mind the Arcade Fire. “How I Learned to Love the Bomb” makes me think Muse. If Coldplay’s X&Y scrubbed the majority of its emotions, the synthesizer-laden interlocking parts would resemble White Dancer. If the epic aspirations and huge guitar washes of OK Computer were removed, the stark, cold sound left might be somewhat akin to Planes. Planes’ songwriting doesn’t match that of either Coldplay or Radiohead (because of the aforementioned parts that would have to be removed for the comparisons to work), but that’s the track that Planes is on. They aren’t making warm, fuzzy pop music; they’re making serious music. They mean it, and it shows.

So, if you’re a fan of any of the aforementioned bands, you will find things to like in Their Planes Will Block Out The Sun. It’s not the most joyous music in the world, but it’s a meticulously crafted, very well-done release. They know their idiom, they have their niche, and they’re churning out the tunes the way they want to. Unique and enjoyable indie-rock.

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

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