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Late February Singles 2

March 3, 2017

1. “Friends” – Marsicans. Marsicans appeared fully-formed writing masterful indie-pop-rock songs. I have no idea how that happened, but we’re all beneficiaries. This one manages to get heavy on the lyrical content and yet still manages to be one of the catchiest songs I’ve heard since … uh … “Swimming” by Marsicans.

2. “My Roommate Is a Snake and the Landlord’s a Bat” – Gregory Pepper and His Problems. If the conceit of Sleigh Bells is “hardcore guitars tamed by pop melodies,” the conceit of Pepper’s new album Black Metal Demo Tape is “sludge metal guitar and indie pop melodies.” This particular track starts off as a doomy dirge before transitioning into a early-Weezer power-pop tribute to metal. It’s a fun ride the whole way through the track. The rest of the album is equally inventive, charming, and gloomy (sometimes in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way, but also sometimes not).

3. “Weathering” – moonweather. Fans of the acoustic work on Modest Mouse’s Good News album will love the unique vocal style and swaying, shambling, enthusiastic folk arrangement of this tune. The lilting, floating horns/string arrangement is excellent.

4. “€30,000” – Emperor X. If John Darnielle had collaborated with Pedro the Lion in between his All Hail West Texas and Tallahassee days, the results would have sounded as enigmatic and engaging as this incredible track. It’s almost pointless to tag this with genres–it’s a thoughtful, passionate, wild indie-pop (okay, I did it anyway) track.

5. “Unbroken Chains” – WolfCryer. If you’re not listening to WolfCryer yet, you’re missing out on some of the most vital, important folk songs being sung today. Baumann’s vocal delivery, vocal melodies, and lyrics are all top-shelf in this weary, burdened protest tune.

6. “Windmill Tilting (Live)” – Cameron DeGurski. Some vocal gruffness of the grunge-singer-gone-acoustic meets up with solid guitar work to create an earnest, tight tune.*

7. “I Won’t Rest Until” – Brianna Gaither. Following in the vein of Moda Spira, this tune seamlessly blends electro-pop synths, instrospective singer/songwriter piano, soulful vocals, and indie-rock drums for a thoroughly modern-sounding take on serious pop.

8. “We Notice Homes When They Break” – Loyal Wife. An earnest, charming love song that’s part alt-country (via the blaring organ), part indie-pop (through the vocal tone and vocal melodies), and part singer/songwriter (through the lyrics).

9. “Hold On” – Midnight Pilot. The title track to Midnight Pilot’s latest EP is a distillation of their Paul Simon-meets-Americana sound, a yearning piano-driven ballad augmented by lovely fluttering strings and capped off by a beautiful male vocal performance. The vocal melodies in the chorus are catchy and sophisticated, a balance rarely struck well.

10. “Alone with the Stars” – Ofeliadorme. Portishead-style trip-hop with a heavy dose of spacey/ambient synths for atmosphere. The video is in black and white because the song sounds like it is in noir tones.

11. “Eternally” – Julia Lucille. Fans of the complex emotional states of Julianna Barwick will find much to love in this track, which has similar focus on wordless vocals (although not looped and layered ones) to convey the dramatic, almost mystical mood. This track does have a full band supporting Lucille’s voice, and the band’s patient, thoughtful accompaniment creates a dusky evening for her voice to wander through.

12. “Islands III” – Svarta Stugan. Instead of releasing a video, this Swedish post-rock outfit released a video game. Set in a gray, bleak warzone environment, the game has elements of Helicopter Game and a side-scrolling space shooter. (It’s fun!) The song itself is a slowly-moving, minor-key, guitar-heavy post-rock piece of the Godspeed You Black Emperor! school. The game and the song really mesh well–it was a great idea.

Premiere: Tyranny is Tyranny’s “Victory Will Defeat You”

April 16, 2015

tyrannyistyranny

Considering the state of the nation and the world, I always expect to get more protest music than I do. I could expound upon why I think that is so, but it would take away from the point of this post: a political/protest song debut. Whatever else other people are doing, Tyranny is Tyranny is involving politics in their work.

In fact, everything about them is a political statement, from their band name to their imagery to their lyrics. Their sophomore album The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism is coming out quite soon (streaming in full starting tomorrow, vinyl pre-orders till May 17, full release June 13 on Phratry Records), and they’ve graciously allowed us to premiere their 15-minute juggernaut “Victory Will Defeat You” today.

The best way to describe Tyranny is Tyranny is as a very noisy, thoughtful rock band: post-rock, post-punk, and post-metal are all applicable at various times throughout the 15 minutes of the tune. Forlorn trumpet lends a post-rock texture to the piece; towering distorted guitars and howling vocals ring up the post-metal comparisons; the section from 9-11 minutes has post-punk grooves going on. The whole thing is somewhat akin to Godspeed You! Black Emperor, one of the very few post-rock bands that is explicitly making political and social moves. It’s very heavy in sections, which may not appeal to some post-rock fans, but I think many will dig this. If you’re into Hydra Head Records-style post-metal, you’ll be all over this. It’s not every day you get to be bowled over by 15 minutes of indignant fury, so get your kicks in here.

The Last Builders of Empire / The Slang

October 22, 2014

lastbuildersofempire

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.

Slang_EP_Album_Cover

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.

Tri-State / Kira Velella / U137

October 15, 2013

tristate

When you’ve been in music for a while, nuance and subtlety become more important to you. This is true for listeners and creators; although I can still appreciate a mighty guitar riff, I find myself entranced by complex lyrical turns and less obvious arrangements. Tri-State is a band composed of people who have been in bands, and you can tell from the songs they write. These pop-rock tunes, while poppy, are not constructed as instant hits. These are measured tunes, tunes that take their time on little guitar bits (“All Different,” “Back Before”) just because. This unhurried, “let’s give this some space” method is much like that of IC fave The Brixton Riot.

Tri-State’s tunes unfold in pleasing ways: “Back Before” creates an ominous mood that builds and builds, while follow-up “Country Squire” toes the line between pop-rock and alt-country. It doesn’t feel disjointed at all; the songs feel like outworkings of the same thought process. If you’re into ’90s indie-rock (Pavement, Guided by Voices) or mature songwriting that appreciates with multiple listens, you should give Tri-State’s self-titled EP a spin.

kiravelella

Kira Velella‘s gentle voice is the primary feature of her singer/songwriter tunes, and for good reason. Her second soprano/alto voice commands the arrangements, sucking the listener in. “Lover, Move” and “Barn Swallow” both feature strong instrumental songwriting that is totally eclipsed by the endearing confidence of Velella’s voice. She accomplishes the rare feat of encapsulating confidence and vulnerability in a single performance, which keeps me coming back to the tunes.

This uncommon tension buoys the six-song Daughter EP, making it consistently interesting to the invested listener. The wintry arrangements accomplish a second improbable feat: the Damien Jurado-esque characteristic of feeling both lush and sparse at the same time. It gives Velella’s vocals both the forefront and a space to inhabit; it is easy to imagine Velella in a video clip of a snow-covered field for any of these tracks. The mood here is strong throughout tunes, giving a polish to the release. All told, this is an impressive debut offering from Kira Velella.

dreamerontherun

Categories can be stultifying and abrasive, but they are helpful starting points for conversation. Saying that U137 plays post-rock is mildly helpful to get the conversation started, but saying that the band plays “pretty” post-rock (Moonlit Sailor, Dorena, The Album Leaf) instead of “heavy” post-rock (Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Isis, Tyranny is Tyranny) is far more descriptive. You’re going to hear a lot of arpeggios, humongous crescendoes to jubilant melodies, and ethereal synths in Dreamer on the Run. If you’re into that, then the 40 or so minutes you spend listening will be breathtaking.

It’s not the sort of album where one particular track sticks out: it’s simply a forty-minute excursion into a beautiful section of the world. If you’re feeling down about the government shutdown, gun violence, poverty, or any other modern malaise, Dreamer on the Run can help you forget that for a few minutes and remember that there are so many beautiful things in the world to comfort you. This, simply put, is a gorgeous record.

Dreamy Winters Mix

February 9, 2013

So our Kickstarter is going splendidly, as we’re 84% funded after less than 48 hours of being open. The rapid success thrills and humbles me, as this little project (and by extension, I) have been the recipient of much generosity over the last two days.

But even with golden days about us, there’s still work to be done! Here’s a large mix of solid singles that have floated my way recently.

Dreamy Winters Mix

1. “Make Believe” – Sleepy Tea. The ease with which Sleepy Tea pulls off nuanced confidence made me sit up and take notice. Put your radar on for this band.
2. “Fields” – Tiger Waves. Hazy, gauzy, chilled-out indie-pop reminiscent of The Shins.
3. “Lead Balloon” – Carroll. Calm, quirky tune reminiscent of Grandaddy, recent Death Cab, and even a bit of Tokyo Police Club.
4. “Spinoza” – Generationals. Seriously, what type of world are we in that Generationals isn’t adored?
5. “Glowing” – Dream Curtain. Didn’t we call this chillwave once upon a time? Whatever it’s called, I still love it.
6. “Burn It Down” – Dark Colour. For a second I felt like I was in a LCD Soundsystem track, which is about the highest compliment I can give a dance track.
7. “Mysterieux” – White Blush. If you hadn’t guessed, I’m getting seriously into downtempo, pretty music. Or maybe the world is just catching up with something I always loved.
8. “Locks and Keys” – Glyphs. Beautiful, intriguing Postal Service-esque electro-pop with a perfectly corresponding video. I can’t wait to hear more from this band.
9. “Don’t Stop” – Odesza. Got some trip-hop, Portishead-esque vibes going on in this instrumental.
10. “I Remember the World Begin to Sway” – Antennas to Heaven. Named after a Godspeed You! Black Emperor album, Antennas to Heaven deliver some slow-building, post-rock beauty.
11. “I’ve Got the Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Anymore” – I Used to Be a Sparrow. The jubilation of post-rock meets the concrete vocal melodies of indie-rock in a powerful tune. Totally stoked for their new record.
12. “Peace In The Valley” – Cliff Dweller. Old-timey gospel? And beautifully, unabashedly so.

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.

The soundtrack to a pretty, terrifying angel

December 2, 2011

Angelus means “Angel” in Latin, but indie-rockers The Angelus apply more to the terrifying, battle-ready archangel idea than the calming, peaceful messenger motif that is common in our culture. I’m not often scared by music, but the pervasive sense of dread and woe that runs through On a Dark & Barren Land creates some profoundly disorienting and distressing moments.

Emil Rapstine, the songwriter behind The Angelus, is a master of mood: using nothing more than harmonized voices, he can conjure up a profound sense of discomfort (“Let Me Be Gone,” “All Is Well,” where nothing sounds well at all). Add in a tasteful restraint on the arrangements of these dark, gritty dirges, and you’ve got an album that will stick with the listener long after the run time. “Turned To Stone” segues a plodding intro into an indie-rock tune anchored by organ, choir bells, and massively overdriven guitar. Just imagining that should bring up thoughts of The Misfits or Godspeed! You Black Emperor, and it is assuredly more of the latter. “Gone Country” sounds like a doom-thousand The National, while the frantic bass work on “Crimson Shadow” lends an urgency to the tune that jars against the slowed-down guitarwork.

I made the mistake of listening to this last night in the dark by myself, and a sense of dread creeped over me as I read my book. If the goal of all music is emotional connection, The Angelus has succeeded mightily. (Even the album art is darkly fascinating, entering into my best of the year list.) Fans of The Black Heart Processional, darkly atmospheric post-rock, or genuinely creepy music would do well to catch up with On a Dark & Barren Land.

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.

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

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