I don’t cover much rock these days. It’s not because I’m anti-rock; it’s just not my primary interest. Since I don’t seek it out, I don’t have a network of rock bands that are passing my name among them (as I do with folk bands). But every now and then a rock album or two crosses my desk that is simply too good to resist.
Miaow by Kursed is just such an album. The French trio makes rock with the crunch and pop hooks in a strong balance, and the airtight production helps as well: I haven’t heard a set of independent rock tunes sound so clean and tight in a long while. The sound is anchored by stomping guitars and a powerful male vocals that sit nicely between the sky-high tenor of pop-rock bands and the baritone of The National. The vocalist sounds completely comfortable in his own sound, which is an incredibly important and impressive aspect of Kursed’s sound. When he’s singing soaring lines (“Pirate Song”) or sounding ominous (“Tarantino”), he sounds right at home. He struggles a bit when he tries to get overly emotional (“I Feel You”), but there are more hits than misses.
The same can be said for the band: they absolutely crush what they’re good at, and they stick to it most of the time. Dark, pounding rock is where’s it at for them: opener “Tsa Tsa Tsu” is a wiry, riff-driven adrenaline kick, while the buzzy intensity of “Wall” is a remarkable turn for the band. When they get too bluesy, it starts to fall a bit far from the tree: “Movie Star” and “Modern Politician fell a bit too much like Clutch without the intensity. But tunes like “Exam,” which incorporate unique melodies and rhythms into their heavy rock, sell the whole thing excellently.
Miaow by Kursed has some completely dominating tracks when all of their elements are on. They still have some kinks to work out in their sound, but this release proves that they’ve got some really good songs in them, now and in the future.
American Wolf has fewer stomping rock moments in their tunes, hearkening back to old-school Muse’s mix of elegant melodic sections and huge riffs. Myriad also incorporates Radiohead-esque moody sections and Mars Volta-style vocal contributions. The mix comes off surprisingly well: opener “A Dark Matter” fits a heavily patterned guitar work and rhythm synths into the pounding of a hyperactive drummer. The vocalists, pulled far back in the mix, coo and call over the turbulent arrangement, creating a remarkable tension. It’s a pretty powerful opening statement.
Thoughtful, intense arrangements characterize the rest of the album: it’s easy to miss some of the pieces on first glance, but there are touches all throughout for the discerning listener. With diverse influences ranging from math rock (the shiver-inducing middle section of “Mahrz”) to atmospheric downtempo (“Skin Tight”) to acoustic folk (“The Secret to Passing Through”), this fascinating album has surprises galore for someone who likes listening deep in the mix. If you’re a fan of complex rock that rewards multiple listens, Myriad is a strong bet.
Independent Clauses is somewhat of an alternate universe when it comes to music reviewing. I rarely cover the hip bands, often love things no one else does, and generally attempt to be true to what I hear. If there’s a radar to be on or under, we’re hanging out on a different screen altogether. This is more by happenstance than choice: I never set out to be contrarian. And I don’t feel like a curmudgeonly naysayer of popular music, as you’ll see tomorrow. I just have a different lens than many people. Here’s the view from that lens.
16. Elijah Wyman/Jason Rozen’s collective output: Tiny Mtns/The Seer Group/Decent Lovers. What started out as the artsy electro-pop project Tiny Mtns split into a heavily artsy electro project (The Seer Group) and a heavily artsy pop project (Decent Lovers), with the two splitting the tracks between them. Except when both kept a track and reworked it to their likings. Did I mention that this one time, one of these guys gave the other a kidney? Now you see why they get one mention.
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 Owls‘ Between 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 moment from Again, for the Win‘s We’ve Been Here Forever which imprints itself on my mind occurs in the opener “Merkabah,” when lead singer Carter Francis first hollers, “We came on chariots!” above the crescendoing roar of thumping toms and accelerating guitars. The chorus comes pounding in directly afterwards, the physical presence of the incantation Francis has just let loose.
It’s a good microcosm of the album, as the music falls into that nearly visceral space where “heavy” is shared by post-rock, radio-rock and art-rock. It seems that Jimmy Eat World, Radiohead, and Sigur Ros probably get equal play in the band van: the satisfying crash of “Merkabah” gives in to the poppy “The Legend Of”; later, “Your Heaviest Light” apes the skyscraping guitars of post-rock for some beautiful moments.
But no matter which genre the band is conforming their work to, the sense of raw, untamed grit remains. Even when you can sing along to the chorus, there’s a feel that these songs have weight, shape and power. To call it art would give it the wrong connotation: this is meaningful music, and it just so happens that you’ll have the melodies stuck in your head later too. That’s a sound I can get behind.
In ESPN’s 30 for 30 film “Jordan Rides the Bus,” Michael Jordan is noted as being relieved that his first professional baseball spring game experiences were terrible. He wanted to get the initial mistakes out of the way and get on to playing. Artists’ debuts are often like that: “let’s get it done and learn from it.” In an age where “release” is a shifting concept, this sometimes means as much as a whole album of uneven content or as little as sporadic singles released on unheralded Soundcloud accounts. But the mantra stands: you have to start somewhere.
The Phusion starts with In the Shadows of Giants, which does the neat side-step of acknowledging in the title that there are a lot of influences on display. And there are: the jazz/funk/indie group throws down chord progressions generally associated with jazz (“Moving Fast,” “Birdbrain”), ripping bass lines (“All That You Are,” “Comfortable Prison”), and a liberal dose of Ladies and Gentlemen-era Spiritualized synth wash (“Where Did They Go?”). The ph/fusion is the thing on display here. The band does a pretty good job of synthesizing, yet it’s still clear that these are disparate influences mashed together with a great deal of rehearsal. The evidence of thought and practice show up all over, however, in the precision with which the instrumentalists interact. If they keep this work ethic together (or even work harder), then they will be on their way to building their own little corner of the indie-verse.
The Phusion hasn’t found its unique voice yet, and that’s totally fine. Radiohead didn’t figure out who they were on Pablo Honey, either. But they throw down some intriguing ideas on In The Shadow of Giants, and that’s what a debut should do.
December is an inadvisable time to be releasing/submitting music, as bloggers are caught up in the “best of” cloud that descends over the month. But The Gorilla Press cut through the haze with their submission, which blasts off at the speed of the Foo Fighters. Nothing like thrashing drums, overdriven guitars and clanging piano to catch attention.
The assertive “On Fire” kicks off A Natural Thing (Unnatural to Me), which shows the Chicago five-piece in their finest indie-rock attack mode. But there’s a great deal of texturing and careful attention to instrument tone, which points to the band’s strong suit: a post-rocker’s sense of tension and restraint that allows The Gorilla Press to slink about as a muscled-up version of Local Natives or a Animal Collective-ized Radiohead (“The Night You Walked With Me,” “Whale in the Sea, Part 1″) when they’re not throwing down the rock.
Both of these comparisons are desirable, unless you’re one of those people who thought “My Girls” was too whatever or wishes that every Radiohead song was “Paranoid Android.” It’s not every day that a song like “To the Hills” comes along, balancing post-rock arpeggios with real muscle. They aren’t just crushing the distortion pedal; they’re laying down heavy grooves to get their power. It’s a refreshing twist that’s actually (kind of) like “Paranoid Android.”
The Gorilla Press‘s careful attention to the details of rocking results in A Natural Thing (Unnatural to Me) delivering the goods. With Chicago missing The Felix Culpa, a lot of bands are going to have to step up to the rocking plate; The Gorilla Press is a good first step toward coping with a Felix-less world. Fans of any variety of rock should take note.
You’d be forgiven if you thought that 5th Projekt was from New Orleans instead of Toronto: two of the hardest-rocking tunes on their new album V are “Hurricane” and “Juggernaut,” where huge-voiced Tara Rice is quite concerned about levees breaking. And when I say hard-rocking, I mean it; 5th Projekt’s music spans the distance from minimalist trip-hop to thrashy metal sections (of which “Juggernaut” has the most suprisingly convoluted). They live off the juxtapositions: the rock which falls between the two extremes thrives off lithe rhythms backed by crushing guitars, as in “Walk Away (Exodus)” and “Psych 66.”
The larger contrasts come from really quiet songs like the delicate “Aria” and the ragers like closer “This Is Not Love,” the latter of which starts off similarly to the former before turning into a roar. The band really shows their instrumental and songwriting chops on V, creating an impressive album that fans of artsy rock (i.e. Radiohead, not Rush) will love. Check out their site for a free sampler of three tunes from the album.
Catscans‘ 15-minute, 3-song self-titled EP bridges the gap between technical prog rock and emotive post-rock. They do this by literally laying traditional elements of the genres on top of each other. In “Choeung Ek Memorial (Killing Fields),” prog’s bleating synth bass and wiry guitar lines are paired up with non-linguistic vocal melodies and violin contributions of post-rock; later, they crush the whole song with a filthy guitar distortion, then bring back the violin on top of it.
You can see their ethos in their album art: organic growing out electronic is an apt description, as both “Lost and Found” and “Untergang” build off the basic template established by “Choeung Ek.” The band has established its ideas well, sounding totally comfortable in their own skin. Fans of post-rock or prog-rock, apply within.
The piano-based pop of Red Wolf Forest‘s self-titled album presents a unique problem: does 1+1+1 equal three or one? In a perfect world, the band’s combination of ’90s-style pop melodies, ’00s-style modern pop song structures and Muse-style stadium pop embellishments would mesh neatly into a striking, original sound — and its best moments, it does. The three parts stand apart from each other in other tunes, making for some ambiguous math.
The songs are enjoyable when they stick firmly in a genre: “No Regrets” calls up David Gray comparisons in the highly emotive melody and mood, “Keep a Secret” is extremely evocative for fans of “Creep”-era pop, and the synths and distorted guitars of “A Stitch in Time” will make fans of Matthew Bellamy and co. stand up and take notice. Other tunes appropriate the genres to lesser extent (“Live,” “Sinking”).
The reason I’m making a qualms with “enjoyable” is that closer “Endless Love” combines all three of their favorite affectations and creates something bigger (and potentially interesting) than the three genres alone. The synths are there, but they’re not the point; the vocals have ’90s inflections, but they don’t overdo it; the song’s structure will be quite familiar to anyone versed in pop or indie rock in the last ten years, but it’s not derivative.
The song is unique and interesting, although not quite as engaging or confident as some of the songs that remain firmly in a genre. This is no knock to the skill of Red Wolf Forest: Expansion on established work is one thing, while synthesis is quite another. I applaud the band for taking a risk, and hope they continue to put themselves out there.
Red Wolf Forest has the beginnings of a unique vision waiting to be developed. The band needs to grow into this sound, which is why they’re on my horizon. But in sports language, they’ve got a ton of upside built in.
Even listeners who obsess over their favorite bands do not spend as much time with the tunes as the artist who created them does. This uncomplicated fact should be reason enough for artists to routinely change sounds and for listeners to accept those changes. Sadly, this is often not the case. “I’ve just got a connection to that one album, y’know?” For that reason, I try to give a wide berth to bands that want to change it up.
I say that because Daniel G. Harmann‘s Risk is a change of sound. It’s not a dramatic change in sound (i.e. Plans –> Narrow Stairs), but it is a fundamental shift in the purpose of the tunes. While Harmann still makes grand, sweeping, morose tunes, he’s making them this time with the express intent of rocking while doing it. Note the fact that he’s brought along a band, cleverly titled “the Trouble Starts.”
While Harmann was no stranger to distorted guitars, pre-Risk, they weren’t the central mood marker in most tunes. Here, they are: Harmann’s voice, which previously drove the proceedings, takes an equal seat with the guitars in many songs. This is not a bad thing, but for a guy who absolutely loves The Books We Read Will Bury Us, it’s disorienting to hear a distorted version of Books’ “Solidarity” appear on Risk. I could write a whole post on the differences between the two versions, but that wouldn’t tell you much about the album as a whole.
On the other hand, it’s comforting that he did include some old tracks (the entirety of Our Arms EP appears), as it eases the transition some. If he had just dropped a whole album of tunes like “Estrella” on us oldtimers with no warning, there would have been a lot of weeping.
That’s because “Estrella,” in the vernacular of rock’n'roll, absolutelykills it. I’m talking charging guitars, pounding drums, rushing cymbals, Daniel G. Harmann yelling unintelligibly in the roar and epic strings to top it all off. It sounds like Explosions in the Sky. It is absolutely fantastic, and totally unexpected. It is far and away the highlight of the album, as it’s the one that you’ll be pressing repeat for.
There are other moments on the album of similar but not greater caliber. The playful riff of “Auckland to Auckland” is underscored by a complicated tom pattern. “The Horse and the Sistine Chapel” is a straightforward rock song, albeit with Harmann’s decidedly unstraightforward vocal tone. “Lions” even starts out with a guitar riff as opposed to a big sheet of distortion. In short, Daniel G. Harmann really wants to rock out. So he does.
Is it good? Yes. It’s definitely good. Harmann’s aforementioned vocals and unique melodies keep the proceedings from turning into a Silversun Pickups album (although “Lions,” with its male/female vocals, tries really hard to ape their sound), and the band is incredibly tight behind him. They manage to keep Harmann’s more ambient tendencies in check, which is good for his new rock sound. Things never get monotonous, as they well could have, had he just slapped distortion over his old songwriting ideas.
I like Risk. It’s a well-composed album of rock tunes with occasional forays into mellow romanticism. As I skew toward the calmer side of music most of the time, I prefer the fewer moments of mopey emotionalism (” Knob Creek Neat”) to the squalling stomp of “Brass Tacks,” which is the majority sound. Be not swayed, though: Risk has definitive charms (again: “Estrella” destroys it) that I would be slighting if I passed over the album. If you’re a fan of art-powered, moody rock like Silversun Pickups, Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins, and things of that ilk, you will find many joys in Risk.
Daniel G. Harmann and the Trouble Starts’ Risk drops Tuesday. Get it here.
Perestroika, his latest and maybe last solo album for a while (nooooo!), contains the seven best songs that Josh Caress has ever written. There is a slight issue with this (there are twelve songs on the disc), but that’s still an incredibly high percentage of powerful tunes.
While his rate of success is somewhat astonishing, his formula is not that surprising: Caress has taken the best parts out of each of his last four releases and made a cohesive sound. The dramatic, sweeping, romantic pop soundscapes of Letting Go of a Dream form the core of the tunes. The inventive, complicated, Sufjan-esque instrumentation of The Rockford Files layers on top of this, bringing a depth to Perestroika‘s songs not present anywhere else in his catalog. The distorted guitar oomph that first appeared on Wild Wild Love lends an Arcade Fire-esque bombast to the tunes. The insightful lyrics of Josh Caress Goes on an Adventure! cap off the entire experience, lending meaning to the moving musical proceedings.
Add in the mix the unique voice of Josh Caress, and you’ve got a distinct set of songs that ranks highly in my top albums of the year.
While Caress splits the album into two sides of six songs each, I find it easier to analyze the album is in three parts: tracks 1-4, 5-8, and 9-12.
Tracks 1-4 take the Jayhawks-style Alt-country of Wild Wild Love and replace the twang with an epic indie rock flair. Each tune is an anthem in their own right, and I mean that in the very best possible way. In the opener and title track, he’s yelling “Perestroika! On! My! Mind!” as suitcases thump and bells ring. “Is That What You Want?” sees the pulsing guitar line making the song into an epic instead of the vocal line. “We Will Fight” features a choir yelling/singing its way through the whole song, culminating in the chorus: “We will fight! We will fight! But not with violence! We will fight! We will fight! We will fight to strengthen the things that we’ve made!”
The final song of the suite is “You Are the Light,” which sounds like a lost Joseph Arthur song on uppers. The chorus is a glorious singalong. It is a blissful cap to this set of tunes. There are literally no parts to complain about in these songs. They are nigh on perfect.
Tracks 5-8 are a bit of a headscratcher, as Caress takes a sharp turn into Radiohead sounds. There’s some Kid A electronic work (“Deconstruct”), some Hail to the Thief/In Rainbows-style rock (“Searching at the Edge of the Real Thing”), and more. They’re not bad at all; he appropriates their sound nicely. Even his vocals, which have always been a bit wavery and high, fit well in context. They’re good tunes, but they make little sense in the context of the album, and they’re just not as good as tracks 9-12.
While it is somewhat disappointing that the middle of the album turns away from the formula he spends two-thirds of the album perfecting, there is an upside. Josh Caress has gotten better by testing out sounds before incorporating them fully into his songwriting. If considering the melancholy electronica and rock as a potential future inclusion to Caress’ sound, this becomes a less frustrating suite of songs. Imagining his current powerful sound with electronic underpinnings helps me get over the fact Perestroika would be an incredibly cohesive album if not for the middle.
The last third of the album returns to the sound that Caress established in the first third. While “Everything I Wasn’t Meant To Be” is probably the least engaging of the eight folk/indie tracks, “Pulling the Curtain Back” is one of my favorites. It grooves hard, has a great melody and includes a stylistic throwback to Letting Go of a Dream. But the cascading guitar riff doesn’t revisit the style near as much as “Prodigal Son,” which uses the heavy reverb that was the trademark of Letting Go. The very specific mood it creates (and recalls) makes the track one of my favorites.
The closer, “By the Light of the Lantern We Go,” is true to its name, as the track is a nearly eight-minute-long journey. From the glockenspiel at the beginning to the full-on roar that occurs at the end of the tune, Caress takes the listener through all of his styles, motifs and ideas in one symphonic burst. It is a fantastic way to cap off a brilliant album.
The lyrics of Perestroika are relentlessly optimistic in the first and third acts, which matches the sound neatly. They include some of the most poignant that Caress has penned, especially in ”Perestroika On My Mind” and “You Are The Light.” The middle third’s melancholy and conflicted verses match the sound. Again, the middle isn’t bad; it’s just not near as good as the rest.
If this review seems disjointed, it’s because I feel that way about Perestroika. If this had been an eight-song album, or if something else had happened in the middle, I would be hailing this as the album of the year. It’s still going to be in my top ten for sure: the songs are just that good. Heck, the first four tunes alone constitute the best EP of the year. It’s my favorite JC release since Josh Caress Goes on an Adventure, certainly.
Josh Caress is edging ever closer to his masterpiece, and Perestroika is an enormous step in that direction. Do yourself a favor and get this CD.
Stephen Carradini writes far too many words about music you may or may not have heard of. Sometimes he takes pictures of aforementioned bands.