The toughest part of writing about Andrew Judah‘s Monster is trying to figure out how to explain the thing in genre terms. Is it OK Computer-era rock without the guitars? The Decemberists’ indie-pop having a nightmare? Lushly orchestrated trip-hop? Genre labels aside, it’s a whirlwind ride of unusually-juxtaposed instruments that knit together perfectly under Judah’s careful composer’s ear.
Judah is a highly sought-after commercial composer; you’ve probably heard his work without knowing it. His third album of artistic compositions sets wild, intricate foreground elements on top of cinematic backdrops for maximum immersion. Judah works mostly in minor keys here, building brooding, intense landscapes that build to bursting. “I Know You Know” turns a smooth, cascading guitar line into a stuttering, bewildering footrace; the song culminates in a furious maze of arpeggios surrounded by glitching keys, layered vocals, and complex drumming. It has a visceral, physical quality to it; I can almost feel the sounds happening to me.
“Better and Better” amps up the ominous qualities of the record, starting out with heavy pad synths (although he notes in the liner notes that this might be a banjo played with a violin bow), muted piano, and gurgling bass. This is an album where sounds take preeminence over the instruments that make them: it could be a banjo or steel drums, keys or guitar, bass or keys, electronic or live drums. The performer isn’t important: the fact that the sounds mesh perfectly takes precedence.
Back to “Better and Better”: Judah’s voice is digitally manipulated to sound alien and yet comforting, which is the same sort of tension that Radiohead perfectly captured in OK Computer. But Yorke and co. didn’t try to make that into the eerily joyful soundtrack for a dark carnival, as Judah does here. It’s a profoundly unexpected turn. The title track draws some musical composing tricks straight out of old horror films, with wavering theremin sounds floating uncomfortably above the acoustic guitar before unveiling some of the most delicate, tender work that Monster has to offer.
Judah revels in the abrupt shift; many of the tunes here move from this to that unexpectedly. Sometimes it’s quiet/loud/quiet; other times the tone or mood shifts. Sometimes the time signatures change. “What Now?” draws on a relatively disorienting use of syncopation to throw you off. Yes, he employs a variety of tricks to keep you interested, and it works really well. The biggest element that draws me, however, is how it all hangs together. You can listen to Monster beginning to end without necessarily marking the titles of songs. You’ll definitely look back to see what the names of “Morning Light” and “I Know You Know” are, but you may find yourself feeling that the ballad “Willis” just kinda runs along with “Twitch & Shake” and “Better & Better.” You can enjoy it that way if you’d like–more power to you.
Monster is a dark record, but it’s not a grim or hopeless one. It explores brooding territory without getting overwrought, which is a tough balance to strike. Some albums feel like the songwriter is talking to you; this one feels like watching a movie by a director friend of yours. It’s not impenetrable, and you can see flashes of your friend’s hand, but it’s more about the unique experience of that particular media than the person behind the curtain. Andrew Judah gets out of his own way here, letting the intricate, complex, fascinating songs tell their tales. It pays off in spades.
The first half of this list is marked by songs that rock out really hard. The second half is marked by songs that are outside your normal arrangements.
Rock Out / Quirk Out
1. “Station Wagon Apocalypse” – The Outfit. I’d just like to point out that this incredibly-named garage-rock tune is not even the best name on the two-song EP. (That would be “Tyrannosaurus Surfboard,” YOU’RE WELCOME.) As to the tune itself: Big drums, big guitars, big vocals, big fun.
2. “Be Cool” – Cancers. Cancers is the missing link that makes me think Sleigh Bells might not have been robots from the future and instead were just really, really hyped up ’90s kids.
3. “Last Forever” – Fenech-Soler. As a bassist myself, I appreciate it when a song is so thoroughly dominated by bass that the guitar and keys just kind of follow along. When those songs are also jubilant dance tracks with irresistible shout-it-out vocals, well. Well, well.
4. “Metronome” – The Yuseddit Brothers. There was a brand of ’90s grunge/slacker-rock that took pride in sounding like it was kind of underwater. This low-slung groove has that fuzzy-edged production value to match the not-so-ambitious tempo and tone. Chillax, y’all.
5. “Bright Eyes, Black Soul” – The Lovers Key. Sometimes I hear a song outside of genres I usually cover and think, “WHOA WHY DON’T I LISTEN TO THAT GENRE MORE.” Probably because I’m hearing an elite artist, but I don’t know. Anyway, The Lovers Key has me interested in aggressive Blue Eyed Soul with some serious motown horns stacked up on it. This makes me think of a James Bond movie. Can’t really explain that either.
6. “All in a Day’s Work” – Horizontal Hold. As a mid-point between rocking out and quirking out, I submit Horizontal Hold, which is out-Pixie-ing the Pixies at the moment.
7. “You Are My Summer (feat. Coleman Hell and Jayme)” – La+ch. This is a perfect electro-pop tune. In musical world that I ran, this would be the big hit of the summer. It’s got Icona Pop infectiousness and Cobra Starship restraint. What’s not to love?
8. “Old K.B.” – The Solars. Speaking of motown influences, here’s a piano-pop tune fronted by a guy who sounds like Jack White that features organ and horns. This thing grooves way more than piano-pop fans are probably comfortable with. THAT’S OK!
9. “Unrevenged” – Floating Action. Rubbery bass, ethereal background vocals, driving percussion? Clearly indie-pop, but not any like you’ve imagined recently. Has me all stoked for the album.
10. “I’m To Blame” – Anand Wilder and Maxwell Kardon. After sending us a folky tune for the first single, the second one is a incredible mash-up of jazz trumpet, Radiohead vocals, Muse craziness, and a totally rad guitar solo. It is, in a word, different.
11. “It Doesn’t Even Matter” – Onward Chariots! If the Kings of Convenience had more quirky pop arrangements, it might end up something like this.
12. “Rockingham” – Kasey Keller Brass Band. 58 seconds of found sound, gentle synths, and meandering acoustic guitar paint a sonic picture extremely well. Very cool stuff here.
13. “Shadow’s Song” – Foxes in Fiction. Chillwave + Owen Pallett? TOTALLY THERE, MY FRIENDS.
1. “Holy Ghost” – Michael Flynn. Flynn spent more time in the Radiohead school of electronica than in the club, it appears: Haunting, hooky, high falsetto.
2. “Time Between” – Bear in Heaven. I think we have reached the point where classic rock and indie rock are essentially the same. We could put Bear in Heaven on tour with like half the bands from the ’80s OR The Steve Miller Band and it would be totally cool. This song rules, by the way.
3. “Retro” – After Party. Autotune meets gospel towering meets pulsing electro. Get your slinky dance on.
4. “God’s Oscillator” – Vial of Sound. PROTIP: If you want to catch my attention, namedrop LCD Soundsystem in your press release. Vial of Sound’s new track features some ex-LCD musicians, even though it sounds more like Daft Punk.
5. “I Never Knew” – Wonderful Humans. Big synths, big melodies, airy harmonies: it’s the formula these days. And it still works.
6. “The Dancer” – Villiers. This dark synth-pop track rides the line between ominous and sultry.
7. “Fancy” – Starlight Girls. WHOA, THEY WENT DISCO. FULL DISCO.
8. “My Heart” – Werebearcat! It’s a ballad! It’s a slow jam! It’s an indie electro track! It’s Superman!
Here’s the last MP3 drop of 2013. Some punk, some rock, some electronic, but mostly folk and indie-pop. It’s a good microcosm of how we rolled in 2013. Here’s to 2014!
1. “Hot Dad Calendar” – Cayetana. Female-fronted punk rock that sounds completely natural and inhabited. Pretensions = 0%. Good music = 100%.
2. “Double Secret Agent” – Commitment Bells. From that Bruce Springsteen school of rock that’s not so much rebellious as world-weary yet celebratory in sound, Commitment Bells!
3. “The Church Street Saint Leads the Marching Band for Truth (Demo)” – Kye Alfred Hillig. Hillig burst into my consciousness with the impressive Together Through It All this year, working in a variety of genres to get his emotive songcraft out. This new demo shows off his Paul Simon-esque restraint and melodic skills in a tight, spry, acoustic-based setting. I am thoroughly excited for his 2014 album.
4. “I Saw Three Ships” – Good Shepherd Band. Starts off as a rousing sing-along, then expands into a humongous, impressive arrangement for choir, orchestra, and folk/rock band.
5. “Broke, Not Broken” – Jamie Kent. Working-class, populist folk-rock with a Springsteen bent and great vocal delivery.
6. “For My Young Lord Drake” – Nettie Rose. This old-school country tune is not about the rapper. This tune is, however, excellently balanced between strong fingerpicking and uniquely interesting female vocals.
8. “All of Your Love (ft. Kotomi)” – Germany Germany. I love really kitschy techno, so anytime that a song even hearkens a little bit toward ’90s house and trance, I’m just super-happy. Rest assured there is more nuance here than that, but the influences are there.
9. “I Know You Love to Fall” – Message to Bears. Ambient/trip-hop/breakbeat with pressing piano and swooning strings. It’s super pretty.
11. “The Big Game Is Every Night” – Songs: Ohia. A heretofore unreleased 10-minute tune by the late Jason Molina in his slowcore style. The band here has a stronger presence than in some of his later, sparser work, allowing for some concreteness to Molina’s often vast, amorphous tunes.
12. “Hurricane” – Snowflake. A similar sense of forlornness and longing characterize this track; the vocals here echo Molina’s, while the arrangements are similarly in a foreboding but not ominous mood. A little more peppy than Molina’s work, but not by much; the guitars do get way heavy though.
13. “Dingy” – Elim Bolt. If you took out the rage from grunge but left the music largely intact, you’d have this track. Or, conversely, this is a less polished Blur. Either way: pop songs with careening vocals and dirty guitars.
Cloud Person‘s Monochrome Places mashes up Irish folk arrangements, Spaghetti Western drama, folk-pop melodies, and a dash of indie-pop flair to create a unique amalgam that is anything but monochromatic. From the Gaelic rhythms and sounds of “Robber Barons” to the ominous Western/Southern mash-up of “Old Demeter” to the Neutral Milk Hotel-ish “Lamppost Eyes,” Cloud Person never lets the listener’s attention wane.
Despite the variety of sounds, the albums hangs together: each part has its turn in the spotlight before all sharing the stage in triumphant closer “Men of Good Fortune.” It’s a full and fascinating album, showing off the significant songwriting skills of Pete Jordan. It takes a strong imagination to even conceive of a thing like this; it takes a humongous amount of work to pull it off with the seeming ease and easy confidence that Jordan and company do. Monochrome Places is a work that should be of great interest to those who like seeing boundaries pushed and disparate sounds integrated into a cohesive whole.
Cfit‘s Morning Bruise EP is an aptly titled release, dousing a hazy, early-morning feel with a deep melancholy. Instead of going the fuzzy, chillwave route, the band modifies the trip-hop format: opener “Coke and Spiriters” transforms strings and stark vocals with a brittle drumbeat to create tension. The ambiguity of the mood is repeated in the lyrics; say the name out loud and listen to what you’re saying. “Heliophelia” uses the same musical tactics of loose, smooth vibe vs. structured rhythmic elements; the morose-yet-soaring “Tenderfoot” sounds like Cfit’s version of “Karma Police” (which is high praise, over here). The vocalist doesn’t sound exactly like Thom Yorke, but it’s close enough for a good comparison–and comparing Cfit to mid/late-era Radiohead isn’t that bad a comparison either. Both are fond of creating disorientation and discomfort out of musical pieces that we’re otherwise very comfortable with. Artsy indie-rock will always have a place in my heart, and so it goes with Cfit.
Inner Outlaws‘ self-titled two-song EP also can be compared to a Radiohead work, both in scope and mood. “Points of Fire” is almost six and a half minutes long, while “Bodies of Water” is nine and a half. The two tunes are rock tunes that subsume all sorts of things within them: pseudo-funky breakdowns, folky asides, ’70s rock sections, crunchy riffs of harder indie rock, even psychedelic bits.
The songs are journeys that are impossible to predict: that’s half the joy in listening, to follow around the whims and fancies of the band. The other half is their melodic prowess, which allows for discrete memorable sections within the overall wholes. One of the most memorable is a dreamy, Lord Huron-esque section toward the end of “Bodies of Water;” another highlight is the OK Computer-esque rock just after the intro of “Points of Fire.” If you’re into adventurous music that will defy your expectations, Inner Outlaws is your band.
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.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.