Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Death and the Penguin: Clever, Intelligent, Heavy

April 14, 2014

deathandthepenguin

I don’t review much rock music anymore, because much of it doesn’t excite me aesthetically or push me intellectually. But when a band breaks through the garage-rock haze that is covering so much of rock with melodic prowess and technical brilliance, I sit up and take notice. Death and the Penguin (named after a Russian novel) is the most exciting rock/post-hardcore band that I’ve heard since The Felix Culpa. With the members of Mars Volta hopping around various side projects and one-off things, Death and the Penguin looks like they’re offering their band as a good candidate to step into TMV’s spazzy, eclectic shoes. The 20 minutes of Accidents Happen are one long campaign speech (if people went back and listened to campaign speeches over and over, which I’m sure someone somewhere does).

Now everyone is in a race to be crowned the next TMV, and maybe that’s a disservice to all the bands whose personalities are getting subverted into this quest. But let me tell you: “Strange Times” is the most straightforward track on the EP. It fits neatly into the post-hardcore milieu, especially with the vocal tone and delivery. But though it fits neatly, it still has wildcards. Check out its deceptively short 2:30 for proof.

Need more diversity? “Bitumen” starts off as a stomping/clapping work chant before turning into a groove-heavy rocker. The guitar tone, the rhythmic variations, the intensity of it, the crisp production; it just all comes together perfectly. This may be a debut, but these musicians have played for a while. They know how to draw energy out of the smallest bits of song as well as the biggest ones.

The rest of the EP continues in that vein: juxtaposing unexpected sounds, creating tension and resolving it, and (most of all) throwing down wicked guitar riffs. “Space 1998” is particularly powerful in those regards–as the second track, it’s the one that really raised my eyebrows and hooked me for the rest of the EP. Accidents Happen, alright, but this is EP doesn’t have much in the way of error. It’s tight, poised, heavy, energetic, intelligent, and clever. That doesn’t happen very often.

The Soldier Story: A lesson in juxtaposition

December 1, 2013

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I’ve sung the praises of Pedro the Lion throughout this blog. Given The Soldier Story‘s moody indie-rock with clanging guitars, I’m going to take it as serendipitous that the second song on Rooms of the Indoors is named “A Lion.” Songwriter Colin Meyer’s voice echoes Bazan’s in tone, and the arrangement shifts from delicate thoughts to towering electric guitars at whim. The overall effect is striking, as Meyer knows how to play with tension, using layering and juxtaposition excellently.

He also knows how to make individual instrumental parts complement each other without competing: The complex, beautiful “When the Thieves Came” is constructed as if it were half clockwork and half Rube Goldberg Machine. Halfway through the tune, Meyer’s playing a spiky ditty on a clean guitar with a kick-drum stomp; the next second, the guitars and bass have distorted, the drums amp up to full-set freakout, and it sounds like a post-hardcore jam a la The Felix Culpa. Then it goes directly back to the spiky little ditty, without feeling disjointed at all. (Meyer got some songwriting help on this track from Jonny Rodgers, no stranger to intricate construction himself.)

Those skills transfer over to the rest of the tunes, whether it’s the fragile, William Fitzsimmons-esque folk of “Gray Clean Suit”; the experimental intro of “Through the Trees”; or the vast, expansive title track, which grows from a forlorn acoustic strum to a rapturous, wild conclusion. Rooms of the Indoors is an album that unfolds its intricacies over multiple listens. I found it interesting the first time, but I see it as much more than that now. Meyer has moving songwriting skills that will grip you, if you give him your attention. Recommended.

Tri-State / Kira Velella / U137

October 15, 2013

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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.

Quick Hits: New Tongues

March 6, 2013

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The intersection of post-rock, post-hardcore and punk has often been one of interest to me. It’s a hard thing to nail, especially since The Felix Culpa pretty much established the bar at nigh-on unachievable levels. But New Tongues offer a strong new voice into the mix.

The awesome, DIY title of We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For points back to the era that the band wants to invoke, as well as the practice of listing their album on Bandcamp by “Side A” and “Side B.” (They have an alternate listing for two singles.) Since Bandcamp streams to the next song automatically, it’s more of an aesthetic appeal than a semantic one; still, that means something to me.

The tunes are a gruff mix of distorted bass, pounding drums, shouted vocals and angular guitars. That definition sounds like a lot of bands, but New Tongues put it together with a great control over the atmospheres that they create. They use space, rhythms and distinct song sections to really create the feelings that they want. The band relies on these songwriting skills instead of on walls of distortion, ferocious screaming or virtuosic instrumental performances. This is a band, not a project of one individual person. The arpeggiated chords that open “Old Mouths” fit perfectly with the grumbling bass and precise drums. It feels organic and real, which is a feeling that I lose a lot in post-hardcore.

There aren’t very many singalongs here, if any; that’s not the point of this album. However, it is a testament to the grit and guts of three people (listed old-school style: J. Nardy, S. Johnson, M. Quinn) who know what they’re about and do it well. If you’re into post-hardcore that leans to the post- side instead of the -hardcore side, you should check out New Tongues’ We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For.

Venna's magnificent folk tunes shine

February 18, 2013

venna

The Civil Wars left a gaping hole in the hearts of many when they split up in 2012 over differences in “ambition.” I would like to humbly submit that every Civil Wars fan missing heartfelt, passionate guy/girl folk songs should salve their wounded soul with Venna‘s Third Generation Hymnal: Heather and Marky Hladish’s gorgeous, winsome tunes shine lyrically and musically.

Heather Hladish’s vocals are in turns lilting (“Meet Me in the Hammock”) and driving (“Sweden is the Reason”), providing the engine that powers these tunes. Her most captivating turn comes in lead track “Married,” a performance that pulls off both vulnerability and quiet confidence with ease. “I am content with wanting” is a devastating line in its layers of meaning, and the aching delivery only adds depth. Her wonderful vocals are a consistent draw throughout the eight-song album.

The instrumentals are nothing to shrug at, either. With several veterans of IC’s beloved The Felix Culpa strumming the strings, it should go without saying that the arrangements here are gold. I’m especially fond of “Sweden is the Reason,” which employs driving rhythms, dense texture and bright horn arrangements that are each reminiscent of Neutral Milk Hotel. “Quitting Contest” offers us a huge, sweeping arrangement that is worthy of losing yourself in. “Danger – Past & Present” shows off their Americana bonafides, while “12 Shades to the Wind” appeals to fans of modern folk singer/songwriters.

The spartan strum patterns and arrangement of “12 Shades” are not the only attractive elements, as the lyrics are profoundly beautiful. Drawing off lyrics from the little-sung third verse of “Be Thou My Vision,” Hladish spins a tale of yearning: “Give me a vision/a beauty that kneels/sweet absolution/to cover these years.” The already-mentioned lyrics of “Married” are also impressive in their form and content; “Meet Me in the Hammock” is a very thoughtful piece as well. These are heavy, meaningful words that come off without being ponderous due to Hladish’s stunning voice.

The eight tunes of Third Generation Hymnal are all worth lauding. These magnificent melodic folk tunes are thoughtfully conceived and executed incredibly well. What more can you ask for in an album?

Soundsupply: 10 albums, 15 bucks, everyone's happy.

June 19, 2012

Angst goes in waves, and surely there has been an outpouring of angst about music recently. People want to pay less and less for music, at the same that it’s becoming more and more important to us via portable listening that allows integration of music and daily life with unprecedented ease. However, Soundsupply wants you to pay for music. Granted, it’s 10 albums for 15 dollars, which is less than one CD was going for in the heyday of the big major label. Still, I can guarantee bands get paid better than $0.06, which is what 10 streams on Spotify will get you. If you’re lucky. When you go buy one of Soundsupply’s bimonthly Drops, you’re paying for hand-picked music from the guys who introduced me to The Felix Culpa (Tim and Eric Mortensen ran Common Cloud Records, which released Commitment all those years ago) instead of ripping off bands. I’ll take that every time.

Tim graciously responded to a request for an e-mail interview, where he expounds on how Soundsupply is doing its thing to help out in the crazy world of the new music industry.

1. How did you decide to start Soundsupply?

My brother Eric and I started Soundsupply after closing down the record label we had been running for a few years. We wanted it to be easier for bands to be discovered. The old days of buying an album you picked up in a store simply because you liked the cover art are almost over. Soundsupply is our attempt to bring back music discovery through ownership.

2. How do you find/pick bands for Soundsupply?

A lot of the bands we’ve worked with so far have been friends (or friends of friends), which made it easier to get started. Pitching the idea without any evidence that it would work is less difficult if it’s to someone who has slept on your floor when touring.

We choose bands who have enough similarities that there’s a chance that if you like one of the 10 albums in a Drop, you’d probably like most of them. We like to spotlight hard-working bands who tour a lot and are doing something unique.

3. What’s in the current drop?

Drop 3 is our widest variety of artists so far. We’ve got some more well-known bands like Hellogoodbye, The Dear Hunter, The Get Up Kids and Asobi Seksu. There’s some under the radar bands like The Small Cities, Young Statues and Tall Ships, who all NEED to be heard. We’ve got some heavier stuff like Pianos Become The Teeth. Some lighter stuff with Via Audio. And Gobotron continues a trend from Drop 2 of an album made by a member of Manchester Orchestra. There’s also two amazing, potential bonus EPs by Wildlife Control and Bearcat.

4. What is your payment model for consumers?

We try to keep it simple. You can purchase the Drop for $15 and it comes with both MP3 and FLAC formats, or you can purchase a Year Supply, which is the next 6 Drops (or 60 full length albums) for just $75. With the Year subscription, you also get all Bonus releases included and you can download each Drop a day before it goes on sale to the public.

5. How do bands get paid?

Each bands make an as-large-as-possible cut of the purchase price. It’s definitely a deep discount from their normal gain from an album, but given the quantities we deal with in a 10 day period, it’s a good experience for everyone. The main goal is exposure. Each band gains the chance to get their album in the hands (or iPods) of a bunch of music fans looking to discover their new favorite band.

6. How have the previous drops gone?

The first two Drops went really great. The bands we got to include were all fantastic. The biggest thing for us is the community that is starting to develop around the idea of Soundsupply. Anytime someone comments that they can’t wait for the next Drop or that they’re going to see a band on tour that they discovered through downloading from our site, we feel that we’re accomplishing what we set to do.

7. How do you see this business model working in the future? Do you hope that this will affect the industry at large?

We hope to continue introducing new bands and growing the music community around discovery. Anything that helps an artist get their music out on the internet, while also seeing money in their Paypal account is good progress. If it does anything for the industry, I hope it allows bands to do things on their own and make decisions that are best for their art and their careers. I don’t think we’re setting out to disrupt the industry, but if it happens along the way we wouldn’t hate to see it get better.

8. What’s the most important good trend in music right now (other than Soundsupply)?

I think the best thing lately has been when bands embrace technology. The music industry typically isn’t the first onboard for new and inventive things, so when a band releases an iPhone app or live streams their practices, it’s the fans that win. The access a fan can now have to a band can be almost constant. The artists that harness that are the ones that are going to succeed.

9. What’s the most important bad trend? How do you propose we stop it? (We can be anyone from consumers to bands to labels or beyond)

In my opinion, the toughest trend I’ve seen lately is the disconnection between listening to music and supporting a band. With the amazing things that technology brings, it also makes it easier to be passive towards the artists that are creating the music we listen to everyday. In the past, “liking” a band would mean purchasing their album, buying tickets to see them on tour, making a mix to give to friends. All these very active things. Now, you can experience a band by clicking a link on your cell phone. There’s very little investment on the listener that it sometimes means massive disengagement. The solution is that everyone needs to be more creative. Bands need to work harder to create opportunities for listeners to support them. Music fans should be getting more creative, too. I heard some people the other day talking about taking their most listened to artists on Spotify each month and buying a piece of merch from their website. It’s small, but a start?

10. When are the next Soundsupply drops?

Drops are available every other month. The current Drop will end at midnight EST on June 27th. The next bundle goes live in August.

Quick Hit: The Gorilla Press

January 3, 2012

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.

On letting go of The Felix Culpa

December 8, 2011

One of the weird things about music criticism (and there are a bunch of them that I’ll list someday) is that every critic approaches music with a different set of formative influences. In many fields, there’s a set of readings that you have to understand before you’re able/allowed to contribute to the conversation: in this field, you just have to listen to enough music to create an aesthetic that determines what music you call “good.”

Some people think that the best rock is subversive, while some think it’s that which has the best riffs. Authenticity is chased by some. Some rap critics are concerned primarily about production, while other critics are lyric obsessives. Those are highly simplified examples: If your aesthetic is coherent and easily understandable, you’re probably not idiosyncratic or “interesting” enough. (Being fickle, rarely a positive quality, seems kind of endearing in this field.)

But there’s usually an underlying commonality in how people form an aesthetic: people who write about music like or hate things for reasons that often have nothing to do with the band in question and much more to do with the first music that a critic ever loved. That is to say, it has much more to do with the way the person views what good music should be, because the first music a person loves automatically constructs a framework that is almost immutably set in synapses.

There’s a good reason for this: the emotional connection to a first musical love goes beyond rationality, which comes later in the process of becoming a music critic. Example: would you believe that the ~6 times I saw Relient K live in high school has a nearly direct correlation to why I’m so excited about Common Grackle‘s western swing and rockabilly? If so, you give me a lot more credit than I expect.

But it’s true that I love a band with:

a. melodies that I can sing along with (and get stuck in my head)
b. witty and occasionally sarcastic lyrics
c. meaningful things to say about culture via those lyrics
d. heavy rhythmic elements (that I can dance to)
e. absurd amounts of energy (so that I can scream along in catharsis at appropriate moments)
f. occasional group vocals (see point e)
g. the ability to write a killer ballad/slow’n’pretty/solo acoustic song (see a-c, e)
h. variety in song structure and sound
i. thoughtful arrangements
j. emotional issues (see all of the above)

This is because Relient K has all of those things, and when I first heard The Anatomy of the Tongue in Cheek, I was under the impression that the members had crafted the greatest piece of music ever created. When I realized that types of music other than pop-punk were also awesome (approximately two years later), it was too late. My brain had been imprinted with these characteristics as “The Fundamental Elements of Rock.” (Fun fact: One of the only other bands that has ever hit all of these fundamental elements over multiple releases is the-soon-to-be-gone post-hardcore powerhouse The Felix Culpa.)

I say all this because I am fascinated with Common Grackle’s The Great Repression, while many people will think it’s bizarre. This is because I see an album that embodies points a-j. Other people may only see a western swing album and run for the hills. As a music reviewer, it’s my job to convince you that Common Grackle is awesome, and hope that my argument will overtake your distaste for/lack of knowledge about western swing (which I will do tomorrow, because I don’t want to shortchange CG). This is a challenge because you have your own set of “fundamental elements” that have been ingrained over time.

This is why many blogs don’t write long essays about music: that’s not what people go there for (also: attention span). Blog readers don’t need to be convinced to hear new music in the way that readers of newspapers (or even journalism-heavy rock mags like Rolling Stone) do; if a reader is at the blog, he/she either passively or actively wants new music in his/her life. Words about that are nice, but are ultimately inessential to the goal: hearing new music.

So, why review music, right? Just post the MP3 and get out of there. Well, Independent Clauses isn’t really a blog trying to inform readers, because there are tons of those blogs. We’ve tried to be that before, but it’s not what we excel at. We’re best at being a blog written for the bands that we cover.

Blogs operate on a hierarchy: Independent Clauses is near the ground floor, and Pitchfork is the penthouse. Bands have to get press from one level of blog/media outlet before moving up to the next (i.e. getting a small break leads to bigger breaks leads to “the big break”). This isn’t some huge racket. It’s just the way that bloggers and media types find out about music: outwardly expanding concentric circles. It used to be that all bands wanted to move up to increasingly larger circles, being heard by more and more people. This is not always the case in the new music world. But Independent Clauses hopes to be a leg up for bands that do want to get bigger.

The Felix Culpa, whose final show is Friday, was a young band on a tiny indie label (Common Cloud Records) when we first reviewed their work in 2004. In 2011, Consequence of Sound included them on a list of the year’s most notable break-ups. (Good company: TFC placed behind Dear & the Headlights but in front of Kim Gordon/Thurston Moore.) That is incredibly meaningful to me; IC was a bit part in that. The band’s upward success means that IC has, in some small way, succeeded as well.

But even those bands who are content to stay where they are in the world like to hear what people have to say about their music. It’s a fundamental human trait: we want to know what other people think about our work and (by extension) us.

This sort of egocentrism is not universally reviled or beloved: at its extreme, as many people love Chad OchoCinco as hate him for exactly the same reasons. It’s just the way things are. We have voices, and having those voices validated and appreciated is a vital thing. The extreme of not needing this approval is a sociopath; the extreme of needing this is codependency. Most of us exist in the middle, where it’s nice (even flattering) to know people care.

And I do care about people, even people that I haven’t met and won’t ever meet: I believe that everyone matters and should be taken seriously. No one is below me, my time, or my words. Everyone matters.

“Taken seriously” obviously differs for various artists: humorous bands want to know if their joke is funny, not if their album rivals OK Computer; bands that aspire to write pretty albums (like Josh Caress’ still-brilliant Letting Go of a Dream) want to know if their music is pretty.

I try to take people’s claims on their own terms, and see if they hold up. Often they do; sometimes they do not. And when they don’t, but I see what the claim was, I try to give some advice for next time. Even if an album stinks, there’s at least one musician behind it: there will be more music from that person (even reclusive Jeff Mangum bears this out). And the person is worth helping, even if the album can’t be helped.

I can’t help everyone; I have an aforementioned framework of what I consider good music, and I rave about bands that fit within it. Hopefully, other blogs continue to write about music that I don’t like, so that artists who fit into the frameworks of other writers can be celebrated too. I don’t “reject” artists because their work is universally terrible: it just doesn’t fit in my mental structures. It is not a reflection on the artist as a person; it is hardly a reflection on the artist as an artist. If anything, it’s a reflection on me. As hard as I try to be objective and open-minded, there are just some things I don’t like. That’s another weird thing about music criticism: I am just as disappointed when I don’t like a band as the band is, because I want to write well of everything. I want to use my skills to help people.

Do I love music? Yes, very much. But that’s not why I keep writing reviews: I could just live on Spotify if my aural passion was all that drove me. I would never have made it to here, post #1500, if all I loved was music.

But I don’t like Spotify, because it hurts artists. I care deeply about the well-being of those people whose music I listen to and whose albums I fund on Kickstarter (my new favorite moneysink). I want to help artists, in any way I can, to pursue their dream of being an artist. I want to validate their talent, point out where they can hone skills, and send them on to bigger and brighter things with a press quote in their pocket.

And that’s why I haven’t quit on this commitment: I don’t do this for the music (although it’s awesome), readers (ditto) or because it’s a good business move (there’s going to be less and less money in it). I run this site because everyone matters and deserves to be taken seriously. Thank you for helping me realize this, The Felix Culpa.

Update: I Can Hear Myself Levitate

October 6, 2011

The excellently-named I Can Hear Myself Levitate has dropped a new EP, A City Submerged. While it does retain elements of the radio-friendly rock mashup sound I reviewed so favorably last May, ICHML has pushed its own boundaries in song construction since their last outing.

These four tunes skew much more toward a tension-filled post-hardcore (a la the soon-to-be-broken up The Felix Culpa). Even though the band has largely eschewed traditional v/c/v song structure (or at least masked it quite well), the poppier moments of the sound like the artier moments of AFI’s more recent albums. Opener “Saints and Converts” takes familiar sounds and spins them in delightfully unexpected ways, playing with audience expectations. “Empires” employs a similar tactic, although it does ratchet up to a huge ending with a whoa-oh male chorus. But by that point, it’s what you want to hear!

If you’re not into the emo/punk/post-hardcore sound ca. 2000-2006, you aren’t the audience for I Can Hear Myself Levitate. If you did come of age on dime-a-dozen emo/punk bands, you’ll love A City Submerged. At four tunes and 14 minutes, it’s exactly the right length to enjoy legitimately and fully (nostalgically or currently) without losing interest. I Can Hear Myself Levitate, like A Road to Damascus, is a band that reminds me why played-out sounds became overdone in the first place: when done well, those sounds can light me up with adrenaline.

Scales of Motion alternates tough indie rock and melodic indie pop

June 10, 2011

In late 2004/early 2005, I bought a copy of Scales of Motion‘s self-titled EP. I admired them as elder statesmen in the Tulsa scene; as a high-school kid in my first band, I was awestruck that high-quality indie-rock existed in my hometown.

Jump forward to mid-2011, and Scales of Motion is still at it. If they members were elder statesmen then, they’re Methuselahs now. Yet, not much has changed: 2004’s Scales of Motion and 2011’s Nocturnes feature the same three guys: Chris Skillern (bass/vocals), Kevin Skillern (Guitar/bgvs) and Craig Maricle (drums). The band used the same studio for both sessions (Valcour Sound, in which I have recorded twice). Their 2011 wiry, post-punk-influenced indie-rock songs are not drastically different than their 2004 tunes.

But there is some variation. Nocturnes shows the band leaning toward the more pop-oriented side of its sound:  slow-paced opener “Darkness” hangs on the vocal performance instead of the instrumentals. The band is content to set a mood than pummel the listener with riffs, as there are less breakdowns and gritty guitar sections than I expected to hear on Nocturnes.

Chris Skillern has always propelled the sound with his bass work; his angular, forceful riffs play the role of bass and rhythm guitar. Kevin Skillern contributes melodic, single-note runs and riffs over that work. That’s still the case for the majority of the album, but “Darkness” shows that they’ve grown in their confidence enough to not rely entirely on their tried-and-true formula. And while following track “Still We Sing” definitely is a classic Chris Skillern bass riff, the vocal melodies are just as important to the mood.

I noted in my quick overview that their post-punk influences add some edges to their pop songs, and their pop side knocks some of the edges off their post-punk work . “Still We Sing” is the former, but third track “Winter Heart” is very clearly the latter.

For my money, I enjoy the “Winter Heart” style most. Skillern’s high voice sounds best when it’s matched with some tough indie-rock to ground it — without a tether, Scales starts to sound like just another indie-pop band, and that’s not what they are at all. Chris Skillern even drops in a MeWithoutYou-esque spoken-word section, which just amps up the intensity even more. It’s a highlight of the album, and an example of what makes them special.

The bass, guitar and vocals lock into the inspired drum work on the rhythmic “Holier Mysteries.” It’s hard to explain how powerful Craig Maricle is when he’s drumming, but he’s one of the most intense skinsmen I’ve ever witnessed. He makes “Holier Mysteries” into the powerhouse it is. The rawness of the performance helps draw comparisons to The Felix Culpa, which, if you’ve read me gush about TFC, you know is high praise.

The rest of the album splits its time between nice pop tunes and tough indie-rock. On one side, “Hope” includes a harmonica and “My Beloved” sounds like what you think it might; the other, “A Better Dream” shows Kevin Skillern mashing out chords.

But the two sounds aren’t completely disparate; the mood overall is cohesive, and the album definitely feels of one piece. The lyrics also help the unity of the disc, being predominantly concerned with the day-to-day workings of the Christian life.

“Winter Heart,” “Holier Mysteries” and “A Better Dream” are some of the most satisfying rock tunes I’ve heard yet this year. The rest of the album, while not as arresting, is good. If old-school Appleseed Cast ate Death Cab for Cutie, it might sound something like this.  Also, the album artwork (not just the cover, but the whole CD package) is gorgeous, and it has my vote for art of the year so far.

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

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