Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Self-evident's indie-rock is nigh on perfect

March 7, 2010

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; there’s indie and there’s independent. Indie is a culture; independent is a status (you are signed or independent). Both have only tangential relevance to indie-rock, which is a particular type of rock. Lazy journalists use it as a catch-all, but when they say “the new big thing in indie-rock,” they really mean the “the new big thing in indie culture.” And that could be (and has been!) anything from scarves to bandannas to high-hat dance beats to optimism to cynicism and on and on.

But there really is an indie-rock sound. It’s characterized by a rock’n’roll set up, with at least some drums, a guitar and a bass. Chords are used in unusual ways, rhythms and melodies are experimented with, and songwriting structures are composed in non-traditional ways. There’s intensity, but it doesn’t make a habit of the lightning tempos of punk, the brutal intensity of metal, or the macho posturing of rock’n’roll. There are quiet sections, but it doesn’t turn into the cute moods of twee, the forlorn sounds of folk, or the giddy shine of indie-pop. It’s middle of the road, if the road was on someone else’s map that you couldn’t see. It’s emotionally tempered rock’n’roll with thought. There’s artistic ideals fused into it.

The reason I spend the time to explain my definition of indie-rock is because Self-evident plays indie-rock. If a person came up to me and asked me what indie-rock was, I’d point them to Endings as a beginning. Then I’d give them the history lesson. But on a time crunch, Self-evident’s songs would work.

That’s not to say that Endings is generic or wishy washy. On the contrary, the musical vision of the three men in Self-evident is laser-guided. They cull most of their aggression from the vocalist, who hollers as if he were in a punk band, while they pull their melodies from the incredibly tight interplay between the bass and guitar work. The two musicians weave rhythms and melodies together in a fascinating and mesmerizing way, often resulting in beautiful harmonies that take the ear off-guard. The power comes from the drummer, who pounds away as if he were in a straight-up rock band. And the parts, which don’t seem on paper to blend well, mix gloriously. This can only be the result of hours and hours of practice and songwriting.

And when “The Future” comes over the speakers, I’m immensely glad that the band took the time to be precise. The song is the epitome of the last paragraph; the tight rhythms and harmonies scattered throughout the piece demand to be carefully listened to. There are sections that thunder with a dissonant intensity, but it gives way to a peaceful, lullaby-esque melody to close out the piece. It’s simply astounding. It’s like if the Appleseed Cast wasn’t prone to distorted freak-outs, or if Unwed Sailor had lyrics, or if MeWithoutYou had gone all indie-rock instead of all post-hardcore.

“Everything All at Once” has a similarly powerful and beautiful sway. This one’s pretty section overpowers the intense section. It gives in to the ominous “Temporary, Confused,” whose use of background vocals and insistent drumming make it another standout. The glitching “At Last” threw me for a loop for a second until I understood what was going on; it’s one of the most complex and heaviest of the bunch, but it also features one of the quietest sections on the album.

This is not an album that you slap on in the background of your life. This is music to be appreciated. Endings is an album of eleven tunes with nothing left up to chance. Every turn is meticulously planned and plotted, and the result is a brilliant album that holds attention melodically, rhythmically, and mood-wise for almost forty minutes (longer, if you repeat songs – as you should). This is a stand-out release in every sense of the word, and I hope that people will release that and lavish the praise this album so rightly deserves. I mean, who else in the world is going to write a song as ambitious as “Apprentices,” and then make it sound easy? No one. Get this album now.

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

March 1, 2010

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

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

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

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

Sleep Bellum Sonno get serious and throw down intense post-hardcore

February 13, 2010

This is the full title of Sleep Bellum Sonno‘s latest album: “Judge Us by How we Lived our Lives not by How we Made our Living. ” I put it in quotes instead of our style-mandated italics because they straight-up used italics in their title. That tells me one thing: SBS is not messing around. This is serious stuff, and they let you know it before the first note hits.

In addition to being really serious, the album is a concept album. Each song has two titles, one that is the title of the song and the second that is the occupation of the narrator, for song titles that look like this: “When I Quit, You Can Put Dirt On Me. (Harvester)” On top of that, only one song has a title less than eight words long.

I put that all out front because some people just can’t stomach the uber-artistic, socially conscious idiom. If you’re still interested after all that, then you’re in for a trip. Sleep Bellum Sonno plays post-hardcore in a vein similar to MeWithoutYou. The two bands share a propensity for intense musical passages accompanied by spoken or hollered vocals, poetic storytelling, and unusual instrumentation. They diverge at the point where the hardcore stops and the other parts begin; mewithoutYou plays groove-heavy, pop-inflected passages, while Sleep Bellum Sonno plays quiet, pensive indie-rock. This isn’t a “one is better than the other” statement; it’s just a statement of what is.

The members of Sleep Bellum Sonno have been around the block, musically. They’re capable of spazz-core (“When the Lights are Low I Can Hear the Devil at My Door”), rock’n’roll (“Rewind, Rewind, Rewind. Tend to Our Stories.”), bass-heavy indie rock (“I’ve Got So Many Prospects but All of Them are Underground”) and more. Their best moments come when they’re alternating between hardcore rage and pensive moments. That’s the two genres that the band really gels in; in other idioms, things just feel a little off. This makes “…Prospects…” one of the better tracks, as calm singing gives way to angry hollering as the music shifts accordingly. There’s nothing in between, and for once that’s really great. Transitions? Who needs them?

The few problems with this album arise from personal taste. I am not a huge fan of the vocal tone employed through most of the album, and that makes a big impression. It’s a pretty nasal voice, but it doesn’t have the sharp edges that mewithoutYou’s Aaron Weiss developed early on. It has a tendency to wander in pitch, and that’s frustrating to me. It’s the one thing that stopped me from really falling in love with the album.

The long instrumental in “When I Quit, You Can Put Dirt On Me.” is one of my favorite moments on the album, as the sound is pure. The rest of the song helps my case, as there’s group yelling (one of my favorite musical tricks ever!) and hollering that’s secure in attitude and tone. It tells me that there’s still a lot of hope for SBS in the vocal department; they just need to keep writing and experimenting with it.

If you’re a fan of artistic post-rock, Sleep Bellum Sonno’s “Judge Us by How we Lived our Lives not by How we Made our Living. ” is definitely one to check out. It’s on the harder side of the post-hardcore spectrum, in that there are some really loud moments. But if you’re a fan of Blood Brothers,  Fear Before the March of Flames, The Felix Culpa, Chiodos, or Equal Vision records in general, this will please you immensely. Creative, inventive and thoroughly serious, this is an accomplishment.

Give Yourself a Hand(s)

September 24, 2009

Post-hardcore, as I define it, is hardcore music with emotions and melodies running through it. These emotions present themselves through singing, yelling and spoken word (as opposed to the traditional screaming, growling and roaring of pure hardcore). The melodies come through in the guitars or in the vocals.

Inside that definition, Hands is a pretty fantastic post-hardcore band. They have the heavy guitars and occasional low-throated growl of hardcore, along with other hardcore aesthetics. There aren’t many blastbeats, but there are some pretty heavy sections. Contrasting against those incredibly heavy moments are pieces of heartbreaking beauty, like the acoustic-driven “Communion” and the single electric guitar of “Ignorance.” Continue readingGive Yourself a Hand(s)…

Get Your Head around Muttonhead

March 15, 2009

muttonheadMuttonhead by Constant Velocity is a little difficult to describe, mostly because their style varies from song to song. Part post-rock, part lo-fi, with bits of punk and general alt-rock thrown in, these guys have created a sound that is immediately likeable, yet hard to put your finger on. It’s like The Mountain Goats decided to make babies with mewithoutYou, then asked Massive Attack to be the godfather for the offspring. Anyway, Muttonhead grabs you as soon as you start listening, and doesn’t let go. I’m currently on my fifth straight-through playback of the album, and it’s still interesting and fresh.

I feel as though I can’t even go into discussing individual songs without talking about their sound a bit more. The recordings of the songs on the album aren’t perfect – far from it, in fact. Every so often, you hear something that sounds like it might have been a small mistake, the vocalist’s voice wavers a bit, or something along those lines. That’s part of the charm of this album – it isn’t a glossy, airbrushed album full of studio-adjusted separate tracking for each instrument and extra little effects that can only be done with computer software. This stuff is as real as it gets, and I’m guessing Constant Velocity sounds almost exactly like this in concert, which is pretty wicked considering how good it already is.

Muttonhead opens with “From the McLean Co. Lockup,” a gorgeous bit of rock that evoked my comparison to The Mountain Goats. The song is simplistic in its composition, yet manages to come off as epic in scope as something from Explosions In The Sky or This Will Destroy You. The lyrics are great, with stuff like, “Allow me to pontificate / Whilst I inebriate my liver and kidneys and brain” being the rule and not the exception. This song alternates from soft and thoughtful to loud and bombastic, then back again.

“Kelly” presents an entirely different flavor. It opens with something of a western twang, a musical irony when compared with the lyrics “Kelly don’t like country / Kelly like the city / Kelly I’d like to show her / I’d like to show her I’m not a failure / Kelly, come back to my trailer / Please.” It’s hilarious, frankly. You just don’t see lyrics like that very often. When combined with a raucous, rolling tempo and borderline-country music flavor, the song becomes absolutely irresistible.

Later on in the album, the band delivers a little punk with the song “Truculent.” It’s heavier on the bass, with a really fun sound, a little like Primus blended with the afore-mentioned mewithoutYou. The lyrics open with “Nice truck, asshole.” It’s literary genius, if you ask me. Instead of singing the stuff, the vocalist delivers his message rapid-fire in a style that’s borderline spoken word. This stuff rocks, really. “Truculent” is witty and relentless, and I couldn’t get enough of it.

Constant Velocity’s other songs continued to throw me for a loop, each one a little different from the rest, yet with an overarching sound that is undeniably their own. “Time” is pulsating and reminiscent of Massive Attack (they perform the intro song on House, if that helps). “Lucky Double Nines” reminded me of Muse’s “Knights of Cydonia.” Perhaps appropriately after so much great music, “In Memoriam” closes out the album with the lyrics, “And you’ve earned it old man / So why don’t you rest.”

This album is long enough to make me love Constant Velocity’s sound, and short enough to leave me drooling for more. Fingers crossed that they crank out more, ASAP.

Pass Me Some More Music by Futants

March 3, 2009

There’s two types of hard music to me: intelligent hard music and chugga chugga. There are many genres, but when I’m listening to hard music, the only thing of importance is that the band not be “chugga chugga.”

Futants’ album Pass the Butter never devolves into mindless loudness (or what I call “noise for the sake of noise”). Even though their sound is rooted in classic heavy metal and modern post-hardcore, they absorb enough from other genres to keep their songwriting fresh and tight. It’s a testament to the thoughtfulness of the band members that none of these songs get boring, nor does the album taper off. The songs hit one after another, without any being of particularly lower quality than the last.

After a passable but not astonishing opener, they establish that they are not a normal band on “Mutants with an F.” A sound clip from a campy horror movie gives way to cacophony: scratchy, screamed vocals; charging, grungy guitars; metallic bass notes; and pounding drums emerge full-formed. They drop into a groove of sorts, with two vocalists harmonizing in an off-kilter sort of way. They bring back the thundering section for the chorus, then set off in another direction. They deliver a half-time section; I would call it a breakdown, but it’s not heavy. It’s actually lighter than the rest of the song. It’s like the inverse of a breakdown.

The rest of the album continues is these motifs. Scratchy, frantic screamed vocals; warbling, weary sung vocals; hard-charging guitars; and a solid rhythm section all make the core of the songs solid. The changes of pace in tempo, songwriting direction and mood keep the interest. “And That’s OK” is a perfect example. A song with one of the quieter verses on the album gives way to one of the best riffs on the album and one of the loudest, most frantic sections of music on the album in the middle of the song. It’s a stand-out because it’s unforgettable.

“Money to Burn” has an excellent quiet section that makes the hard section feel that much heavier. One of the few missteps of the album comes on a ill-advised, careening vocal performance towards the middle of the song, but the instrumental quality of the first half of the song is strong enough to pass over the error.

If you’re a fan of intelligent hard music (like MeWithoutYou), songwriting in hard music, or just something unusual in hard music, Pass Me the Butter by Futants is highly recommended.

MewithoutYou, Bear Vs. Shark and Codeseven

May 19, 2005

Thursday, May 19th, 2005
mewithoutYou / Bear vs. Shark / Codeseven
The Championship, Lemoyne, PA

Rarely is there a show where I happen to enjoy all of the bands on the bill, right down to the opening act.  However, this was one of the rare exceptions.
        The opening band, Codeseven (whom I doubt many people knew, due to the generally lukewarm response to their stellar performance) was great, and they played my three favorite songs from their newest album, <i>Dancing Echoes/Dead Sounds</i>: "All
the Best Dreams", "Pathetic Justice", and "Roped and Tied".  The lead singer, who is the second front man for this band, put on a great show, convulsing as though an exorcism was needed before the end of their set.  The tranquil blue lights only added to the ambience of their powerful brand of ambient rock, which seemed somewhat misplaced when paired with the much louder and more frantic sound of the other two bands.
        As expected, Bear vs. Shark put on an impressive show.  The vocalist was beyond insane, and I don't use the word insane lightly, mind you.  When he wasn't jumping around on the amps and various other things, he was convulsing on the floor in what looked to be odd flailing, break dancing sort of moves. However, the most impressive thing about Bear vs. Shark, was that they all switched instruments
intermittently. The bassist played guitar for some songs, the singer picked up a guitar and played during their song "Kylie", and they all sporadically played keyboards.  They played the majority of their first album, <i>Right Now You're In The Best Of Hands</i> and a few songs off of their newest album, <i>Terrorhawk</i>, then yet to be released.  Possibly the highlight of their set was some random guy in the crowd shouting, "Play the bus song! I drove all the way from Philly to hear that fucking song!", to which the singer responded with
a pause and then "...and now we're going to play the bus song!"
        When mewithoutYou took the stage, I found myself wondering if the owners of the venue had merely picked up some homeless man off the street downtown and put him onstage to masquerade as the vocalist for the band.  He looked as though he hadn't bathed or shaved in several weeks, and prior to taking the stage, he had been painting houses for the past 18 hours or so.  However, looks can be deceiving. MeWithoutYou's vocalist Aaron was awesome- he looked like he was prancing and/or interpretive dancing the whole time. The man should really consider a career on some public access children's show, possibly one with puppets and costumes.  The band as a whole put on an absolutely amazing performance, transitioning from their older songs to newer ones flawlessly, captivating the audience the whole time. Few bands I've encountered could replicate the sound of their records so exactly, yet still put on a phenomenally engaging show.  After flouncing around the stage and playing what many would consider to be a musical orgasm for approximately 45 minutes or so, the night of magical...magical musical-ness was at an end, as was my poor attempt at alliteration. But at least I got to hear 'the fucking bus song'.

-Allison Frank

Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.

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