There are, to my knowledge, two ways to write complex music: you learn how to do it as the first thing you know, or you can exhaust all your interest in simplicity. I don’t know which tack Self-Evident took to get here, but We Built a Fortress on Short Notice is incredibly complex in the best ways. WBAFOSN is a tour de force of creative, thoughtful rock.
The complexity of Self-Evident’s music is deceptive, because they make it sound so easy. Tracks like “Our Condition” and “Half Bicycle” build around guitar riffs that seem to bend the very fabric of time signatures, rendering them useless. The fact that the riff sounds perfect with the rest of the band while sounding otherworldly unto itself is a testament to the rhythm section’s patience and prowess. If you’re into intricate rhythms and guitar antics, this one will blow your mind a bit. I mean, just try to duplicate the melodic “Bartertown” or the pulsing “In Cowardice”; it sounds simple, but whoa. It’s totally crazy once you break it down.
The one thing this isn’t is a singalong album: while lead singer Conrad Mach can sing a catchy line if he feels like it, he prefers to deliver his vocals in a ragged yell. While this may bug listeners used to melodic prowess in the music I review, the instrumentals are so extraordinary that they should be impressed anyway; Self-Evident’s latest album is that sort of wild, fascinating ride which leaves you satisfied even if you didn’t know you wanted it. (But those with intense melodic loyalty may want to skip “Not Literally.” Just sayin’.)
The Racer‘s brand of rock fits in that narrow slice of time where Bush was still an acceptably awesome rock band. Passengers draws firmly on melodic post-grunge as a base, adding in some bombast from post-rock and some quieter moments of later indie (although “Glycerine” was pretty quiet as well).
“Impact” is the aptly titled first track after the introduction, as the band crams every part of its sound into 4:11. From dramatic instrumental pauses to gentle melodic passages to pounding rock’n’roll, they leave no stone unturned. There’s even a guitar solo. But several elements run through all of that: this band is melody-centric, and furthermore, vocals-centric. That doesn’t mean bad things; Anberlin is the same way.
And Anberlin (especially early, Blueprints for the Black Market-era Anberlin) is a good analogue. These guys know their way around a hook, but they also know how to crank up the guitars. They’ve got taste and tact enough to create atmosphere, and enough passion to ratchet that atmosphere up to towering crescendoes. “Celebrate” and “Lost. Love. Art.” both have particular charms, the former having some wiry guitar work and the latter incorporating some heavily rhythmic elements to great effect. But it’s almost always the quiet tunes that get me, and the same is true here: the title track is a swirling thing, growing off a gentle but insistent piano line. It shows their versatility and strength of songwriting excellently. If you’re into modern rock with taste and chops, check out The Racer.
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.
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).
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.