Independent Clauses is but one man right now, and I can’t get to everything. Here are some really quick hits on stuff I like but haven’t had a chance to cover in detail.
Shine Your Light – Gap Dream. Burger Records loves garage-rock, but Gap Dream goes against the grain for some psych-influenced pop-rock. The tunes here are smooth, powered by shimmering, pulsing synths and trilling, chiming guitars. These are really fun tunes that take some of the irony out of indie-rock’s version of pop-rock. Perfect driving music, excellent chilling-out music.
Light on the Lake – Signals Midwest / Banquets – Banquets. I didn’t listen to a lot of punk rock this year for a bunch of silly reasons. These two bands, whom I dearly love, bore the brunt of my sabbatical. Both are really talented bands that deserve the attention of those who love muscly punk rock that doesn’t get too abrasive and keeps an artsy streak.
Spooky Action – The Fierce and the Dead. If a punk band and a post-rock band were in a head-on collision, the resulting fusion would sound as frantic and expansive as this album. If you’re into post-rock but think it can get way too navel-gazing sometimes, you should hear the pounding riffs and rhythms this English band throws down.
Unravel – Debbie Neigher. Neigher is an alto singer/songwriter with a mature approach to songwriting, along the lines of Regina Spektor, Imogen Heap, and Feist. She relies heavily on keys–but not necessarily piano–which creates a nice vibe to her work.
Save Your Heart – Lights & Motion. If you like your post-rock in major keys, with huge crescendoes, and with jubilant conclusions, Lights & Motion is far and away the best at that. This is beautiful stuff that intends to make you sigh with wonder. You know who you are.
Multiple Releases – Qualia. Dan Leader put out six releases in 2013 under his post-rock moniker. Similar to Lights & Motion, but with a pinch more nuance and minor key action, this is still incredibly beautiful work. If you’re into it, there’s a ton of it to be into, so jump on that.
Falling in Waves – Black Birds. These Australians marry guitar crunch and heavy reverb for a post-shoegaze throwdown. If you’re into rock riffs without a blatantly self-indulgent rock’n’roll attitude, check it out.
Gary B and the Notions’ How Do We Explode is completely aptly named. The band that I praised for ’50s stylings on its last aptly titled release has largely dropped those for noisy, distorted late ’80s/ early ’90s guitar rock. This isn’t grunge, but it certainly comes from a similar spirit: these are pop songs played extremely loudly and with plenty of overdrive. From the Pavement-esque tones of “How to Eat a Brick Sandwich” to the dissonant crunch of “Too Busy for an Ambulance Ride” and “Street Drugs,” Gary B takes listeners through a rock’n’roll album. Those with a penchant for rock that features huge guitars, loud drums, dissonance and sung/hollered vocals will celebrate How Do We Explode. Also, I love the album art.
In my review of The Fierce and the Dead‘s last album, I desperately wanted the post-rock band to buckle down and make a statement. Their follow-up EP On VHS does that, pointing out a direction for the quartet. The four tracks here set out a gameplan of distorted bass, patterned guitar melodies/riffs, and aggression. This is best shown in “Hawaii,” which is not incorrectly described as thrashy in parts. There are melodies and tension in between the heavy sections, but the underlying feel is not one of tension/release; instead, the more apt metaphor is one of a boxer throwing a blitz of punches before retreating back to his stance to reload. It’s a punishing, powerful twenty minutes. If you’re into the heavy side of instrumental rock (Explosions in the Sky’s loudest, Sigur Ros’s loudest, Athletics, etc.), you’ll love On VHS. I’m interested to see where they take this approach in a full-length. Also, the album art creeps me out.
Patrick Watson‘s glorious chamber-pop tune “Into Giants” is impeccably orchestrated, inventively melodic, and intricately constructed. Watson’s tune evokes the complexities of Andrew Bird’s work, while his emotional falsetto cures the sterility that puts me off from much of Bird’s work. While “Into Giants” was an immediate lock in my mind, the rest of Adventures in Your Own Backyard took a while to grow on me. It’s still growing on me, but I’m not sure when it will come to a final resting place, so I just had to write the review.
The chiming “Blackwind,” comforting “Strange Crooked Road” and gentle “Words in the Fire” are all tunes that I had an “aha!” moment with; tunes like the sparse “Swimming Pools” and the woozy “Morning Sheets” still feel a little bit too much like Mark Richardson’s Faberge egg for me (beautiful, but without the ability to connect to me). Still, having a gorgeous album that’s a grower is absolutely no knock: it just means you’re going to have to spend some time with Watson to get the full effect of his album. If that sounds like your sort of invitation, there’s 48 minutes of music with your name written on it here. Also, I’m indifferent to the album art.
Stevens’ control of rhythm, melody and atmosphere make this album. Anyone can write a melody, but turning it into something unexpected melodically and rhythmically while supporting the piece with the right feel is a unique skill. Opener “Nightbus” is the perfect example of this, as it warps relatively common rhythms and melodies into a singular piece.
These instrumentals draw heavily on post-rock, trip-hop and acoustic rock for inspiration, but it’s all filtered through a keen sense of what an acoustic guitar can and can’t do. Stevens knows when it’s time to break out the electric guitar, and when to let the acoustic do it’s thing. This results in organic-feeling pieces like “Up” (check the handclaps!) and “Rusty,” as well as polished post-rockers like opener “Nightbus” and the uniquely digitized “20 GOTO 10.”
However, the not-problem problem of his former album continues in the latter album: Stevens is so good at all the aspects of post-everything indie rock that the album lacks flow in places. This is nowhere more prominent than in “Frost,” which starts off with a churning section of metal that would make some modern-day thrashers envious of its heaviness. It is a jarring contrast with the rest of the album, and especially its direct predecessor “Sand (Part 2),” a highly atmospheric piece that draws on trip-hop and jazz.
Still, it’s hard to knock Matt Stevens’ Relic. It’s obvious just from listening that a ton of thought has gone into this record, but the album doesn’t often sound intimidating. The tunes here are awe-inspiring in a majestic, soundtrack-to-my-own-life sort of way; they rarely devolve into towering, look-how-awesome-I-am pieces (Dragonforce, AWAY!). It’s that listener connection that makes all the genre-jumping palatable: it feels real and relatable. Highly recommended for fans of post-rock.
Albums can generally be categorized into four groups: great and up, bad and below, average and almost great. This last category is the hardest to review; for every negative, I want to write in two positives (even when this is mathematically and realistically impossible). Furthermore, I want to point out all the negatives so that bands can improve just the little bit more they need to break over the top. The Fierce & The Dead’s If It Carries On Like This, We Are Moving to Morecambe is almost great, and it’s killing me.
The British post-rock group’s flaw is that it can competently play almost every style of post-rock there is, from romantic melancholy (“The Wait”) to dissonant and abrasive thrash (“Landcrab”) to indie-rock (“10×10”) to pensive build pieces (“Andy Fox,” which also has bonus sax, Empty Space Orchestra-style). The members’ impressive instrumental talents ensure that there are no individual pieces to knock, but the collection falls a tad bit short in terms of constructing a complete album. I don’t want ten copies of “The Wait,” but the flow of the album is weird.
See how depressing that sounds? Let’s recap:This album is really good, but the members of the band need to buckle down and figure out what they’re telling us. The band does tend to lean more toward the minimalist/pensive side, but the moods of those pieces range from the aforementioned romantic to “eerie horror movie” (“Woodchip”). On the one hand, it shows off their skills and creates some really interesting music; on the other, it’s hard to contextualize the whole album.
(side note: “The Wait,” which you will by now notice is my favorite tune here, sounds like this sketchbook looks [warning: one piece is NSFW])
Here’s another way of looking at this: as individual songs, The Fierce & The Dead have written approximately eight solid-to-amazing post-rock singles. (I know that’s not a real thing, but it’s for the sake of argument.) If you’re not the album type, pick at random (unless it’s “Woodchip” or “Hotel No. 6,” which are more sound experiments than songs), and you’ll really enjoy what you hear.
I have a feeling that with one more album under the band’s belt, The Fierce & The Dead is going to be something amazing. Right now it’s a B+. I know my critique doesn’t make it look like a B+, but man — I want to see this band take the next step really bad. I think they can do it. And that’s why it looks harsh.
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.