18 October 2011

Brett Anderson: "Black Rainbows"

Many years ago I fell in love with (The London) Suede; while most of the people around me were obsessed with grunge, I was devouring every bit of Britpop (and shoegaze) I could get a hold of. And during those formative years, when I first heard “The Drowners,” I might not have known it then, but I fell in love with Suede for all the right reasons. Musically, with or without Bernard Butler, they have always been tight, writing classics that are now become influential tracks to a new generation of musicians. Lyrically, Suede was witty and introspective with a definite style. Couple that with one other thing: Suede had amazing vocals. Let me say this plainly: there aren’t many great male vocalists out there anymore. Sure, many can (simply) carry a tune, but that is by far not singing; Brett Anderson, though, is truly a vocalist. Anderson proves this once again on his fourth solo album, “Black Rainbows” (26 September 2011 in the UK; 4 October 2011 in the USA as an import); full of witty metaphoric lyrics, catchy hooks, and incredible vocals, it left me thinking of something I have stated before and will again: when you want something done right, ask a veteran to do it.

This album comes after the recent Suede reunion, so I am sure there are many that were expecting more “So Young” and “The Beautiful Ones” – and I for one am happy that this is far from the case and could care less for their collective disappointment. “Black Rainbows” does not capitalize on the recent Suede reunion because it was conceived prior to that. Anderson, instead, continues to demonstrate his strength as a solo artist, displaying his continued growth, maturity, and mastery of craftsmanship. And this growth and maturity is most apparent in his voice. This is not a fledging artist with a good voice struggling to control it while showing off. Anderson is a mature artist who knows the power of his voice, his complete range, and ability to emote conviction and emotion, yet all the time pushing his limits. Anderson has never sounded better. Furthermore, lyrically “Black Rainbows” – a beautiful oxymoron – is full of metaphoric stabs and the introspection we have come to expect. Right from the top, Anderson sings in "Unsung," “Plans, all those intricate plans, left like gloves on the railings slipping through your hands. Clouds, those impossible clouds, are gathering now. Soar like a love song that stutters, life-long unsung.” Always finding witty ways to state the obvious, he breathes a sorrowfully, soulful resignation to perfection in this track.

I can’t imagine composing an album entitled “Black Rainbow” and not write a collection of songs that are purposely anticlimactic. There is plenty of energy to go all around the album; what I am alluding to is the fact that with maturity comes the presence of mind of not always being anthemic. These tracks are not meant to uplift you, but rather make you ponder on your own experiences and bring back those emotions – much more powerful than any ole anthem could ever hope to be. Even with the lead single, “Brittle Heart,” there is a conscious feel that the song is lulling you into pensiveness, while caressing old emotions to the forefront. In “Brittle Heart,” Anderson shifts from the resignation of the opening track to matter-of-fact tongue-in-cheek (like no other can do it) as he sings, “Give me your brittle heart and your ashtray eyes, I’ll give you carpet burns and a slanted life.” Though comical, the delivery makes the reality of this so often seen scenario more poignant. What I love about this song musically is that there is no attempt to create a thick wall of sound; though there are touches of details, the song is essentially bare allowing the rhythm of the music to subsist as the background to the vocals.

My favorite track on the album is “Actors,” the post-punk faire of the album, which demonstrates Anderson’s own indebtedness to early 80s British rock. The constant collocation between the bass and vocals is very interesting, because they don’t mirror each other at all. While the latter is aggressive, his vocals are as stoical as I have heard Anderson sing. “In the House of Numbers,” the following track, continues to infuse some that post-punk in a more ethereal way, while demonstrating Anderson’s pop sensibility and flirting with glam. The song’s arrangements can easily be divided in two: the bass, drums, and guitars generating a sense of physical urgency (as all good pop music does), while the keys and vocals generate the warmth needed to hook a listener.

The “biggest” moment on the album comes in “This Must Be Where It Ends.” Employing the timeless clichés of not being able to stops the rain or tide, Anderson pines away over a “Mistress.” This is the one song, though, where the music is directly responsible for the visceral reaction in the listener, and not Anderson’s voice. The song has a sonic background that just generates emotional undertow, while “shoegazy” guitars rip into the tranquility. The most interesting moment on the album is the shortest and penultimate track on the album, “Thin Men Dancing.” In the hands of a less experienced musician this song could easily become a dissonant experience. Definitely in the sensual glam rock tradition, this song is the evidence that Anderson has moved away from his Suede’s day as a songwriter. This is not the glam of the 90s Suede; “Thin Men Dancing” is provocative not in its seediness, but rather in its murkiness – a new twist in his glam repertoire. This track slips right into the closing track, “Possession.” A dark ballad, which brings out Anderson’s emotive qualities as a vocalist, the song continues to build from beginning to end, and thins out instantly in the last forty-seconds … an apt musical metaphor for the album - a continue buildup that leads to the tranquility of emotion purging.

The most unfortunate thing anyone can say about Brett Anderson is that the specter of Suede continuously haunts his solo work. Bluntly: if Anderson wanted to write another Suede album, he would do so with Suede, not as a solo artist. Therefore, to place those expectations on his solo work is misplaced. Artists often embark on a solo career to expand their artistry and repertoire in ways they could not with their bands, and this is what Brett Anderson has been doing for the past five years. From his best vocals to date to his mature subtleties, “Black Rainbows” is both musically and emotionally dynamic, putting all the feigned indie anxiousness out there to shame.

Track Listing:
1. Unsung
2. Brittle Heart
3. Crash About to Happen
4. I Count the Times
5. The Exiles
6. This Must Be Where It Ends
7. Actors
8. In the House of Numbers
9. Thin Men Dancing
10. Possession

Keep up with Brett Anderson at his homepage, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter.

Here is Anderson’s video for “Brittle Heart” and a live rendition of “Unsung” at the Sonorama Festival in España from his YouTube Channel: BrettAndersonVideo.

Read more ...

Amazing Electronic Talking Cave: "Radio Psylence"

My thanks to the AETC team for keeping me in the loop.

At the end of the day, great songwriting, in terms of putting an album together, is about vision; though a project may start with a few stabs in the dark, stumbling through chords and words until something clicks, it is when that something clicks that the vision is generated and carried through fruition. Amazing Electronic Talking Cave’s new album, “Radio Psylence” (5 September 2011), is all about vision. From the implied titular theme to more musical references than you can count on both hands, this is a complex album that effortlessly flows track-to-track; recorded in St. Petersburg, Russia, this is the brainchild of Estonian Felix Bondarev. From grandiose ambience to distortion filled frenzy, “Radio Psylence” is a cohesive album in the classic sense: the songs work in tandem with one another to create a singular musical journey through luscious soundscapes.

Since we live in a world full of labels, let’s go through the compulsory labeling: electronic, synthpop, shoegaze, noise pop, dream pop, space rock, psychedelic rock, post-punk, intelligent dance music, experimental rock, post-rock, industrial … and I will spare you from the more obscure ones! It is actually an exercise in futility to try to define this album by trite labels, as what makes “Radio Psylence” an amazing album is Bondarev’s understanding (whether by practice or instinct) of each of these genres, while at the same time he never commits to anyone of them. While most nascent musicians allow their music to be defined by labels, Bondarev is seemingly happier to redefine and mismatch these labels to concoct a sonic experience that is bewitching. I would assume that the term “electronic” is the label that is going to get flung around the most, and I would concede that the primary mode of musical production is electronic, but this is not an “electronic” album. The music here exists in those small niches outside of genres; where it may touch upon many, it eludes them all.

The vision of “Radio Psylence” is apparent from the opening track, “On Speed.” Ironically, this is a highly ambient track with no rhythmic beat/speed, lost somewhere between electronic experimentations and space rock, which concentrates solely on majestic, visceral effects of the listener. It is not the actual sounds that really get to you, but how the chords flow into one another, how they are sustained, and the sonic textures of all the layers of music. And as you find yourself fluttering through thoughts, the second track, “Tri Goda,” literally sneaks in, with its post-punk bassline, shoegaze guitars, and aggressive vocals, which are tantamount to hypnotic, melodic rantings – like those of a madman on the streets that you take a few steps closer towards in order to hear what he is saying. Also of epic proportion, this is the kind of track you may expect to find at the closing of an album because of its cathartic nature; it is almost has if Bondarev is wiping the audience clean of the prior visceral reactions for what follows after this track.

The most interesting thing about the album, from a production point of view, is that it is frontloaded with the epic tracks. Most artists, who are willing to engage in epics, play the safe sonic sleight of hand of frontloading their albums with their poppier, shorter numbers to arrest the listener’s attention, then forcing them to confront the epic tracks towards the end. Bondarev, however, already has the composure and risk-taking of a veteran to allow the music to take its natural course, without planning out the order in the typical cookie-cutter fashion. With that said, though I love the epics on the album, it is “Permanent Black Marker” that really has me all mesmerized and giddy as a kid listening to his new favorite song over and over again. The industrial electronic bass line is haunting, the subtle ambient keys mysterious, and the background trip-hop beat surprising – this song has all the poise and precession that veteran electronic acts (like the boys from Basildon) aim at. The equally urgent “Allisoneisall” follows this track – think of early 80s electropop mixed in with electronic body music and industrial, yet retaining its poppy appeal. The album then closes out with “Not Your Name.” Much as it started with ambience, this track adds erratic beats to searing synth sounds. Not the serenity that symbolized the silence in the opening track, this is a cacophony that quickly symbolizes the distress of silence.

It is commonplace not to think of places like Estonia or Russia as major producers of urgent music, but Amazing Electronic Talking Cave’s “Radio Psylence” easily dismisses that false stereotype. Felix Bondarev’s music is compelling, and in his paying homage to the past, he has created music that steps away from typical confines and opens the door to one of the most irresistible journey through an amazing soundscape.

Track Listing:
1. On Speed
2. Tri Goda
3. Serdce
4. Kingisepp
5. We Fucked Your Statues
6. Uznat
7. Permanent Black Marker
8. Allisoneisall
9. Not Your Name

Keep up with Amazing Electronic Talking Cave at their homepage, MySpace, and Facebook. You can sample and purchase “Radio Psylence” at the albums homepage or the band’s Bandcamp page.

Here is a video teaser for “Permanent Black Marker” from the aetcvideos YouTube Channel.

Read more ...

11 October 2011

Erasure: "Tomorrow's World"

I dedicate this review to the biggest Erasure fan in North Carolina, Mia.

I admit that Erasure is one of my favorite acts of all time … this is something that seems peculiar to some of my friends and acquaintances, considering all of the other artists that I rank amongst my favorites. From the very first single, “Who Needs Love Like That?,” I was a fan. And throughout my adolescence the duo of Andy Bell and Vince Clarke was an escape from the cold world around me, comforting me in many ways, sometimes even assuaging the fears away. And though my love for the band has not diminished by the years, I have not found myself escaping from this (to quote their song “A Long Goodbye”) “crazy mixed up world of honey” where “life is just an illusion” via their music. My love for their music and what they have meant to me as a person has never clouded my ability to be critical of their musical output (though live, it is always a good time!). But when I first listened to “Tomorrow’s World” (3 October 2011 in the UK; 11 October 2011 in the USA), something that had not happened in nearly two decades did: I escaped … for two straight hours, playing the album over again and again and again. And I realized, in this crazy world full of 80s revival, Erasure is back to claim back their position as icons.

If you think of the current music scene as a “modern town,” Andy Bell’s crooning in “Then I Go Twisting” seems apropos: “Then I go insane, I’m bored of this modern town, sick of this techno monophonic sound.” With an electro scene content to replicate the monotonous 80s, Erasure is back to show the newbies exactly how it is done with this polyphonic song. Of course the song is really about the insanity of living life in the club scene and all that entails (“Think I’m going schizo, I bury my head in sand. I live in a disco, you’ve such a machismo hand…”). But the words that fans are going to immediately connect with are the opening lines Bell sings in the very first track, “Be With You”: “Call me, any time just call me. Tell me that you want me, feel it everywhere.” But just as the music is the most beat (physically) oriented in years, Bell reveals what is on his mind: “Everything is physical, it really turns me on.”

When their eponymous album was released in late 1995, many listeners and critics were thrown off by the length of the songs; it was almost as if these were extended versions of shorter songs, but that was far from the case. Yet Erasure’s sensibilities to the kinds of sounds and effects were not worlds away from what could have been expected. With “Tomorrow’s World,” Erasure does move worlds away from their generic sound. In some ways they return to the 80s (with the kind of bass lines), but the bigger sounds are fresh and new. And though Vince Clarke has mastered and continues to use the classic pop song structure, the music is layered in a very different ways. The use of ostinatos is very different – sometimes, like in “Fill Us With Fire,” the sounds are sweepingly larger than beeps one might expect, and at other times, like in “A Whole Lotta Love Run Riot,” it is marginalized or even not employed. The music is more bass and drum focused, with very sophisticated but subtle melodious arrangements to Clarke’s credit; this, in turn, places the focus even more directly on Bell’s vocals. On that note, I will argue that “A Whole Lotta Love Run Riot” is one of the songs on this album that Erasure must have been thinking about a dance floor for the first time in years when they wrote it.

From the more tentative singing of earlier songs, like “Oh L’Amour,” to the more confident singing of “Blue Savannah,” to the real demonstration of range, like in songs like “Perchance To Dream” (one of Erasure’s greatest and least known songs), the quality of Andy Bell’s voice has continued to change and improve. Now, Andy Bell is more soulful than ever before, as demonstrated in their latest single, “When I Start To (Break It All Down).” But what has gotten stronger and more apparent than ever before is the symbiotic relationship that Bell and Clarke share as musicians. No other act has music and vocals that work in such tandem unity like Erasure – from how notes between vocals and music are harmonized to how the drama of both voice and music are always mirror images of one another. And this reminds me of classic pop, back in the 40s and 50s, when that careful attention to this kind of detail was in vogue. This conscious attention is most obvious in “What Will I Say When You’re Gone”; even when the beat drops and Bell is pining away (“What’ll I do, what will I say when you’re gone? In this emptiness emotion, will it hurt when you walk out the door?”), the beat may drop out, but the anxiousness generated by the sound effects in the background mirror Bell’s anxiety and dejection.

The job of any great producer is not to compose music (as is too common in the world of pop), but rather to bring out what the vision of the musical act that he/she is working with. Frankmusik proves that he is not only a capable musician, but also an amazing producer. Working along side Frankmusik, Erasure does not fall into the same routine and generic song pattern. For instance, there is no “Always,” “In My Arms,” “Breathe,” “I Could Fall In Love With You” moment on this album. What Erasure is able to capitalize on throughout “Tomorrow’s World” is not just their experience, but also their confidence as musicians. Just take “I Lose Myself”: the music is thriving, relevant, and urgent, as Bell, always tongue-in-cheek, sings, “I’m not concerned about the bitch I’ve been; they sure must’ve all deserved it… Electro soul, it’s only rock ‘n roll, and when it gets down to it, I lose control … I dare not lose my self-control.” The “bitch” line will become as classic as the line in “Sometimes”: “It’s not my sense of emptiness you fill with your desire.” (Just imagine what could be filled!)

The amazing thing about Erasure is that even when they are being serious and heartbroken, they are so much fun to listen and sing along to. Legions of fans around the world understand that this is Erasure’s staying power: Erasure represents good times, happiness, and a comforting voice in the dark. (For those youngsters swept away by the current revival of 80s electro, take a listen to the masters.) Their last album was titled “Light at the End of the World” (2007), and it was the end of a world - an era - where Erasure seemed to have gotten complacent. But every band that has managed to survive over a quarter-of-a-century will have its slumps; the real question is will they regain what made them great? What made them icons? Erasure, with “Tomorrow’s World,” reclaims and justify their position as (synth)pop icons. And I, for one, am happy to once again escape that crazy world outside into the phantasmagorical world of Erasure.

Track Listing:
1. Be with You
2. Fill Us with Fire
3. What Will I Say When You’re Gone?
4. You’ve Got to Save Me Right Now
5. A Whole Lotta Love Run Riot
6. When I Start To (Break It All Down)
7. I Lose Myself
8. Then I Go Twisting
9. Just When I Thought It Was Ending
10. Shot to the Heart, iTunes bonus track

Keep up with Erasure at homepage, MySpace, and Facebook.

Here is a montage video for “When I Start To (Break It All Down)” and the Steve Smart & WestFunk Remix of the song, set to an animated video, both from the erasureinfo YouTube Channel.

Read more ...

10 October 2011

Iori's Eyes: "Matter of Time EP"

Mesmerizing and enchanting is initially the first thing I would like to say about Iori’s Eyes’ second EP, “Matter of Time EP” (October 27, 2010). I first encountered Iori’s Eyes several months ago while I was ciphering through the random suggestions of YouTube’s sidebar; once clicked I found myself in love, both utterly and endlessly. The very first song I heard from Iori’s Eyes was “The Boat,” instantly I fell in love with the opening chimes from the keyboard and the settling voice that haunted my ears for weeks. I found myself lost in translation and eventually found myself forgetting about the band that created this masterpiece because of course afterwards I just simply drifted on to other songs in YouTube’s magical sidebar of suggestions. And now, here I am writing this review about Iori’s Eyes because once again I crossed paths with “The Boat.”

I would like to think of the “Matter of Time EP” as a ship all in itself, a ship sailing through a relentless sea that is both precarious and ethereal. Swimming through the visual ocean that I have created is Iori’s Eyes, hailing from Milan, Italy; they bring pop music from another dimension. Iori’s Eyes are in fact a superb trio who simply electrifies their listeners on a viral level, so viral that it is both mentally stimulating and physically contagious. I believe I have listened to this EP at least a dozen times, which is usually a norm for me when I really enjoy something. I seem to be constantly captivated by Clod’s (vocals and guitar) voice when listening to the EP; while his voice echoes through many of the tracks they are left imprinted on the cavity in which my brain is installed. I was also thoroughly impressed by the other two band members who connected so evenly with Clod’s vocals—Sofia (bass, keyboards, back vocals) and Giacomo (drums, percussions, keyboards, back vocals); they bring to the table the impressive rhythms that allow me as a listener to drift away effortlessly into this enthralling sea of music.

Even though my musical horizons are strongly diverse I must admit the pop is often what I rely on to raise my mood every now and then. There is always something so intriguing about pop artists that it allows me to bask in their lyrics and roast over the fire of their songs. It often inspires me as an artist who needs a little inspiration when the glass has tipped over. The opening track is “Matter of Time”; I found this titular track to be the core to my excitement when I first introduced myself to the EP. Personally I felt it was in fact a wonderful way to unite with the listener. “I want you to know you can count on me, we are permanent. The clouds are grey over me… it’s a matter of time, it’s a matter of time and you’ll be mine, and you’ll be mine.” I’ve been struck rather thoroughly because of these vibrant lyrics that seem to be all rotating in my mind on a constant basis.

The next track on the EP is “Neil Young (Once Again),” a track that radiates a true sense of cold comfort, cold in the context that it is much more lax than the track before it but comforting because it reminded me of how I felt when I had my first ride on the Ferris Wheel many years ago. To the auditory it appears to be much mellower while it portrays such beautiful musical calligraphy. I usually find it strongly entertaining where a band varies up the criss-cross between tracks, i.e. fast tempo, slow tempo, medium tempo; consistently, I am more interested in albums where the songs do not cling evenly to one another and yet flow easily from track to track. I always try to find ways to relate to the lyrics that are depicted in most songs, and once the connection is achieved I find myself much more accepting to the song itself.

Next up on the list is “Santa Sofia,” electricity is instantly passed from keyboard to keyboard as soon as the track opens, following this electricity is Clod’s soft yet aggressive vocals that seem amplified by the “clapping” preset on the keyboard. Eventually when the 4:32 are almost near the end, the track is revived by a sonic radiation that finally pulls the listener in deeper and deeper, almost as if this were the direct climax of the song entirely, and then listener is whirl pooled down and released carefully onto a boat leading to the next track on the EP. The finale on the EP is one that I adore just as much as the very first track: “Take Me to the Other Side.” The track is extraordinary in every concept of the word; in fact it even reminds me of one of my favorite bands, Mew, because of how peaceful the song is. The track opens with a record player of recorded voices that set the mood in an old fashion sort of way, then the chimes on the keyboard, then Clod and his guitar which then conduct a solid serenade that almost brings a sublime sadness to the piece. “Oh once again, I want to be loved by someone, and feel my legs shake and feel the apple taste inside my mouth.” Lyrics that are this heartfelt make this closing of this EP truly awe-inspiring.

I do not think there is much more to say other than what has already said about the “Matter of Time EP”; although I often try to create visual paintings of exactly what each and every track is like, I must admit that this time around there is truly no comparison that can be made. Iori’s Eyes’ slogan is “we born, we grow, we couple.” In a matter of them growing, I believe that they have superb talent that will allow them to soar far and wide because they are truly phenomenal. I do not think I could try to encourage the average listener to indulge themselves in Iori’s Eyes “Matter of Time EP” any more than I already have, so do yourself the favor and go enjoy something different.

Track Listing:
1. Matter of Time
2. Neil Young (Once Again)
3. Santa Sofia
4. Take Me to the Other Side

Keep up with Iori’s Eyes at their homepage, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter.

Here are the videos for "Matter of Time" from the ioriseyes Youtube Channel.

Read more ...


Going to spend the next two weeks catching up on some reviews that I have not gotten too, but two veterans acts have or will be releasing new material over the next few days: Erasure and Brett Anderson [of (The London) Suede fame]. In the meantime, enjoy the videos!

Junior Boys’ “Banana Ripple” from the DominoRecords YouTube Channel.

Villagers’ “Cecelia & Her Selfhood” from the DominoRecords YouTube Channel.

Fucked Up’s
“The Other Shoe” from the matadorrecs YouTube Channel.

Duran Duran’s
“Runaway Runaway” from the 07DuranDuran YouTube Channel.

The Big Pink’s “Stay Gold” from the 4ADRecords YouTube Channel.

The New Pornographers’
“Up In The Dark” from the matadorrecs YouTube Channel.

Cold Cave’s “Villians of the Moon” from the ColdCaveVEVO YouTube Channel.

Read more ...

08 October 2011

Matthew Mercer: "Vicious"

My many thanks for being kept in the loop!

About two years ago, I got to review and interview the legendary Steven Severin (of Siouxsie and the Banshees) and Michael Nova (of X: THC). The one common link between them was the use of film as part of the medium for music; they both made me reconsider how music can be used not simply to enhance or accompany a visual experience, but also to become part of that experience – to work in tandem to create something greater than its sum. Nova filmed his own piece, while Severin deferred to classic silent films, reviving them from the forgetfulness of history. Matthew Mercer (half of the duo Microfilm) has joined the list of amazing musicians composing music for film – in this case, Devan McGrath’s short film, “Vicious.” Working with the same title, “Vicious” (4 October 2011), Mercer has composed sixteen tracks, many in the same vein of “Pianissimo Possible” (link), which are compelling without the visual.

I have not seen the film “Vicious,” though I have included the trailer below. To say the least, from the short trailer I am definitely interested in seeing the complete short and how Mercer’s music works in tandem with it, but having reviewed the works of Microfilm and Mercer’s solo output, I have no doubt that his meticulous attention to detail and thoughtful craftsmanship captures the essence of what is on the screen.

Mercer’s “Vicious” is streaming on Soundcloud (link), where you can listen to and download the collection. I rather allow the music to speak for itself, but I did include one example from the collection – the titular track, “Vicious.”

Vicious by Matthew Mercer

From the ultra brief, completely minimalist (think of those elusive moments at dawn or dusk) “Fade Away” at the opening to the epic at the end, “Barely There” (apparently not included in the film), the music itself is a compelling journey through esoteric soundscapes and mesmerizing out-of-the-box arrangements. True to form, Mercer has created a collection of songs that is impossible to guess in which direction the music will be taking you. And I always hesitate to use the definitive term “song” when it comes to Mercer. What I should say is that these are brilliant tracks that in their current incarnation will mesmerize you.

Check out this collection, and I will keep try to find more information on the short, “Vicious.”

Track Listing:
1. Fade From Black
2. The Dream
3. Back on the Bike
4. Weapons
5. Tripp Appears
6. Riding at Dusk
7. Close Call / Face to Face
8. Something Strange
9. Déjà vu
10. Joining Up
11. Outrage & Tragedy
12. Blow-Up
13. Unscathed
14. Vicious
15. Loom
16. Barely There

Keep up with Matthew Mercer at his homepage, Facebook, and Twitter. Also, visit his Soundcloud page where you can preview “Vicious” and download it (for free). And checkout his Bandcamp page where you can also preview and download “Vicious” and check out other entries in his discography.

For more information On Devan McGrath’s “Vicious” you may visit his website or the Facebook page for the film.

Here is the trailer for “Vicious” from DevanMcGrath’s Vimeo Channel: dmcg.

VICIOUS: Teaser Trailer from Devan McGrath on Vimeo.

Read more ...

Zola Jesus: "Conatus"

Zola Jesus’s third album, “Conatus” (26 September 2011 in the UK, 4 October 2011 in the USA), is the kind of album that I have an inclination towards: an album in the traditional sense, not easily definable in terms of genre, full of passionate conviction, and infectiously alluring. The namesake of the act is the moniker employed by Nika Roza Danilova, who hails from the great state of Wisconsin (USA), and interestingly enough was raised on a hundred acres of forest, in isolation. I point out this fact because it is reflected in her music: cinematic, spatially aware, and introspective. Though I think the label of “gothic” is one that is misplaced on her, because that term has been adulterate at this point. I would rather qualify that by saying that she has the same sense of dark broodiness to her music that the original post-punk gothic pioneers had, even when it is enticing you to dance. And that’s the thing about this album, you are not sure how you are supposed to react to it: invite a few friends over, have a few drinks, dance or ponder in solitude in the dark. Perhaps it is visceral confusion that makes “Conatus” great – the fact that this is music that lends itself to both.

I do not think I would place Zola Jesus as one of the bands caught up in revival (for the sake of revival). Furthermore, I am sure that Nika Roza Danilova has been compared to just about everyone out there, but I think most of those comparisons are as misplaced as the adulterated “gothic” label. Here are a few comparisons that may entice you to want to listen. Like one of my favorite contemporary artists, Clara Engel, Danilova oozes uncompromising passion towards her music. The beauty, like Engel’s music, is the feeling that what you are listening to is sincere, full of conviction, and heartfelt. In terms of her image, she is like the classic Annie Lennox: what you see is an extension / mirror of the profundity of the music, not something that exists in a vacuum, but rather part of the entire package. Musically, she has the dramatics of the classic, avant-garde Kate Bush – without loyalty to any one genre or mindset of how to approach her music, Danilova is able to breathe a distinct life into each song. And, lastly, as a vocalist, she is as haunting as Susan Ballion, the one and only Siouxsie Sioux. As a listener, you really feel Danilova’s passion when she sings with complete abandon.

Musically, this is a hodgepodge of dark chamber pop, synthpop, post-punk gothic, and art rock; however, each song has all of these elements to varying degrees. After the short introduction, “Sword” (sound and vocal effects), you are confronted with “Avalanche” – a post-punk beat and sinister keyboard, electro claps, and powerful wailing. Yet, later in the album, “Shivers” has the same mentality to the keys, but the sounds are softer, a continual sound effect (short of an ostinato), and a pop worthy beat – both songs may share the same underpinnings, but they are worlds apart. The most amazing vocal moment comes during the closing track “Collapse.” The music of this song is approached in a minimalist fashion, allowing the power of her soulful singing to carry the song. It would be easy to argue that there are other songs that demonstrate a greater range in vocals, but that is not what makes great vocals. What makes these vocals standout is that the vocal arrangements are so hauntingly striking they almost subvert the music (but not completely), making it near inconsequential – it is not the two layers of music that compel you to listen, it is the voice that arrests your complete attention.

I can’t help but be heady and theoretical while watching the video for “Vessel,” (directed by Jacqueline Castel of Future Primitive Films) [posted below], which really brings out the cinematic qualities of the music. From the subtly shifting imagery, within a definite range of colors, with the use of animation to juxtapose the concrete from the ethereal, this video captures that consciousness of spatiality I mentioned above and the entire concept of isolation. The video does not portray Danilova as a character in a short film, but rather as the subject of study in a phantasmagorical, surreal documentary. And that is another point about her music: she is not causally singing about incidents, but rather living them out in her music. This is where that passionate conviction emotes. Furthermore, she could easily have portrayed herself as a character, but rather, as stated above, allowed her image to be not only part of the imagery of the video, but also the “image” of profundity that the song arches towards.

As I am writing at this moment, I am re-listening to the vocal arrangements in “Ixode,” set to a steady, 80s house beat. It is the perfect exemplar of the album: thought and emotion provoking, wrapped in carefully detailed music that pulls from many distinct references to create an entire experience. Zola Jesus’ “Conatus” is definitely one of the big surprises of the year, and one of the must haves of the year.

Track Listing:
1. Swords
2. Avalanche
3. Vessel
4. Hikikomori
5. Ixode
6. Seekir
7. In Your Nature
8. Like the Palm of the Burning Handshake
9. Shivers
10. Skin
11. Collapse

Keep up with Zola Jesus at the band’s homepage, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter.

Also, check out A Primitive Future’s homepage and YouTube Channel, FUTUREPRIMITVEFILMS, where the video for “Vessel” can be found.

Read more ...

05 October 2011

The Kills: “Blood Pressures”

I’ve been in a really trashy mood lately, leaving my hair in tatters and wearing clothes that don’t quite coincide with one another. And with this newly acquired mood I’ve found myself listening to a lot of grunge-esque and post-punk bands here and there: filtering though my Orgasmic-Music-Generator (my iPod), I felt myself become completely enthralled while blasting The Cure in my ears or The Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs. While in the midst of zoning in and out, I found a group that had been hiding practically under my nose this entire time—The Kills. I will be sincerely honest: I did in fact skip over their songs maybe a couple dozen of times until recently when I had virtually been crushed by the convoluted intro of a new life. Walking down usual streets in my newly found raggedy attire I caught myself bobbing my head almost angrily to the devious rhythms that churned out of “Blood Pressures” (1 April 2011 in Republic of Ireland, Germany, Nordic Countries, and Austria; 4 April 2011 in the UK, 12 April 2011). I find that I am euphoric about this band that I hardly ever listen to before, and it is actually pretty amazing how The Kills managed to strike me this time around. Like another nameless blogger said recently, some albums just grow on you in an unexpected way. I can now admit that “Blood Pressures” is truly a bloody grand explosion for the auditory senses.

For those readers (much like I) who have never paid much attention to The Kills until now, they originated in the UK and are the duo of James Hince on guitar and American Alison Mosshart on vocals. When I had mentioned to a friend of mine that I was reviewing The Kills’ fourth album “Blood Pressures,” their first quote was—“Wow, they’re old.” This shocked me because I finally realized they had been around for a long time and I never gave them a fair go, but I guess that is what happens when you listen to something completely out of your usual musical horizons. I’ve found this entire album to be like a new euphoria for me, the album to me is literally like a shelf full of books; in the beginning we start off extremely coarse and bold letting the listener know that this is what is the “here and now,” and then reaching a midpoint where things start to slow down and caress the eardrums with both cunning yet suave lyrics and slow-tempo rhythms, and then eventually you are placed harshly onto a rollercoaster and set flying down the track until you reach the book’s end on this shelf of exquisitely composed tracks.

“You can holler, you can wail, you can swing you, you can flair, you can fuck like a broken sail; but I’ll never give you up; if I ever give you up, my heart would surely fail.” I can’t find my way around these lyrics, which are from the first track on the album “Future Starts Slow,” they’re almost stunning to my recently constipated mind that I feel exuberant and inspired. The track introduces itself with the low beating of a drum, and then is accompanied by loosely plucked strings on Hince’s guitar; soon enough both Mosshart’s and Hince’s rugged vocals then enrapture the listener into believing how determined they are. The aggression of this song strongly constricted me as tightly as it possibly could, loosened the screws on my narrow vision and led me deeper into the track with an open mind.

The next two tracks that I must mention are “Baby Says” and “Last Goodbye.” I’ve found myself completely stricken by these two tracks because they are so diverse compared to the opening and ending track. “Baby Says” is the horizon line for this album; this is simply where things just start to slow down and become more elegant. Opening with such a very strange guitar rift (that made me think there was something wrong with my speakers) and then the compelling lyrics that grab you by the waist and make you twirl relentlessly – “Baby says she dying to meet you, take you off and make your blood hum and tremble like the fairground lights. Baby says if ever you see skin as fair or eyes as deep and as black as mine, I’ll know you’re lying.” I find that there is a repetitive sense of obedience in The Kills tracks, also a building of hierarchy in the songs in the way they are so portrayed as a whole. Now the “Last Goodbye” is the one track on the “Blood Pressures” album that makes me genuinely emotional. Mosshart sends the listener adrift on a record player and lets them spin slowly until they are lulled into a sleep of tranquility.

Through all of the ups and downs of this ruffled roller coaster of an album, “Blood Pressures” has to be my ideal depiction of what great indie rock is all about. The fact that not only the ghostly vocals of Mosshart can carve a satisfied frown on to your face, but also the fact that Hince can play strictly to alluded the listener deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, makes this band compelling. If you are interested in having your ears eradicated by the tempting sounds of today’s always wonderful Indie rock, try and convince yourself to take a listen to “Blood Pressures”; believe me, it is well advised.

Track Listing:
1. Future Starts Slow
2. Satellite
3. Heart Is A Beating Drum
4. Nail In My Coffin
5. Wild Charms
6. DNA
7. Baby Says
8. The Last Goodbye
9. Damned If She Do
10. You Don’t Own The Road
11. Pots And Pans

Keep up with The Kills at their homepage, MySpace, and Facebook.

Here are the videos for “Satellite” and “Future Starts Slow,” as well as the a live rendition of “The Last Goodbye,” from the DominoRecords YouTube Channel.

Read more ...

03 October 2011

Stephen Vs Stephen: "And Yet EP"

I think it is only musicians (especially prior to the mid-90s) that swear musical purity, as they swaggered about swearing they were in one genre or other, this scene or that, and treaded around criticisms if they ever deviated from their self-imposed labels. Music fans, on the other hand, rarely have these hang-ups. From electropop to goth and anything in between, the archetypical music fan has a plethora of music that lends itself to play the game what-doesn’t-belong-in-this-group? It is obvious from one listen that Stephen Vs Stephen (the moniker of Stephen Sandknop) is a music fan; with this five-track debut, “And Yet EP” (23 August 2011), SVS dismisses any musical purity and distills more 80s than may be healthy for the average person. From dream pop-esque vocal arrangements, post-punk urgency, synthpop infectiousness, shoegaze distortion, electropop bleeping, noise pop fuzziness, etc… and yet in this profusion of musical references, which quite often are not compatible with one another, is a euphoric EP that demonstrates musical vision, songwriting chops, and the potential of this nascent musician.

I learnt of Stephen Vs Stephen during my summer long vacation into much needed inconsistency; it was Microfilm that made me aware of the “And Yet EP.” Normally I find myself put off when anyone tells me about new artists or what I should listen to, but as I consider this house duo to be genius, I had to take a listen. I was blown away immediately by the first track. I did a futile search for information on Stephen vs. Stephen – futile because there is little to no information available about this truly a nascent artist. But any lovers of music, especially those of 80s music (from post-punk to synthpop), should listen to this EP.

The “And Yet EP” opens with “The Void.” As a point of comparison (and the highest compliment I can pay any artist by comparison), the song sort of reminded me of The Cure’s “Out of Mind” (the b-side of “Fascination Street” or “Lullaby,” depending where in the world you are). Though not as “post-punky gothic,” the sound and visceral effect of the guitar are similar. However, this is not that gothy ditty in the least; added here are some nifty synthpop elements gone industrial, big ambient keys, and heartfelt, layered vocals. Though you would swear when first listening to the music that the vocals will be of the matter-of-fact tone, what you get are vocals that demonstrate the conviction towards the lyrics and the sincerity of the words. In a nutshell, can you say track of the year?

The second track, “The Difference Between Us,” instantly reminded me of those near dance-ready 80s electropop songs that made you want to shuffle side-to-side. With a steady beat, intersected by nifty drum rolls during the chorus, musically the most mesmerizing moment is the bridge, when the beat fades away and you are drifting in a dream pop meets synthpop interlude of etherealness. The song is remixed by Microfilm (“Microfilm’s High Contrast Mix”) for the final track of the EP. True to form, Microfilm recreates this song completely, conceiving it into a real house song, keeping the vocals intact. The collection then falls into the ballad “A Strange Kind.” Loaded with a chiming ostinato and subtle jingly guitar arrangements, it is the interplay between the ambient keys and dreamy vocal arrangements that really is the focus of the song. Hauntingly sweet, it is one of those songs that can best be described as a sigh.

The last track before the remix is the titular “And Yet…” Near six minutes, all the post-punk and shoegaze tricks come out during this epic: repetition that keeps on building, distorted musical arrangements with big ambient keys, and matter-of-fact (but harmonious) vocals. When the beat finally drops, the acoustic strumming adds depth to the range of sounds. But soon after, the song immediately crashes towards its end four-minutes in; what remains is sheer distorted noise creating a semblance of the song – someone here must have heard his My Bloody Valentine.

Now starts my mission to convince Stephen Vs Stephen to answer a few questions.

Track Listing:
1. The Void
2. The Difference Between Us
3. A Strange Kind
4. And Yet...
5. The Difference Between Us (Microfilm's High Contrast Mix)

Here is a video clip of “And Yet” from the SBSandknop YouTube Channel, followed by an embed of “Void” from the stephen-vs-stephen Soundcloud page.

01 The Void by Stephen Vs Stephen

Head over to Stephen Vs Stephen’s Bandcamp page where you can preview and download the “And Yet EP.” As I receive more information on this artist, I will keep you posted.
Read more ...

01 October 2011

Tiny Victories Live At The Loft

My thanks to my brother for introducing me to The Loft.

It is fitting that the Dutch would be the first Europeans to colonize Hoboken, considering that the bulk of this one-mile square town is under sea level. Practically an extension of Manhattan, Hoboken is typically known for once having been part of the textile center of the northeastern United States, now a mecca of young urban professionals and hipsters, but then and now a ditch that often gets flooded in many areas when it rains. Hoboken is anything other than the New Jersey stereotypes: funny accents, strip malls, big hair, and Lee Press on Nails. In actuality, Hoboken has for years been a hub of cultural and social diversity and a great destination for noteworthy music. A few weeks ago, I came across Tiny Victories’ “Mr. Bones 7”” – a two-track collection; I was instantly smitten – but had no expectations to see them live any time soon. Then my brother invited me along to one of his haunts, The Loft in Hoboken, to see them perform this past Friday (30 September 2011). I admitted ignorance: I had never heard of this place … and it turned out to be a great night.

Though I may be off base, it seems that one must receive an invitation in order to see any performance at The Loft. Obviously, it was once a living room (and probably dubs as such during the day), but there is a welcoming feel to the place, as a nice sized crowd was slumped over coaches, standing in small groups, and parading about. As I stood there with my brother, I looked around and said, “This is definitely not Brooklyn.” I really do love Brooklyn, but recently there is a sense of elitism that has pervaded the music scene (especially the audiences) that I really do not care for; this audience was truly Jersey: fun loving, partying, relaxed, and welcoming. If you plan to call this place a hipster hangout, you best qualify that by saying these are not yesterday’s hipsters … this is a new breed. As for the actual space, I think it may just now be my favorite small venue to catch a live act in Jersey. (How do I get on that invite list now?)

The start time of the show was more than slightly pushed back … perhaps the bad weather (which put me in the mood to listen to OMD’s classic, “Crush”), but the band took the stage a little after 11. The band is composed of Cason Kelly (drums, electronic percussions, and background vocals) and Greg Walters (lead vocals and samplers). Having real drums for most of the set is an advantage for electronic bands… nothing can replicate the feel of real drums on a stage. But even when deferring to complete electronics, the band's music is infectious enough to get the crowd going; even Walters noted how animated the crowd was during the set.

(Tiny Victories' "Mr Bones 7"" cover)

Let’s start with the two tracks from the “Mr. Bones 7”” – both of them translated amazingly in live performance. Bands that rely heavily on electronic equipment have to worry about their music falling flat live – the experience of blasting music loud at home or a club is very distinct than that of a live performance. And electronic bands run the risk of sounding exactly the same live as they do in recordings – the quality of the worse electronics acts. Not the case with Tiny Victories. There is a David Byrne quality to their music – no, they sound nothing like The Talking Heads, but they definitely approach putting their music together in the same way as Byrne when he is being a bit more experimental (whether intentional or not). “Mr. Bones” has a faux-ostinato (faux, as it does not add to the rhythm nor melody, but sounds great in the background) that creates a nice wall of sound. Then there is “Lost Weekend.” The opening line is, “Send me a postcard from the edge of your mind…” and I am sure there are a ton of other musicians who would be envious that they were not the ones to first state the obviously blatant first! And that is the thing about the lyrics here: like many acts that I enjoy lyrically, there is a brash poetic honesty and obviousness that makes the words compelling. From the organ to the thriving beat, the ostinato, and the haunting lyrics, this song instantly reminded me of the avant garde 80s and even the late 80s when pre-dance punk bands (like Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine and Meat Beat Manifesto) were coming of age: though part of a larger electronic trend at the moment, there is the potential to start something new here.

(Tiny Victories: Cason Kelly and Greg Walters)

As performers, Tiny Victories really engaged the audience. On two occasions they sampled the audience (once just a handclap used as part of the percussion arrangement, and the second time the words “Happy Birthday Sappy” and looped it various time – at least I think it was “Sappy” or maybe “Saffy,” regardless she was ecstatically dancing the song away). But at the end of it all, this was about the music – The Loft is well lit, with no shadows to hide behind and no light show or LCD screens to flash about in fancy patterns. When you perform here, it is about the music. And for an audience to be completely enthralled in a set of music that was largely unreleased material and unknown to the audience says something about both the space and the band.

The Loft isn’t set up to be some trendy place for bands to roll around into and use gimmickry or hide behind the reputation of their moniker. I would like to imagine that the space was intentionally set up for bands that have something to prove as performers, as the focus will solely be the music and not any flashy visuals. And as for the audience, perhaps regulars at the venue, they are music lovers. Even during the DJ set before the band’s performance, their reactions to the music really demonstrated their passion (though I really could have done without the Weezer in the DJ set).

And Tiny Victories have both the songwriting and performance chops to get on a bare stage and enchant an audience. The only complaint you may have is that the set was too short, but as this nascent band grows and composes even more music, their set is only going to become more dynamic. (Remember quality is more important than quantity, and I rather a short tight set than a long, monotonous one.) I have to disclose the fact that I had the chance to speak with Greg Walters and was impressed with his lack of façade or elitism (that is, as I said above, so prevalent in the Brooklyn music scene these days, which the band hails from). As the band shops around for a label and makes plan to record a full length or an EP, this set says everything you need to know about them. Artistic, but accessible, powerful, but alluring … not an experience you want to miss.

(Not only do I have to thank my brother for inviting me along, I have to thank him for taking these pictures for me on his iPhone, as my camera’s battery was dead.)

Live Set:
1. Untitled new song
2. Lost Weekend
3. Graviton
4. Justine
5. I Get Uppa (Amazing Ghost cover)
6. Get Lost
7. Mr. Bones
8. Austin, TX (encore)

Keep up with Tiny Victories at their MySpace and Facebook. Head over to their Bandcamp page where you can preview and download the “Mr. Bones 7”.” The band will be performing throughout the month of October in the NYC area, including the CMJ Music Marathon.

Keep up with The Loft at their homepage, Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr.
Read more ...