Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Cleveland rockers Cloud Nothings conjure a storm at The End

Cloud Nothings mastermind Dylan Baldi had
a few things to get off his chest.
Rock music is meant to be raw, dirty and real. When played the way it's supposed to, it will put you in the type of frenzy to eviscerate everything in your living room. And Tuesday night at The End, the Cloud Nothings proved you don't have to limit yourself to three chords to do it.

The indie punk rockers from Cleveland never lacked for energy as they tore through the eight tracks on their latest LP, Attack on Memory. The album has won acclaim thanks to Dylan Baldi's icy take on indie rock, but the live show brings out a much richer, heavier and deeper sound. Simply put, this is big boy, balls to the wall, perspiration soaked hard rock that grabs your throat and never lets go.

The set kicked off with the excellent "Stay Useless," a leering and cynical piece musing on the futility of life. The band is going nuts, and the moshing is already kicking into high gear. Unfortunately, there were some technical issues.

Baldi's microphone decided to go on strike after the first verse of "Fall In." So we were treated to a mostly instrumental version of the song. After that they jammed out for a little bit and then went into the instrumental "Separation" while the techie was (presumably) working out the bugs.

The highlight of the night was "Wasted Days," which presents an oppressive aggro-rock attitude that eventually gives way to an extended post-punk instrumental jam section. If you enjoyed this song on the record you'll love it even more live, as the intensity the Cloud Nothings brings is truly off the charts.  The drum work is nuts. Jayson Gerycz goes berserk on his kit, as he maintains a blistering beat on the snare while hitting the hi-hat, crash cymbal, and floor tom with his off hand without breaking rhythm.

Anna Fox Rochinski brings 60s shoegaze to life with passionate harmonies.

Other highlights included the bouncing, brooding "Cut You," and the dizzying snare and hi-hat beat on "Our Plans." The eerily atmospheric "No Future, No Past" served as the set closer, which turned into an energetic crowd shoutalong on the final chorus.

Beforehand though, there was a varied patchwork of opening bands.

Quilt kicked off the evening, opening with a bit of 60s inspired surf rock with some trippy keyboards and an emphasis on vocal harmonies. The keyboard is the standout element for me; once Anna Fox Rochinsk ditches it for the guitar, they began to lose their distinctive edge.
TJ Duke brings Cloud Nothings'  propulsive rhythms to life.

Playing directly before Cloud Nothings was A Classic Education. Singer Jonathan Clancy possessed great stage presence, but his band specialized in the light, breezy type of indie rock I've heard far too many times.

My favorite opening band was The Big Sleep,
a Brooklyn trio best known for their post-rock work. We didn't see much of that from them, however, as they instead opted to unleash a hard edged, driving rock sound.

It was sometimes dark and moody, sometimes avant-garde, but always in your face and aggressive. Sonya Balchandani's hypnotic vocals inject an air of mystery into the music, and "Four Wishes" contains as good 
of a riff as I've heard played in this building. 

If you like your music delivered with a steely edge, Cloud Nothings and The Big Sleep were money. If you prefer sounds that gently wash over you, Quilt and A Classic Education likely brought a smile to your face. No matter your preference, there was no way to lose on this night.

The Big Sleep's quick wristed axeman Danny Barria crafts dark melodies.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Goatwhore's Blood for the Master lashes out with unrelenting intensity

I don't know about you, but when I'm searching for new metal bands I seek someone who pays tribute to the old guard and demonstrates a mastery of the fundamentals. Many bands sabotage themselves by trying to be too experimental, or push themselves too far out of their comfort zone.

New Orleans blackened/thrash/death quartet Goatwhore doesn't try to push the envelope, and they certainly aren't flashy. But oftentimes that's the best formula. With their fifth LP, Blood for the Master, Goatwhore are solidifying their status as arbiters of the unholy. Their approach seems simple and straightforward at first, but closer inspection reveals their approach to be an amalgamation of several styles.

The opener, "Collapse in Eternal Worth," kicks off with an intense blast of fiery black metal riffing which combines with the spitfire vocal snarl of Louis B. Falgoust II and an all-out aural drum assault. The work of guitarist Sammy Duet cannot be understated. There are plenty of great grooving, headbanging riffs, there are heavy crunching riffs, and certainly there is your black metal staccato.

The guitar solos, however, are a bit of an oddity. The playing is solid, but the solos seem to be buried in the mix, as the rhythm guitar and drums overpower them a bit. Composition-wise, they are very methodical and much slower paced. They weave and wind their way to their crux, which stands in sharp contrast to the aggressive and straight ahead nature of the rest of the music.

Falgoust also provides the band with a great deal of diversity. Many songs on Blood for the Master are marked by his unmistakable raspy shrieks. But he also utilizes a much deeper, throatier growl, which is deployed to brutal effect. He also unleashes some special effects from time to time. There are a couple of moments on "An End to Nothing" and "In Deathless Tradition," he pulls off a lower pitched rasp with a slightly different cadence from what he usually does. It's like a spoken word snarl, and the effect is totally wicked.

Midway through "Beyond the Spell of Discontent" you'll also hear him revert to a super high pitched snarl that hits at the very top of his register. This song very well may feature his most viscous performance of the album.

The lyrics on Blood for the Master are just as diabolical and blasphemous as anything the band has put forth. No moment is wasted in attacking the pillars of religion and clamoring for more souls to quench Hell's fire. Goatwhore doesn't just attack the cross; it tears it down, stomps on it, and aims to leave you with no hope for retribution. On "In Deathless Tradition," Falgoust sings:

"Praise the promised words that seem timeless, stepping off a precipice into disaster/
Failed dispute of this longing regret, another shallow attempt of life after death."

Zack Simmons' drum work is not overly technical or complex. He has some nice fills from time to time, but for the most part his kit is used to channel the aggressive energy that is a key part of the band's sound. I liken his work to that of 80s thrash drummers who prized speed and endurance over technique.

As for highlights? Well, the opening riff on "In Deathless Tradition" is among the best on the album, and that song has steadily been working its way up my list of favorites. "Embodiment of this Bitter Chaos" kicks off with a winding guitar lead backed by an acoustic riff, which sounds like something dredged out of the darkest depths of Dimebag Darrell's archives. And in terms of full-blown onslaught, it's hard to go wrong with "Parasitic Scriptures of the Sacred World."

I take a few points off because the music begins to sound a bit samey after awhile. However, if you respect the no frills, unrelenting nature of bands like Pantera and Celtic Frost, or lament that Lamb of God has gone a bit too mainstream for your tastes, then Goatwhore's Blood for the Master may well provide you with the perfect sacrifice.

Score: 84/100

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Change the sheets? Nope. Voyageur is more like change the disc

Ottawa singer/songwriter Kathleen Edwards has steadily built a reputation of creating home grown folk and Americana. Leading up to the release of Voyageur, she seemed primed to make her biggest splash yet.This album has been drawing attention from all over the blogosphere for two main reasons. First, this is her first album since hooking up with beau Justin Vernon from Bon Iver, who is also the album's producer.

Second, and the main reason this album caught my attention, was for the lead single "Change the Sheets." It's a captivating and airy power pop track with breathy vocals that sees Edwards indulging the rather risque pleasures of "margaritas and sleeping pills." As lushly orchestrated as "Change the Sheets" is, however, it's not a great representation of the rest of the album. The instrumentation is much richer and there are many little effects added in that give it a zestier flavor.

The remainder of Voyageur generally features a much more stripped down and quieter sound, which unfortunately doesn't work as well as one might have hoped.

She does a nice job with the slow ballads. "House Full of Empty Rooms" tells of a relationship that has begun to lose a bit of its magic, and it comes across as very moody and pensive. "A Soft Place to Land" and "Going to Hell" can also certainly stir up a few emotions. The main issue with Voyageur is that Edwards doesn't sing with much of a sense of passion.

The remaining tracks are tuneful enough, but when the focal point of your music is the voice and writing, sometimes you need to have some bite. The album as a whole is lacking in terms of drive or energy. A cursory glance at previous albums will turn up tracks like "Back to Me," which captured a great biting spirit. Nor will you find any of the organic feel that made tracks like "6 O'clock News" suck a winner.

"Comedian/Chameleon," which tells of a person who tries to hide their insecurities by acting like a comedian, may be the most lyrically visceral track on Voyageur. But it doesn't register the kind of kick that you need for a song like this.

Lyrically, Edwards tends to paint a lot of imagery and use a great deal of metaphor, a bit of a departure from her earlier works. Songs like "Alicia Ross" and "Asking for Flowers" from her previous album tended to be much more direct and to the point, but here she tends to beat around the bush and it certainly causes the album to lose a bit of immediacy.

So what's gone wrong here? By listening to Voyageur, one could easily conclude that Edwards has lost her fire. But her previous work and her blistering live performances clearly indicate such is not the case. Perhaps Mr. Vernon's production work must bear some of the blame?

He's not known for being a firebrand himself, instead being much better known for his quaint, log cabin in the woods type of sound. If that's what he was going for, he missed the mark. The production work is too crisp, clear and clean to capture that pastoral sound made famous by the Bon Iver records. Rather, he's only succeeded in engineering a work that sounds dull, bland and lifeless.

Voyageur isn't quite what I would call a bad album. It's certainly listenable, and occasionally catchy. But the core values of being a folk based singer/songwriter is that you've got to have something to say, and a spark that draws people to your persona. A bit of gravel in your guts and spit in your eye, if you will. Unfortunately, Voyageur simply doesn't present me with a reason to care.

Score: 76/100

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Kathleen Edwards' hand crafted folk explosion igntes Exit/In stage

Singer/Songwriter Kathleen Edwards tears up Exit/In.
It's not often that I make the trip to see Canadian singer/songwriters, but I sensed something special in Kathleen Edwards. The Ottawa native caught my eye with the single "Change the Sheets," a hook driven power pop affair nestled in a luscious bed of organic instrumentation.

Her recently released Voyager album has been drawing more attention for who was in the production booth than it had for its actual content. The fact that Bon Iver's Justin Vernon was the album's producer has caused this album to generate much more of a buzz than it likely would have otherwise.

If you're wondering if Edwards delivers a similar recorded in a log cabin type of feel, well, the answer is yes and no. She measures each word carefully and thoughtfully, placing near as much emphasis on the message she's trying to get across as she does on the actual music itself. The result was that Voyager presented itself as a very thoughtful record, if a tad bit on the safe side. But her Jan. 28 performance at Exit/In would paint a different picture, as Edwards swept the crowd away in a gale force whirling dervish.

Fellow Canadian and opening act Hannah Georgas kept the seat warm for Edwards with a serving of plucky pop/rock. I see a girl step on to the stage in brown hiking boots, sporting bangs of burnt auburn with curls that cascade down to her shoulders. She is clad in the type of getup that suggests she may have just finished a trek through the cross Canadian ragweed.

Her music is characterized by heartfelt vocals over top of light, breezy pop music, as she gently plucks the strings of her Harmony Stratotone. Her guitar playing is generally subdued, but when she lets the full energy of each chord ring out, as she did on "Enemies," the results are striking. Other highlights incldue "Millions," which smartly captures a sense of financial angst, and she also pulled off an upbeat, bouncy cover of John Maus's "Hey Moon."

There's a  legion of twentysomething chicks armed with pen and pad who have plenty of issues to get off their chest, and Georgas didn't particularly distinguish herself from that crowd on this night. But why let that bother us as long as the music is just plain fun?

Bon Iver's Justin Vernon lays it all on the line.

As soon as Edwards appeared she left no doubt about what type of statement she was trying to make, announcing that her dress is a bit see through. "Sorry," she says, in a tone that suggests she's anything but.

Her set kicked off with the dramatic one two punch of "Empty Threat" and "Comedian/Chameleon," the first two tracks from the Voyageur album. "Comedian/Chameleon" in particular is interesting because it tells the story of a person who tries to hide their true selves by making jokes and acting like a comedian. She exposes the superficiality of such behavior by singing, "I don't need a punchline."

Elsewhere, "6 O'Clock" presented a nice small town, alt-country shuffle, while Edwards really got her feathers ruffled on the stinging "Back to Me." But the most elegant moment of the evening may have come when the band left her side to allow Edwards to give a solo performance of "House Full of Empty Rooms."

She prefaced it by explaining that the inspiration for the song came when she once owned a house that was much larger than she needed, which left many of the rooms empty and vacant. She began wondering what to do with a house full of empty rooms -- which gave rise to the theme of the song. Her quiet performance allowed the full impact of the song to fully resonate throughout the room.

Near the end of the show, we were all in for a great treat when the man himself Justin Vernon made a surprise appearance. Many fans and critics get up in arms over Vernon for his singing and songwriting skills, but at Exit/In Vernon reminded us that he's also a great guitarist. He delivered soul filled solos on "Goodnight California" and "12 Bellevue," his body twisting and jerking as he poured out every drop of emotion.

By show's end, I was more impressed than I can remember myself feeling from a show in a long time. The Voyageur album certainly demonstrated that Edwards is thoughtful, but live she reveals herself to be a firebrand as well.
Right away it's clear that there's something different about these tracks. Note wise they're the same, but Edwards brings a passion and virulent energy to these songs that was conspicuously absent from the recorded version. The intensity is etched plainly all over her face, from the burning drive behind her eyes to the way her head shakes ever so slightly when belting it out. It was evident during "Mint," when she suddenly jerked back from the microphone and violently slashed downward at her guitar strings.

There are more than a few chicks who try to be trendy by scribbling their problems onto a sheet. This is obviously a woman who's seen it, felt it, lived it, and is now trying to verbalize. And it will hit you how superficial the army of imitators are once you've seen the real thing.

We get it, Kathleen. You don't need a punchline.

Edwards shared a great sense of chemistry with axeman Gord Tough.