Thursday, May 31, 2012

Storm Corrosion's buildup will leave you with a major letdown

The working relationship between Opeth's Mikael Akerfeldt and Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree is well documented. These prog rock heavyweights have worked together on producing Opeth records, but they've never made an album together. At least not until Storm Corrosion.

Storm Corrosion is the concluding piece of a trilogy that began with the 2011 releases from Wilson and Akerfeldt. Opeth's Heritage was a twisted jaunt through the deepest depths of a 70s folk/metal inspired wonderland. The band covered all bases, with hints of Rainbow, Black Sabbath, and Jethro Tull shining through.

Meanwhile, Wilson's sophomore solo soundscape operated on a different approach. The cover of Grace for Drowning, like the music within, was soaked in a shade of crimson -- King Crimson, to be exact. The sprawling double disc set strongly recalled his love for these progressive rock titans, and produced more than a few tunes suitable for beckoning the end times.

Although culled from the same era, both Heritage and Grace for Drowning managed to stand apart. So it should be no surprise that a good deal of anticipation has built up over what Act III might deliver.

Storm Corrosion brings together two trademark aspects of these artists. On the one hand, you have the heavy nature influence found throughout many of Opeth's early records. The photos in the booklet are grainy and faded, like someone was playing this music from the middle of a field long, long ago. The music is designed to sound the way the pictures look, so to speak.

But there is an ominous undercurrent swirling around just under the surface, something darker and much more sinister.  From time to time, you will be hit with off kilter and trippy passages that harken back to the most demented moments of 1970s psychedelia. They appear infrequently, but pop up so unexpectedly that their presence provides a subtle coloring for the entire album. It's easy to see Wilson's hand in this.

The opener, "Drag Ropes," gets the album off to an inauspicious start. Akerfeldt starts off with some slightly cheesy and melodramatic vocals, which leads into the first major drone section of the album. Steven Wilson comes in singing a bizarre line about how the truth can now be told, while organs and strings clash in the background. Each progression sounds like it's building up to something, but end of the song simply dumps you back into the initial verse that Akerfeldt started off singing.

The title track is the true standout. It contains a sampling of all the album's major elements, and does so flawlessly. The first six minutes of the song feature some beautiful acoustic guitar playing accompanied by Wilson's gentle vocal. It eventually fades into trebley sounding strings that combine with chaotic guitar strumming to create a dark and unnerving background ambiance. Eventually, some light guitar playing can be heard in the background, and the droning in the foreground slowly cuts out like a radio losing transmission. You are then left with nothing but a beautiful riff, and Akerfeldt returns with a haunting final verse.

As the album progresses, however, its main fault becomes clear. The progressions in each song seem to be build up to something. However, you never really get a payoff, and as a result the album doesn't seem to know where it's going.

The opening to "Hag" is minimalist to the extreme, with Wilson slowly enunciating each line of each verse. This sounds like something we've heard him do before. From there, you get the only truly heavy section on the entire album, although the guitar and drum work are coated in a layer of menacing fuzz. I personally like the effect; it's a great continuation of the faded and worn feel that Akerfeldt and Wilson seem to be shooting for. But instead of building on the success of that section, the song instead stubbornly reprises the the opening verse. It's like Wilson doesn't know where it wants to the song to go so he just throws his hands in the air.

"Lock Howl" is perhaps the biggest offender in this regard. I enjoy the brisk acoustic riff in the beginning, along with the sound of the bells and strings quietly chiming in the backround. From there it builds into some bizarre Egyptian sounding passage before -- maddeningly -- resetting once again to the initial riff. See the pattern?

"Happy," which sees Wilson attempt his best Fleet Foxes impersonation, is by far the album's shortest track. As such, it doesn't do enough to distinguish itself and gets lost in the album's acoustic ether. 

It all comes crashing down with "Ljudet Innan." In perhaps the most offbeat twist in an album full of offbeat twists, the track begins with falsetto vocals which have a minor soul/ R&B tinge. It completely clashes with the spirit of everything else on the album. Once that subsides, the track floats around in too much ambiance for far too long. It finally reaches a conclusion chock full of bluesy, 70s inspired guitar work that sounds like it could have been pulled from Opeth's Damnation/Deliverance era. It's nice to see they finally give a song a proper conclusion, but as the album closer it really isn't an adequate climax for an album that's all about buildups.

For the most part, the progressions on Storm Corrosion aren't particularly bad. It's a listenable album with many neat elements that potentially could have led to a great record. The main issue is that it tends to rely too much on drone elements to establish its sense of atmosphere. Neither artist is particularly experienced with making this technique work, and Storm Corrosion provides ample evidence that Wilson should have left it behind in his Metatonia/Voyage 34 days.

The title track is well executed, but far too often the rest of the songs don't go through their natural progressions, so there isn't much payoff in the end. At times I can't help but wonder: what exactly is the point?

Score: 77/100

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Battle of Blackwater roars on HBO's Game of Thrones

And the mouth of the Blackwater swallowed Stannis Baratheon.

The second season of HBO's Game of Thrones reached its crescendo with the Battle of Blackwater, which saw Westeros's rightful king, Stannis Baratheon, repelled in his effort to claim his crown by Joffery Baratheon, who seized the throne through deception.

Two full seasons worth of material had been building toward this moment. George R.R. Martin, author the book series the show is based on, wrote the script for the episode. It did not disappoint. Previous battles in Martin's series had to be cut for budget reasons. Blackwater gave viewers their first chance to witness large scale warfare between characters we've been getting to know and love (or loathe) for the last two years.

Tyrion Lannister, Hand of the King, carries out the high octane defense of King's Landing.

The effects were unlike anything anything seen in the show's current run. The giant green wildfire explosion that took out most of Stannis's fleet was awe inspiring; it signaled that the producers had truly taken things to another level for this episode. The battle went through several fascinating progressions. Sandor Cleagne was among Joffery's fiercest warriors, but was mortally frightened of fire after having been burned as a child. His terror of the flame engulfing the battlefield was brilliantly captured, and the scene where he breaks from the battle and retreats was eloquently pictured.

Also turning tail was Joffery Baratheon, who returned to the safety of Maegor's holdfast on the orders of his mother, the queen regent. Jack Gleeson was once again terrific in the role of the boy king, as his horror and indecision highlighted perfectly what a little shit Joffery is. This cast a stark contrast to the actions of Stannis, who led his troops into battle and was the first man to land on the shores of King's Landing as he rallied his troops into battle. And it gives us a chance to see Stannis as a great war general, something often referred to but rarely seen first hand in the novels.

Elsewhere, the psychological game between Queen Cersei and Sansa Stark was first rate. This episode gave us the chance to see a side of Cersei the HBO show had largely skimped on. She was venomous, cruel and wretched as she sipped her wine and terrorized Sansa with her tales of the gritty ramifications of leadership, and the horrible fate that awaited them all should Stannis take the city. Lena Headley's performance as Cersei was chilling, especially the tale she told her son Tommen on the Iron Throne.

Stannis Baratheon prepares to take the Iron Throne of Westeros by force.

Peter Dinklage had another great outing as the queen's brother, Tyrion Lannister. His rousing speech to rally the troops served as a lightning rod for what would come. In a nice nod to book readers, we also got the chance to see Ser Mandon Moore of the Kingsguard turn on Tyrion and leave him with a ghastly scar. His rescue at the hands of his squire Podrick Payne capped off one of the greatest scenes from Martin's novel A Clash of Kings.

It was hard to find fault with any aspect of the episode. Pre battle, it did a great job of building a dreadful sense of foreboding; you knew some **** was about to go down. With only one episode left in the season, it won't be long until a storm of swords engulfs all of Westeros.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Wonky restores Orbital's status as gods of UK rave scene

The Blue Album was supposed to be their grand send off.

After a considerable drop off from their early career, British electronica duo Orbital went out on a high note in 2004 with their eponymous blue album. It boasted one of their biggest hits, "One Perfect Sunrise." The time was ripe for brothers Paul and Phil Hartnoll to stroll off into the sunset.

But as many artists before them have learned, it can be so hard to say goodbye.

Wonky is Orbital's first studio record in eight years, and it was dropped upon us unexpectedly. It hasn't been getting much press, perhaps due to the fact that they didn't bother to release the thing outside of the UK. But no matter. In a world of electronica ruled by Skrillex and James Blake, the return of Orbital is most certainly a welcome sight.

This is the group that brought us the genius melodies of songs like "Monday" and "Impact" from Orbital 2. This is the group who crafted In Sides, an album where every song seemed to have its own theme -- from the euphoria of "The Girl with the Sun in her Head" all the way to the wide eyed wonder of "The Box." This is the group who once stood alone as the top electronic music act in the world. Do they still have it?

The answer is a resounding yes. Wonky does everything a good Orbital record should do: it shines and shimmers, it bloops and garbles, it buzzes and rages, and at times it even shows it knows how to throw down. Best of all, it cuts out the fat and goes straight for the meat. Compared to earlier tracks like "Are We Here?" and both parts of "Out There Somewhere," the offerings on Wonky might seem like miniscule USA Today sized portions. But even the most diehard Orbital purists should hard pressed to complain about this disc; Wonky recaptures Orbital at the height of their rave sound in a way few thought was possible.

In general, the album follows Orbital's trademark formula. Most songs start out with a quiet melody. As the song goes along, various layers are weaved in and out that complement one another in various ways.

The opener, "One Big Moment," begins rather inauspiciously. The warm fuzzy beat sounds as though Orbital's bombastic dance music machine is just warming up, as though they just flicked the switch after a prolonged hibernation.

"Straight Sun" is a great reminder of Orbital's rave roots, while New France" vibrantly shimmers and rattles until the introduction of Zola Jesus's powerful vocal. Either track is strong enough to light a dancefloor ablaze.

"Distractions" is one of the most complex and fascinating tracks on the entire record. There's a strong dub influence here, with a groovy vocal sample section that lays the foundation for what's going on.. There's also space age beeping and blooping, a track that sounds like the soundtrack to a hypnotic undersea dance party, and a dastardly headbanging breakdown.The song's climax is perhaps the most brilliant moment on the record, as each of these layers are seamlessly weaved in and out of the overall patchwork.

"Stringy Acid" sounds like an astrological ancient Persian dancefloor anthem, or perhaps the soundtrack to a dreamland dungeon from a 1990's J-RPG. The acidic "Beelzedub" is much harsher and more sinister;  recallling the glory of tracks like "P.E.T.R.O.L." or "Satan."

The title track, conversely, is one of the most uncharacteristic Orbital songs in their entire repertoire. Even when they've had guest vocalists in the past, the brothers Hartnoll have always been the main focus. Beautiful as they were, Kristy Hankshaw's vocals on Orbital's smash "Halcyon On + On" were only a mere complement to the hip shaking rhythm they had already established.

But "Wonky" is an eyebrow raising detour from that formula. The beats, which sound like the meow mix theme, aren't that compelling. And Lady Leshurr's work here borders on the ridiculous. She sounds like a hopped up Nicki Minaj. For once, Orbital is not the main focus in their own song. And folks, the starlet they picked to upstage them is no Kristy Hankshaw.

The album ends well with "Where is it Going?" It sounds perfectly like a closing track, clearly signifying the album's close while sending a message to the listener that Orbital's work is far from done. Who knows what their next step will be?

If you missed Orbital and admired the UK rave sound of their early 90s work, then you should be delighted with the results on Wonky. The sound and production is great, and the duo mixes it up with enough variety to make every track interesting and unique. In Sides it may not be, but you'd be hard pressed to ask for more from the brothers Hartnoll

Score: 88/100

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Janus rules the roost with appealing blend of 2000s style alt rock

When I'm scanning concert calendars for local music venues, I typically have a good idea in mind of what I'm looking for. But when I saw Janus was playing at The End Wednesday night, it gave me pause. I did a review of their Red Right Return album way back when I was DJ'ing at MTSU. I didn't find anything particularly life affirming on that record, but it was a nice blend of hard rock and metal with uplifting vocals. And the veteran quartet out of Chicago certainly didn't mess anything up on that record. So for $10, why not, for old time's sake?

Janus singer David Scotney makes his point at The End Wednesday night.

Janus's sound draws parallels with Taproot, Chevelle and Breaking Benjamin, who I always thought of as three of the better bands from the 2000s alt rock era. Janus has always made great use of melody, and with the release of the new album, Nox Aries, it seems they've gotten a bit heavier as well. Numbers like "Promise to No One" pumped more intensity than I recall hearing from their previous works. Bassist Alan Quitman could regularly be seen hunched over, delivering thick and propulsive bass lines, while frontman David Scotney wowed the crowd with a frenetic performance.

Question the Chaos's Michael Ashley pours his heart out.
He had great energy, often tilting up his microphone stand and hopping into the audience. Which is why it was a shame that his sound wasn't better. Scotney's vocal style has long been one of Janus's defining characteristics, so I was a bit bummed because he could barely be heard over the din of the band behind him. Technical issues aside, I can't fault the effort of
the band. I still didn't find anything life altering, nor did I expect to. But they did their best to put on a good
show, and it was generally successful.

The act before them was equally impressive.
Nashville's own Question the Chaos formed from the rubble of Forgotten Fable, and they made a great case for not being forgotten anytime soon. The musicianship was fantastic, Tim Gleaves orchestrated some great guitar solos, and vocalist Michael Ashley showed off a great voice with superior technical ability.

Punk/rock/metallers Pretty Orphan kicked off the night with a spoken word monologue about abused children at an orphanage which came across as rather cheesy. It seemed like everything Janie Doll learned about fronting a band was pulled straight from a high school drama class. Freshman year.

Her stage rants urging the crowd to get drunk, and flipping middle fingers into the air came across as rather sophomoric. Also regrettable was J-Rok's decision to try to play guitar behind his head, when clearly no one in the band had the chops to make that look convincing. However, the instrumentation itself wasn't bad, and Doll displayed some real rancor in the first few songs to get the crowd up and going.

Pretty Orphan had a few things to get off their chest.

Also check out - my original review on Janus's Red Right Return!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Keith Morris and Off! set fire the world ablaze with full length debut

For those who recall the days of 80s hardcore political punk, Keith Morris has an album for you. For those who don't, here's your wakeup call. The former Black Flag and Circle Jerks frontman presents his first official album with his new band Off!, and it sounds like he's picked up right where he left off.

This music is without pretension. It doesn't try to do anything new, and it doesn't sound like he's evolved much. But there was a time when this type of music was part of a flourishing scene. Now, the greatest revelation Off! makes to today's audience might just be how soft our music has gotten.

Morris and Off! dive bomb through 16 tracks in a little over 17 minutes. Its defining characteristic is its dirty, clunking, raw hardcore guitar sound, which support Morris's visceral slurred vocals. Compared to the band's previous offering, First Four EPs, the vocals are much more fuzzy and distorted. As a result, the music sounds more threatening and foreboding, but it makes near impossible to make out what he's saying most of the time. In a genre where 90 percent of the focus is on the message, this is a pretty big deal.

The album kicks off on a righteous tear with "Wiped Out," which is a sure highlight. "I Got News For You" is a kerosene soaked rant against Morris's former bandmates, while "Elimination" focuses on sleazy executives who shape society's rules to fit themselves and score big payoffs.

"Borrow and Bomb" may be the most frenetic track on disc, as Morris screams that he wants to "set fire to your lawn as you borrow and bomb!"

The most appealing facet of this record is that it is hardcore distilled down its simplest and most primal form. These days, it seems like there are too many bands who try to dress it up or combine it with other elements. Understandably the genre has to evolve, but I usually can't dig the way they do it. Off! may simply be living off our nostalgia, but I tend to prefer the stripped down, simple sound of old school punk. If you feel the same, you'll surely appreciate this record.

Score: 83/100

Friday, May 18, 2012

Lambchop's Mr. M subtly crafts a distinctly American pastoral epic

In a city well known for its music scene, Lambchop may be the best Nashville country band you've never heard of.

To call them full fledged country would be a mistake. Band leader Kurt Wagner borrows from a vast array of styles, including alt-country, lounge jazz, and old southern soul. It melts together to form a blend that is distinctly American, but unmistakably unique.

The key to Wagner's songwriting approach is that everything is very subtle. His voice has a folksy timbre with a quaint delivery, while a backing crew of organs, strings, and acoustic guitars quietly fill in behind. You may be wondering if the music is this subdued, are there even any strong hooks to get attached to? There are hooks, but you have to be paying attention. Mr. M is one of those records that reveals more and more with repeated listenings.

For those looking for comparisons, Red House Painters and perhaps Wilco's Being There album seem appropriate, but anything beyond a cursory glance reveals there's far more to it than that.

Mr. M often sounds something like old man's parlor music, but Wagner gives it a kick in the ass. The opening track, "If Not I'll Just Die," opens with an elegant string arrangement, and you might be thinking this is going to sound like a snooty lounge record in the vein of Steely Dan's Aja, but when Wagner drops a profanity of the very first line of the song it quickly becomes evident he has something much different in mind.

That's not to say that he only means to parody this music. From listening to his previous records, it is clear the sound heard here is indeed Lambchop's signature sound. However, Wagner is one of those rare musicians who can play music like this without taking it too seriously, and in fact can even poke fun at the genre's overindulgences. That's what makes Mr. M such an uncommon record.

There are specific moments when you get to see this in action. For example, consider the self effacing "The Good Life (Is Wasted)." The track sees Wagner reveal that underneath the moody organs and glorious strings, he's just an average guy who really knows about as much of country clubs and swanky ballrooms as any average citizen, perhaps even less.

This motif is not stated throughout the whole record, however. "Gone Tomorrow," perhaps the best song on the record, features a melody that freely flows like water running from a brook. The track's best feature, however, is the instrumental interplay from the rest of the band. Peaceful piano chords are complemented by descending melodies on the synthesizers, while drummer Scott Martin puts on an all-star performance.

There are plenty of cozy colloquialisms to be found in Wagner's lyrics. He touches upon many creature comforts, such as the joys of cooking, lounging around in your grandfather's living room, or taking down the Christmas lights in the mid February. "Mr. Met" shows him at his most sentimental, recalling the profound impact that friends, fear and knowledge play in our lives.

Wagner is also well known for his dry brand of humor. "Buttons" is the best example of this, on which Wagner tells the tale of a stubborn man down on his luck. He details his efforts to try to find a crappy job and stay out of jail, and then ridicules him for landing a girl and driving her away. All before revealing that he used to be just as big of a prick himself.

There are a pair of instrumental tracks here that show how each interlocking segment of the band's sound fits together to form a whole. "Betty's Overture," in particular gives the synthesizer a chance to shine. It all wraps up with "Never My Love," which is surprisingly brief and direct for this album's standards. It is Wagner's concise but unassuming thoughts on where he would be without the love of his life.

Mr. M is a smashing success because it blends several musical styles that are very familiar, yet have rarely been brought together the way Wagner manages to do here. It also impresses with its beatifically realized minimalist mission; this is a record that seems to communicate more with what it doesn't say that with what it does. It is a subdued pastoral masterstroke of the highest order, and one you owe it to yourself to get lost within.

Score: 91/100

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Lambchop's low key approach holds hometown crowd spellbound

There is nothing like a homecoming. Especially in a city like Nashville.

Nashville's long standing alt-country heroes Lambchop wrapped up their latest tour with a show in their hometown, and it couldn't have felt more like home.

Lambchop's leader, Kurt Wagner, takes a unique approach to his song craft. Most of what he does is extremely subtle. He weaves an unusual blend of alt-country, lounge music, and soul in a compelling fashion, but if you aren't paying attention you're bound to miss the meat of his message. That might explain why the packed crown at VFW Post 1970 listened in near silence Saturday night. You really can't afford to miss a word he says.

Lambchop's Kurt Wagner lays down a mean lick during his May 12 show at VFW Post 1970.

Their latest album Mr. M, which released in February, sounds like fancy, rich man's parlor music, but Wagner gives it a kick in the ass. Consider "If Not I'll Just Die," which is very proper sounding, wine and jazz type music. But when Wagner drops an F-bomb on the very first line, you quickly get the picture that this affair isn't quite going to play out the way you thought.

Wagner's folksy delivery sparkled as he led us through the majority of the Mr. M album. The keyboard and organ added a barely noticeable coloring to the music, while the bass and drums are probably the most noticeable elements after Wagner's mellow timbre. The music is designed to sound like everyone's doing their own thing, but obviously there's much more to it than that. Then, in the rare moments when the entire eight-piece band comes together, it will blow you away.

Some of the night's best tunes included "Gone Tomorrow," the best representation of aforementioned instrumentation, "Mr. Met," which features some of Wagner's most insightful lyrics, and "Buttons," which showcases Wagner's offbeat sense of humor. The song tells the story of a bullheaded man down on his luck. But it drew a chuckle from the audience for its most caustic verse, in which Wagner derides the song's subject for landing a girl and driving her away, before admitting that he is just as big a prick himself.

I also discovered that I'm becoming a big fan of Scott Martin's drumming style. He specializes in gentle brushstrokes, which discreetly but unquestionably provides its own flavor to the music. It's just so chill. And he possesses a  special ability to move all around the kit with various fills and rolls, all while perfectly playing off the rest of the band.

William Tyler's mellow playing energizes Lambchop.
After finishing off the Mr. M songs, Kurt and crew got a little more talkative. His pianist engaged in a bit of banter, Courtney Tidwell got a chance for a vocal show off, while Wagner exhibited more of his patented humor.

"We're going to play a few more songs," Wagner announced. "Then I can start drinking."

The venue itself was rather small and cramped. It was obviously a pretty old building, and the white Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling made it feel like the kind of place that might host your 20 year high school reunion.

But the tight confines gave a special feel to the evening, as though being a part of the crowd made you a small part of a much larger collective on hand to witness an extraordinary performance. The only real negative was that my head was swimming by the end of the night due to the overabundance of cigarette smoke.

The Altered Statesmen opened the night with a brief 30 minute set. Steve Poulton warmed up the crowd with a soulful 50s style croon. It reminded me of music you would hear at a Las Vegas wedding reception. Not bad, per se, but ehhh. Not really my thing.

There was one other really nice touch. After the show, Wagner was standing outside the front door, thanking patrons for coming out to see his show. He proves he's not only a first rate performer, but a real class act to boot.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Best Coast's Bethany Cosentino aims for big change on new LP

For many of us, the summer of 2010 was curiously colored by a small town California girl named Bethany Cosentino. That was when her debut, Crazy for You, was released, a fun little record mish-mashing fuzzy surf rock with retro melodies and jangly pop hooks. It was a perfect summertime record with a refreshing lo-fi grimy sound.

Cosentino became an overnight guru on heartache, felines, and good ole Mary J. Despite that, though, it was hard to get over the feeling that the music was made by someone whose hair was perpetually unwashed.

All this set the stage for the release of the band's sophomore set, The Only Place. This record introduces marked changes for the band. Overall, it's a mixed bag. Cosentino certainly still maintains a penchant for writing simple pop songs that are short, catchy, and to the point. Barely a track breaches the thee minute mark. What's changed? Evidently Cosentino snatched a bottle of conditioner and trimmed those bangs, because The Only Place sounds much sleeker, cleaner, and sexier.

John Brion's production has enhanced several key elements. The most notable beneficiary is Cosentino's voice. It is much richer, cleaner, and syrupy sounding, which in turn allows her personality to shine through even more clearly and radiantly. She's come a long way from the days of early singles like "Sun Was High (So Was I)," which was such a muddled mess that it wasn't easy to pick out her vocals from the background instrumentation. Now, tracks like "Last Year" feature a beautiful aria from Bethany at the end. The closer, "Up All Night," may be the best track in this collection. Her tale of lost love and heartbreak tugs at your heart strings like no other song in her catalog.

The vocal performance on her more obviously retro themed pieces aren't too shabby either.

"No One Like You" is a 50s style soul ballad that wouldn't sound out of place on a Four Seasons record. The song sees Cosentino expressing her devotion for her sweetheart like a lost lovesick puppy. "How They Want Me to Be," another highlight, features 60s girlpop vocals and a theme that focuses on becoming more sure of yourself. 

Other noteworthy tracks include the title track and album opener, which kicks off with a chord progression that sounds like something straight out of Juno, before launching into an unabashed ode about the joys of The Golden State. Lines like "we were born with sun in our teeth and in our hair" sound like a treatise on everything it means to be part of the under 25 crowd on the California coast.

Lyric wise, the album largely focuses on a downer motif. There are plenty of themes about being broke, heartbroken, and dealing with the pressure of trying to conform to the expectations of others. All concepts that young people can surely relate to. 

Sadly, there are more than a few problems on this record I can't overlook. For one, there simply isn't much variety. This album stands in marked contrast to the sound presented on Crazy for You, but most of the tracks on The Only Place don't truly sound all that different from one another. Take the first two songs, "The Only Place" and "Why I Cry," for example, where even the basic melodies of each song are startlingly similar.

Every song is short, simple and catchy, but the flip side of that coin is that there's not a ton of depth to any of the songs. The main thrust of each song can easily be gleaned within a listen or two, which means repeated listens will be met with diminishing returns.

This record feels like it was produced for mass consumption. Some may not mind, but personally it reminds me how much I really miss the scuzzy lo-fi charm of Crazy For You and the silly vibe that Bethany brought to that record, as opposed to the dreary mood on The Only Place. Needless to say, we probably won't be hearing many more Wavves comparisons.

I truly want to like Bethany Cosentino. She's an engaging figure with a unique personality, and that shines through vividly in her writing. The improved production gives her voice a chance to shine, but at the cost of ripping out most of the charm they had on Crazy for You. She also hasn't really escaped the repetitive song structure that was one of the few major issues on that album. I can't help but feel like The Only Place takes a few steps forward, but several huge steps back.

Score: 74/100

See also: Best Coast - Crazy for You review

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Lockett Pundt stands on his own two feet with sophomore solo LP

I've made two critical mistakes since I began blogging here, both of them involving the same band. The first came when I had the chance to see Deerhunter, and instead elected to review a Fang Island concert.
The other was when I inadvertently passed up reviewing the Atlas Sound's Parallax record last year. Needless to say, I won't be repeating that mistake with Lotus Plaza's Spooky Action at a Distance, which serves the dual purpose of not only showing how stacked with talent Deerhunter's roster is, but also reminding us that we should probably count ourselves fortunate to be inhabiting the same planet as them.

Spooky Action at a Distance is the second solo effort from Lockett Pundt, better known as the guitarist for  shoegaze heroes Deerhunter. And generally the album's sound is not a huge departure from that of Deerhunter, though Pundt does sneak in a couple of personal influences from time to time. "Eveningness" and "Strangers" easily sound as if they could have been pulled from Deerhunter's latest record, Halcyon Digest. Both tracks highlight the dreamy hypnotic style that defined that album and nicely sum up Pundt's playstyle. There are also some pretty catchy hooks there, to boot.

One of Pundt's greatest talents is his ability to express ideas through sound. I don't mean simply expressing emotion. There are plenty of talented artists who can do that. What Pundt does is express tangible, concrete concepts using nothing more than sound. Take "Jet out of the Tundra," a song based on the principle of motion. This song makes me imagine sitting in the window seat of a bus and watching the trees and fields as they pass by.

Incidentally, that's almost the exact same way that Pundt himself described the feeling of the track in interviews. And he's able to get this message across using nothing more than chord progressions. Pundt has stated that the inspiration for the track came from constant din and shuffle of life on tour. It is actually rather reminiscent of the closing coda to Deerhunter's "Desire Lines," a song Pundt also wrote.

Furthering the similarity to Deerhunter is the fact that Pundt's voice is not too far off from Bradford Cox. His voice is a little deeper and flatter, but for the most party fairly interchangeable with Cox.

"White Galactic One" is anchored by the most swaggering and swashbuckling riff on the album, which sounds like something out of some kind of warped, alternate dimension shindig. Meanwhile, "Monoliths" gets straight to the point almost immediately, and is carried by one of the catchiest hooks on the album.

The album's finest moment comes perhaps with Black Buzz, a Lee Hazlewood inspired piece focusing on the dredges of mental addiction. It has a very smoky, western feel to it, and a healthy dose of reverb on the vocals. It's like you were listening to it in a haze filled room. The lyrics, which speak of the effort to kick drug addiction, are poetic and well done; Pundt explains well how easy it is to find yourself stuck in an unending cycle. "Once was becomes a never will," he notes.

Bradford Cox may be the driving force behind Deerhunter, but Pundt shows the band wouldn't be who they are without his signature dream like playing style. His debut solo LP, Floodlight Collective, buried his voice under a wall of fuzz and distortion, but Spooky Action at a Distance sees Pundt now beginning to find his way as an artist and performer. His vocals and lyrics are clearer, and the composition sounds much more well thought out. The result? It's not just noteworthy in comparison to Deerhunter's works. Spooky Action at a Distance proves it's a great record of its own accord.

Score: 92/100

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Swallow the Sun weaves vibrant textures through the Emerald Forest

Mikko Kotamäki once told me the trick to pulling off a harsh vocal style is to make sure you're not pushing out too much.

I wonder how he manages to avoid that, then. When he unleashes his trademark guttural roar, it hits with the force of 10 men. It's the type of growl that echoes off the walls and rings all the way to the deepest recesses of a concert hall. And it's an asset that serves him well on Emerald Forest and the Blackbird, the fifth album from the renowned Finnish doom metal outfit.

Swallow the Sun has entranced its listeners by summoning forth layers upon layers of agony, and burying its fans under the crushing force of Juha Raivio's guitar riffs. But do not think they are all slam and bang. One of the Blackbird's key strengths lies in its ability contrast softer passages with ones much more sinister and heavy.  Check the very first track or a pitch-perfect example of this.

The title track opens the album with some slow, doomy chord progressions accented by enchanting keyboard melodies. The stage is set for Kotamäki's thickly accented speaking voice, which informs us he is going to be reciting a story of some sort:

"Sleep my child, lay down your head and leave this pain,
I'll read you these last pages of the tale"

Kotamäki continues in his eerie lower register, with accompaniment by a ghostly female aria. Meanwhile, the guitar falls silent to give us a chance to soak this all in.

It's precisely at that moment that get blindsided by an intense blast of death/doom metal guitar work, while Kotamäki's vocals are so bleak and oppressive they could literally swallow the light of the sun and devour it whole. His story focuses on two lovers who become eternally separated from one another under the green glow of an emerald forest. The climax delivers the prolific bombast of 90s style black metal riffage, complete with blasting double bass and a sense that you've lost a part of yourself you'll never get back.

With Emerald Forest and the Blackbird, Swallow the Sun once again demonstrate they know how to play with our emotions. As always, there is heavy helping of gothic elements. There are themes anger, despair, lovers being separated, and the like. There are whispers of hardened hearts who bear no forgiveness. And the lyrics are filled with eloquent nature references - being trapped in a dark forest, haunted by the ghosts of winter, and bathed in the summer rain. All pretty much par for the course in doom metal.

And yet one of the key elements that make Swallow the Sun unique is the way Raivio's winding guitar leads play off of and complement Kotamäki's voice.

The closer, "Night Will Forgive Us," is a prime example. Some of Juha's best leads are heard here, while Kotamäki spells out one of the darkest messages on the album - that our wounds never truly heal, and stay with us in some shape or form all through life.

The band also does a great job of presenting a sense of variety. "Hate, Lead the Way!" sounds like the name of a Children of Bodom song, and perhaps it's no coincidence that the shrill, raspy vocals are somewhat reminiscent of Alexi Liaho. This is one of the few tracks on the album that stays aggressive throughout, while still keeping true to the sonic nature of the rest of the album.

Then you have "This Cut is the Deepest," which features all clean vocals. It's a very lush, atmospheric track with a catchy chorus. Mikko's spoken word rasp is accented perfectly by Juha's guitar and the clashing of Kai Hahto's cymbals.

Without a doubt, one of my favorite tracks on the album is "Labyrinth of London," a no holds barred song telling the story of Jack the Ripper stalking the streets of London. The spitfire riffing truly breathes life into the dark and gritty nature of the subject matter.  Midway through, there is a spoken word sample of London by William Blake, which gives it a "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" type feel. We are then treated to one of Juha's most majestic and powerful solos, while bells toll in the background.

I wish we got to hear them sound like this more often.

"Cathedral Walls," another of the album's highlights, features guest vocals from Anette Olzon of Nightwish. The piece opens with a sweet, winding, Opethy guitar lead. Kotamäki begins with some heartfelt vocals, and there is some subdued piano which leads into Olzon's wispy chorus. All parties involved do an admirable job, although the transition from the heavy passage back into Olzon's final stanza is rather abrupt.

At this point in their career, you basically know what you're getting with a Swallow the Sun record. That said, Emerald Forest and the Blackbird is another solid entry into their catalog, and perhaps even slightly mellower than some of their previous work. The Opeth, Katatonia, and My Dying Bride similarities continue to shine through, though perhaps if you appreciate bands like Agalloch and Dissection for their attention to nature you may well appreciate this also. Personally, I find they begin to drone on after a while, although there are several choice cuts to be found here. At any rate, its' a record that will provide you with plenty of new details to discover each time you load it up.

Score: 83/100