Friday, June 8, 2012

The Big Sleep rouses from their slumber with Nature Experiments

Brooklyn indie rockers The Big Sleep haven't been able to catch a break. They gained attention early in their career for a pair of sludgy post-rock albums, but without the godlike climaxes usually associated with bands from the genre.

Unfortunately, it wasn't the type of attention they were looking for. Both albums  took a major critical walloping, so it's no surprise that virtually no one noticed the release of the trio's latest record, Nature Experiments. This is a real shame, because Nature Experiments is easily one of the most pleasant surprises so far of 2012.

For the first time, they've had the foresight to knock off the post rock nonsense. The Big Sleep specialize in dark, aggressive, moody, and moving hard rock. Have no doubts, The Big Sleep sounds best when they are at their loudest. "Four Wishes," the album's undisputed standout track, is a clinic on simple but effective heavy rock riffs. Combined with the frenetic drum rolls and the clashing of the cymbals, this is the perfect soundtrack to get your head lashing back and forth.

But they aren't your average hard rock band, or even really a hard rock band at all. Guitarist Danny Barria majors in detached aggro post punk rhythms -- the sort championed by Cloud Nothings on their excellent Attack on Memory album earlier this year -- while also capturing the sonic dreariness of Radiohead circa Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief. "Ladders" possesses a driving sense of unease, and looks at the world with the same type of youthful, wide eyed curiosity that Sonic Youth evoked on their seminal single "Teenage Riot."

The other key similarity the share with Sonic Youth is their male/female vocal tandem, who, like SY, are also pretty pedestrian. Due to the strength of the rest of the music, it's fairly forgivable. Bassist/keyboardist Sonya Balchandani has the type of voice that takes a few listens to appreciate. However, tracks like "Ace" reveals she also has a hypnotic and honey-like quality. Her voice flows forth over the crushing din of Danny Barria's guitar work in the song's hook laden delectable chorus.

They get experimental on "Valentine." The song opens with what sounds like the twinkling of windchimes. The effect is actually created by Barria scraping his pick against the guitar strings where they connect with the bridge of the guitar, creating a high pitched plinking sound. This effect is then looped and repeated on tape playback throughout the duration of the song. It came across as a clever effect when he did it on a live stage, and it still sounds great in the recorded version.

Balchandani handles the bulk of the vocal duties, but occasionally she turns the mic over to axeman Barria. He is less effective, as his voice is much more of a coarse and ungainly shout. His most effective vocal track is "Meet Your Maker," where his exuberant rallying cry is delivered like a punch to the gut.

"Ghosts in Bodies" features an instrumental track that hearkens back to the band's post rock days, while "Wood in the Water" is the album's only major misstep. The spacey keyboard and monotone vocals sound like a lost and forgotten relic from the early 80s, or perhaps a trip taken from too much bad acid.

Most of the lyrics touch on themes of perseverance. The otherwise unimpressive "#1" sees Barria reflecting on some type of failure, and his resolution to work things out by the end of the song. Meanwhile, "Wood on the Water" concentrates on seeing the positive aspects of people, and using this to build ourselves into something more.

It all wraps up with closer "1001," a quiet piece featuring only keyboard and Balchandani's voice. Its subdued and melancholy melody provides a nice contrast to the rest of the record.

Naturally, they don't measure up with some of the legendary bands that have been mentioned here. A few uneven tracks hold this back from being a five star effort. However, Nature Experiments successfully blends together crunching riffs with post rock influences while managing to be melodic and hypnotic.

There aren't many indie bands who inhabit the heavier end of the spectrum, and it's nice to hear some legitimately well written riffs in the same context with sounds that are much more melodic, thoughtful, and pensive. Nature Experiments reveals that The Big Sleep have not yet evolved into dynamos, but at least they have found their path.

Score: 84/100

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