Thursday, August 9, 2012

Major sees Fang Island take dynamic steps in progressing their sound

In the world of video games, there is such a thing as a tech demo. It's not meant to be a full representation of your project; rather, its primary purpose is to give the public an early glance at what you're working on. It might demonstrate the technical specifications of your engine or perhaps elucidate a few gameplay mechanics.

In the same sense, Fang Island's self titled debut felt much like a tech demo. It gave a good sense of what the band is about and what they're capable of, but it felt incomplete. Although admittedly packed with energy, Fang Island was little more than a collection of riffs and solos packaged together with patchwork vocals sprinkled over top. It was basically a rough prototype, but that has changed with the band's second album, Major. 

The sound is beefier, more complex, and fully realized. One key change is that the vocals are a much more common occurrence on Major. Secondly, group frontman Jason Bartell now sings mostly solo, generally eschewing the group vocal arrangements that dominated their first album. The result is that Major feels like a more serious effort in terms of writing and composition.

The opener, "Kindergarten," brilliantly showcases the expansion in Fang Island's sound. It starts with something new: a catchy but quirky piano piece that's slightly reminiscent of Vampire Weekend. But it isn't long before the opening guitar feedback kicks in, producing a riff that is unmistakably Fang Island. That leads into Bartell's first solo spot.

His voice is plaintive, but not unsure or lacking confidence. And this time, it's piano and not guitar that provides the backing for his voice. The track ends itself on a familiar note, however, with the chorus of singers joining in behind Bartell, while the lead-in guitar riff returns to close out the track. It's a brilliant merging of old and new concepts, and certainly an ambitious statement for the band.

So much so, that the following tracks come very close to sounding ordinary by comparison. It almost sounds like they're returning to business as usual after that opening bombast. Fortunately, Major is spared from that fate by Bartell's vocal performance. He's a solid, though not spectacular, vocalist, whose presence provides much needed hooks and a sense of melody to Fang Island's sound.

Otherwise, the band's commitment to transmitting a sense of jubilation remains intact. The driving, feel good riffs of "Seek It Out" encapsulate everything the band has ever stood for. "Never Understand" meanwhile, consists mainly of the lyrics "I hope I never understand" repeated continuously, while backed by some positively joyous Dinosaur Jr. inspired riffs. Its youthful, bright eyed resistance toward entering the adult world expresses the type of sentiment usually reserved for Never-Never Land.

Though if the band is committed to never growing up, there are at least a few more hints that their sound is. "Asunder" is their most ambitious, biting, and self assured rock song to date. It features a momentous undercurrent bubbling beneath the surface, which then explodes into Fang Island's best and slickest guitar solo. It plays perfectly off the main riffs, while demonstrating fantastic technical superiority.

Also of note is "Victorinian," the band's first piano ballad, on which Bartell pleads for you to stay true to your values. That might not be a bad piece of advice for the band to take. Major's experimental moments work very well; the key issue is that they tend to stray away from them too often.

The problem with the self titled was that it was too hard to take seriously; far too often it sounded like a bunch of excessive guitar noodling. Major introduces several new elements that kickstarts the band's progression, but too often it feels as though the guys stray from that pattern and begin to fall into old habits. Many tracks feel like they could have come straight from from Fang Island if not for the more comprehensive vocal arrangements. Ultimately Major is the sound of a band making major strides, but who haven't yet done quite enough to push themselves over the top.

Score: 84/100

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