Sunday, September 30, 2012

Totally Unauthorized 2012 3rd Quarter Report: July - September

Heading into the third quarter of 2012, September was shaping up to be not only the dominant month of the quarter, but the best month of the entire year. There's probably tons of great tracks I haven't mined out of that month yet, but July and August proved to be no pushovers either.

Advent Sorrow - The Wrath in Silence

If you gotta run before you can crawl, Usain Bolt best look over his shoulder. Rather than trying to push the envelope,  Aussie black metal outfit Advent Sorrow instead chose to work on mastering the basics of their craft on their debut EP, Before the Dimming Light. The results are best exemplified on "The Wrath in Silence," which masterfully mixes haunting organ, frenzied shrieks, and the coal black crunch of black metal riffing. It shouldn't be long before Advent Sorrow is running with the leaders of the genre.

Frank Ocean - Pyramids

With rich imagery like Cleopatra, faded jewels, and serpents, it's no surprise Frank Ocean is becoming one of today's most acclaimed songwriters. Here, he takes tales of Ancient Egyptian pyramids and connects it to the story of a modern girl working at a club called The Pyramid. Over its 10+ minute length, the Odd Future superstar weaves in heavy rave breakdowns, foreboding soul vocals, and sense of regret and longing.

Jimmy Cliff - Children's Bread

Jimmy Cliff has always made music for the people, and after over 40 years he hasn't eased up. The main thrust of the song is crystal clear: it's about heartbreaking tragedy and oppression inflicted upon people at the hands of a brutal regime. Cliff wisely sidesteps modern trends of infusing pop elements into reggae, instead creating a composition that feels authentic and organic.

Emily Portman - Old Mother Eve

Drifting over the moor is the sound of Emily Portman, Glastonbury folk singer and aficionado of old  English folklore. Everything she does sounds like an old children's storybook brought to life, from her rich accent to her traditional folk approach. Think Celtic Thunder but less overwrought and more organic. "Old Mother Eve" paints a relaxing picture of an afternoon in an apple orchard, but its most striking aspect might just be those harmonies.

Emily Portman - Old Mother Eve bandcamp page

Purity Ring - Fineshrine

Canadian electro/synth pop newcomers Purity Ring are projecting themselves into a rapidly growing scene. Grimes, Crystal Castles and Iamamiwhoami, among others, have picked up the ball and run with this thick synth laden production backed by ethereal female vocals, but Purity Ring just may best them all. "Fineshrine" smacks you with a heavy hip hop vibe coupled with twinkling electronica, and it's punctuated by the sexy, smooth voice of Megan James pouring forth like sweet honey.

Destini Beard - My Last Goodbye

Expert of all things Gothic, Pennsylvania bred singer Destini Beard is best known for her work with horror/electronic duo Midnight Syndicate. Their latest album together is about a fictional Victorian hotel that catches fire in the early 1900s. "My Last Goodbye," however, gives her a chance to shine solo. Her choral experience shines through as her mesmerizing soprano soars above the sound of her gentle piano, complimented by forlorn harmonies.

Katatonia - Lethean

Why be confined to heavy metal if you're capable of so much more? This is the question Katatonia pondered before launching their retooled sound on Dead End Kings. "Lethean" is dripping in atmosphere and melody. The keyboards and vocals carry the day here, but the glistening guitar solo near the end is there to remind you of their technical prowess. 

Animal Collective - Applesauce

The buzzed out distortion and dissonant radio waves emanating from Animal Collective's latest had listeners reaching for their FM dials. "Applesauce" remains faithful to the pop-based direction of their last two LPs while successfully assimilating it into their new sound. The result occasionally sounds like it's being projected through a bent antenna, but AC fans wouldn't have it any other way.

Grizzly Bear - Yet Again

Shields is so great it's tough to pick out a single track. This narrowly wins out over "Sleeping Ute" just because of my preference for Ed Droste. The dense opening chords gives the song an airy and atmospheric nature, while Droste's magnetizing yet easy going vocals form the meat of the track. There's one more treat that comes in near the conclusion, when a hazy wash of psychedelics take over.

Menomena - Heavy is as Heavy Does

"Heavy are the branches hanging from my fucked up family tree."  This opening salvo from the lead single to Moms may catch the uninitiated off guard, but those who know Menomena know better. They dig a different type of rabbit hole on each album, and we're the ones who gleefully plummet into it. Justin Harris expresses feelings of pain, isolation, and loneliness framed around a lack of acceptance from his father. A tripped out guitar freakout near the end adds due weight to the track.

Lupe Fiasco - Around My Way (Freedom Ain't Free)

Smart, driven, and socially aware -- this has been Lupe Fiasco's calling card. He returns to form on his latest album, hoping to deliver America a wakeup call. "Around My Way (Freedom Ain't Free)" is built around a sweet brassy beat as Lupe examines a list of social issues facing the nation. He touches on everything from declining education standards to planned obsolesce, while also speaking on America's lack of empathy toward less fortunate nations. Lupe's at his best when he makes you think, and it's good to see him doing that again.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Grizzly Bear's vocal pyrotechnics light Ryman Auditorium ablaze

Indie folk stalwarts Grizzly Bear delighted the Ryman crowd with intricate harmonies and deep, varied instrumentation.

There's something special that comes with seeing a band at the peak of their abilities. Most folks aren't lucky enough to catch a band at the crest of their prime; they may not hear of them until much later, or perhaps don't find the time to check them out. Over the past couple weeks, I've been lucky enough to catch two such bands. The first was Beach House show at Marathon Music Works, but Grizzly Bear took things to a new level at Nashville's esteemed Ryman Auditorium.

The band began as what was basically a solo project of singer Ed Droste, who was really into messing around with quiet acoustics and ambiance at the time. He installed a full band for their second album, Yellow House, and the key focus moved onto breathtaking vocals and intricately arranged harmony sections coupled with a mellow pastoral indie folk sound. For that reason, the Ryman is obviously the only place to see a band like Grizzy Bear. With the harmonies so meticulously arranged there's a lot going on in each song, and the perfect acoustics of the Ryman allow you to pick up on each separate voice and every subtle technique.

Ed Droste rocks out with the best of them.
The Ryman is a stage known for hosting some of the greatest country acts, but lately its also been home to the best of the best from the indie world. This is the stage that's seen Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, and Fleet Foxes. But another thing that's important to note about the Ryman is that it's a very restrained environment.

There isn't a lot of dancing, rocking out, or really a lot of people getting into the performance, like you might see at Cannery or Exit/In. Everybody stayed mostly seated until after "Cheerleader," when Droste smartly urged the crowd to their feet.

It was a great time to do so, since "Cheerleader" was one of the band's best overall performances to that point. It opens with Chris Taylor's signature bass riff, which gives way to Droste's restrained croon. Christopher Bear's pounding bass rhythm puts the listener in a grooving mood, while guitarist Daniel Rossen's solo is a nice showoff piece.

The early part of Grizzly Bear's set was populated by the best songs from the newest album, Shields, but there was also a song slipped in I wasn't expecting to see. "Adelma" is a brief 1:30ish ambient interlude -- not the type of thing that typically translates well to live stage. This, however, was very nice. The lights on the main stage were turned down, which focused the attention to the yellowy gold light on the back wall.

Chris Taylor is a multi-instrumental master.
There were several jellyfish like apparatuses being slowly raised on the back wall; they looked like metal boxes covered in mesh with a lightbulb inside. It made for a very peaceful and serene setting, as the mellotron played. Later, Droste praised the tour's art director, Ben Tousely, for coming up with the idea. He said whenever he wasn't playing he wanted to turn around and look at them.

He also proved himself to be a superb frontman. He congratulated a couple in the crowd who just got engaged, and also described the atmosphere in Knoxville following the UT-Florida football game. They had played Knoxville's Tennessee Theater just two days earlier

Said Droste: "Shit got real."

His engaging personality worked wonders for boosting the crowd's energy level. A lively round of hand claps came in at the end of "While You Wait for the Others." Meanwhile, anyone who had sat down got back on their feet for "Two Weeks." The hit single from Veckatimest is well known for its heavenly harmonies, but this performance unveiled a secret weapon: Christopher Bear's two handed chops.

Eerie purple lights coated the stage for "Shift," most definitely the greatest single example of the band's harmony section.

They did something special for their encore. Most cities only get a song or two for an encore, but when the band came back out Droste announced they'd be doing three songs. After ripping through "Knife" and "Half Gate," they then played an acoustic version of "All We Ask," specifically designed to take advantage of the Ryman's acoustics. And boy did it.

Droste and Taylor harmonized perfectly while singing into the same microphone, while Rossen's crisp strumming rang clearly through the room. Bands often try to make the fans in each city feel special, but mostly it's just lip service. Grizzly Bear actually delivered for the Nashville crowd, and that honestly meant something.

Guitarist/singer Daniel Rossen, left, anchors Grizzly Bear while Christopher Bear provides the beat.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Just kidding; I actually didn't get to see Ty Segall

After a fairly busy week this week in terms of concert going, the plan was to cap it all off with a trip to Nashville's Zombie Shop to see lo-fi/proto punker Ty Segall, whose Slaughterhouse album has proven to be among 2012's better records. However, I had to leave before he went on.

I had work early the next morning, but thought I could catch him, head home, and crash for long enough to make it through a reasonably productive work day. At most shows the main act goes on around 10-10:30ish wrapping up around midnight, however the Zombie Shop is having none of that. At 12:30 I finally had to give up and head home, still stuck in the endless stream of opening bands; there were apparently eight bands that played in total. Ordinarily this would have been awesome, but given my time constraints it seemed like overkill. A friend I talked to said it didn't wrap up until after 3a.m. Needless to say, I was majorly disappointing with the outcome of my night.

Other than that, though, the Zombie Shop seems cool enough. It's a motorcycle shop that sells parts, or maybe they just work on them. Not really sure. It's nestled along the Nashville's bustling industrial district, directly behind the new bigass Music City Convention Center. The area was pretty dead around 7 p.m. when I arrived, except for the Slaughterhouse Haunted House located across the way.

On 6th Avenue South, it's also not too far away from the projects, which I mistakenly passed by while looking for a place to eat. It certainly wasn't dead in this area. There were bars on every storefront and what looked like dealers on every corner. I decided to eat after the show.

The scene at the Zombie Shop though was your typical indie crowd, which immediately made me feel better. It's basically a warehouse venue, with room for probably about 400-500 people and a spacious backyard for people to chat or just chill out. There was also a campfire going. Booze price is okay; about four or five dollars for cold keg beer if memory serves. You can grab a can of coke for two clams, and there are also crepes.

Pick between nutella, banana, peanut butter, or honey. Or do like I did and grab a ham and cheese. There's also some game systems in the corner; you can play Duck Hunt, Super Mario Bros. 3, or Soul Calibur. However, they charge for water; a dollar a bottle. And it wasn't even cold. Bastards. That is, unless you want to grab tap water from the bathroom. But both bathrooms are apparently single seaters, and there's never less than 20 people in line. As far as the actual bands go, there's a general garage rock/punk mentality. It goes far beyond the chords ringing from guitars and seems to seep into the brick and mortar of the actual building itself. There was plenty of fist pumping, beer cups (and I think other objects) thrown into the crowd, and of course moshing. The first band, Gnarwhal, played a math rock informed blend of post hardcore, with guitar styling reminiscent of Tera Melos or The Fall of Troy.

After the first song the vocalist's guitar string broke, which prompted a nearly 10 minute delay. During which he made an abortive attempt at joke about a whale bringing a six pack into a bar and trying to drink it. A couple songs later, furious moshing broke out right where I was situated I've heard Ty Segall shows tend to get rowdy, and this was no exception. I probably should have just forgot about sleep and stuck around for the rest of the show.

Nashville's D. Watusi smashed the crowd with a stellar proto punk vibe.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Grizzly Bear's Shields pushes their sonic territory across new borders

Four albums into their career, Grizzly Bear are no longer developing into one of the best bands of our generation. They've already arrived. The Brooklyn indie folk rockers utilized eclectic instrumentation and heart touching harmonies to set forth a body of work that became the envy of many bands. But they apparently aren't content, as Shields focuses on pushing their boundaries still further.

Their sophomore release Yellow House established the band's core sound; this is where they became known for their dreamy, pastoral chamber pop. However, it was their third album, Veckatimest, that would serve as a key turning point for the band. It took their pre-existing ideas and harnessed them into a set of 12 concise and cohesive songs.

It was the type of album that allowed its songs to simmer and rise, slowly going through several progressions until it reached an apex. Once those songs reached their sweet spot they lingered there, allowing you to drink in the full splendor and majesty of their most creative moments. Veckatimest was by no means a restrained album, but if there was one weakness it was perhaps that they tended to rely on that formula a little much. Shields is even more adventurous than its predecessor by not only varying their formula, but by also pushing their songwriting and musicianship to yet another level.

The first four tracks offer about as good of an opening salvo as you're ever like to hope for. Lead single "Sleeping Ute" tries to do what "Southern Point" did on Veckatimest -- quickly blow you away with Daniel Rossen's dizzying instrumentation and mellow croon. And again they succeed without a shadow of a doubt. Rossen's lead guitar is heavily nuanced and stylized, even dipping into a little bit of heavy rock. And there's some minor tinges of psychedelia if that isn't enough for you.

"Speak in Rounds" focuses much more on vocals while never letting up from the opening bombast of "Sleeping Ute." The instrumentation is more subdued, but the melodies make it feel organic, living, breathing, moving, and exciting. It even gets a little bit brassy near the end.

Following that is something Grizzly Bear have never done before: a hazy, fully ambient little keyboard track which briefly washes over you with minor xylophone flourishes. Their early work has sometimes floated in ambiance, but it's never been as fully realized as it is on "Adelma." It serves as a breather after that dynamic one-two opening punch.

Had enough rest? Good, because now it's time the album's second pre-release track, "Yet Again." Vocal harmonies have always been one of Grizzly Bear's cornerstones, and this track is the first great representation of that on Shields. It sees Droste getting a bit wistful and moody; he appears to not quite be content with his place in the world but is trying to come to terms with it. It's supplemented with haunting harmonies and psychedelia, and near the end we get something we don't hear much from Grizzly Bear -- propulsive drumming from Christopher Bear that helps drive Droste's message home.

From here, the band begins to relax a bit and settle into a groove. The instrumentation tends to take a backseat to allow the singers' voice to shine. The next best track is "Gun Shy" which is Shields's true showcase piece in terms of harmony and vocal arrangement. Although they've always been strong in this department, the competing interplay between Droste and Chris Taylor on the main hook is truly the stuff of legends.

Elsewhere, the eerie strings and minimalist nature of "The Hunt" sees Grizzly Bear making an effort to update their sound from the Yellow House/Horn of Plenty era. Meanwhile, "Half Gate" serves as another reminder of how powerful drumming is shifting the band's sound.

Lyrically, they have a tendency to focus on loneliness and isolation. A cursory glance through their lyric booklet might lead an inattentive reader to conclude that many of their themes are about relationships. A better way to put it is that they concern relationships, but aren't about them specifically.

Rather, they tend to focus on a particular nuance in the breakdown of relations between two people. "What's Wrong," for example, speaks of a relationship that falls apart because one person decides to sequester and close themselves off. "The Hunt," meanwhile, talks about being addicted to the feelings of trying to piece together a crumbling relationship.

Shields wraps up with Grizzly Bear's opus, "Sun in Your Eyes." It starts off sleepily before lifting you up with a big, powerful chorus that is full of brass and life. It builds up like a post rock track, slowly building to a fever pitch until it unleashes its major crescendo highlighted by powerful cymbal clashes, weighty keys, dramatic harmonies, and the impassioned voice of Daniel Rossen. "I'm never coming back," he cautions, as he fades out for the last time.

Shields is a stunning achievement that transcends the boundaries of folk or any other genre tag you care to throw out. But one caveat is that the second half of the album is certainly more subdued and takes greater effort to get into. Because of the ambition of the first four song, it feels like the rest of the album is playing catchup. It has a hard time living up to the standard established there. For this reason, Veckatimest feels a nudge more consistent than Shields, although Shields reaches greater heights. Nonetheless, Grizzly Bear is proving themselves to be much more than we ever thought they could be - and that's truly saying something.

Score: 96/100

Monday, September 17, 2012

Beach House's dream pop fantasy seduces the Music City crowd

I have not had a long love affair with Beach House. Their 2010 breakthrough, Teen Dream, caught my attention, certainly. At the time, I felt Victora Legrand sounded pretentious, and the sound was a bit too thin. That changed, obviously; Bloom is what made me a fan. Deep and expansive are two descriptors you'll hear thrown around often in any discussion of what makes the Baltimore duo's latest offering so captivating. Saturday night at Marathon Music Works, they showed us why.

Victoria Legrand empowers you to drift away into a synth covered dreamland.

This was my first trip to Marathon Music Works, being one of Nashville's newer music venues. It was a great experience, except the crowd was slightly more obnoxious than usual. There was a little throng right next me who insisted on loudly babbling all throughout the set of opener Dustin Wong. Before he came out, one guy kept hollering about when this "William Hung guy" was coming on. Nothing like a stereotype to start your evening. Never understood why people come to a show and just babble on the whole time. If you want to talk, go to a bar. Everyone else is here to see a show and you're totally distracting. So sit down and shut up. You're not nearly as important as you think you are.

That aside, Wong did an admirable job. A scan of his bio on the venue's site reveals that he at least has the right influences - Jimi Hendrix, Brian Wilson, and Brian Eno. His set was predicated upon densely layered tape loop playbacks. Typically playing on his lower strings, his guitar emitted shrieking, high pitched lead work. Because much of his performance was based around the tape loops, his playing tended to be sporadic.

When he really hit a groove, however, his fingers flew across the fretboard in a dizzying manner that made his talent undeniable. He also sprinkled in a very rare instance of vocals, which ranged from quiet wordless chanting to pretty much shouting into the microphone. He did seem a bit more conscious of audience suggestion than most performers I have seen; whenever somebody would whoop and holler for him a slight grin would light up his face. When he was done he received a grand sendoff, though I couldn't tell if the crowd really liked him that much or if they were just that plastered.

Dustin Wong lets loose with a silent shriek of ecstasy during a crazed solo.

Thankfully, everybody decided to shut up for Beach House. Their setlist understandably focuses on their two latest records, Teen Dream and Bloom, but they've typically done an admirable job of at least touching on material from their lesser known albums. The biggest evolution is that they've moved away from being obviously electronic based and have now authored a much more organic sound that uses electronics to supplement it. Guitarist Alex Scally creates hypnotizing melodies and shifting rhythms that perfectly complement Legrand.

Her deep, husky voice was on full display on set opener "Wild," but on the whole her voice sounded a little higher and more honey sweet than I expected. Yet she still has the type of booming voice needed to deliver the big, anthemic choruses that are so essential to their sound, evidenced by her "I"LL TAKE CARE OF YOOOOUUUU" on "Take Care." The melodies and hooks are strong enough to make each song magnetizing and engaging, while the lushness of the instrumentation creates a spellbinding, even exotic flair. On "Myth," for example, Scally starts with captivating guitar lead recalling the tradition of the Cocteau Twins, while finishing with a hazy tremolo solo.

Another area Beach House excels is in setting an atmosphere. Light shows and smoke machines are nothing new, but the way the smoke and lights shroud them and obscure their visages makes them seem more grand. And it was fortunate that the sound was excellent, allowing every little flourish and nuance of their sound to truly leap out at you. In terms of pure immersion, it's hard to find an act much better than Beach House.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

IDM upstart Tycho recalls shades of Boards of Canada at Exit/In

It's only 20 minutes after nine and this already seems like a bad idea. I've got to be up early in the morning, and there are also a few personal things I'm brooding over. I grab a Yuengling, my college beverage of choice, but even that isn't doing much to lift me out of my funk. I had made my way to the Exit/In after trying to decide between this show and the Ty Segall gig next week. Although I wouldn't have gotten much sleep either way, I'm rapidly thinking that Mr. Segall would have been a better bad idea.

I'm here to see Scott Hansen, better known as the electronic musician Tycho, who happens to be one of my crowning Bandcamp discoveries. I didn't care for the opener, The Album Leaf. The brain child of Jimmy LaVelle, they mixed violins, trumpets, acoustic guitars and electronics into a mix that strayed the line between post rock, IDM and New Age. But it never fully committed to any of those styles. It floated between these nether regions and didn't have much direction. I suppose you might appreciate them for carving out a specific niche, but I was bored.

Scott Hansen, aka Tycho, drops the grooves.

Tycho did much to lift my spirits. It's impossible to avoid comparisons with Boards of Canada, but Hansen stands out because of the exuberance in his compositions. Being that he's also a graphic designer, his shows feature a strong audiovisual element. The sense of childhood nostalgia certainly bears similarity to Boards of Canada and Black Moth Super Rainbow, but I also find his artwork and general aesthetic similar to Steven Wilson. Not musically, to be sure, but the grainy images of a foresty mountainside and kids rowing a canoe being projected onto the screen behind the band seems not dissimilar to something that might be found inside Porcupine Tree art booklets.

Bassist Brad Lee injects varied textures into The Album Leaf's sound.
Occasionally, Hansen will provide subdued guitar flourishes that provides subtle coloring to the music. The backing band provides a much needed kick. Zac Brown's bass provides the meat of the beat; while Rory O'Connor shows why drummers in electronic music are so highly underrated. His dizzying patterns that crisscrossed his snare and hi hat never failed to impress.

But there's something about Tycho in a live environment that doesn't quite deliver. Simply put, his music isn't very danceable. Given its heavy IDM influence it should come as no surprise that this music is more for the head than the hips. In that regard, his set is certainly enjoyable. Everything sounds good, and let's face it, for every Tycho you'll see there are about 100 Skrillex impersonators. But if you do want to dance even a little bit, it's going to be pretty tough to do it to the jams Hansen spins.

Tycho provided an enjoyable evening, but I might have to think twice about live IDM for anyone short of Aphex Twin. Not sure if it was worth the missed sleep. No matter though. I've got three shows I'm going to within the next week, all of which should be nothing short of phenomenal. Sleep? Who needs it? I'm ready to put on my game face.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Katatonia gets in touch with their softer side for Dead End Kings

To observe Katatonia is to view the portrait of a band in transition. They were once doom metal purveyors, crafting a sound that simple yet effective while packing in the level of emotion you'd expect from a doom band. But somewhere around 2006's The Great Cold Distance, a shift starting taking place.

There was a greater emphasis being placed on creating a sense of atmosphere behind the music; it was an attempt to expand their sound beyond the typical trappings of heavy metal. 2009's Night is the New Day was a much softer and even more atmospheric followup, which would set the stage for Dead End Kings.

For those familiar with Opeth's discography, Dead End Kings could be viewed as Katatonia's Heritage. They follow Opeth in stripping away the vast majority their metal elements in an effort to build a sound that is lush, dense and atmospheric. But unlike Opeth, they aren't glued to their influences. Heritage was benefited and sabotaged by its massive hard on for all things 70s prog that spent too much time looking backward and didn't do enough to further the band's sound.

Conversely, on Dead End Kings, Katatonia barely sounds like a doom metal band anymore. But they still sound like Katatonia. By slowly shifting their sound over the past few albums, they've helped ease the transition into focusing on atmosphere and subtle dynamics. But not wanting to remain stagnant, they've also introduced several new elements that pushes their sound across new boundaries.

Opener "The Parting" introduces strings and piano, decidedly softer touches that should instantly catch the listener's ear. It demonstrates that piano can work very well with Jonas Renske's voice, while the gliding guitar lead near the end of the track fits in well with their new sound.

"The Racing Heart" features one of Renske's best vocal performances. Its big chorus is a common Katatonia feature, but the real gripper is the almost acapella section that closes the song. "Hypnone" demonstrates the band's focus on atmospherics with its background instrumentals that twist and turn like a rainstorm, while "The One You Are Looking For is Not Here" sees Katatonia's take on female vocals. Guest vocalist Silje Wergeland never takes the spotlight for herself; rather she merely provides background coloring, true to Katatonia's style.

"Buildings" is perhaps the only truly punishing song on the disc. Renske perfectly captures a sense of unease and desperation, while the guitars provide something rarely heard on a Katatonia song - a minor sense of groove.

And don't think that just because they softened up that their technical ability has declined. "Lethean" proves they're still rock solid as ever with a flowing guitar solo. The beat during that section is heavy, but it's because of Daniel Liljekvist's drums and the rhythm section as opposed to the guitars.

Dead End Kings succeeds because they prove they're much more than a metal band. They mix heavy riffs in when it seems appropriate, but are no longer bound to being metal for metal's sake. Because so much of what they do is predicated on atmosphere and subtle background effects that sometimes their songs tend to float around in too much ambiance, and they get boring. They remedy this by expanding on the dense airy sound of Night is the New Day. They vastly improve the direction established there by producing a record that is much more varied and melodic. It results in one of Katatonia's most engaging and musically stimulating albums in recent memory.

Score: 84/100

Friday, September 7, 2012

Dan Deacon's antics pull concertgoers into his twisted little circle...

Baltimore electronic composer Dan Deacon, right, howls at the moon with the help of Chester Endersby Gwazda.

Dan Deacon is very odd, but does things that are oddly awesome.  In his Pitchfork interview, he takes on agriculture giant Monsanto and gets serious about conspiracy. His latest album is called America, but has nothing to do with politics. In place of  "Stars and Stripes Forever," Deacon instead unleashes his patented brand of heavy driving electronica. But in a live setting, he brings it in a way most other artists can only dream of.

His show is based around taking crowd participation to a whole new level. His first instruction to the crowd as soon as he came out was for everyone to get down on one knee, point to the ceiling, and recite some lines about a diary he found written in the voice of Austin Powers. It only gets better from there.

After a couple songs, he asks the audience to fan out and create a circle in the center of the room and picks two audience members to enter. They start dancing for awhile, until they pick two more people to join in. These four pick four more, and so forth, until the whole room is kicking it. It worked to terrific effect other than a few bros who wanted to treat it like a mosh pit, but those antics quickly died down. Later, he split the crowd down the center of the room and appointed a dance leader who would start dancing and everyone else was tasked with emulating them. Eventually a lucky crowd member would take their spot. It's like Just Dance 3 for the Wii, but minus those darn clunky motion controls.

Musically speaking, Deacon approaches electronica with the subtlety of a thrash metal musician. His ensemble consists of two highly technical drummers for maximum percussive effect, while his compositions themselves consist of heavy, raging breakdowns and buzzing digitized rave riffs, and he spares no expense in doing it. Just look at his keyboard:

Snip the wrong wire and a bomb goes off.

Watching him hook it up is like watching Ralphie's dad from A Christmas Story hooking a hundred extension cables together to get their Christmas tree to light up. He does attempt vocals, but it's more like background coloring.

Unfortunately, the Dan Deacon app did not work as well as expected. Prior to the show Deacon had been spreading the word about an app that would allow your phone to light up different colors and become a part of the show. A sound wave was sent to your phone that was supposed to activate the app, but Deacon explained they were still working out kinks in the system. "It's a flaw in the system but it's also the beauty of the system, which is why flaws are beautiful," he put it.

It worked for many of the phones in the audience, as each screen shifted through a spectrum of color and the camera light started lighting up. No dice though for my Samsung Fascinate.

Perhaps what's so engaging about Deacon's live act is how it forces you out of your comfort zone. And you build a camaraderie with the crowd around you, especially considering you may find yourself in rather close contact with them at some point in the night.  He does, however, keep on eye on safety, making sure things don't get too out of control. Be sensible, but trust Deacon because he knows what he's doing. If you fully buy into what he offers, you'll have an experience you really can't get anywhere else.

Dan Deacon's dance off circle