Monday, 29 December 2008

2008: Verse - Aggression

2008 was a sad year for the melodic hardcore scene in that its brightest beacon, Modern Life Is War, announced their split. Despite this piece of news, one band really managed to mark themselves out this year as the most musically and lyrically impressive contemporary band in the genre, as well as one of the hardest-touring: Verse.

Aggression is a logical and mature progression from Verse's previous two outings, both filled with raging melodic hardcore. To my ears, Sean Murphy's brilliant, wordy delivery stands out from that of other hardcore frontmen, perhaps due to the fact that his talk-shouting style has echoes of Zach de la Rocha and Cedric Bixler's angrier moments on At the Drive-In's Relationship of Command. Lyrically, he has a tendency to direct his anger outward in political lyrics, the theme of resisting the hand of oppression and thinking independently being a recurring theme not only in the brilliant opener 'The New Fury' but throughout the whole record. At times it can get a little preachy (have a look at the words to 'Old Guards, New Methods' - "What about the overcrowded projects where desperation calls? What about the lack of education and the lack of love? But most of all: what about the innocent in rooms with bars and three walls?") - something that is particularly noticeable at their shows where Murphy has the tendency to rant slightly, and they're the only band I've known to include a reading list in the insert of their album's packaging - but the overall quality of the lyrics and music means that unless you are easily irritated by politically concerned music, it doesn't really matter.

Especially when you've got a centrepiece like 'Story of a Free Man' on your album. While the rest of the album is consistently great, this three-part song sees Murphy take on the role of storyteller and it really makes the album. He narrates the tale of a boy whose father went off to fight in a war, only to come back, as Murphy harrowingly puts it, "in a body bag". The boy receives no solace and comfort from his family, and, as an attempt to escape from his reality, slips into addiction. Finding himself homeless and at rock bottom, he eventually decides to sober up and start afresh, eyes now wide open to the cruel nature of the world that put him in that position in the first place. Thanks to Murphy's brilliant lyricism and delivery and an excellent instrumental performance, the song is an epic that could easily stand next to even the finest jewels in the aforementioned Modern Life Is War's crown as one of the best moments in hardcore to date.

Having made a huge impression on hardcore fans everywhere, Verse have proven with Aggression that they are something very special. Be sure not to overlook them - listen to the album, read the lyrics, go to a show, and discover one of the most important hardcore bands in today's scene.

No more control. No more rules. They try to make you and me live life by their design: No free thought. No free speech. No peace of mind. They make a move to confine. But they’ll never silence me as long as I can breathe.
Verse; The New Fury

Verse - Aggression

2008: Gregor Samsa - Rest

To put this record in context, Gregor Samsa started out as a band that took a heavy influence from moody, snail-paced indie-rockers Low and combined it with a love for orchestral post-rock in the vein of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The product was something quite simple in its build-build-climax approach, even possibly quite generic, but nevertheless something startlingly emotional and affecting. In fact, their previous full-length 55:12 was quite a special record for me in that it soundtracked a few months when I was in a very vulnerable place emotionally, and so songs like 'Makeshift Shelters' and 'Lessening' still hold great significance for me in the associations they bring up when i hear them.

It came as a pleasant surprise to me earlier on this year when I read a newspost saying that Toby Driver and Mia Matsumiya of Kayo Dot, among other musicians that I admire, would be making appearances on Gregor Samsa's new outing, Rest. And, from the moment that I heard the opening track 'The Adolescent', it was evident to me that here was a new, more mature and more restrained version of the band. Gone are the sweeping string crescendos and obvious post-rock buildups, replaced by a careful, controlled sense of composition that sounds not far off from the tendencies of chamber classical music. The instrumentation is carefully chosen: 'The Adolescent' opens with a glockenspiel intro, soon accompanied by a chiming piano and then Toby Driver's delicate woodwind arrangements. Keyboards then enter, and the band's gorgeous vocal harmonies provide the icing on the cake and turn it into something really quite beautiful. As is evident here and throughout the rest of the album, the band are still using the crescendo as one of their main tools, but this time around it's a lot more subtle and clever, using minimalist repetition and subtle progression to great effect instead of the bigger post-rock guns that used to be in their arsenal. Where guitars used to be their weapon of choice, pianos now provide the anchor for most of the songs on Rest, a decision that is quite refreshing in a genre that has somewhat exhausted the possibilities of what you can do with a guitar and a delay pedal. This minimalistic tendency is particularly evident on centrepiece 'Jeroen Van Aken'. The first half is, perhaps, the section on Rest the most reminiscent of previous releases by Gregor Samsa - slow, moody, and utterly heartwrenching balladry. This leads onto an even more hushed but just as devastating second half that works through the repetition and slight change of the same line, culminating on the line "All things come and go/but we won't, no we won't, break". It's not immediately obvious stuff, but with close listening, it's so affecting.

My personal favourite on the album is the beautiful but bleak 'Pseudonyms'. Probably the moodiest piece on the album, it is a reflection on, among other things, futility and loneliness. The song progresses slowly but towards the end climaxes in a lovely and understated crescendo where gorgeous clarinet lines are played over shimmering pianos. Ambience is also used elsewhere in the album - as a segue between songs, or, in the case of 'Company', a full blown excursion into Stars of The Lid-esque guitar ambience territory. Rest is, indeed, a very varied album instrumentally and benefits hugely from it. But, above that, its careful restraint means that not everything is immediately apparent, something that affects the replay value as the album really must be listened quite closely to in order for its real beauty to show itself. For those who are fans of post-rock, classical music, moody indie-rock or just about anything you could describe with the word 'lovely', Rest is highly recommended from me as one of the most beautiful and heartmelting albums of 2008.

Murderous art has its grips on me - can't wrap myself around internally. I can't seem to put my name on anything. Our innocence yields to American dreams. Our innocence yields to pathetic conceit. Our innocence yields when our pocket's empty. The softest hearts break when the deed is done. I'll patiently wait for new days to come, then I'll wake and rise to write another song. Our innocence yields when we do it alone. The exodus begins now. I'll travel 'round and find you once more. You're reaching out less than before, but I know you're there.
-Gregor Samsa; Pseudonyms

Gregor Samsa - Rest

By the way - if any of you do enjoy what I post here, don't be afraid to leave a comment and say so! It's nice to know when your work is being read and when other people share your enthusiasm :)

2008: Fennesz - Black Sea

This should really be far higher up on the list but I've been enjoying it so much recently that I decided it was best to strike while the iron's hot. For those not in the know, Christian Fennesz is an Austrian electronica artist that masterfully meshes glitch, noise and ambience to create collages of sound that are as wonderful as they are difficult to pigeonhole. His highly lauded 2001 effort Endless Summer incorporated a subdued but evident pop sensibility into his work, the album's playful, glitchy and initially abrasive exterior eventually giving way to an underlying tranquility with repeated listens. Venice moved towards slightly more peaceful waters but was still very much the product of a man enamoured, in a slightly abstract sense, with pop music: this was most notable on 'Transit', where David Sylvian's guest vocals turned what would otherwise be a wash of Fennesz noise into a beautifully melancholy ballad.

Black Sea, however, sees the maestro completing his swing towards abstraction: taking a much more compositional approach, the new album, as the press release puts it, goes for the "slow reveal" method over Endless Summer and Venice's more song-based structures. This is, in all sorts of ways, a brilliant move: moving away from the repetition of previous song structures allows for a much more vast and expansive sound. One only needs to listen to the ten-minute title track for affirmation of this. Fennesz's music has always had quite a visual element to it, painting beautiful pictures in your head as you listen, and on Black Sea this is more evident than ever: the introductory swell of noise morphs into something sweeping and grandiose, giving the impression of a vast expanse of violent, crashing sea. The clicks and whirrs and abrasive sheets of static soon fade quite abruptly as we, the listeners, are pulled under the surface of the waves, down into the echoey depths of Fennesz's sonic sea, the crashing of the waves beating down in the distance. And suddenly all is peaceful: gentle sweeps of guitar ambience grace our ears and purposefully picked-out notes on an acoustic guitar reverberate wonderfully, providing a reassuring organic quality that would have otherwise been lost in all the sheets of fuzz.

That's one particularly impressive thing about Black Sea as an album: for a piece of experimental electronic music it comes across as surprisingly organic and human; bottomless in its depth and full of sweeping emotion. This may be due to Fennesz's immense attention to detail and recording technique: during the recording of the album, he reports that he experimented greatly with the quality of different rooms and microphones. As a result, each sound resonates in just the right way, creating whole open spaces with layers of echoing noise and distant, fragmented melody. Speaking of melody, that's another thing about Black Sea: where with previous releases Fennesz would have relatively obvious tunes anchoring his songs, this latest release is a lot more abstract for most of its duration, instead placing a lot more emphasis on texture and atmosphere, allowing the songs to build and envelop the listener. This is not, by any means, background music: Black Sea is an album to listen to on headphones and lose yourself completely in. There is so much going on at any given moment - distant rumblings, soft sheets of noise, washes of guitar, echoing strings, even prepared pianos - that the album is a totally engaging listen throughout. There are entire worlds within these sounds, ready to be explored.

My favourite thing about Fennesz is the sheer capacity for emotion and reflection within his sculptures of sound, and Black Sea is in this respect particularly powerful. The best pieces of music have the ability to say things that words cannot adequately express. 'Glide' does this perfectly: building ever so gently, it's easy to let your thoughts wander throughout its duration, but there's a moment halfway through where it subtly but powerfully hits home - and at that point it transports me completely, dredging up all sorts of memories floating around in my mind, reminding me of things, people and places that i miss, or that i've lost and that i wish i could have back. 'Vacuum' has a similarly intoxicating sense of melancholy throughout that lends itself very well to introspection and reflection.

While it's not the kind of thing that I'd like to come back to too often because of its sheer emotional weight, and while this is a purely subjective thing that others may not find here, there is a certain beauty in discovering pieces of music like this that can have such a strong emotional effect. And for all its emotional weight, its all-encompassing atmosphere and its beautiful complexity, Black Sea is one of the most fascinating and rewarding pieces of music released this year. If you have the patience to lie down with some headphones and lose yourself in its sound for a while, you will, with any luck, find the payoff immensely gratifying.

Fennesz - Black Sea

Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009)

You're going to be sick of this one in a few months' time. Trust me. Predictably, the backlash has already started and Pitchfork haven't even posted their review yet. One thing's for sure, though: the new Animal Collective is a corker. In fact, after several listens, it's my favourite album of theirs yet. Their last effort, 2007's Strawberry Jam, was a good album (marked particularly by the raucous single Peacebone) but suffered from a slight lack of cohesion and an irritatingly tinny production job. Merriweather Post Pavilion corrects those errors: the album sports a much warmer, richer sound, keeping the electronic elements that were introduced on Strawberry Jam but also featuring rich vocal harmonies and a greater pop sensibility than ever before, suggesting that the band have also taken cues from Panda Bear's own 2007 solo effort, Person Pitch. It's also Animal Collective's most accessible and danceable record to date: in fact, if there's any justice in the world, the absurdly infectious 'My Girls' (which features an absolutely enormous beat that could rub shoulders with even Lil' Wayne's biggest hits) will become a dancefloor-filler in indie clubs in the coming months. 'Summertime Clothes' is also a hit waiting to happen: matching a Beatles-esque vibe to a squelchy synth-laden stomp, it's ironic that the song will be hitting our stereos in the middle of the winter because it would make the perfect summertime pop song. And, of course, I challenge you not to be compelled to dance around your room like a madman the first time album closer 'Brothersport' works its way into your ears: perhaps the most jubilant moment so far in the discography of a band who are no strangers to smiles and sunshine, its gloriously rhythmic call-and-response hooks give way to an instrumental mid-section buildup that is, rather surprisingly, very reminiscent of techno or house, before resuming the hooks and handclaps right up until the album finishes.

There couldn't be a more perfect way to start the record than with 'In The Flowers': starting with a floating cloud of psychedelic noise over which Avey Tare sings a dreamy melody, following the line "If I could just leave my body for a night..." the heavens open and gigantic rays of sunshine synths and thundering percussion tumble down from the sky. It's like falling asleep and finding oneself in a surreal but beautiful dream. The remainder of the 55 minutes is one giant trip: Merriweather Post Pavilion is a hefty dose of celebratory psychedelia, from the gorgeous free-form midsection of 'Daily Routine' to the candyfloss synth arpeggios of 'Taste' and the bizarre didgeridoo sample in 'Lion in a Coma'. There is a prevalent Beach Boys vibe too, particularly evident in the beautifully sugary lovesong 'Bluish' or its followup track 'Guys Eyes'. 'No More Runnin'' provides a nice respite from the madness, its nocturnal balladry allowing you to catch your breath before 'Brothersport' comes to finish the record in style. A wonderfully cohesive effort that retains all of the experimentation that we've come to love from Animal Collective while providing their catchiest songs yet, this album will inevitably get the hype-avalanche treatment in the coming months. Get in early before everyone from your dad to your grandma is jabbering about it.

In keeping with Domino Records' wishes, I've removed the link that was here before. Sorry!

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

And Just Like That The Year Is Gone: 2008 / Ohana - Dead Beat

As much as I enjoy writing end-of-year lists and reading others', the end-of-year list is still, I would say, an awkward concept. For one, it seems pointless putting albums in exact numerical order - for all the importance I try to place on using your critical faculty, my mind doesn't quite work that way, and an action like deciding between my favourite albums of all time feels like choosing between my own children - so I'm deciding to do things a little bit differently here. The reason I set up this blog was to present people with good quality music where I assume the case is that they might not have heard of the band or album in question, and I'm sticking to that goal here. In an effort to keep things interesting, I'm largely omitting from my list albums that have already been hyped to death or that people will have already either heard or made their mind up on even before listening. That means sorry Bon Iver, Portishead, Fucked Up, Deerhunter and The Mars Volta, you've already had your fair share of coverage. I'm not placing things in strict numerical order either: the general trend will be that I'll work my way up and post my absolute favourites last, but the idea is mainly just to present a few records that I think have been particular musical highlights this year. And without further ado, I present you with the first record on this rundown:

Ohana - Dead Beat

As a very recent discovery this feels fitting to start with, although with more time and more spins it could end up a lot higher on the list. Ohana are/were a tight-as-hell post-hardcore outfit from Australia that, in true Refused fashion, just broke up straight after releasing a kickass record. Comparisons could be drawn to Off Minor, Unwound or Fugazi musically, particularly in the way the band write their music around tightly constructed grooves where all the instruments interlock perfectly. They make the most out of having two guitarists by building fascinating textures with their instruments: the tone of each instrument is clear and razor-sharp and the arrangements, while consistently complex, are never too dense, the band constantly allowing for clarity in their sound. An excellent example of this emphasis on texture can be found, for example, in the last minute of centrepiece 'The Birth of the Clinic' where the exclusive use of harmonics alternating between the guitars makes for something that sounds pretty unreal and really impressive. There are other great points where, perhaps, one guitar will be playing razor-sharp Drive Like Jehu-esque dissonant chords while the other will be playing minimalistic reverb-drenched riffs over the top, and the effect of the two working together is brilliant. It's also refreshing to see a band that draws as much attention to the bass and drums as their guitar players: Dead Beat sports some of my favourite basslines this side of Off Minor and some great, detailed drum playing. Ohana also show a tendency to drift towards minimalism and repetition in their work: however, it's always used as a way of subtly but powerfully keeping the music progressing forward and it makes for some of the album's most interesting moments. The best example of this is opener 'One On Four', which, though repeating some riffs for most of the song, constantly shifts and works towards a subtle climax. For a more obvious build towards an emotional climax, look no further than 'The Birth of the Clinic', which gains tension as it goes along, only for it to be released in a sparse yet cathartic vocal-and-drums section at the end. It's a real highlight, although you'd be hard pressed to find a moment on Dead Beat which is less than enjoyable, as it really is one fantastic moment after another. The record is never boring, wisely clocking out at 26 minutes, leaving you reaching for the repeat button. The vocal performance is also of note: lyrically, the album is intelligent and emotionally loaded, while the angry shouts and yelps of the singer are, once in a while, replaced by a bizarrely effective use of the voice as a melodic, wordless instrument, singing melodies that interweave with the guitar lines. Another great thing about the vocalist, of course, is that he knows when to shut up and let the instruments do the talking, a crucial awareness of space that some bands in the genre lack. Perhaps it's time that I shut up and let the music do the talking too: what you really need to know is that Dead Beat is a stunningly tight, intelligent and enjoyable record that is one of the finest examples of post-hardcore in recent times.

Ohana - Dead Beat

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Versoma - Life During Wartime

One look at the curriculum vitae of Versoma's members (the group included past and present members of Hot Cross, Transistor Transistor, Anodyne, LickGoldenSky, Orchid, Bucket Full of Teeth, Saetia and Wolves) and you'd be forgiven for immediately forming the preconception that this is some sort of screamo supergroup. Well, you're not entirely wrong, but this is not the kind of well-trodden emoviolence you might expect - Versoma's glorious racket is as informed by 90s indie-rock as it is grounded in the passionate catharsis of emo. The ghosts of My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth and Fugazi all lurk within these six tracks, something that is immediately obvious as the noisy tremolo guitars of opener 'Gods and Queens' hit your speakers. Most songs on this 18-minute EP blend the dark aggression and heart-on-sleeve nature of emo and hardcore with the melodic sensibilities and guitar styles of the aformentioned masters of indie and shoegaze, creating something unique and fascinating as bludgeoning riffs meet desperate vocals and shoegazing guitar wizardry. 'November 2004' is an obvious highlight: opening with a major-key plod reminiscent of Pelican, the song is propelled by its urgent drumming and superb vocal performance towards an emotional climax before dissolving in a wash of MBV-esque guitars. The following track '4.' serves mainly as a segue but is an interesting departure in its own right, sticking to more ambient sensibilities as sheets of noise and clean guitars are layered up with yearning yelps. The song this gives way to, 'Black Train', is the most obvious indication of the sound of members' previous projects, mostly sticking to dark hardcore riffage layered with subtle noise experimentation. The intro of closer 'Come In Alone' could almost be that of a My Bloody Valentine song (I wonder what brought that band to mind - maybe the impossibly blatant reference in the song title?) but the song morphs into a perfect crossover between hardcore punk and 1990s indie-rock that really sums up what Versoma is about.

I need to order this from the Robotic Empire webstore sharpish because, while not able to find the lyrics anywhere, I bet that if they're anywhere near as good as the music on this EP, this record is a keeper. It's just such a shame that this, along with the demos of this release that can be downloaded from Robotic Empire's rarities blog, represents the only material that Versoma ever recorded before their premature split. However, ex-members are currently making great music in projects such as Tombs and Gods and Queens, both of which follow similar ideas, so be sure to check those out if you enjoy Life During Wartime.

Versoma - Life During Wartime

Monday, 8 December 2008

The Cold Return

As another hectic semester draws to an end I find myself with a little more time on my hands than usual. Or, rather, I'm decidedly ignoring the fact that i have two essays due and four exams to take after the Christmas holidays. I'll be taking this opportunity to get back to updating this blog hopefully a little more frequently, with plenty of music for you to feast your ears on, as well as providing the obligatory rundown of my favourite records from 2008. Watch this space.

The record I've been listening to the by far the most recently is Gospel's The Moon is a Dead World. Produced by Kurt "Midas Touch" Ballou of Converge, the record is, sadly, the only studio output the band have ever released. The band sound like what you would expect City of Caterpillar, perhaps, to sound like if they were closet Yes fans. In other words, Gospel play intense hardcore with massive prog leanings - insane drumming, psychedelic riffage, keyboard solos and nine-minute epics. This might sound absurd on paper, but The Moon is a Dead World is one of the most visceral, compelling and straight up awesome records ever to grace my ears. Its dense and dark racket will overwhelm on the first couple of listens, but every subsequent listen will reveal new nuances and amaze even more than the last time. Your ears will start to isolate awesome moments: be it the blinding riffage in 'Yr Electric Surge is Sweet', the superb melodic and dynamic changes of the epic 'A Golden Dawn', the stuttering rhythmic breakdown in 'And Redemption Fills The Emptiest of Hearts', the build and climax of 'What Means of Witchery' or the furious keyboards of 'As Far As You Can Throw Me'. Before long, you'll not only realise how tight and damn-near perfect this album is - you'll find that you're addicted to its propulsive dynamics and practically flawless instrumentation. In the realm of emo, The Moon Is a Dead World has little or no match in terms of how inventive and cohesive it is - fans of Circle Takes The Square and their ilk should probably download this. Right now.

I've also been listening to quite a lot of Harvey Milk. One of the more underrated bands in the field of sludge, it's suprising that, given their eccentric approach to the genre, more fans of bands such as Kayo Dot or Boris haven't picked up on them - or, rather, their early releases, which are particularly spectacular. They have admittedly received a bit of a buzz recently due to their most recent release Life... The Best Game in Town, touted by the likes of Pitchfork as a return to form. As entertaining as that album is, it seems to lack the extremity and astounding sense of experimentation that one finds in the band's early work, and thus comes off as comparatively lacklustre. My Love is Higher Than Your Assessment of What My Love Could Be, the band's debut, is a perfect place to start with Harvey Milk. The opening track 'A Small Turn of Human Kindness' throws you into experimental territory straight away: as an ominous cymbal counts the song in, one expects to be bombarded with sludge filth straight away. But Harvey Milk don't work that way: they choose, instead, to mess with their listeners' heads - playing around with keyboard noodling for a bit before reverting to cymbal counts, and then messing about a little more with some creepy strings. and then about three and a half minutes in, the real onslaught starts: one of the most vile, evil riffs you're ever likely to hear, backed by thunderous drums and horrible bass, rears its ungodly head. The band uses extended periods of (near-)silence, carefully controlled tempos and unconventional instrumentation (including the odd folk ballad) to contribute to the general disorienting effect of the album, along with the employment of a singer who could just as easily be a pissed-off walrus as be a human being. All of this leaves you wondering what you've just been hit by, but knowing one thing for sure: you've just heard one of the best experimental sludge albums you're ever likely to hear.

The follow-up to My Love..., the ironically titled Courtesy and Good Will Toward Men, dives into an even more serious - and sometimes surprisingly emotional - side of Harvey Milk's sound, while still retaining the experimental edge of their debut that makes the band so special and rewarding. One might argue that Courtesy is a bit more cohesive as an album than its predecessor, as it retains a constant feeling of utter gloom and misery throughout, while the predecessor tends to inject the band's bizarre sense of humour into tracks that otherwise might be more depressing, as well as having a few more particularly upbeat tracks among its numbers. The negativity of Courtesy and Good Will Toward Men is not necessarily to its detriment, but it certainly means that the album tends to lend itself a lot more towards moods where the listener is feeling a lot more, say, despondent. It has some disarmingly poignant moments: particularly the emotional climax of the album, a straightforward acoustic cover of Leonard Cohen's 'One of Us Cannot Be Wrong', a song that lends itself rather well to the singer's bizarre voice and is a surprisingly effecting respite in what is mostly a crushingly heavy sludge album. On an album full of highlights, one song to watch out for is the marvellously tense and evil opener 'Pinocchio's Example' which features - get this - a hoover. Yep, seriously. Also listen out for the interestingly structured and at times downright vile 'Sunshine (No Sun) Into the Sun', a great centrepiece - it starts with thirty seconds of a misleadingly charming ballad before propelling you straight into a black hole of downtuned bass and absurd guitar noise that lasts for the rest of the song. Nice. Courtesy and Good Will Toward Men may not be the most chirpy or upbeat of albums but it is certainly a powerful listen, and is one of the best sludge albums I've heard in a long time.

I'm also throwing in the new Glassjaw song as a bonus because, well, it fucking shreds.

Gospel - The Moon is a Dead World
Harvey Milk - My Love Is Higher Than Your Assessment Of What My Love Could Be
Harvey Milk - Courtesy and Good Will Toward Men
Glassjaw - You Think You're John (Fucking) Lennon