Saturday, 27 June 2009

The Dismemberment Plan - Change (2001)

The Dismemberment Plan - Change


there are times when you will not like the sound of my voice
there are days when a warm look from a strange face will make me forget my name
there'll be nights when you wonder where the party's at now
and you wonder why you never split this beat scene when a higher life awaits
there'll be days when you don't know how you picked the wrong life
in a second when it's over in our own minds -- and it's gone without a sound
there are fights that'll hear things that we know we don't mean
and we say 'em 'cos we don't know what we both want and we can't get to the other side

there are years that'll fly like wind across a flood plain
unaware of its own weight, free of friction, and immune to its own speed
there are weeks that'll crawl like slugs across a hot road
only moving 'cos it just don't know how to stop on a search for god knows what
and there are songs that'll make your skull ring like a dropped cup
resonating with the reasons why you worked through -- and the reasons why you stayed

for the long nights when you found a new resolve that i never knew was there
for the cold eye and the warm embrace now
for the righteous vibe that i need like the air i breathe

there are times when you'll think you've got my funny number figured out
there'll be days when I don't feel like i ever knew you all that well
and there are lines, drawn around, behind, above and over everyone
in an effort to figure out the place and time, the right, the wrong, the yours,
the mine, and i'll be damned if I feel like I will ever know anything
but if don't keep moving on that last hill,
we'll never know what's on the other side

-The Dismemberment Plan; The Other Side


Not a lot that I need to say about this because it speaks for itself. Some of the most poignant lyrics from one of the best albums by one of the most inventive, interesting and downright awesome indie bands ever. Travis Morrison has a fantastic, very funny and heartfelt storyteller-esque lyrical style and delivers some absolute gems here. Get.

The Dismemberment Plan - Change

Friday, 26 June 2009

Mark Kozelek - Lost Verses Live (2009)

fall tonight sweet paris rain
shower me in her warm kisses

Live albums are rarely something that I have the patience for. Usually, a band or musician is best represented on record, and live releases can become an indulgence on the part of the musician, a stopgap between studio albums or a tool to boost sales. In any case, they usually end up being relegated to the bargain bin. There are certain exceptions, of course, where a live album captures the essence of an artist perfectly and becomes essential listening for anyone with a passing interest in their music: think along the lines of Bob Dylan's 'Live 1966' Bootleg Series record or James Brown's 'Live at the Apollo'. Sure, comparisons to those two seem pretty lofty and hyperbolic, but Mark Kozelek's most recent solo outing, 'Lost Verses Live', could quite easily be deemed part of that minority in its own way.

Since discovering him roughly around the time that Sun Kil Moon's 'April' came out last year, Kozelek's work has grown on me to the extent that it now holds its own firm place somewhere in the list of music that I consider personal to me. Stripped down to his own sparse acoustic playing and gently soaring vocals, which resonate here perfectly while retaining a satisfying clarity of sound, the record captures the intense, soul-baring intimacy that lies at the heart of the songwriter's work and makes him so endearing. The tracklist reads like a well-put-together best-of collection of his work in Sun Kil Moon, comprising a large number of songs from their latest full-length 'April' but also a healthy number of songs on previous records, including two songs from his Modest Mouse cover record 'Tiny Cities', an excellent rendition of Stephen Sondheim's 'Send in the Clowns', and a very affecting reinterpretation of the achingly autobiographical Red House Painters classic 'Katy Song' that, through a new arrangement in his more recent fingerpicked acoustic style, lends the song a newfound warmth that makes it a more approachable prospect than the desolate Red House Painters studio version. As such, 'Lost Verses Live' is an excellent and cohesive introduction to Mark Kozelek's back catalogue for people unfamiliar with the man's previous work. Of course, there are flaws here - the track that the record names itself after lacks the drive that the original has, and the applause kicks in strangely abruptly at the end of certain songs - not to mention the omission of the career-defining 'Duk Koo Kim' - but the overall atmosphere of this record is so intoxicating that such complaints seem like minor quibbles.

Mark Kozelek

Something that I have always loved about Kozelek's music, particularly in Sun Kil Moon, is the beautifully warm, aching sense of nostalgia in his music. In terms of better-known artists to reference for newcomers to his style, one other act I could compare Kozelek's more recent work to, in terms of emotional content, is Beirut - aside from having a similar vocal style, both him and Zach Condon share the same affectionate longing for old flames and the same running lyrical fixation on travel and moving from place to place, and the personal significance of certain locations and people in their memories. 'April' in particular was a very intimate tribute to a departed loved one. Songs performed here like 'Moorestown', 'Tonight in Bilbao' and 'Blue Orchids' are great examples of this and are given absolutely beautiful renditions here. For lack of a better word, there's something very mature about his music in Sun Kil Moon which I love: every memory and every image is portrayed beautifully, with a longing fondness for these pasts of his and a warm, understated love for life that contrasts greatly to his more emotionally fraught work in Red House Painters. If you give them the required time and patience, 'April' and 'Ghosts of the Great Highway' are records that can reveal enormous amounts of depth and beauty, and I guess that someday, I'd like to be able to write music that's as warm, intimate and endearing as this.

soft light pours into the room
fingers glide over my face
a voice speaks, a figure moves
how could i walk these old dim halls again
how could i leave this room all alone

when she comes by every morning
brings back pink and pale blue orchids
when she comes by every afternoon
piano music weeps quietly
as may melts into june
when she comes by every evening
lays down beside me softly breathing
-Mark Kozelek; 'Blue Orchids'

Mark Kozelek - Lost Verses Live

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Portraits of Past - 01010101 (1995)

Portraits of Past - 01010101

Portraits of Past were a Bay Area emo band active between the years 1993 and 1995, recently having also played a series of reunion shows across the United States. Most people familiar with the band's name know them for the bands that their members went on to form - the seminal screamo group Funeral Diner and the more recently formed ...Who Called So Loud who have been gaining quite a bit of momentum in the hardcore scene in the past couple of years. Portraits of Past are arguably not just a great band in their own right, but perhaps even more important than those two in terms of influence and just how ahead of their time they were. Both the aforementioned bands that their members were involved in are not known for being particularly chirpy, so it comes as little surprise that Portraits of Past dealt in very dark, brooding, lengthy and bludgeoningly intense pieces, essentially laying down the blueprint for every "screamo" band to come in a time when the term hadn't even been coined.

Portraits of Past

01010101 is heavy stuff. The bass rumbles like huge looming storm clouds rolling in over the horizon, the singer and drummer sound possessed, and, when they reach full force, the guitar riffs sound like they could cause fissures in the ground. One of the things this band excels at is being able to maintain an intoxicatingly dark atmosphere and sense of melody throughout their music despite alternating between chaotic frenzies and drawn-out dirges and having an impressive dynamic range (sometimes even sounding, god forbid, pretty.) Perhaps due to the fact that their music sounds startlingly different to their peers at the time and yet far rougher and rawer than anything the bands that followed them created, this feels like a refreshingly unique record. Despite the intensely depressing downward-spiralling quality of the music, which can affect replay value a bit, this is definitely one of the most killer emotional hardcore records to come out of the 90s.

Portraits of Past - 01010101

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Flying Lotus & Declaime - Whole Wide World (2009)

Flying Lotus & Declaime - Whole Wide World

Steve Ellison is my favourite electronica or hip-hop producer and his latest release does nothing to make me want to retract that statement. Far from it, Flying Lotus' latest release, a 12" collaboration with hip-hop MC Declaime, sees the producer moving in a direction that I had been hoping he would explore for a while, and the resulting recordings deliver. FlyLo's last full length release Los Angeles and its accompanying EPs occupied sonic territories that sat very comfortably on his new label Warp, fusing the sense of experimentation of the pioneering electronic acts on its roster with his appreciation for hip-hop and jazz. The result was a great but uneven effort, producing some incredibly strong moments but also some weaker forays that didn't measure up next to the likes of "Breathe. Something / Stellar Star" and "Auntie's Lock/Infinitum". Flying Lotus' music has always felt most satisfying when he channels his sound into a more obviously hip-hop context, and it seems that this year he's been dabbling more and more in proper hip-hop production: that is to say, lending his beats to rappers, be it donating a beat to Finale's latest record as a tribute to the late J dilla or getting Blu to rap over the Los Angeles cut 'GNG BNG'. This 12" represents his first real collaboration record with an MC. Essentially, Whole Wide World consists of two cuts which Declaime rhymes over, two instrumental versions of those tracks, and another new instrumental in the form of the excellent 'Keep it Moving'.


The title track is the real hit here. FlyLo drops a hazy beat with vocal and piano samples that evoke some scratchy old jazz record being spun in outer space, Pattie Blingh's vocal contribution providing a nice touch as the song reaches its midpoint. The bassy, guitar-laden boom-clap of 'Lit Up' meanwhile is clearly indebted to J Dilla's livelier efforts. While lyrically Declaime isn't much to write home about, his rhyming is competent and his flow has a nice balance of aggression and laid-back attitude that anchors both the songs here very well. 'Keep it Moving' is classic Flying Lotus, its relaxed, jazz-infused groove hearkening back to his early works on 1983. What this release proves more than anything is that if and when Ellison decides to produce a full-length rap record, it's going to be something very special. Let's keep our fingers crossed that we won't be kept waiting.

Flying Lotus & Declaime - Whole Wide World

Monday, 8 June 2009

"This Is Bob Dylan To Me"

Just a quick one here - I've been digging Minutemen's landmark record Double Nickels on the Dime lately, and the song below, 'History Lesson - Part II', is not only one of the album's very best tracks (out of 43 contenders) but also one of the most awesome two-minute songs ever written.

our band could be your life
real names'd be proof
me and mike watt played for years
punk rock changed our lives

we learned punk rock in hollywood
drove up from pedro
we were fucking corndogs
we'd go drink and pogo

mr. narrator
this is bob dylan to me
my story could be his songs
i'm his soldier child

our band is scientist rock
but i was e. bloom and richard hell,
joe strummer, and john doe
me and mike watt, playing guitar.

Friday, 15 May 2009

My friends have a record out!

Just as a preface, I never post a record if I don't think it's killer regardless of who made it. This blog has always been and always will be reserved for the purpose of presenting people with records that I believe have a lot of value musically and emotionally. Posts will never, ever be intended to massage someone's ego. As such, it's testament to the quality of a friend's work if it finds its way onto this blog.

All the Empires of the World - Last Rites EP

All the Empires of the World is a three-man project based in Nottingham. Last Rites is the latest release of theirs and their first 'official' release through a label. It's always easiest to define a band like this by the heavier parts of their sound, but Last Rites has as much light in its sound as dark. It is not a "post-metal" record. There is way more going on here than Isis/Neurosis/Pelican [delete as appropriate] worship - as much attention is given to the properties of each sound and how it resonates as is given to the riffs themselves. These explorations of ambience give the record a cavernous sense of space that makes it sound freaking huge. 'Prophecy at the Ruins', as the title suggests, sets an apocalyptic tone, starting with the slow pounding of a bass drum that is met by long peals of rumbling guitar that sound like a call to prayer from deep within some enormous temple. Instead of the release of tension that we'd expect, the rumbling gives way to a sequence of subdued fingerpicked chords that make the eventual release of tension even more worthwhile. These quieter passages on Last Rites have a considered, dreamy quality to them that reminds me a lot of the calmer moments of maudlin of the Well's music. After the long build of 'Prophecy at the Ruins', the music finally erupts in 'Simon Helen Elizabeth (The Gate)' with the kind of music that Pelican should be writing these days - proudly triumphant riffs shrouded in enormous swathes of ambience. At the climax of the song the addition of some deeply buried vocals within the wall of sound works as a really great finishing touch. These two songs work as a kind of suite, but are followed by a similarly great reinterpretation of one of their older songs '...Will be Laid to Waste' which manages to sound strikingly different from the original version and yet still as great.

In terms of the actual meaning behind the record it might be best to quote Mark directly:

"This record is a testament to finding the best in everything - it was influenced by my brother and two sisters and their complex and wonderful lives. Denial of the spirit is denial of the self."

I'm not in the position to extrapolate further about the emotional content of Last Rites but one thing that is obvious is that it is clearly a very personal record. This, combined with the attention to detail in the writing, recording and mixing makes it a very rewarding listen, and I will recommend it to anyone who is interested in records that explore the possibilities within the outer fringes of heavy music.

It can be downloaded for free from Records on Ribs, a great Nottingham-based record label run by a bunch of lovely people who release high-quality music for free online under Creative Commons licensing. While you're downloading this record, check out the rest of the acts on their site too, there's some great stuff there - some of my favourites include EL Heath's ambient work and the Talk Talk-esque melancholy of Les √Čtoiles.

All The Empires of the World - Last Rites

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

The One Up Downstairs - S/T (2006)

Will I be seeing you next spring?
Well I hope so
If not, would you skip a stone in your lake for me?

This is probably the wrong season to be posting this, but whatever. The One Up Downstairs were a short-lived project by Mike Kinsella and Steve Lamos of American Football and two members of Very Secretary that recorded one 7" before American Football came into being that never really got released until 2006. The American Football LP is a really beautiful indie-rock album and one of my favourite records ever, so it's always annoyed me that I can't really find anything else by the Kinsellas that has a similarly nostalgic and reflective feel to it, besides Mike's solo project Owen which never really did much for me. The discovery of this EP, then, was a nice surprise for me, having played both American Football records to death. The opener 'Champaign' sounds like classic American Football, slowly unfolding and meandering in a kind of ponderous way. Lyrical and musical ideas come and go gently much in the way that your mind works in those beautiful moments of calm, contented reflection that come once in a while. It paints a lovely picture in my mind, like the speaker's a little tipsy after a couple of glasses of wine and is taking a walk outside in the snow at nighttime, and what we're presented with are just the thoughts in his head as they come and go.

'Rememories' is more uptempo, with a bouncy riff that almost sounds like something out of a Don Caballero song. Lyrically it deals with the feeling when you're moving from one place to another of looking forward to making more - and maybe better - memories but also hoping that you'll be missed and wondering if the people who were important to you will think about you when you're not around, which is a sentiment I can relate to pretty easily. This running theme of nostalgia for people, places and certain periods in your life in American Football's music also finds itself in this EP and is something that makes both bands so endearing for me. The last instrumental 'Franco the Bull' feels a little tacked-on at the end compared to the two songs before it but is worth a listen too. But overall, for anyone that wishes American Football had released a little more material or just digs music that deals in slow, intricate, nostalgic beauty, this EP is a really nice little fix.

The One Up Downstairs - S/T

Thursday, 30 April 2009

Minus the Bear - Highly Refined Pirates (2002) & They Make Beer Commercials Like This (2004)

I thought it might be about time that I did something on two of my favourite records in the world. Minus the Bear are probably the coolest band ever. They write glitchy, complex songs full of lots of complex and often really gorgeous guitar tapping, but they sing about the simple pleasures in life: booze, cars, swimming pools and sex. Let's face it, if you hate them it's only because you're jealous that your life isn't that great. Because what kind of person doesn't like those things? Oh, and as a bonus, their songs are pretty catchy too.

When I was first getting into Minus the Bear with Highly Refined Pirates it was with the real hits of the record: 'Absinthe Party at the Fly Honey Warehouse', 'Monkey!!! Knife!!! Fight!!!', 'Get Me Naked 2: Electric Boogaloo' - explosive pop songs that pack hooks big enough to land blue whales. But while most of the songs on this album have an ostensibly feelgood vibe with lyrics about booze-soaked good times, there's an underlying romanticism behind it all, a nostalgic or even longing feeling for the things described in the lyrics. The real beauty in Jake Snider's lyrics is in the subtlety and the simplicity of his attention to small but beautiful little details, like in his description of an encounter with a girl in 'I Lost All My Money at the Cock Fights' where he ends on the line 'Her hair streaked her shirt with rain/and that did something to me'. Nothing verbose or elaborate, just subtle, understated beauty. Another real highlight of this aspect of his lyrics is 'We Are Not A Football Team', which perfectly captures those rare moments of comfortable silence that speak more than anything else could:

She was sitting on a swing
and dangling her feet

like the leaves of a tree

I think I heard her singing.

We're still out at 10 in the evening.

I knew her in the way that

I knew not to speak.

Quietly took a seat

and thought I'd stay for a week.

Highly Refined Pirates

'Get Me Naked 2: Electric Boogaloo' is one of the record's real highlights. On the face of it, it's just about someone struggling with a lifestyle filled with stress, anxiety and sleep deprivation. The way that it's delivered, though, means that the listener can relate and fill the gaps themselves, giving the song a much deeper, more personal meaning. The chorus is the most poignant bit:

You said, "My life's like a bad movie"
I said, "That's true
of all us"
You said, "I've got to wake up so fucking early"

And I said, "Maybe the director's turned on us"

The album's closer 'Let's Play Guitar in a Five-Guitar Band' took a long time to creep up on me but is currently my absolute favourite on the record. Jake sings about an encounter with an ex-lover who has left him emotionally fraught, maybe his "one that got away". It's all described very simply: he sees her through a shop window, which evokes fond memories of him when he was with her "just having sex and listening to jazz/and that was the life", but he tells himself not to involve himself with her again and to move on, nervously lighting up a cigarette as he walks by. The real ache of the song is in the longing of the repetition of the last few lines "I should go back to/see if she's still there/standing like a statue". Perhaps this is just me relating to a feeling that I've felt a lot, but that final repetition is really emotionally exhausting. The feeling of knowing that someone who's passed you by was special, but that sometimes you have to move on and leave those memories behind. The simple power of the images here mean that the song doesn't need any over-the-top embellishment to be hauntingly powerful.

They Make Beer Commercials Like This

The follow-up EP to that album, They Make Beer Commercials Like This, is similarly brilliant and summery, with Minus the Bear's most danceable song 'Fine + 2 Pts' and several other great songs, but I'm mainly posting it because of my love of two songs: 'I'm Totally Not Down With Rob's Alien' and 'Houston, We Have Uh-Oh'. The former doesn't really need a lot of explanation, just resonates with me a lot as one of the most relaxed and beautiful songs I've ever heard. 'Houston We Have Uh-Oh' has a real sense of underlying melancholy to it that makes it one of Minus the Bear's best songs, albeit oddly one that was originally just a b-side. Anyone who's ever travelled much will be able to identify with this song: it captures the isolated feeling of being a tourist, of being separate from your surroundings, and the kind of subtle disorientation and loneliness that can bring up. As someone who's spent a lot of their life moving between places and, more recently, revolved their life around relocation and travel, this song means a lot.

people used to live here
and lived their lives on this ground

raised them in these fields

and lost them in the future

and we just take pictures

of hearts that stopped beating

sometimes you're a tourist with a camera

stealing souls for scrapbooks

sometimes you've got a life back home

sometimes you're really alone, you're really alone

Minus the Bear - Highly Refined Pirates
Minus the Bear - They Make Beer Commercials Like This

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Madlib - The Beat Konducta Vols. 5 & 6: Dil Cosby Suite & Dil Withers Suite (2009)

since you've been away so long...

It's practically unanimous opinion among hip-hop fans that J Dilla was not only a great producer and beatmaker but a very influential one too, shaping the face of contemporary hip-hop with a sound dubbed by many as "neo-soul". Since his death, numerous tributes have been scattered across his peers' and mentees' records. Arguably, though, none have been quite as respectful, understanding, entertaining and strangely touching as this one. Certainly if you believe that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, at any rate. Madlib's latest two records in his Beat Konducta series - records where he takes the time to focus on and explore various styles of music and convert them into his own distinctive brand of instrumental hip-hop, with varying but often brilliant results - are dedicated to his old friend, peer and collaborator James Yancey.

madlib: doing what he does best

It's no secret that through tape-swapping and, sometimes, direct collaboration - as seen on the impressive Jaylib album Champion Sound - there was a two-way pattern of influence between Dilla and Madlib that showed itself as their sounds continued to evolve, one record always informed by another. And, to an extent, particularly Madlib's Beat Konducta records have always mirrored Dilla's last masterwork, Donuts, with their short soundbite-like tracks and their particular way of structuring samples, basslines and drumbeats together. This latest release, though, is altogether more faithful to Yancey's sound, the clearly meditated-upon result of a close study and deep understanding of Dilla's production style. The Dil Cosby Suite is particularly stunning: it feels like Madlib's own stab at Donuts, but, with Otis Jackson Jr.'s own particular style also evident, it comes across, to me at least, as at least as soulful, sincere and musically fantastic as the record it borrows from. Sometimes there's the boom-clap ruckus of Dilla's rowdier stuff, but the prevailing mood is a rather gorgeous, mournful kind of calm, particularly on songs like 'Floating Soul (Peace)' and 'Sacrifice (Beat-A-Holic Thoughts)'. Every sample is picked meticulously here, always contributing perfectly to the album's flow, the vocal samples often giving across a touching message - such as the introductory track's clear homage to Dilla, 'Infinity Sound's provocative "If the world should end tomorrow, have you lived enough today? Has each hour been fully tasted..." or the closing 'Anthenagin (?)'s burning cry of "Emptiness is all around". Nevertheless this still has Madlib's trademark sense of humour, evident in some of the spoken samples and also his musical sample choices, like his bizarre manipulation of a Buzzcocks song in 'The Get Over (Move)'. This combination of brilliant beats, touching tributes and subtle humour makes this record not only a rather moving one when properly listened to, but also a wonderfully entertaining listen from start to finish.

dil cosby & dil withers suites, respectively

The Dil Withers suite is somewhat more aggressive in approach, taking influence from Dilla's funkier side (but also, quite clearly, Madlib's own love for the green stuff) and doesn't flow quite as well as its counterpart, as it seems like the majority of the best beats were slipped onto the first record for maximum impact, but it's still a great instrumental hip-hop record and has highlights of its own, like the cavernous 'Smoked Out (Green Blaze Subliminal Sounds)'. One could forgive him for the fact that he starts to run out of steam on this disc if you consider that 41 tracks is an awful lot to make when focusing on a very specific style, and it is a pretty exhausting exploration of Dilla's work as it is. If you're only going to listen to one record here, make it the Dil Cosby suite, which is one of the best instrumental hip-hop releases since lord knows when. But even as a combined piece of work, the Dil Cosby and Dil Withers suites are some of Madlib's best work so far, a brilliant tribute from one stellar noughties beatmaker to another, and should be heard by anyone with a passing interest in instrumental hip-hop.

Madlib - The Beat Konducta Vol. 5: Dil Cosby Suite
Madlib - The Beat Konducta Vol. 6: Dil Withers Suite

Friday, 17 April 2009

Mount Kimbie - Maybes (2009)

Mount Kimbie is a duo of relatively unknown young musicians from the south of London working together to craft electronic music. Listening to their debut EP Maybes, however, you get that gut reaction of excitement - the feeling that you've stumbled across something fascinating that has no real contemporary or equivalent in the current music scene - like that first time you heard Burial or Flying Lotus. Ok, so that's probably silly hype. And, to be perfectly fair, I chose to namedrop those two acts in particular for a reason: Maybes feels like a perfect meeting point between the two: lush, soulful but moody electronic soundscapes filled with the loveliest clicks and blips imaginable. The music is informed by all sorts of current electronic trends - dubstep, garage, hip-hop, the so-called "wonky" - while never quite conforming to any of them. There is also a decidedly downtempo, atmospheric feel to the music too, one that evokes the British trip-hop scene of yore, so if the words "Bristol" and "1990s" mean anything too you then this is worth investigating. The EP packs some really lovely chopped-up vocal samples - see the astounding title track or 'Vertical' for prime evidence of this. The beats are very inventive, using all sorts of unusual whirrs and clicks to create something that's really satisfying to listen to. One real highlight is in the last minute of 'William' where the track takes a sudden but nevertheless subtle tempo shift as the beat kicks in and transports the song to an even more gorgeous place. It is very tempting to lazily slap an 'IDM' tag on this as a way of pigeonholing it, but that is overlooking what this really is: a brilliant release that takes the rudimentary elements of all sorts of electronic subgenres and adds its own ideas to create a satisfyingly unique and emotionally resonant voice in electronic music.

I normally provide download links but people should try and buy this EP if they can. You can find details on how to order it here.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Suis La Lune - Heir (2008)

This kind of stuff makes me so happy. Even if they're technically an emo band, Suis La Lune's most recent EP feels anything but depressing for me. The four songs here are bursting with a passionate but playful kind of energy that makes me smile. There is a kind of bittersweet quality to them, sure, but it's that kind of nice bittersweet feeling you get when reminiscing about good times - awesome shows attended, beers shared with friends, long summer holidays - and knowing that the nature of things like that is that they're going to come and go, so you need to just enjoy them while you can. At least that's what it does for me, anyway. 'With Wings of Feather and Glue' really sets the tone for this brilliantly: a lovely slow guitar intro with the sounds of birds chirping in the distance gets you in the smiles-and-sunshine mood right from the outset, until the song bursts into life, and what follows is fifteen minutes of raucous screamo that rouses and invigorates more than it laments and whines. Suis La Lune are typically associated with the Euro-screamo scene but have quite a lot in common with the guitar theatrics of US bands like Kidcrash and early Hot Cross as well as having traces of the sound that you get in continental peers like La Quiete and Raein. The real thing that needs to be said about this EP, above anything else, is that it's just so enjoyable: it's too short to ever become boring, but there are all these little moments throughout that are so satisfying. The guitar work is great - as said, it kind of traverses the current emo scene quite nicely, from the more technical fiddly stuff to the melodic post-rock-ish tendencies of a lot of the European emo groups playing right now, and the occasional bit of all-out octave tremolo picking in true Orchid style (see 'September Gave Us Awkwardness, October Gave Us Nothing'). Even if you can't understand a word the singer is screaming out, Heir is still just a great, thoroughly enjoyable, feelgood screamo record (I don't know if I'm ever going to use the words "feelgood" and "screamo" next to each other again, but there we go). Put this on when you're down in the dumps, then thank me later.

Suis La Lune - Heir

Friday, 27 February 2009


I'm not a religious person. I don't think I could ever be, really. And while I couldn't say I believe in God either, I struggle to budge from my agnostic viewpoint into either full-fledged atheism or any sort of real belief, despite having thought about it until the point of exhaustion at times. Even though I can't say that I can wholly relate to the subject matter, there's something about mewithoutYou's 'Carousels' that makes it one of the most profound and powerful songs I've ever heard. It gives me shivers every time I hear it. It was the song that made me fall in love with mewithoutYou in the first place. Everything about it is overwhelming: right from the wonderfully atmospheric descending guitar line in the intro that leads its way into a deep groove, the song completely immerses me emotionally from start to finish. This serves as a great platform for Aaron Weiss' performance, which is one of the most passionate and inspiring lyrical and vocal performances I've ever heard. The opening stanza, to me, is one of the most poetic and beautiful ways of saying "I believe in God" that I've ever read:

on a bus ride into town
i wondered out loud,
"why am i going to town?"
as i looked around
at the billboards and the stores
i thought, "why do i look around?"
and i kissed the filthy ground
at the first dry spot i found
and i didn't have to wonder
why i was laying down.

Weiss' lyricism continues to be consistently astounding from there onwards. The song touches on loneliness, doubt and confusion, but, most importantly, the profound faith in God that keeps the narrator anchored despite everything. Sometimes I feel like I am "lost in sinai" myself, and listening to this song, I can't help but wonder. I can't really explain why this song is as powerful for me as it is. Whether you're a devout catholic or decidedly anti-religious, all I ask is that you listen and discover what it means to you for yourself.

if i didn't have You as my guide i'd still wander lost in sinai
or down by the tracks watching trains go by to remind me:
there are places that aren't here.
i had a well but all the water left
so i'll ask your forgiveness with every breath
if there was no way into God,
i would never have laid in this grave of a body for so long.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Ten Grand - This Is the Way to Rule (2003)

I was lucky to find this one for only £3 a couple of months back - thank God for Anarchy Records. Once upon a time there was an awesome midwest emo band called The Vidablue who, at some stage in their career, got approached by some douche from Phish who desperately wanted to nick their name. And so The Vidablue became Ten Grand - allegedly an allusion to the sum that they were paid by said hippy to change their name - and went on to make even more badass music that those jam-band wannabes could only dream of creating. Ten Grand are an emo band in the original sense, but their heavy post-punk influence sets them apart from their peers and gives them a much more diverse appeal, making them a good starting point in the genre for fans of indie-rock and post-hardcore. The racket they make is tight and explosive, filled with satisfying post-hardcore riffing and instrumental grooves, fronted by a singer who has a pretty unique and unhinged style that works perfectly with the music.

The urgency of Ten Grand's music is immediately obvious from the opening song 'Hands Off the Merch'. The first minute builds up tension brilliantly, the initial burst of chiming guitars giving away to the continuous thumping of a bass drum - until finally the drums hit their stride and the song explodes into action, vocalist Matt Davis shakily proclaiming "Who's a wreck? I'm a wreck." Then after just two intense minutes it's over, but the rest of the album doesn't lapse in quality for a second. Touches of backup melody in songs like 'Wedding Song for Steve and Angie' and 'Now You Got What I Got' add an interesting dynamic to the record, making it seem much less obviously emo and potentially more approachable for those who aren't necessarily familiar with the genre. 'Fuck You Guyses Teams', one of the record's highlights, has a really tight groove to it that is surprisingly catchy, to the extent that to my ears it could almost be a Bloc Party song. The band has a great ear for dynamics, often bursting from a steady groove into a more intense one to keep the listener hooked. 'This Isn't Heaven, This Sucks' is a perfect example of a song that, while lacking a refrain, manages to be consistently gripping through the explosive riffing and the rapid but fluid changes between sections, building in tension towards a climax at the end of the song. 'Get Out of My Dojo' includes a steadily building rhythmic assault that shows the band's taut interplay at its best, recalling the progressive leanings of other emo bands like Gospel and Kidcrash. Ten Grand specialise in songwriting over experimentalism, though, and this much is evident in the frankly amazing album closer 'Now You Got What I Got'. Fulfilling the "emotional" part of "emotional hardcore" by all means, it tumbles chaotically towards an intense and emotionally exhausting coda, wringing as much feeling as possible out of the song through the soaring tremolo guitars and Davis' ambiguous but nevertheless very affecting repetition of "it's like an accident that we keep on knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting" until the song collapses in on itself.

Never has an album title been more accurate. It should go without saying how tragic it is that Matt Davis passed away following the release of this album, especially as the band could have potentially been very big news indeed had they carried on down the same path. As it is, we're left with this brilliant Southern Records-released memento of one of the best emo/post-hardcore/whatever bands ever to exist. If anyone ever knew the way to rule, it was Ten Grand.

$i feel like a veteran$ i forgot how to leave. $i feel like j. gosh$ i will not go back to school, $i i feel just like bill buckner$ i forgot i need it, $and everyone that you forgot$ i forgot how to need it. for all the time i keep waiting, the times you kept saying go, you're done twisting arms. backed up and down, a new ratio, for who's laughing now, who's winning now? i hide my jokes inside the kitchen broom so you can start practicing for the rest of your life, they wrote you in to stay down, we mean it, stay down, you can't move, the wait is so hard, but you blew it all.
i recall saying you'll never forget this again for the rest of your life. $what's the word on the street?$
somehow i recall...
$it's probably nothing, baby$
i'll never have the time to explain, i don't think i'll find the time to explain, i know i won't ever want to have to explain, let's give up on verbs and nouns, because sometimes you mean it, but everybody's got too many words, and sometimes you mean it but everybody's got too many words, just shut up once for me, please shut up once for me, just shut up once for me, just shut up for once in your life, while they were talking to you, i kept on driving in and ran down every thought, who's waiting now, you've got to dig yourself out, you have to dig yourself out, you have to dig yourself out.

-Ten Grand; 'This Isn't Heaven, This Sucks'

Ten Grand - This Is the Way to Rule

(Check out how good they were live!)

Ten Grand

Friday, 13 February 2009

The Van Pelt - Sultans of Sentiment (1997)

Something about this one typifies 1990s indie-rock for me perfectly. The title of the album kind of hints at its prevailing mood: The Van Pelt are one of those bands that, a lot of the time, ooze that lovely kind of bittersweet sentimentality that seems to be practically unique to '90s American indie-rock bands; bridging the slow, tempered grooves and spoken word approach of Slint with the nostalgic beauty of American Football, sometimes cutting their teeth in a bit of off-kilter distorted riffing. The guitar playing on this album is great, mostly revolving around intertwining clean guitar lines that never show off more than they need to but always complement the rhythm section perfectly. Frontman Chris Leo makes this band pretty special: most of the time he employs a spoken word delivery, going from cool and collected to very impassioned at the climaxes of songs. His wordy and literate lyrics are sometimes ponderous and whimsical, sometimes political, and sometimes, well, downright sentimental, but always great. The album finishes on a really high point with 'Do the Lovers Still Meet at the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial?', a brooding ballad that, over the same three chords, conjures up beautifully bittersweet images: ghost towns of lost youth, empty bottles and empty dancefloors, and the times that we wish we could take back. Sure, its melancholy brand of romanticism might be almost cloying to some, but it's the kind of stuff that I eat up every time. Sultans of Sentiment, though destined to always remain on the margins, is an indie-rock gem that should not be overlooked.

let's make a list so we can feel like we're accomplishing something, so we can feel like we're working together. let's sit in a circle adding to the list as we move around the room one by one, as you make a suggestion begin sternly - you take no shit - to give credence to your semi-constructive argument. tomorrow we'll wonder where this generation gets their priorities from. tomorrow my heart will skip a beat as it does every morning nine months of the year. it has to do with this list. before the bells even ring. before the hair is even combed. will the approach ever change or will it begin as i've said and end with a lighthearted twist to prove we're all adults? it has to do with this list, which we'll put in our pockets to throw away at a later date. it has to do with this list, which makes me feel more uncomfortable than i've ever felt, more apple pie than i've ever been. we are not housewives, executives, or entrepreneurs. we are teachers by trade, complainers by role.
-The Van Pelt; 'Let's Make a List'

The Van Pelt - Sultans of Sentiment

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

John Frusciante - The Empyrean (2009)

A preface: this entry is, in some respects, going to be pretty personal and, inevitably, pretty long. Most people I know who are really passionate about music have at least one artist for whom their appreciation is so deep-seated and whose music has contributed so much to their personal growth that a careless criticism directed at the artist can feel almost like a personal insult. No matter how strange it can seem to an outsider, I almost feel bad for those who don't understand an appreciation that deep, because they're missing out on something really beautiful: being able to develop, over time, a personal relationship and an incredible emotional connection with a piece of art. For me, that artist is John Frusciante. His solo works have stayed with me long since my early teenage obsession with the Chili Peppers faded. He was the artist that initially motivated me to pick up guitar. Also, importantly, discovering his solo output back then felt like a revelation: it was the first time it really registered with me just how much personal depth and power music could really have, far beyond simple catchy choruses or stoic experimentations. I connected with that depth, and to this day he's been a creative role model for me. His solo records have, at numerous points in my life, provided warmth and consolation even when little else has been able to. Five years after a large amount of my favourite material of his was released, it only makes sense to gather my thoughts on his most recent release, The Empyrean.

Critically evaluating a record like this is difficult for me, since my predisposition to Frusciante's work means that it doesn't feel natural to listen to it with my critical faculty, I'm always so emotionally immersed in it all. As a fully-fledged concept album, it's certainly his most cohesive effort to date by nature. Sonically it's his most impressive effort yet next to Shadows Collide With People, his outstanding 2oo4 synthpop record. There's all sorts of interesting things going on: string quartets, choirs, analogue synthesizers, and lots of strange treatments and effects on the instruments and vocals that really contribute to the texture of the album, giving it a dark psychedelic quality and ensuring that more and more details are picked up on with repeated listening. There are some criticisms that could be levelled at it: it has been remarked by many that the opening 9-minute instrumental 'Before the Beginning', while providing a wonderfully atmospheric introduction to the record, sounds awkwardly similar to Funkadelic's classic psychedelic guitar solo 'Maggot Brain'. As one will inevitably find in the work of a prolific songwriter who writes what are, harmonically, quite simple songs, it does sometimes sound like he's almost recycling melodies. Actually, there's one decidedly deliberate instance of this in the album itself, with the songs 'Enough of Me' and 'One More of Me', but I will address the significance of this later. The second part of Dark/Light can drag on a bit - as interesting as the clash of the raw drum machine with the very orchestrated choir is, it starts grating a couple of minutes into the repetition of the chord sequence, sounding like a half-cooked idea from To Record Only Water For Ten Days. Though as an album this is one of Frusciante's most thought-out and accomplished efforts yet, the songs themselves sometimes don't quite stand up on their own next to his best efforts from the rest of his catalogue (ironically, one of the best songs on the album is a Tim Buckley cover), but they do work in the context of the rest of the album. That's an important thing to bear in mind when listening to this: it is an album that needs to be experienced as a whole to have its proper effect. Another thing about the album is that it's very, very serious in tone. People familiar with Frusciante's work will have no problem with this, as his work has always dealt heavily with spiritual, almost religious concepts, but it does require that the listener is prepared to take it at face value when listening, otherwise the lyrics can come across as quite pompous and bizarre. I mean, it's a concept album of sorts - it's inevitable that it might come across as pretentious to some.

The concept behind The Empyrean, however, is certainly not a bloated Mars Volta-style one (you know, the type involving characters with funny names and foetuses and Ouija boards and all that crap). It is a highly personal "story" that only John Frusciante himself could have written. As far as life stories go, his is pretty intense: joining a band at the age of 18 that goes on become the biggest rock band in the world, facing extreme disillusionment, depression and loss, sinking into several years of heroin-fueled down-and-out hell, only to come out the other side as someone much more enlightened, successful and creative. He's had bigger ups and downs than most of us could dream of having in a lifetime. Essentially, The Empyrean is the bringing together and clarification of themes that have always been present in his work, presenting us with a coherent explanation of his beautiful perspective on life and spirituality. It's all left deliberately open to interpretation, but from John's perspective, there are only two "characters", so to speak, involved in the album: one person who experiences life's ups and downs and goes through a turbulent process of enormous personal growth, eventually coming out at peace with himself and the rest of the world, and the "creative force, which constantly creates and perpetuates existence", which he goes through a process of slowly becoming in harmony with. Anyone unfamiliar with Frusciante's music reading this right now will most likely think he's a rambling pothead. Upon reading his writings and listening to his music, it actually all makes a surprising amount of sense - his approach to spirituality is optimistic, level-headed and philosophical. The album echoes the Zen mantra "this too shall pass" - any given moment in one's life is ephemeral, something that will inevitably give way to the next moment. As such, life inherently contains cycles: it's not an emotional plateau, it constantly ebbs back and forth between good and bad experiences and the most important thing to remember is that the so-called bad experiences are just as important as the good experiences because the ugly gives meaning to the beautiful and provides us with the drive to be creative, which, in Frusciante's mind, is the most important act in life: contributing to your reality. One particular point he makes on his blog really struck me, even more than the rest of it, kind of summing up the album's message:

"Trying and giving up go hand in hand. But it’s trying that deserves the attention of our will. Giving up is just breathing out. Breathing in is the one we need to remember to do. Breathing out naturally follows. The important thing is just to keep breathing. To try and then just go through all that happens, including not trying. And so we hold our breath sometimes. These things aren’t problems. They are just living."

I would go on to explain the concept further but I can't do anywhere near as good a job as Frusciante himself. It just happens that his blog provides a really interesting, eloquent and detailed explanation of the philosophy behind the album, and, if you are at all interested in finding out more about the lyrical message of this album, I recommend you take a look through it at It's worth it.

The first song on the album that really grabbed me was the cover of Tim Buckley's 'Song to the Siren' - while arguably not an improvement on the original, Frusciante's own arrangement is still spellbinding - beautiful warm synthesisers and a wonderfully tranquil atmosphere backing one of the most heartbreaking love songs ever penned. Two of the three epics on the album ('Unreachable' and 'Central') are particularly stunning, building to brilliantly compelling conclusions, using all sorts of sonic manipulation to provide incredible atmospheres, with Frusciante's trademark guitar playing here being some of the most expressive instrumental work he's ever done. 'Enough of Me' and 'One More of Me' make a very interesting pairing, lyrically representing different points in life and different perspectives - one being despairing, the other full of a renewed sense of energy and purpose. The effect of the way he sings in an unusually low register in the latter is particularly startling, as are the strange screams halfway through and the strings, but it makes for a brilliant listen. Musically, it makes sense that they sound very very similar because, as two sides of the same coin, they sync up (severely trippy stuff!). It kind of embodies the album's concept of life's cycles, of trying and giving up and trying again, over and over in a harmonious process. My personal favourite on the album is, however, its closer: 'After the Ending'. I don't know what it is about it - I guess a combination of the haunting atmosphere, the incredible melodies and, most of all, the lyrics - but it has left me emotionally exhausted and stunned after every listen. The first time I heard it I was walking down the street listening on my iPod and for a minute during the last few moments of the song I was almost stopped in my tracks, momentarily feeling a little dizzy and intoxicated by it all, just about snapped back into reality by the startling ending. The next time I listened I had a lump in my throat. By the third listen through, while reading the lyric sheet on a night when I felt pretty low, I was bawling. Not a lot of songs make me do that. It has already taken its place as one of my favourite songs, perhaps even my favourite song, by my favourite artist. Which says a lot.

As an album, The Empyrean isn't without its little flaws, but it has such an emotional impact on me that criticism seems to miss the point. Like some of Frusciante's other work, it's one of those rare albums that I can listen to at times where things aren't going as hoped and I feel a little lost as to where my life is headed - it takes you outside of your current reality and gives you a vital bit of perspective that helps you rationalise even the worst of times, and for that I think it's an incredibly valuable record. I'm throwing in two of my favourite Frusciante albums, Shadows Collide With People and The Will To Death, to give a little perspective on why I love Frusciante as much as I do. Hopefully they might even have an impact on someone else. Who knows. All I know is that this music is immeasurably important to me.

pain runs through life
pleasures' other side
fear, some say, gives us such long lives
leads us where we drive
time will soon be born
it is starting at the dawn
and the world is moving towards
things like opposites and wars
and one knows to hear birds sing
there was nothing until the beginning
and the water from my eyes
is because i care who dies
although death is transforming
there is nothing after the ending
[everything is eternal - nothingness does not exist - no thing has ever become nothing - and nothing has never become something - what is has always been and will always be]
-John Frusciante; 'After The Ending'

John Frusciante - The Empyrean
John Frusciante - The Will To Death
John Frusciante - Shadows Collide With People

I Hate Myself/Twelve Hour Turn - Split LP (1998)

Here's a quick fix of mid-90s emo. Both bands bring a solid side on this split LP - the majority of I Hate Myself's side revolves around slow-burning, Slint-worshipping pessimism, the first and third songs both building to great conclusions with melodic but bleak guitar playing. What makes I Hate Myself so great is that, well, as you would expect with a band name like that, they don't take themselves entirely seriously, delivering their songs with a bucketload of self-deprecating irony, yet their lyrics, while consciously silly and melodramatic, are also very sincere and poignant. A great example is album highlight 'Song For All The Young Casanovas And Casanovettes': musically it is much in the same vein as their classic song 'Drama In The Emergency Room' (which is on their '2 Songs' release and which I highly recommend you check out). This song is dedicated to those out there that won't be celebrating Valentine's Day either: lyrically kind of ridiculous but very funny and very true, it's a brilliant 5-minute long cautionary whine about loving and losing that picks up intensity until it collapses in on itself in a cathartic final section.

Twelve Hour Turn, meanwhile, were an excellent post-hardcore-laced emo band from Florida. Think interweaving instrumental melodies, dynamic buildups, and the occasional discordant and loud section with desperate rasping vocals and tight grooves, similar to bands like Ten Grand or Maximillian Colby. They bring five quality songs to the table on their side. Good stuff.

I suggest you only ever tell lies, because once you tell the truth they'll break your heart. Don't ever look them in the eyes, because those eyes are gonna rip your heart apart. I recommend you keep your distance, because once you get too close you'll lose control. Don't ever fall in love; just stay buried in your lonely hole. Take it from experience: desperate acts are ridiculous. Don't ever tell the truth, because the ones you love will do the same to you. If they lose your hand and drop you and you fall, you'll have to pretend it meant nothing at all. You know sometimes the saddest laugh the loudest.

-I Hate Myself; 'Song For All The Young Casanovas And Casanovettes'

I Hate Myself/Twelve Hour Turn - Split LP

Friday, 6 February 2009

Say Anything - ...Is A Real Boy (2004)

And the record begins with a song of rebellion...

This was the album, along with Set Your Goals' "Mutiny!", that was largely responsible for being the catalyst of my belated love affair with Pop Punk. It has several gateway qualities that make it perfectly approachable for someone who would normally flinch at the mention of Pop Punk: musically, it's very varied and bursting with awesome ideas, be it the Weezer-esque pop of 'Every Man Has a Molly', the splashes of synth on 'Yellow Cat (Slash) Red Cat', the shuffle of 'Alive With the Glory of Love' or the quasi-hardcore of 'Belt' and 'An Orgy of Critics'. Every song bears enough toe-tapping hooks to embed themselves in your brain from the first listen, but the album contains a lot of depth for such an unapologetically 'pop' album. The thing is, it's Max Bernis' lyrics that really make ...Is A Real Boy such a classic: bursting with wit, humour and painfully relatable verses, the words to these thirteen songs present us with a glimpse into the labyrinthine mess that is the young male psyche - if you've heard the album Alopecia by Why?, I could easily draw a lot of parallels between the two records in terms of lyrical content.

Well, okay, maybe not the average male psyche. Bernis has a history of serious mental problems: anxiety issues, bipolar disorder, drug abuse: the whole shebang. The very intro to the record makes this clear to us immediately: a recording of a conversation he held with his producer reveals the following admission: "I have to record the spoken word introduction to the record. It's only a few lines, but I'm having anxiety about it." Bernis initially intended the record to be a preposterously ambitious concept album complete with script and characters, with the focus being on "the artistic struggle, the fact that every creative person has this sick ambition to affect some sort of change in society with their art, to be more than just a guy in a band or a poet or a sculptor." However, the pressure of recording the album saw Bernis buckle, having a nervous breakdown and ending up spending weeks in an institution. ...Is A Real Boy is the band's second attempt at the album, this time with no over-ambitious script or narration: just a bunch of magnificent songs filled with poignant and often bitter ruminations that can sometimes get uncomfortably honest, touching on themes like artistry, people and their frustrating character flaws, drugs, and sex. Lots and lots of sex. If Rivers Cuomo was less happy-go-lucky and a hell of a lot more neurotic, this would be the album that he'd write.

Okay, let's get the sex part of it out of the way first, because this is Bernis we're talking about and this is something that preoccupies him a hell of a lot. One thing I love about Max Bernis is that, unlike many other songwriters, he doesn't try to give off the impression that he's any more enlightened or morally likeable than the next person. On the contrary, he's all too willing to expose his dirty flaws and ugly but sometimes scarily familiar thought patterns. 'Spidersong' is probably the most obvious example here: addressing (probably trying to seduce) a woman, it hints at a guilty conscience, the narrator very aware that he only wants sex while also aware that, meanwhile, she seeks affection. He treats it like a twisted game, manipulating her to his own ends, only to lazily declare that his heart's not in it, going in a few verses from this:

no more promises
i have made them before

and broken them

give me the go ahead

and i'll undress myself for you

if you're at all interested

to this:

i am cool
too cool to call you

far too stoned
to leave my bed

i'll write this song
to win your kiss
but stay asleep instead

The song 'Every Man Has a Molly', one of the most instantly accessible songs on the album, a neurotic anthem that deals with an ex-girlfriend of his that broke up with him "over the revealing nature of the songs". It addresses the clash between his love life and his self-image as an artist, sarcastically pointing out the attention-seeking nature of the songwriter: "Molly Connolly ruined my life/I thought the world should know". The song has one of the most awesome lines in the album: "You god damn kids had best be gracious with the merch money you spend/Because for you I won’t ever have rough sex with Molly Connolly again". I mean, come on, that's funny stuff.
'Woe' similarly deals with the artistry/sex issue. Its opening lines sort of sum up the album: "All the words in my mouth/that the scene deemed unworthy of letting out/banded together to form a makeshift militia/and burrowed bloodily through my tongue and my teeth". These words are messy, unpleasant and certainly not all smiles and sunshine. One verse deals with his guilt and frustration with the fact that he is used for sex "most likely because of [his] band". The line "I can't get laid in this town without these pointy fucking shoes/my feet are so black and blue and so are you" is kind of a comment on the ridiculous way that people go all out to try and impress the opposite sex, night after night. The final half of this song is a more general expression of his frustration with the hypocrisy of his surroudings, and his desire to escape and surpass his environment which bogs him down. The last line, "I'm still the optimist, though it is hard/when all you want to be is in a dream" gets me every time.
Other songs obviously deal with this theme too: 'The Writhing South' is a rumination on lust, while 'Alive With the Glory of Love' appears at first to be a perfectly catchy love song but reveals itself to actually be a much darker story about a couple in love and "screw[ing] away the day" while in hiding during the holocaust.
'The Futile', an especially strong track, is a full-on doom-and-gloom fit of nihilism. Max states his mantra ("Eat, sleep, fuck and flee; in four words that's me") lamenting the futility of everyday life while declaring:

love! i shall not love
yet i’ll still sing about it

hope it covers the ocean in slime

the drama and drool

i’m leaking the blood of a fool

But just when you thought that Bernis had a totally fucked up perspective on sexuality and love, he goes ahead and writes a song like 'I Want to Know Your Plans', which is pretty simply just a really sweet, honest and gently humorous love song with no fancy trimmings or catches.

Some songs are, essentially, calling out various aspects of society on their bullshit. 'Belt', for example, is a rebellious statement about the music industry and an expression of Bernis' frustration with modern society. Meanwhile, 'Admit It!!!', the album closer, is a brilliant and very funny rant about hipster culture and the self-righteousness and hypocrisy that goes with it, ending the record on a rousing high note with the declaration "I'm proud of my life and the things that I have done/Proud of myself and the loner I've become/You're free to whine, it will not get you far/I do just fine, my car and my guitar".

My favourite track on the album is definitely 'Yellow Cat (Slash) Red Cat'. Over some really gorgeous pop production, Max writes a pretty much perfect set of lyrics that deal with the inevitability, predictability and unpreventable nature of various characters' personal flaws, essentially saying that these problems are a part of some people and are often so deep-seated that trying to change them is useless. The imagery is all fantastic and, brilliantly, can be taken either literally or metaphorically without changing the message of the song in any way. All of these characters have their own little repetitious flaws, from sexual dependancy to chronic laziness and tragic artistry, and the narrator feels that he can't do anything to change them, even seeing himself in these characters he's conjured. The final build of musical intensity accompanies a double-verse one-two punch that really hits close to home and sends shivers down my spine every time I hear it:

i watch my neighbor’s son play
with his shotgun in the street

i think i’ll blaze all day
and marvel

at the mass of food i eat
it’s strange, i’m skinny when i’m standing

but i’m buddha when i sit

and if i’m truly so enlightened

why’d i waste your time on it?

as i look back at countless crossroads

and the middle where i stay

right up the beaten path to boredom

where the fakest fucks get laid

by the faux-finest finds
it’s been that way
god damn you, how you stay

with every scummy, crummy hour

of the scummy, crummy day.

these are my friends

this is who they have been for always

these are my days

this is how they stay

One word of warning: ...Is A Real Boy is an incredible album, one that I end up finding myself listening to quite a lot in periods of cynicism and frustration, but you won't find much in the way of enlightening Zen in it. Max Bernis' mind is full of ugly knots and dark corners - this album is simply a brilliant exploration of those knots, and one that might find you doing a similar bit of introspection. But do go ahead and give it a listen, because it's a real ear-opener that gets better with every listen and every read through the lyric sheet. I consider it a damn near perfect record.

Say Anything - ...Is A Real Boy

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

2008, #1: Off Minor - Some Blood

2008 was a crucial year for me in terms of personal growth. As inevitably happens in a person's first year living away from home at university, I went through an emotional rollercoaster that, I feel, ultimately reshaped me as a person and saw me going through a maturing process where I ended up confronting, reconsidering and coming to terms with all sorts of personal values and aspects of my personality. I guess one part of this accelerated personal growth was that my musical tastes matured quite a lot, or, at least, music played a different role in my life and I developed an increased appreciation for records that had both intelligence and emotional relevance.
In this regard, Off Minor were probably the biggest musical discovery for me last year. Records like The Heat Death of the Universe and Innominate really struck a chord with me with their perfect combination of intense emotional expression with thoughtful maturity, their music hanging in a careful balance between cathartic chaos and jazz-tinged beauty. Unlike some of their peers in the emotional hardcore scene, Off Minor's music never falls into the all-too-common trap of post-rock buildups and unnecessary self-indulgence (one could argue otherwise about 'Practice Absence' on the latest, album, but I will address this later) because every song is an intensely personal statement: the music is constantly ebbing and flowing between chaos and beauty in a very subtle manner, always mirroring the emotional realities that are expressed in the lyrics. These lyrics are very poetic and thoughtfully written, never descending into drama queen angst because they instead tend to be more observational: written from what appears to be a careful step back, they point out emotional truths in such a painfully poignant, concise and eloquent way that I often can't think of a more effective way in which to express them. While containing an impressive vocabulary and allowing for plenty of ambiguity and personal interpretation, Jamie Behar's lyrics often speak for themselves better than any one interpretation from a fan, something that I particularly like about Off Minor's lyrics. Here is an example of one of my favourite Off Minor songs lyrically, from their debut album The Heat Death of the Universe:

I told the new me:
"Meet me at the bus station and hold a sign that reads:
'Today is the first day of the rest of your life'"
But the old me met me with a sign that read:
"Welcome back"
Who you are is not a function of where you are.

-Off Minor; "The Transient"

Or, as an example from the new album, take the way 'To An Ex' perfectly sums up the bizarre thought processes that occur at the end of a relationship:

'oh, sweetest piece of me'
you say 'i've found your place in me has grown too small to fit
and still grows smaller everyday in retrospect.'
the me in you has changed,
the you in me still stays the same,
each has no bearing on the other,
so we could say of one another.
so sweetest piece of me,
it seems we'll take each other piece by piece apart
and place each in the safest place within our holding hearts.

-Off Minor; "To An Ex"

Some Blood, the band's latest effort, represents the latest step in Off Minor's musical progression, and from the maturity of the sound in here and the enormous respect that they have gained in the DIY hardcore community from their dedicated touring and their practically flawless output it would be absurd to argue that the band have still not shaken off the albatross hanging around their necks from former musical projects (most notably, screamo legends Saetia). Lyrically, where previous records were often very personal to the band members themselves, this is still just as emotionally powerful, but now mostly applicable as commentary on wider social trends and principles as well. Take 'Neologist', a comment on the problems of censorship, or 'Everything Explicit', a brilliantly poignant lament on the way that we all too often fail to communicate everything we would like to have said to another person before it's too late. The title track and 'Practice Absence' both seem to have extremely personal subtexts, but they are masked by so much ambiguity that, while they are still extremely powerful pieces of poetry, they are very much subject to individual interpretation.

Musically, the album manages to pack a lot of ideas into its 22-minute runtime: the jarring but extremely compelling dissonant rhythms of 'Neologist', the snaking guitar lines of 'Some Blood', the rapid-fire chord progressions of the 43-second 'No Conversationalist I' (which, brilliantly, mirrors its lyrical content - a concise reflection on the narrator's ineptitude at conversation - in its brevity and awkwardness) or the more drawn-out 'Practice Absence'. The latter is a bit of a departure for Off Minor, breaking their general trend of relative conciseness at almost nine minutes, perhaps being the first time that they have written a song that builds up slowly to "epic" conclusions. It's also the first time that they've included properly sung vocals as opposed to the urgent yelping of most songs. Both of these moves are made all the more effective by the way that they contrast with the rest of the band's material, meaning that these ideas work in this context. One could also argue that the drawn-out nature of the song is not for the sake of self-indulgence but rather mirrors the themes of distance, removal and absence that the song deals with. My personal favourite song, however, is 'Everything Explicit': one of the most perfect songs I've heard in a while, it ebbs and flows beautifully, being at the same time perfectly composed and amazingly passionate. The intricate instrumental interplay - one of Off Minor's biggest strengths throughout their discography - is here at its peak, the flawlessly tight grooves giving every instrument an opportunity to shine, gracefully building up to a melodic but nevertheless extremely cathartic, compelling and urgent conclusion. The melodic interplay between the guitar and bass in the clean midsection just before the final distorted conclusion of the song is one of those details that one sometimes picks up in music that is very subtle but which still makes me melt inside. The song sounds sort of like an interpretation of something off of Unwound's Leaves Turn Inside You in a hardcore context. In other words, that means it's really, really good.

There are rumours that this might end up being Off Minor's final release, but if it is, then they've accomplished a hell of a lot, sporting one of the most consistently brilliant discographies I've seen from any band. It is very hard for me trying to identify faults with this record, as every time I listen it engages me perfectly both emotionally and intellectually, providing a perfectly cohesive and hugely enjoyable listening experience. Adhering to the "shorter is better" rule common to hardcore, there is very little wiggle room when it comes to quality here, also ensuring that one never gets bored throughout the record's duration. Simply put, Off Minor have pushed hardcore punk to an unprecendented level of complexity, poeticism and emotional maturity, and the standard that this sets for other contemporary hardcore bands is phenomenal. Listen to this to understand why they've quickly become one of my all-time favourite bands over the course of the last year. I'm also chucking in The Heat Death of the Universe and Innominate, because they're also pretty much perfect records.

What’s best left unsaid? A speaker spent, a listener left with regrets in his stead. In a life of loss, silence can cost you more than you expect. Held tongues relate a bitter taste when prone to reminisce. Anamnestic but recipient absent, the circuit’s dead. As we live linear lives, unidirectional, towards an inevitable end and we must make everything explicit. That’s how we left it: unsaid. I’m at a loss for words.

-Off Minor, Everything Explicit

Off Minor - Some Blood (official label website: pay-what-you-want scheme)
Off Minor - Innominate
Off Minor - The Heat Death of the Universe