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

2008, #2: Have a Nice Life - Deathconsciousness

This time last year I made one of the most surprising and unexpected musical discoveries I've had in a long time. After hearing much enthusing from one or two people on a music forum I posted on, I glanced at the band's website which held the bold claim "The band Have a Nice Life would like to announce that they have recorded the most depressing record in the history of music". Did I think that it was an overambitious statement? Of course. Did I think that there was a certain element of pretension to it? Undoubtedly. Did it have me hooked? Absolutely.

Have a Nice Life is essentially the Connecticut-based musical partnership between two friends, Tim Macuga and Dan Barrett. Formed in 2000, it's been a long road to where they are now: Deathconsciousness is the product of their musical endeavours during a five-year period. Spanning two discs and accompanied by a fascinating 75-page booklet that explains the dark religious history that the album references, it is a triumph of the DIY home recording approach, showing just how ambitious and emotionally accomplished an album two people can make using a laptop, a guitar, a microphone and Logic. Initially given almost no real promotion whatsoever, what started as a few enthusiastic whispers about the album's brilliance spread like wildfire through word-of-mouth on forums and sites like, eventually making it a cult hit and leading to the first CD-R pressing completely selling out on the label's webstore.


With the facts out of the way, let's touch on the album's concept. Though in practice the album is a hugely personal statement from the authors that spills out way beyond cold conceptual ponderings into something that is emotionally pretty intoxicating and affecting, all the lyrics of the album are tinged by a fascination for the symbolism and religious history of an obscure religious cult named Antiocheanism that supposedly emerged during the later years of the Roman Empire. The central teaching of this sect was the idea of Deathconsciousness: the all-consuming awareness that death surrounds us, is final, and is utterly inevitable, therefore prompting the question - "What is the point?" I don't have the booklet to hand and it's a while since I've read it, but while this is a very grim viewpoint that I certainly wouldn't want to dwell on for too long, the booklet alone is a reason to buy this: written by a professor at the University of Massachussets, it is a beautifully harrowing read, detailing the life and legacy of the near-mythical Antiochus and the terrifying themes of his teachings. When read while listening to the album, it makes for an overwhelming experience - so while I provide you with the music here, which is really the principal reason I love this album, if you enjoy what you hear I strongly recommend you purchase the album from the Enemies List website as the only way you'll really get the most out of this album is if you combine it with a read through the booklet.

To some of you, that probably (and understandably) all sounds pompous and self-indulgent. Allow me, then, to sell you on the music itself, which is why I'm writing about the album after all. The Enemies List site describes the album as falling "somewhere between My Bloody Valentine, Joy Division, and Swans" - that's probably as good an introductory statement to the sound of the album as anything else you're going to find. Mixing dark fuzzy shoegaze guitars with hulking great cavernous industrial drum sounds, everything thoroughly soaked in reverb, the production relies on lo-fi sensibilities but at the same time manages to sound enormous. The rawness of the mixing may put some audiophiles off, but frankly I can't imagine this working with a more polished sound - part of the charm of the record is the emphasis on home recording sensibilities, and besides, the hazy fuzz that many of the songs shroud themselves in is part of what makes the mood of the album so powerful. Despite these initially abrasive production values, Deathconsciousness is a surprisingly accessible album: 'Bloodhail' is a weighty, moody and utterly brilliant song with a wonderful bassline and echoing vocal harmonies that would find themselves very much at home in The Cure's discography, while the first half of 'Holy Fucking Shit: 40,000' is a lo-fi indie-pop ditty with some wonderful lines ("I've replaced my heart with metal parts/And I'm working just fine, but I can't get it to start") and the massive hooks of pacier post-punk numbers 'Waiting For Black Metal Records To Come in the Mail' and 'Deep, Deep' are barely contained by the raw production. My personal favourites on the album are 'The Big Gloom' and 'Earthmover': the plaintive melodies of the former are initially anchored by a wall of fuzzed-up guitars and bass, before the drums kick in and the wall of sound becomes something unbelievably gorgeous, enveloping your ears and tugging at your heartstrings. The latter has a kind of graceful beauty in its monolithic fuzz, the noise eventually giving way to a serene wash of vocal harmony before the gloriously loud shoegazing conclusion kicks in to end the album in style. Quieter, more understated numbers like 'I Don't Love' and 'Who Would Leave Their Son Out in the Sun?' give the album an even greater sense of depth. The instrumental 'A Quick One Before the Eternal Worm Devours Connecticut', despite its ridiculous title, destroys me in the best possible way every time I hear its subtle but overwhelmingly affecting chord progressions, setting the mood for the album wonderfully. Some of these songs have become kind of personal for me, providing the soundtrack to many of my more brooding moments over the last year.

I could write a lot more about this album, but it would get even more indulgent than this article already is, so I'll round things up. Deathconsciousness succeeds in that it is simultaneously accessible and brilliantly ambitious, setting the benchmark for home recording and really challenging DIY artists to record something similarly creative and engaging using a laptop and microphone in their own bedroom. Musically, lyrically, and conceptually it is a very powerful emotional experience that, when combined with the accompanying booklet, will likely keep you fascinated for a while if you're anything like me. Regardless - check out the two discs linked to below, and, if you enjoy them, I really recommend that you download the $5 booklet/album package from the band's website because Deathconsciousness, at its most rewarding, is a sprawling experience to fully immerse and lose yourself in.

Sleeping in and out of an ice bath
No warmth, no life without
It's too much, my arms, my legs are wood, unconscious trees with roots deep in the ground
We will all be out, soon, an ocean ringed with tile.
I know that's not your style but it certainly will be mine if I can't make this right.

So please, please, please, release me.

Can you hear my faintest breath, is it amplified?
The number that I've become will put you inside
I've got a message that I must relay
No, I can't delay it one more time (it's not going well)
It is desperate, can you relate, can you please, please relate? (I'm not holding up)
I am trapped, I'm stuck here on this bathroom floor and I don't have much more hope or pride
No air, no food (but I'm sure that I'm still alive..)

Just open your eyes, your dead ones (all ashes on the floor)
I will never need you more, just open your eyes, your dead ones.
-Have a Nice Life; "Bloodhail"

Have a Nice Life - Deathconsciousness (Disc 1: The Plow That Broke the Plains)
Have a Nice Life - Deathconsciousness (Disc 2: The Future)

Saturday, 3 January 2009

2008, #3: Kayo Dot - Blue Lambency Downward

Despite having finally decided upon it being my third favourite album of the year, I found this record hugely difficult to form an opinion on and it was a particularly conflicting thing for me. Kayo Dot are my favourite band, and after the absolute transcendence of previous outings Choirs of the Eye and Dowsing Anenome With Copper Tongue - which I cannot even begin to sum up in this introductory paragraph - they had a lot to live up to with their third full-length. Whether or not they did has been debated endlessly among their fans, and, so far, it seems that the general concensus is that the album is underwhelming in comparison to its predecessors, but here are my two cents on how this album is not only a great album in its own right but on how it is a necessary step in Kayo Dot's evolution.

Approaching this album is difficult. Kayo Dot have never been remotely describable as accessible, but unless you have a serious aversion to metal, this is probably their least user-friendly album to date. They have completely dispensed of their enormous celestial crescendos first demonstrated on Choirs and later honed to a finer, subtler art on Dowsing, which did, in a way, provide the listener with something to latch onto on the first few listens (such as the sudden saxophone solo over waves of distortion in 'The Manifold Curiosity') and have completely phased out the dark, heavy side of their sound which provided dynamic contrast and thus some of the most incredible moments in the first couple of albums. But quite honestly, where could they have gone from Dowsing Anenome With Copper Tongue, having exhausted the direction they were going in and in the process created one of the most mind-bogglingly complex and magnificent albums ever? Toby Driver, the classically-minded prodigy who composes all of Kayo Dot's music, has never been one to retread his footsteps, always seeking to explore new territory like a real composer should. Trying to recreate the extremity and grandeur of previous releases would have seemed contrived and fickle. Instead, Driver has turned his focus towards the more melodic side of Kayo Dot, pelting the group face-first into a hazy brand of avant-garde progressive rock that harks back to the Rock In Opposition movement of the 70s. This move may have been made easier by the departure of all the group's members except for multi-instrumentalist Driver and violinist Mia Matsumiya following their last album, and Driver's subsequent enlistment of contemporary prog musicians from bands like Time of Orchids and Behold... The Arctopus that similarly integrate modern compositional techniques into rock music.

The opening title track is a great example of this new sound. The song has a mid-section with hazy flutes, effects-laden guitar and meandering but clearly deliberate drums that progresses using repetition and subtle changes in a similar fashion to some of the buildups in Dowsing, but what stands out is that Toby Driver sings much more frequently than on previous releases, something that is applicable to the album as a whole. Where Driver would previously scream like a madman on tracks like 'Gemini Becoming The Tripod' his voice now never rises above a Jeff Buckley-esque falsetto. What sets this new melodic sound apart from some of the progressive rock releases that it evokes is the sense of very careful composition in the melodies that evokes the various modern masters of composition that Driver reportedly draws influence from, particularly noticeably, to these ears, Claude Debussy's chromaticism and unresolved cadences. Take, for example, 'The Useless Ladder', which finishes on an unresolved cadence: this would irritate and confuse some, but it actually works rather beautifully and effectively. The influence from modern classical music is as present as ever, it's just warped in typical Driver fashion to accomodate all his other ideas.

'Right Hand is the One I Want' incorporates a creepy kind of Eric Dolphy-style jazz, alternating between eerie piano/vocals and gorgeous woodwinds. Just when you think you've got it figured out, though, it heads off on a tangent into a lovely, ethereal midsection which is punctuated by a beautiful violin solo from Matsumiya. Five out of seven tracks on the album are under seven minutes long, something that is unusual for Kayo Dot who have become known for their sprawling 15-minute epics. The concise nature of the album makes it a satisfying listen because it never overstays its length. 'The Awkward Wind Wheel' is an interesting track in that it, over its chaotic three and a half minute duration, manages to match the ideas of pop and the avant-garde much in the same way that Time of Orchids do.

The best track on the album, and the one that seems to be closest to the ideas and sound of Dowsing Anenome With Copper Tongue, is closer 'Symmetrical Arizona'. The track progresses slowly and deliberately, with a gorgeous melodic progression first carried by the woodwinds, then by a surprisingly conventional (though sparse) guitar solo, and finally by Mia's violin, but always anchored by what sounds like a vibraphone (another idea that seems to hark back to Eric Dolphy). The tension eventually reaches a high point - and, for the first time on the album, the tension is resolved by a crashing drum fill which gives way to four minutes of all-out progressive rock bombast. The fact that prior to this point the album has been constantly building tension but then leaving it unresolved makes this release all the more surprising and effective, Toby Driver again subverting expectations. The most interesting bit of the final few minutes is the rhythmic groove which they slip into towards the end... jittery clarinets provide some beautiful ornamentation, but the whole thing builds only to fade out again. This whole theme of unresolved tension seems to be a statement of Toby Driver's, an act of rebellion against all the yawn-worthy "progressive" and "post-rock" groups in the scene who rely far too often on the crutch of "epic" build-and-release music which has now been done to death. While this may annoy some listeners, I find it to be an interesting change in the musical landscape that is far more satisfying than another album following the same formula.

I need to stress that Blue Lambency Downward is not a good place to get into Kayo Dot due to its awkward nature. Readers that have never listened to Kayo Dot, I implore you to get either Choirs of the Eye (probably the best place to start) or Dowsing Anenome With Copper Tongue (my personal favourite) and give them several listens to sink in. Like any other Kayo Dot record, the biggest virtue of Blue Lambency Downward for me is that even after tens upon tens of listens, I am still noticing details that I hadn't picked up on before, and it's this amount of buried detail and complexity that really makes Kayo Dot so rewarding and fascinating for me. If you're feeling brave, put some time into getting to know its nuances and see what the fuss is about for yourself, because nothing can describe Kayo Dot's music as well as the music itself.

Kayo Dot - Blue Lambency Downward

Friday, 2 January 2009

2008: Asva - What You Don't Know Is Frontier

Now for something on the other end of the spectrum. Asva's debut album Futurists Against The Ocean fascinated me back when I first heard it, being one of the most creative and emotionally resonant drone/doom metal albums that I had ever heard. The band, featuring alumni of Sunn O))) and Burning Witch among others , for once created an album that, thanks to its experimentation in different instrumentation and even operatic female vocals (the idea of which I would have barfed at on paper but, upon hearing them, was mesmerised by), actually managed to be pretty beautiful instead of being one of those run-of-the-mill drone albums that tries and fails to sound as evil as it possibly can.

Sometime inbetween Futurists' recording and the recording of the latest album, What You Don't Know Is Frontier, guitarist and bassist Stuart Dahlquist's brother died. Understandably, Dahlquist has mentioned that the loss has directly influenced his work ever since, and even if it wasn't a conscious effort, this feeling shows in What You Don't Know Is Frontier. The album is an absolute tour de force: only such a horrible loss could provide the catalyst for such terrifyingly dark and vast soundscapes. The album is structured in a very similar way to Futurists Against The Ocean: four long tracks, the first two almost serving as harbingers of the second two. However, this album feels infinitely darker and deeper, and where 'Zaum, Beyonsense' on Futurists seemed more like an interlude or an introduction for 'Fortune', 'Christopher Columbus' on WYDKIF is interesting - and terrifying - enough to prove itself as a great track in its own right. The title track sets the stage, like a Morricone theme as interpreted by Satan himself - enormous twangs of spaghetti western guitar resonating against thunderous drums, humming organs and vast bursts of guitar noise. 'Christopher Columbus' is very abrasive indeed, starting off with an ominous bassline that slowly builds with lots of other stuff like bizarre electronics going on towards its ungodly conclusion. Randall Dunn (responsible for the latest offerings from Earth, Kayo Dot and Wolves in the Throne Room) has done an incredible production job on this album: it really feels implausible that something this huge could have been recorded in a mere studio.

Just as you're feeling suffocated by the unrelenting heaviness of the first two tracks, 'A Game In Hell, Hard Work In Heaven' arrives to blow you away. Certainly the album highlight, the piece is a lot more meditative and graceful, featuring a woman singing beautiful eastern-style vocals on top of the ever-present organs, punctuated by mournful guitar melodies. The song picks up in intensity as it goes on, the coda picking up the pace dramatically as the track races towards its astounding conclusion. At this point in the album, the all-consuming feeling of remorse and solemnity is overwhelming.

A Trap For Judges is by far the longest and most testing track on the album at 24 minutes. A gargantuan beast of a track, it is almost impossibly heavy - sort of like an 80s sci-fi flick soundtrack on a downer overdose, with gargantuan drum/guitar attacks pounding steadily accompanied by enormous sweeps of synth. The track marches steadily on, constantly descending further and further into its sonic bludgeoning, subtly changing throughout. After 20+ minutes of this exploration of the abyss, we are finally treated to a glorious release. A triumphant church organ pierces the darkness, resonating until it's all you can hear. It's like the light at the end of a long and tortuous tunnel. In a way, the album seems, intentionally or unintentionally, to perfectly mirror the process of grievance: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing and, finally, acceptance - it's like the musical representation of a person mourning a loss and eventually finding a way to move on, and it's unbelievably powerful. Its testing and abrasive darkness has a cathartic nature too - after listening to it from start to finish, as that church organ fades, the colours of the world will seem brighter. Never has a drone album seemed quite so emotionally powerful and exhausting as this one: it's the album that Sunn O))) wish they could have made. For that alone, it deserves a standing ovation.

Asva - What You Don't Know Is Frontier

2008: Sun Kil Moon - April

Following up from the last entry, here's my other folk favourite from 2008 (well, there's the Bon Iver record too, but you've almost definitely already heard that and there's so much that's already been said about it that posting my own two contrived cents on it would be an utterly pointless exercise.) Sun Kil Moon's April was an odd one last year in that it attracted quite a bit of media attention and, rightfully, got glowing reviews; but it received quite a cold and indifferent reception from most people I know. The most obvious reason I can think of for this is that, unlike certain other records that got really popular in 2008, April requires patience and it's an unfortunate fact that a lot of listeners are lazy. You're probably not going to walk away after the first listen whistling its tunes. Those familiar with Mark Kozelek's work will know that he doesn't like to rush a good record and so to people that have heard his other work it won't come as a shock that the album's running time is in excess of 70 minutes, but to the uninitiated, it's going to require some getting used to. In fact, truth be told, April was my introduction to Kozelek too and it took me about five listens and a good read through the lyrics for its charms to really sink in.

The work was rewarding though. People seem to hold the assumption that April is a depressing record, but I think this couldn't be further from the truth. I mean, sure, it's not something you'd listen to in the company of others, and there are some darker and moodier moments in the album like 'Heron Blue' ("Don't play those violins no more/Their melancholic overtones/They echo off the floor and walls/I cannot bear to hear them"), but there's also a lot of sunshine, something that opener 'Lost Verses' shows. 'Like the River' contains one lyric that really sums up what the record is about: "I have all these memories, I don't know what for/I have them and I can't help it/Some overflow and spill out like waves/Some I will harbour for all of my days". Over the course of the album, Kozelek sifts through old memories and brings them to the surface, from romantic recollections of old flames to fond family memories. The charm of the record is in the sheer affection that he presents these memories with - he sings all his stories with a fondness and warmth that never fails to make me smile. Of course there is a melancholic aspect to it all in that there's sometimes a certain yearning to relive the past, but the record is easy to become quite attached to because of its intimacy.

The musicianship on April is excellent too - the often long and winding songs are carried by deft fingerpicking and, now and then, a tasteful bit of guitar noodling ('Tonight the Sky') or subtle dynamic/tempo shifts that really carry the songs forward ('Lost Verses', 'Tonight in Bilbao'). The album alternates between full band songs like the Neil Young-esque opening epic 'Lost Verses' and more intimate acoustic numbers like the beautiful closer 'Blue Orchids'. And for the trainspotters among you, the record is liberally sprinkled with guest appearances from the likes of Ben Gibbard and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy that aren't too obvious but nevertheless keep things interesting.

Despite all this, April isn't a particularly complex record - like the Pygmy Lush album, it carries a very simple charm in its honesty and warmth. The beauty and the emotional depth of Kozelek's storytelling and the sheer class of the songwriting, however, will ensure that in the coming years, this record will be looked upon as a classic.

I’ve risen up from the dead
With the burning leaves of autumn
If only for one last chance
That all of whom have been defeated
To put on my father’s wool coat
To smell my mother’s fragrances and perfumes
To find my young brothers and sisters
To never leave or let them go

-Sun Kil Moon; Lost Verses

Sun Kil Moon - April

2008: Pygmy Lush - Mount Hope

2008 was a great year for folk. Bon Iver, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy and Sun Kil Moon all released great albums that, to some extent, received a good deal of critical attention. Grouper also generated a modest buzz for her rather lovely album Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill (which I wrote up earlier this year in this blog). One of my favourites, however, went completely under the radar of most publications and music fans, when it matched the quality of even its most hyped musical cousins. Pygmy Lush's background might go some way in explaining this - started by ex-members of DIY hardcore legends Pg. 99, their first record Bitter River was the sound of a band who were still finding their feet, trying to do too many things at once. Featuring forays into folk, Tom Waits-esque songwriting, experimental noise and even vicious and chaotic hardcore, while most of the material on there was at very least solid, the record came across as incoherent, more like a sampler of the various directions the band could have gone in than a cohesive album. Mount Hope sees them fulfilling the potential shown in Bitter River by taking a decisive step into the more mellow side of their sound and releasing an all-out folk album.

The breathy opening lines of the album give away the record's preoccupations: "The asphalt is leaning on me like a mountain/The pressure is building and I'm exhausted/I know you know there is nowhere to go." This weary, melancholic and sometimes even despairing tone surfaces in the lyrics to many of the songs on Mount Hope, resulting in an album which carries its heart on its sleeve and is emotionally very honest, something that gives the record a lot of depth and replay value. Despite this, Mount Hope isn't necessarily a depressing album persay - musically it is very laid back and subtle. Take the slow strumming, harmonica and xylophones of 'Frozen Man' which is lyrically pretty bleak but musically feels like such a relaxing listen. The album has its fair share of excellent and hummable tunes too - take the resigned melancholy of 'Hard to Swallow' or the album opener 'Asphalt'. The album mostly hinges itself around strummed or picked acoustic guitars as one would expect, but it features varied enough instrumentation to not feel too bare. The reinterpretation of Bitter River's 'Red Room Blues' is a real highlight on the album, the band having turned the previous two-minute incarnation into an absolutely gorgeous eight-minute bliss-fest that slowly dissolves into a shoegazing haze towards the end. There are a couple of rockabilly-style shuffles, such as 'Mount Hope' and 'Butch's Dream' thrown into the mix that contribute to the album's flow quite effectively. And, of course, the album ends on a high note with my personal favourite 'Tumor' - an amazing seven-minute number that takes its time, gently working towards its lush reverb-laden climax while its poignant lyrics slowly but surely destroy you from the inside (kind of like the nature of the song's namesake, then...)

With Mount Hope, Pygmy Lush have made a great record that proves that they're not just a bunch of screamo musicians dabbling in folk, but one of the genre's finest practitioners around today in their own right. It's a simple record with simple charms, but spend a little time with it and its personal depth and emotional honesty will, surely enough, win its way into your heart.

you never listen when i'm talking. you're always waiting to hear yourself. well, how am i doing? "how do you feel?" to be honest with you, simply ill. simply ill. simply ill. simply ill. simply ill. i had a tumor. it never healed. it just stayed there. until it killed. until it killed. until it killed. until it killed. until it killed.
-Pygmy Lush; 'Tumor'

Pygmy Lush - Mount Hope