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

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