Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Best of 2008: #3. Verse En Coma - Rialto

I first found out about this album as part of a superb mega-post/analysis over at Last Train for Cool, and decided to check it out due to it being mentioned alongside two other post-Pg.99 bands I was rather big on, Malady and the already-covered Pygmy Lush. Anyway, I strongly recommend you check that out (Extra encouragement: it has a link).

Now then, Verse En Coma are kind of a hard band to nail down. They don't conform to any genre norms, despite their hardcore pedigree, and while this may make it hard for overly obsessive outsiders to properly categorize them, it also allows the band to run free with their ideas, unhindered by any bullshit expectations of what they should sound like. As a result, Rialto ends up with greater musical similarities to The Holy Bible-era Manic Street Preachers or Wire than it does to Pg.99, and frankly, it's far better for it.

Really, describing their sound relative to anything almost requires a certain contextual knowledge of the band members' past, as it could be surmised that everything on this album is an evolution of what Malady did (Verse En Coma being formed by two former members of Malady, Jonathon and Kevin). In this case, I would describe what Verse En Coma does as a more tempered, weary substitute for the dark, abyssal and endlessly pessimistic punk of Malady. The same expansive, dream-like atmosphere is in full effect here, but it comes off more like a hallucination than a nightmare, the bitterness of Malady eschewed in favour of a numbing feeling of dissociation. The instruments crackle with the same fuzz-laden cacophony seen on Malady, with the canned ferocity of the drums being especially notable (and fantastic). Guitar lines constantly move in and out of the translucent, reverb-drenched fog surrounding them, barely sounding recognizable amongst the midst of their own distortion. Even the vocals are blurred beyond being immediately identifiable; the singer's more desperate cries come off as even more restless as a result of the hedging waves of distortion, while the mellower vocals sound like little more than a gentle hum, clouded to the point where they sound almost indivisible from the bass.

Thematically, Rialto sees Verse En Coma look at the ennui of modern life through a number of narratives, executing this concept excellently both in its effusion of mood and in its lyrical content. "Through Ice Patches and Pine Trees" is a fast-paced musical whirl through continually unfamiliar territory, with the lyrics taking on an introspective, stream of consciousness style that emits the kind of honesty and self-discovery that comes only with a double dose of insomnia and alcohol. "In a Factory" teems with repression and angst as it tells a story of disenfranchised lovers amongst the backdrop of their mutual working-place. The music is bleak, but the vocals exude an entrancing warmth, suggesting the speaker's relationship is a lone yet utterly redeeming bright spot in the vast array of lifelessness and subordination he finds around him.

we were the young ones
we were the artistic ones
we were the "they don't know what life is really about" ones

Verse En Coma's Rialto is the best debut album of the year, an effort that takes the most distinct and intriguing parts of Malady and infuses them with a stellar song-writing skill and an even more ambitious musical approach. The album progresses like a long, bewildering dream, as it constantly changes narrative focus, but never seems to break the singular progression of mood. Unfortunately, clocking in at under a half-hour, Rialto isn't quite as epic in length as it feels in scope. But it is an enrapturing journey through the highs and lows of Richmond, delivered through such a dissociative state of ennui that it isn't sure if it still feels either.

but i'm still here

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Best of 2008: #4. Up-C Down-C Left-C Right-C ABC + Start - Embers

Up-C Down-C Left-C Right-C ABC + Start are an instrumental post-rock four-piece from Kent, in south-eastern England. Embers is the group's second full-length release, a magnificently emotional album that conjures up all kinds of disparate scenes - of reconciliation, of escape, of mourning - as if they were happening right in front of your eyes. Every song here seems to tell a tale of its own, with ten tales of life, love, and loss being revealed with each sweeping guitar lick, each gentle yet forceful pluck of a string.

It begins with the short and cacophonous "Embers and Ashes", which acts as a sort of overture for Embers, jetting around through violins, bells, drums and the like, all of which are sampled from the rest of the album. This leads into the ethereal progression seen at the beginning of "Get to the Chopper", which is slow, yet decidedly desperate, as if it is the invisible hand that guides along some climactic action scene filmed almost entirely in slow motion. The guitars move from being plucked gently to being enforced with powerful electric feedback as the proposed movie climaxes, then denoues as the drums move back from the precipice of immediate peril. John Woo would be proud.

"Our Flowers" is like a wordless love story, starting off gentle yet distant, but eventually becoming more furious, more blissful, as if simultaneously calling to mind all the powerful memories that such passion can evoke. There are some fantastic riffs on display here as well, as the band show off their talent for writing memorable and catchy hooks by clearly emphasizing the tone of the guitar during breaks.

Beginning with a jubilant violin, "Murmurs Pt. 2" is the evidential second part to a story we haven't yet received the beginning of. Eventually the song enters into a loop worthy of the very best of Explosions in the Sky, evoking feelings of love and passion lost long ago, bittersweet memories that feel better for having existed, and a perplexing mixture of joyousness and sorrow. But ultimately, joy wins out, and the song is given a reconciliatory tone, the kind reserved for former best friends or lovers, people that you haven't seen in years.

"New Chapters" is a minute-long piano-lead interlude, its tone and title both suggesting different things ahead. Indeed, the next track, "McDoomish" brushes off the romantic connotations of its predecessors for an angier, more embittered tone. Rising to metallic levels of heaviness at points, "McDoomish" plays like a discordant counter-part to the valiant action of "Get to the Chopper", except instead of suggesting the kind of victory befitting of heroism, it suggests failure instead. It suggests that if any victory were to be found, it would be Pyrrhic in nature, marred by the ultimate consequences. As the intensity rises, the electric guitars pick up strength, and the song becomes flooded with industrial-strength distortion, remaining pretty only in the sense that tragedy can be considered entertainment.

"Murmurs Pt. 1", like its counter-part, begins with a violin, its crooning reminiscent of a wedding song, with the tender and mesmerizing touch of the guitars following supporting this idea of love at the center of it. This builds, and the song erupts with explosive fury, peaking with unmitigated levels of aggression. Yet what follows comes off as almost sad, a mixture of the bittersweet that enveloped the second part, only faster, louder, and angrier; if "Murmurs Pt. 2" is The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place, this can be likened to Those Who Tell the Truth.... This is the break-up or falling out that leads to the reconciliation.

"Cascades" is a more delicate slice of harmony, the song taking on that treble-heavy pitch that should be well-known by now. The beginning lull however gives rise to a menacing crescendo, and the full ferocity of the guitars is unleashed, with the drums playing an adamant ode to the drummer boy who stands among the soldiers, a willing target in a war he can't fight.

"Fireflies" takes the ominous, doom-ish style of "McDoomish" and builds on it, taking on a more up-tempo/grandiose style. The climaxes sound like something created by Red Sparowes; if "Cascades" is a march to war, then this is the battlefield. Blisteringly fast and destructively loud, the song surrounds and suffocates the listener, the smothering intensity of the noise acting like a python's coils around its prey.

The last song on Embers is "The Creeping Fear", a long, epic, cello-lead dirge. The percussion sounds like the crashing rip of thunder through a night's sky, raining down amongst the slow, crushing weight of the guitars. New sounds tumble tumultuously from every remaining crevice that isn't already covered in noise, the deafening din only relenting for the haunting veraciousness of the cello. This is the funeral; the end of all things. And while it mournfully fades out of the picture, it never leaves our memory.

What is amazing about this album isn't just that it manages to conjure so many emotions, but rather that it conjures them with such intensity. Love is possibly the most powerful emotion known to us, and yet it is displayed so vividly as to be unmistakable for what it is. So too, are the feelings of loss, of sadness, of bittersweet recollections and pining for better times. In this sense, Embers is a triumph: a reminder that there is still music out there with the kind of emotional resonance that can encourage us to seek out the beauty in our lives, however fleeting.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Best of 2008: #5. Verse - Aggression

Aggression is the third album by Rhode Island hardcore group Verse, and really, it couldn't be any more aptly titled. Throughout the album, the five-piece harness their thickly layered sound into a dense and furious concoction that sparkles with righteous and pointed acrimony. What occurs is the development of a hardcore dynamic that places dual emphasis on heaviness and speed, with the songs being lead by the fast and forceful rhythms of the drums and the inspired, ear-shattering strength of the guitars, taking Aggression well beyond realm of the average hardcore album and into that of the exceptional.

What stands out most about Aggression is the absolute forcefulness of it all, both musically and lyrically. Verse are a fiercely political group, and it is shown through their choice of subject matter. In fact, most every song on this album takes on a political bent to some extent, with the over-arcing theme being the feelings of frustration and bitterness that result from the tremendous audacity of modern inequality. "Old Guards, New Methods" portrays our current political leaders as the modern kings, "wealthy wolves" who jail and murder the innocent in the name of self-interest. "Blind Salvation" is an attack on the "dark history" of religious practices and the oppression and war that ostensibly holy doctrines have often ended up supporting. On "The New Fury", singer Sean Murphy's screams ring with a virulent honesty to them, as if to register his disgust with the dispicable gap in power between the rich and the poor.

But the major highlight of Aggression, and one that displays the pattern of emotional subject matter that Verse deal with, is the three-part "Story of a Free Man", which follows the life, development and emancipation of the titular 'free man'. The first part ("The End of Innocence") tells of a boy whose father has gone off to war and the anger and depression he sinks into as a result. The second ("The Cold Return") jumps forward to what appears to be the boy's adult years, depicting a homeless man whose sense of frustration and depression has never ceased, and who needs to turn to drugs in order to numb the overwhelming isolation felt in his life. The third and final part ("Serenity") consists solely of a building guitar line and drums as Murphy, switching to the first person, mutters to himself "I'm walking away from this", the grandiosity of the moment eventually culminating with the full force of the guitars as his voice rises to a breathless, jagged scream:

this is the story of a free man

It is an overwhelmingly powerful tale, one that feels just as epic in practice as the idea of a three-part song does in theory, thanks to the vivid and touching way in which it is presented. Not only that, but it takes on the anti-war focus that comes through on many of the songs on this album from an entirely new vantage point, switching from the incensed conjecture of songs like "The New Fury" to a directly narrative scope, allowing the listener to empathize with a specific subject and therefore adopt a more personal connection to the message on display.

What Verse have done with their third album is create just under thirty minutes of beautifully passionate and frantic music that emits a feeling of defiance in the face of hopelessness. This is easily the best straight-up hardcore album of the year, and possibly the best since the similarly grandiose Witness. Fiery, political, and, well, aggressive, Aggression packs into it a sense of fury and vitriol that will not soon be forgotten.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Best of 2008: #6. Transistor Transistor - Ruined Lives

I've spoken at length about Transistor Transistor before, so I'll try and keep this relatively short and frame my opinion of this album in regards to the former. Ruined Lives is the second album by the east-coast hardcore stalwarts, and it continues the pattern of abrasively destructive rock music as set out by their phenomenal debut, Erase All Names and Likenesses. In fact, there isn't a lot of change on display here, and this can be taken a number of ways. On the one hand, when your formula already makes you stand out as a relatively unique band in an oft-stagnant genre, then change really isn't necessary, especially when the results are as good as this. Indeed, by my count, Erase All Names and Likenesses is a modern hardcore classic, an album which was beautifully captivating in its depiction of cynicism, anger and the apathy that follows.

Unfortunately, yet also rather expectedly, Ruined Lives doesn't quite live up to the quality of the group's debut; it feels less coordinated, more like a collection of songs than a fully-realized album. Gone is the overwhelming and all-encompassing sense of pessimism as seen in the suffocating misanthropy of tracks like "Power Chord Academy", and in its place is a kind of nihilistic party metal sheen that comes through on a few of the earlier songs. Now this isn't a full abandonment of the vivid frustration of Erase All Names and Likenesses - "Celluloid Rats", for one, is a delightfully angsty and vicious attack on social stasis - just the inclusion of a few songs that don't quite fit the mold, which as a result make the album feel a bit more uneven.

But please don't take any of this as indication of a sophomore slump. There are plenty of highlights here: "Diet of Worms" is a fantastic song that brings with it all the caged frustration that has come to be expected of Transistor Transistor. "Pillar of Salt" is a plodding, noisy behemoth, its rallying cry a distinctly jagged and relentless bark of "I hope I'll rot". "Irreversible" breaks to a sprint with reckless speed, the guitars dancing and swerving to form an all-out blitzkrieg on the senses as the song, against all odds, gets louder and more desperate as it moves to a devastating climax. No, this is nothing close to a sophomore slump; Ruined Lives sparkles with all the exasperated fury of a desperate youth parade, letting up only momentarily for periods of quiet reflection. If you've never heard Transistor Transistor before, then this is a great, if not quite spectacular place to start.

my apathy and I get along just fine

Friday, January 16, 2009

Best of 2008: #7. Pygmy Lush - Mount Hope

It is interesting to note the musical careers of the members of any successful, genre-defining band after they split up, especially for any former fans hoping for another taste of brilliance. In this case, we have Pg. 99, an extremely influential hardcore/screamo band from Virginia that lasted from 1998 to 2003, who played passionate and dissonant punk for the disillusioned and disaffected. Upon breaking up, its members went on to a number of different and increasingly diverse projects: from the progressive and elaborate hardcore of City of Caterpillar, to the eclectic punk dynamics of Malady, to the desolate instrumentalism of Ghastly City Sleep, each new project embarked upon added another layer of musical depth that was rarely if ever hinted at in the works of Pg. 99. Featuring three ex-members of Pg. 99, Pygmy Lush came in shortly after the break-up of Malady (of which singer Chris Taylor also performed in), born out of a desire to experiment with more lo-fi, organic compositions. And so the members of Pygmy Lush went about writing and recording a collection of songs that experimented with the limits of acoustic music as well as the misanthropic punk of their previous bands.

On their first album, Bitter River, Pygmy Lush took the harsh, unrelenting screamo of the group's pedigree (given the production quality, I Wrote Haikus About Cannibalism... is a good comparison here) and imbued it with flashes of lo-fi folk, creating an overall package that was as disparate as it was jarring to the senses. Which isn't to say that it was bad - it had some surprisingly strong individual tracks - just that some combinations are probably best left entirely separate from one another (I remain just as confident that mayonnaise and chocolate would not have lit the world aflame with quite the same level of passion as Reese's later, more heralded candy creation).

However, on Mount Hope an entirely different approach is taken, with the harsh screamo bits dropped entirely in favour of folk, and the record is much better for it. No longer will the listener be greeted with a startlingly aggressive transition following a dream-like passage of ambient musical minimalism; instead, Pygmy Lush develops a clear focus, emphasizing the band's expansive blend of melancholic folk.

Yet despite the traditional sameness of folk music, this is also a surprisingly varied album, likely due to the number of collaborators. While one of the strength's of Mount Hope is its consistent mood, Pygmy Lush still finds ways to experiment within the realm of their chosen genre. Offbeat instruments like the harmonica and accordion are given occasions to shine. Rhythm is kept in a number of ways, from the wood block chopping of "God Condition" to the flat foreboding echoes of "Dead Don't Pass", to the tin pitter-pattering of "Concrete Mountain". The depressive country-western feel that the band manages throughout the first-half is offset by the occasional blip of indie accessibility, such as in the title track or the eerie "Butches Dream", with the rest of the album being a more minimal, rustic affair, akin to what was seen on Pygmy Lush's first album (but with superior production).

But for all the successes of Mount Hope, the eight-minute closing track, "Tumor", is easily the highlight of this album. It sums up the group at their best: warm, emotional, and vivid. It consists of a simple acoustic guitar lick and its accompanying chimes repeated, the atmospheric hum in the background making the song feel like a waking dream, haunting in its austerity. The overwhelming sparsity of it all feels like an examination of the warmth in desolation, with the compassion of the vocals feeling distant, as if to have faded away in the face of overwhelming apathy. All this makes for a mesmerizing finish to what is possibly the best folk album in years. Mount Hope is an emotional and deeply personal recording that is both simple and beautiful, with a strong sense of craftsmanship guiding it along its way.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Best of 2008: #8. Fight Like Apes - Fight Like Apes and the Mystery of the Golden Medallion

Another discovery by way of Hardcore for Nerds. Fight Like Apes took the independent Irish music scene by storm last year through their dual EP releases David Carradine is a Bounty Hunter… and How Am I Supposed to Kill You If You Have All the Guns? On their first full-length album, they don’t cover a whole lot of new ground - only half of the recorded songs are new, and their best songs are available on previous releases - but for anyone who missed the hype the first time around (like me), this album should prove to be an enjoyable introduction to the synth-pop madness of this Dublin foursome.

What Fight Like Apes manufacture on Fight Like Apes and the Mystery of the Golden Medallion is a refreshing bit of pop nihilism, filled to the brim with stream of consciousness-style lyrics, catchy melodies, and a healthy use of electronics. The songs most well-accounted for here are the kind of fun, fast-paced manic absurdity that the group has made their calling-card. This is seen on tracks like "Jake Summers" and "Do You Karate?", which come off like the musical equivalent of the non-sequitur, a destructive kind of anti-pop that will stay in your head for days. Other tracks, like "Lumpy Dough", take on a slower, more atmospheric tone, almost coming off as a kind of delicate synth balladry, while still being imbued with the same sarcastically naive charm that is present throughout this album.

By combining pop accessibility with punk attitude, Fight Like Apes have made an album that appeals to more than just a dedicated local cadre of indie buffs, but to any number of potential fans that await their offbeat approach across a wider UK audience; which is practically a shame, considering the bented satire of the collaboration between music and marketing that appears on this very album ("Something Global"). Make no mistake about it - this is pop music, but with a loutish noisiness to it that seems to be rebelling against its own accessbility. But it IS accessible, it IS catchy, and really, it's all the better for it.

What I just can't figure out is how such ostensibly throwaway music could be so good - more than just enjoyable, but actually resonant for months afterwards. For anyone looking for a hook: here it is.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Best of 2008: #9. Have a Nice Life - Deathconsciousness

When I first heard this album, it was something of a revelation; I had downloaded “Waiting for Black Metal Records in the Mail” based on internet word of mouth, and there was something about it that gripped me entirely. It was slow, plodding, and ominous, with a leading guitar line like a strobe light at a rave, flickering madly amongst the translucent haze of distortion. It was also very, very good.

Have a Nice Life is the musical project of two men based in Conneticut who make experimental and expansive shoegaze/post-punk music that could be considered dance music for the clinically depressed. Deathconsciousness is the group's first album, a two-disc, 80+ minute trip through the recesses and crevices of the sub-conscious, and all the hope and regret that lies within. From the dive lounge aesthetic of "Bloodhail", to the quiet desperation of the aforementioned "Waiting for Black Metal Records in the Mail", to the wary elation of album closer "Earthmover", there are a number of different moods and feelings brought to mind here, which is just as representative of the album's ambition as of the passion put into it. Some songs show off the plaintive and gloomy side of the band ("The Big Gloom"), with slow, droning, almost abyssal shoegaze mixtures taking presence here, while others opt for a quicker pace, drawing comparisons to the gothic side of 80's post-punk ("Telephony"). At times, Have a Nice Life even wander into industrial territory, as seen in "Deep, Deep", which comes off as Throbbing Gristle as imagined by Joy Division (were that only possible).

At any rate, there's an almost ethereal quality to the layered mixture of guitar and synthetics that feels as if it transcends the immediacy of stimulus/response and burrows its way into your brain with ingenious hooks and a haunting atmosphere. A lot of the songs off Deathconsciousness manage to be emotionally resonant despite their prima facie impenetrability, so that even though the vocals are often blurred beyond recognition, buried under layers of distraction, they still come off as mournful, or confused, or bittersweet. Taking the whole of the many different moods developed throughout the entire album gives you a sort of manic depressive handbook, a portrait of bipolarity in the face of tragedy.

So while I’m not as big on Deathconsciousness as I was when I first heard it - it's overlong (although that could be considered part of its charm), it isn't an album you can just listen to at any time, and some of the songs (off the first disc especially) just lack any sufficient intrigue to them - it’s still an impressive album that’s full of dark, brooding, and occasionally beautiful shoegaze music, accentuated by a lo-fi production quality that conjures up images of spending late nights walking home and the lonely faded incandescent glow that guides each step. This is music that feels like it was made for 3 a.m. introspection, that washes over you and shelters itself within your thoughts. And for that, it's damn well near-perfect.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Best of 2008: #10. Aussitot Mort - Montuenga

Aussitot Mort are a French screamo band who sound something like a cross between Daitro and Isis, taking a very dense and heavy approach to their music that differentiates them from their more balleyhooed countrymen. Montuenga is Aussitot Mort's first full-length album, following up on the critical success of the group's demo and 6 Songs EP.

The album opens with the sludgy and forceful "Mort Mort Mort", which plods along at metallic levels of heaviness, introducing the listener to the Aussitot Mort philosophy that it's better to be loud than fast. The guitars trudge along with high authority, dominating the pace as the drummer wails away in the background. Also intriguing is the incorporation of a violin among the mass of the guitars, adding to the desolate feel of the song. "Une Heure Plus Tard" shakes off some of the heaviness of the former song, with the bass driving much of the action as the guitars smoothly and sharply dance in and out of the mix. This song shows a more accessible Aussitot Mort, and while the song still remains blindingly heavy at points, it also exhibits and emphasizes some stellar guitarwork that can be easily enjoyed. The next track, "..." serves mostly as a break in the album, not even being afforded the importance of a name. It is a minimalist song that features little more than a reverb-drenched guitar riff surrounded by ominous white noise. "Huit" follows, and it is a song very much reminiscent of "Une Heure Plus Tard". The song features some fantastically catchy guitar work, with the contrast between the spiraling, dissociative guitar licks and the more basal sounds that follow giving the feel of a drug-induced fervor and the eventual comedown.

"Le Kid de la Plage" starts with a delicate acoustic guitar and a high-pitched bell sound that occurs throughout most of the song, before rising in tone and intensity to more familiar levels. It then breaks, with the song being lead forward by the same forceful drumming patterns that occur throughout and some memorable group chanting. This is possibly the most experimental song on the album, especially during the outro, showing Aussitot Mort's progressive attitude through numerous guitar effects and the addition of new instruments into the mix. "On a qu'a se dire qu'on s'en" closes the album, showing the same metal-inspired heaviness and auspicious tinkering that is displayed throughout.

(An aside: I haven't talked much about the vocals on this album, and that is because Montuenga has much less emphasis on vocals than on the group's demo, occasionally resorting to straight-up instrumentals, which is apparently due to the fact that the band parted ways with their original vocalist some time after recording their demo. So, yeah. Just something I learned today.)

On their first album, Aussitot Mort take the lumbering density of post-metal, add in some spectacularly catchy and inventive guitar riffs with some powerfully frantic drumwork, and string it all together in impressive fashion. Montuenga is a fantastic and extremely promising album, managing to be heavy yet delicate at times, dense yet sparse, experimental yet accessible. If nothing else, this should place Aussitot Mort next to Daitro and Sed Non Satiata as one of the best and most progressive progenitors of European screamo. But hopefully, their eclectically heavy sound will help them find favour outside of that traditionally narrow niche, as an album like this deserves all the praise it can get.

Dear Diary: Today I successfully used the phrase "balleyhooed" in a sentence. I don't think I've ever been happier.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Best of 2008: #11. The Max Levine Ensemble - OK Smartypants

my mom asked me "where's the voice in this country",
i said everybody's got one, they're just garbled and clumsy,
reared up to spit back referential newspeak...
in a postmodern fucking paradise

From the fertile grounds of Washington D.C. come The Max Levine Ensemble, an exceptional punk trio that makes peppy, energetic and literate pop-punk music reminiscent of The Ergs. Known for their strict DIY ethics and their experimentation with a wide array of instruments, OK Smartypants is the ensemble's 4th full-length album and their first as a trio, showing off a tighter, more well-honed set of song-writing dynamics and a cleaner sound to go along with it. As a result, the music has a spark to it that makes the many eccentricities in the group's sound stand out, giving it an offbeat feeling that's hard not to enjoy.

Where The Max Levine Ensemble reach their greatest appeal is in their idiosyncratic and infectious arsenal of pop hooks and occasionally frenzied pace. From the increasingly frenetic "One Click", to the stop-and-start "Love, Capital L", to the melodious hums of "Complex Machines", their plentiful reserves of energy never seem to run out. The hooks presented on a song like "I Loved to Watch Them..." almost demand a response from the listener; and seeing how the song acts as an ode to the pure connection between people and music that seems to make all the petty problems of regular life seem to go away, to not dance along would practically be heresy.

Another distinctive feature of the band is their lead singer/guitarist, David Combs, also known as Spoonboy (a name under which he also has an acoustic act), whose high-pitched cries reach an almost cartoonish level at times, a stellar compliment to the upbeat blur around him. There's something intoxicating about the enthusiasm that Spoonboy sings with that makes every song sound optimistic, in an innocent sort of way, regardless of whether or not he's singing about the purposeful ignorance of the mainstream media channels ("Nuclearadio"), or the blinding cynicism of his peers ("You're Bitter"). The topics confronted on OK Smartypants generally revolve around the personal issues in our lives, with many of the songs dealing with the running theme of failed expectations and bittersweet relationships. That these topics are dealt with in such a naive tone seems to be intentional, as if each song is channeled through that one sympathetic friend who helps you through a hard time by saying that everything will get better, whether it will or not.

The Max Levine Ensemble are that friend. Get to know them better.

(And like any good friend, they also offer the album for download here! It's also available for physical release via the same link if you wanna go analog.)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Best of 2008: #12. Have Heart - Songs to Scream at the Sun

Old man, I heard some things about the boy you used to be.
No father, no king, just a broken old man broken by the whiskey.
Too afraid to stay, too smart to not leave,
too young to be a bird who forgot to sing,
and a ground that never knew the knees
of a boy and his own tale of two cities.

"Sometimes a man breaks, sometimes he can't bend
when his youth is a wound time won't mend.
(never the best of times)
Sometimes a man breaks, sometimes he can't bend
at the thought of peace as something only lent.
(only the worst of mine)
Sometimes a man breaks, sometimes he can't bend
when his son is another one who won't understand"

The irish temper, it's history's chains,
and the bottle's stain that just won't wash away.
But a seed was planted in the sod of nothingness from which you came,
and flowers grew and roses bloomed
to form this garden of a life you've made.

And in this city you once knew as hell
is a garden where I enjoy myself.
And in this father I hardly know
was a son who took back what the bottle stole

so I could be the boy you couldn't be
have the father you didn't get to see
have the youth you did not get to live
or feel the love this world forgot to give.

And for this gift I don't deserve to get
I'll make damn sure I earn this.

O' your friends say boston's beautiful,
but they didn't live here, they didn't die here
in the Hyde Park years.
O' your friends say boston's beautiful,
but they didn't live hard, they didn't die hard
when sons dragged out their fathers from bars.
O' your friends say boston's beautiful,
but they didn't dream here, they didn't scream here
when no one hears.
O' your friends say boston's beautiful,
but they didn't hide here, they didn't cry here
when little boys weren't allowed to shed their tears.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Best of 2008: #13. Adebisi Shank - This is the Album of a Band Called Adebisi Shank

Foreword: Due to the density of albums being presented over the upcoming weeks, I won't be posting links with them. If you want a link for any of the albums shown, leave a comment and I'll see what I can do.

(Note to self: insert clever quip relating to how Adebisi Shank refer to themselves in the third person in their album title. You find this original and highly entertaining, and wish greatly to exploit this original sentiment to keep you from having to think of an introduction that isn’t gently laid on a platter for you.)

I first found out about Adebisi Shank from an excellent mixtape posted down at Hardcore for Nerds, chronicling the strongest alternative acts in Ireland. The song “Horse”, off the band's debut EP This is the EP of a Band Called Adebisi Shank, was one of the most noticeable songs off the playlist, and I was instantly hooked. Their debut album was released a couple of months later, and while it only clocked in at a meagre twenty-four minutes (for a full-length anyway), making it only seven minutes longer than their first EP, it still managed to be one of the biggest surprises of the year.

Adebisi Shank is either a punk band playing with complex time signatures and a strong sense of technicality, or a math rock band with a vigorous punk flare, depending on how you look at it. But however you choose to look at it, what Adebisi Shank deliver here are eight songs of pure adrenaline rush. An overwhelming energy radiates from this album, with the band playing with such speed and prowess that you’d be hard-pressed not to enjoy it. The song-writing is just as consistent in this sense; there’s not a song in sight that you wouldn’t be commanded to tap your foot to, if not outright make you get out of your seat and dance along with. The band utilizes quick, darting guitar riffs, intertwined with equally complex bass lines, to weave a musical tapestry that is both memorable and captivating, a rare feat for a math rock band. This is all backed up by strong rhythmic drum work that grounds the guitars, allowing them to roam free without turning the final product into a barely coherent mess. All in all, this is one of the most excitingly fresh releases of 2008. Don’t let it pass you by.

this has been the capsulated review of a band called Adebisi Shank. hah… get it? ‘cause that’s a play on the album title… yeah.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Best of 2008: #14. Off Minor - Some Blood

The band is offering the album for as much as you're willing to pay here.

I’ve never been a big Off Minor fan. I’ve seen people rave over the raw intensity of The Heat Death of the Universe, and while I can agree that both of those descriptors are accurate, it just doesn’t do anything for me. My complaints for Off Minor go along the same line as my objections to Ampere: the band is too chaotic, too unwieldy, and while I can objectively say that what they’re doing instrumentally is highly impressive, it rarely comes together in a way that manages to be accessible and interesting (“Staring Down the Barrel of Limited Options” being a noticeable exception). Trying to latch onto a melody in the cacophonous, almost jazz-like progression Off Minor plays in can be difficult, so as to render any attempt to do so ultimately obscured by the band’s own free-flowing nature. On Some Blood, Off Minor doesn’t exactly change this style, but they do manage to succeed regardless with what has to be their most approachable release yet, which is a major plus for anyone (i.e. me) who had trouble getting into them before.

Some Blood opens with the chaotic and noisy "Neologist", an intriguing track that features some interesting guitar effects and fantastic drumming (as does the entire album). The album continues much through the same pattern that Off Minor has made their trademark, with blusterous instrumental explosions followed by minimalist breaks, all of it delivered with passion and a willful sense of discordance. "Everything Explicit" takes the traditionally short song-lengths of Off Minor's canon and spreads the group's free form style over six minutes of blistering furor, even including the occasional harmonic reprieve. But this is nothing compared to the progressiveness of the album's final song, "Practice Absence". Running nearly eight minutes in length, this song takes the form of something of a monotone duet between a male and female vocalist, both drolly chanting their lines as the guitar and drums slowly increase in pace, eventually leading to a fiery and cathartic finish. The female vocals are especially beautiful, painting the image of a muted tragedy as the cry of "at the end of all things" echoes throughout the blank canvas. At the song's climactic finish, as the guitars rupture and a thunderous din envelops the former quiet, an intensity is created that is rarely matched. That something so fierce could also be so beautiful...

what's best left unsaid?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Best of 2008: #15. Daitro/Sed Non Satiata Split

Note: Due to the density of albums being presented over the upcoming weeks, I won't be posting links with them. If you want a link for any of the albums shown, leave a comment and I'll see what I can do.

While this was originally released in France late last year, it got a US release earlier in 2008, so we'll count it as such. This split sees a collaboration between two of the biggest (and therefore best) hardcore bands not only in France but throughout Europe, and the result more than lives up to the expectations created.

On their side of the split, Sed Non Satiata brings to the forefront four exquisitely crafted songs of desolation and dismay. The group eschews traditional punk speed for a more measured, brooding approach, carefully constructing their songs without losing sight of the underlying melodies that guide them. In this sense, they can be compared to a post-rock band in the way they utilize the quiet/loud spectrum, carefully changing and adding harmonies as they progress. While both Sed Non Satiata and Daitro blend elements of post-rock into their attack, Sed Non Satiata do it more often and more successfully, building delicate instrumental pieces around the emotional and forceful singing of their vocalist, a near-perfect blend of aggression and harmony.

Sed Non Satiata also develop mood throughout their songs in a very effective manner befitting of post-rock. "Des Masques" for example opens with a slow, coarsing wave of feedback as the guitars lag in, each individual element slowly added to the song as an ominous precursor of whats to come. There are also many instrumental breaks on display, such as in the middle of "Des Ruines", wherein guitar lines are strewn along in a noisy and almost artless fashion so as to suggest the isolation of the song's title.

On Daitro's side of the split, similar tendencies are shown in regards to their instrumentalism. On "De L'Eau Coule Sous Les Ponts", the guitar is relegated to the background for most of the song, content to strum along an array of high pitches and melodies with the bass and drums leading the song's progression. "Un Fleau Pour Un Autre" also follows the same pattern as mitigated by Sed Non Satiata, building up in intensity over four minutes before the vocals kick in, sounding far wilder than the occasionally soothing effort offered on the other side of the split. But while Daitro and Sed Non Satiata are oft-compared bands and rightfully so, due to their geographic location, style of music, and tendency to tour together, they do differentiate from one another at times. Daitro, unlike Sed Non Satiata, tend to revert to more traditional punk forms of progression at times, without the focus on intricacy and melody. "Nous Ne Participons Pas Tous A La Meme Utopie" is an example of this, and it shows a stark contrast to the rest of the songs on the split, developing as an up-tempo track, the kind of which is more often associated with screamo.

This is not only the best split effort of the year, but one of the rare instances in which a full-length split reaches a level of quality at which it can be regarded as a wholly congruent album. And yet, coming from Sed Non Satiata and Daitro, two supremely talented bands with track records of doing just that, it's really no surprise. Both sides are impressively strong, with the Sed Non Satiata side being a notch or so better. There is no wide barrier between either side of the split, with only incidental details and inclinations separating the songs as delivered by each band. As such, this feels like a concentrated effort, an intense and deeply intricate work of hardcore that resonates throughout.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Best of 2008: #16. God is an Astronaut - God is an Astronaut

Note: Due to the density of albums being presented over the upcoming weeks, I won't be posting links with them. If you want a link for any of the albums shown, leave a comment and I'll see what I can do.

For a band that has carved out such an impressive niche for themselves, God is an Astronaut have included a lot more variety in their works than would be expected of them. Generally, if a band can be considered among the best at what they do in a genre with little competition (in this case, electronically-based post-rock), then there is little need for them to change their sound over time, as they are different just by virtue of releasing the same thing, over and over.

And though this statement may be contested, God is an Astronaut have done a great job of evolving their sound over successive releases, pruning it to the point where each album has a sense of individuality to it. All is Violent, All is Bright was a realization of the sound hinted at in their debut, The Beginning of the End, with a bleaker, more hopeless tone to it. On Far From Refuge, they moved away from an emphasis on synthetic sounds, and instead focused on the guitar to drive their songs forward. The result was vastly different than their previous efforts (or as vastly different as it could have been expected to be), while still keeping the same familiar feel to it that all of God is an Astronaut’s albums have had to date.

On their self-titled album, God is an Astronaut move back to the more direct amalgamation of synthetic sounds and guitar-driven post-rock that resonates in their earlier works. The whole of the instrumentation feels more in tune with the use of electronics, without the noticeable differentiation between the two as seen in Far From Refuge. As far as variety goes, as a self-contained album, God is an Astronaut does quite well for itself. Rarely does a song ever feel like a repeat of another one, and while a few do go overlong (as does the entire album, actually), generally the overall quality of the song makes up for it. However, there isn't much innovation to speak of to the group's classic sound; songs like "Zodiac" and "Shores of Orion" come off as new thanks to their emphasis on different drum and guitar effects, but they are more of an exception to the norm. The changes shown here are much more subtle, like the band is just developing naturally, building off the strengths and weaknesses of prior releases and recording the end result as it comes to them.

So is this a great leap forward, or a step or two back for the band? Ultimately, it’s neither. While God is an Astronaut doesn’t feature much in the way of innovation, it’s still an excellent example of a great band doing what they do best. And when the final result is this exceedingly listenable, the question of whether or not anything new is being accomplished ceases to be important.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Best of 2008: #17. Metaform - Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Metaform is a one-man instrumental hip-hop project. Armed with little more than samples, Metaform (or Justice Aaron) takes beats from a wide and disparate number of genres - hip-hop, jazz, soul, electronica - to create the soulful and catchy Standing on the Shoulders of Giants.

For me, this album can be summed up by the first song, “Rock it Number Nine”. It begins with a soulful and measured singing sample, before quickly picking up pace with the drums then dropping into a short break that introduces a xylophone, and then picking up again with each and every individually introduced element in the song's culmination, a beautiful combination that manages to feel both passionate and emotionally resonant.

All of that, executed brilliantly, comes in a span barely passing a minute. Rather than languishing on a single idea for awkwardly long periods of time, Metaform instead keeps moving on to different ideas, continually touching on new ground throughout Standing on the Shoulders of Giants’ forty-five minute run time. The result is nineteen songs filled to the brim with any number of memorable and captivating musical ideas that are never given the time to wear out their welcome. In fact, only six songs make it past the three minute mark, making sure both that the listener never gets worn out on one idea, but also that some of the best executed concepts are kept criminally short (as in “Rock it Number Nine”). Not every song works - - but they succeed far more often than they fail.

A download link is available here.