Category Archives: Reviews

Top 10 Albums of 2011!

There was a lot of really great music released in 2011. The following list pays tribute to the ten offerings that I think best sum up the music that I found to be really special this year. I realize that there may be many differences in opinion and make no claim to have heard every album that was released this year. However, these are the ten that popped out to me as the most interesting musical endeavors released in the past 12 months.Without further ado, here is my list:

10. Witch Hat – Brown In A Dog

Talk about a random band taking me by storm! Witch Hat are a spooky, atmospheric doom metal band from Baltimore. I saw them play a show in a New Brunswick basement over the summer with fellow Baltimore rockers Weekends. Their live set was heavy, slow, and intense, so much so that I had no choice but to buy this record right then and there. It ended up being an excellent use of $15, as the LP contains 9 tracks of pure avant-garde sludge intensity. Particularly notable is the second track on the album, “Drowned In A Bog.” It features a humongous, memorable riff that’s insanely groovy while still being heavy beyond all measure. The record has a sparse production: I particularly like the guitar tones; they’re not drowned in fuzz, which allows the intensity of the band’s angular melodies to come through very clearly. The drumming is powerful and bombastic and drives the tracks along nicely. Witch Hat are very adept at crafting intense, memorable songs that attack the listener and refuse to let go. I personally find the longer songs (“Dazzling Blade” and “Blood People”) to be the most memorable. “Blood People” in particular ebbs and flows between understated atmospheric noodling and full-throttle sludge metal onslaught. A new band with tons of raw talent and songwriting capability, I think that Witch Hat have the potential to get very far in the metal underground.

9. Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin – Tape Club

Anyone with a strong interest in modern underground music has to have at least a passing familiarity with the concept of ‘indie pop’ music. Though it’s admittedly a very broad genre of music – bands as disparate as Maps & Atlases and Belle & Sebastian fall under the classification – many of these artists tend to sound the same. While I’ll admit that I’m biased against a lot of it (I am a former metalhead, after all), I do know good music when I hear it. Tape Club, by Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, is one of the good ones. This album is not an LP proper; rather, it’s a collection of B-sides and demos from the band’s entire career, ranging from their early home demos to outtakes from their most recent studio-sessions. The record’s real strength lies in its variety. Around half of the songs are acoustic guitar-centered demos; these tunes are lo-fi, intimate, and atmospheric. Even though they’re demos, they sound like full-on Elliott Smith tunes. It goes without saying that simplicity really suits these songs. On the other hand, the other half of the album is composed of lumbering, groovy indie rock tunes that, once again, have great atmospheres. The vocals throughout the album are very shoegaze: quiet, whispery and detached. These songs sound like the soundtrack to your dreams. One other thing I really dig about this album is the length. Twenty-six songs bring the record in at around an hour and ten minutes. It’s nice because it gives the listener a lot of time to really get into the songs on the record. This is indie pop/rock done right: easy to listen to songs with some musical force. Other bland, simple indie pop bands should take a page out of SSLYBY’s book.

8. The Horrible Crowes – Elsie

The music of The Gaslight Anthem has always been defined by a sense of nostalgia. Their music is ‘backwards-looking,’ in many ways. Their melodies and production styles recall 50’s and 60’s music, while Brian Fallon’s lyrics paint pictures of a working-class childhood and summer romances gone astray. It’s almost superficial at this point to note that their style draws heavily upon the music of Bruce Springsteen, New Jersey’s native rock star and musical God. Bruce has joined The Gaslight Anthem on stage on three separate occasions, one of which was just a few weeks ago. Now to this record, Elsie. It is a collaboration between Fallon and Ian Perkins, who handles Fallon’s guitars for The Gaslight Anthem’s tours. The record is clearly the work of Fallon: the songs drip with reverb and heart-achingly beautiful melodies. Yet the record also stands apart from The Gaslight Anthem’s output. The instrumentation is quieter; Fallon experiments with string arrangements and quieter guitar sounds. Rhythmically, the music is less aggressive. It sounds more like soul music than punk rock as The Gaslight Anthem is known for. I’m a huge fan of this album – it’s nice to hear a talented songwriter leave his comfort zone and produce music that strikes a nice balance between familiar and novel. As an aside, the song “Mary Ann” is harder and much more reminiscent of The Gaslight Anthem’s music; it’s a fantastic tune in any case. If you want to hear Fallon wail like no other, check that out. I think this record fully establishes Brian Fallon as one of this generations most supremely talented songwriters, and I’m unbelievably excited to hear what the future holds for him and his projects.

7. Touche Amore – Parting The Sea Between Brightness And Me

Touche Amore, with their new album Parting The Sea Between Brightness And Me, carve themselves out an interesting little niche in the modern hardcore scene. The band are heavily associated with a musical movement mysteriously dubbed “The Wave,” which is a grouping of energetic, emotional, artistic punk bands with emo-hardcore influence. These bands tend to tour together and have released split record together; bands like La Dispute (whose new album is #3 on this list), Make, Do, and Mend, and Pianos Become The Teeth are associated. Touche Amore, however, set themselves apart from this group. Occupying a music niche somewhere in between the hardcore confessionalism of the classic band Rites of Spring and the urgent brutality of Converge’s discography, the best word to describe Touche Amore’s sound is “cathartic.” Parting The Sea Between Brightness And Me has 13 short songs (only one goes past the two-minute mark), and they hit hard. Lead vocalist Jeremy Bolm’s screaming awakens a simultaneous sense of fear and healing: this music plays like the background score of an angry redemption in the pouring rain. The drumming is fierce and chaotic; the band hold nothing back in their attack on the listener. The track “Wants / Needs” is a great example of this sound. I think that what ultimately sets this record apart from the others is their honestly: the band know their strengths and use them to identify with the listener. And they do a magnificent job at it.

6. The Waffle Stompers – Words With Enemies [EP]

I think the reason that I enjoyed this album so much is that it takes me back. It takes me back to a time where horn sections and upstrokes on guitars provided me with sufficient reason to like a band. It takes me back to a time where all my friends liked ska. It takes me back to my first concert, which was Reel Big Fish, Less Than Jake, and Streetlight Manifesto at the Starland Ballroom Summer Campout in 2007. It does all these things in a way that is also enjoyable as pure entertainment. I detailed a laundry list of reasons that this is a terrific record in my in-depth review of it a few weeks ago. All of that is true, I think, but I think the thing that really attracted me to this record is its nostalgic undertones. The lyrics express a longing for simpler times and the musical style is slightly outdated, which adds indie nostalgia-cred to their music. They don’t try to do too much, and the simplicity does a lot in their favor. Words With Enemies is one of the most enjoyable albums I heard in 2011.

5. Portugal. The Man – In The Mountain In The Cloud

It’s hard for me to come up with a lot to say about the new record by Portugal. The Man. Anyone who’s heard any of their previous records will mostly know what to expect. There are a hell of a lot of them, too. The band has been remarkably consistent in their musical output – a full-length album every year since 2006. The best part, however, is that each of their records has its own unique sound that stands out amongst the others. On first listen, however, I thought that In The Mountain In The Cloud broke with that trend. When I first heard it, it sounded an awful lot like their 2009 release The Satanic Satanist. I then realized that that’s actually just a good thing, as The Satanic Satanist is melodic, atmospheric, and incredibly heartfelt. In The Mountain In The Cloud captures all of these traits. I think the main difference, musically speaking, that sets it apart from The Satanic Satanist is the more overt incorporation of orchestral arrangements into the music. They’ve touched on this musical paradigm before (notably on their 2008 album Censored Colors) but they’ve never incorporated it into the overtly melodic pop songs that they do here. And, of course, frontman John Gourley’s unique voice is the rock around which the record organizes itself. Portugal. The Man always ends up on my top 10 lists because I have great admiration for their consistency. In addition to releasing an album every year, they tour relentlessly and make it a point to interact with their fans. You know, to a degree, what to expect. And it’s always good.

4. The Postelles – The Postelles

I think the defining characteristic of a lot of good modern independent music is, as I discussed in my comments for The Horrible Crowes’ Elsie, a backwards-looking musical direction. It’s hip right now to be influenced by 60s girl groups and 50s R&B records. It sounds to me like The Postelles are a direct result of that movement. Yet while they do fall fairly neatly into the modern indie rock scene (musical nods to bands like Arctic Monkeys and The Kooks are obvious at virtually all turns) they do it with a refreshing urgency and spirit. Check out the song “Boy’s Best Friend” for a great illustration. The opening guitar strokes sound like they could have been ripped right out of a 50s rock ‘n roll song. Their lyrics sound like a poetic representation of an episode of Happy Days. Yet they have an uniquely modern, punk-influenced energy that makes their music acceptable to modern ears. They sound nostalgic without being stilted, which is a nice achievement. I think that this album will act as a fantastic substitute for those disappointed by the new albums by The Kooks and the Arctic Monkeys (Junk of the Heart and Suck It And See, respectively), as I personally found both of those records to be bland, middle-of-the-road efforts. The Postelles are a group of talented songwriters who don’t try to do too much. They know exactly what their strengths are and write great songs, which is all anyone would ever want from a record like this.

3. La Dispute – Wildlife

I’ve already said most of what I would want to say about this album in my in-depth review, posted around two months ago. In the review, I discussed the multitude of reasons that La Dispute are an amazing band who write amazing music. To reiterate what I said there, the think that I think sets Wilflife apart from works by other modern bands playing in similar genres is their incorporation of three interrelated musical styles: emo, hardcore, and post-rock. Lyrically, the band is heavily indebted to the expressive, confessional style of emo bands like Sunny Day Real Estate. Musically, they take more than just a page from post-hardcore bands like Thursday or The Fall Of Troy. And sonically, they incorporate the post-hardcore atmospheres of bands like Slint, Russian Circles, and mewithoutYou. Yet whatever bands La Dispute draw upon, they meld all of these sounds into a style uniquely their own, guided by the tortured musings of unmistakable singer/lyricist Jordan Dreyer. La Dispute are an important band, sure to spawn a wave of imitators in their wake. We can’t yet say whether or not any takes will surpass the power and majesty of their first two full-lengths, but Wildlife sure sets the bar pretty high.

2. The Human Abstract – Digital Veil

I’m surprised that Digital Veil is the only proper metal album that made this list. Even though Witch Hat, Touche Amore, and La Dispute are each strongly influenced by various genres of metal, none of their records are pure, in that sense. The Human Abstract, however, are about as metal as you can get. Digital Veil is short and sweet, with only 8 songs, clocking in at under 40 minutes in length, but those 8 songs are unrelenting and brutal. The band skillfully tear through tons of great breakdowns and riffs. While their first album Nocturne, released in 2006, firmly established them as a notable neoclassical metal band, this album takes that aspect of their sound to new heights. The neoclassical riffs are more smoothly integrated into the songs, serving as buildups between the heavy hitting math-metal breakdowns. The band does a great job of balancing their two sides, and have made a metal record for the ages. The band is precise to a fault, to a point where some of the choppy riffs sound digitally modified. That might, in fact, be the point. Listening to the title track shows the band playing with an absurd level of precision. I wouldn’t be surprised if any incidental sound (imperfect instrument muting, etc) were digitally removed from the music. Is this possibly a commentary on digital processing of music to make it sound more ‘perfect’? Maybe. The digital effects at the end of that track suggest a certain play on the practice of modifying vocals. Maybe the album title hints even more at this – does digital modification of music “pull the wool over our eyes,” so to speak? Once again, it might. I can’t say for sure. But one thing’s for sure: this album hits hard, from beginning to end. The Human Abstract have established themselves, in my eyes, as the best metal band making music today.

1. The Front Bottoms – The Front Bottoms

Anyone who knows me knew coming in that this would be #1 album for 2011, hands down. It was never a question. I’m not even going to bother rehashing all of the fantastic things that this record has in store for listeners, and believe me, that list is extensive. Anyone interested in that breakdown can check out the glowing review I posted back in September. Instead, I want to tell a quick story about an experience I had with the band. Back in October, I brought them into 90.3 The Core to do an in-studio performance, which went fantastically well. Around a month later, I was lucky enough to see them open for River City Extension at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ. After their set, the band spent the evening wandering around the venue, chatting with fans. Over the course of the night, all three guys in the band recognized me from our previous meetings, approached me individually, and thanked me for bringing them into the studio. I had full conversations with each of them, more than just a passing greeting. That’s why I think that this band, and by extension this record, are so amazing: they practice their craft with care, they perform with exuberance, and they realize where their success comes from. They truly reach people with their music, and they allow those people to reach back. I think that is why the band will find real success in the independent music scene. They really give back some of what they get, and the people who experience their music know it. They are a class act, and are more than deserving of my selection for the number one album of 2011.

Thank you so much for reading this list. I think that independent music in 2011 was beyond incredible. There was a ton of great music that didn’t make this list that nonetheless could have. I leave it to my readers to sort through my reviews and setlists if they’re interested in finding out more of what 2011 had to offer. Stay tuned to Art For Art’s Sake Radio in 2012; there’s so much more to come!

Advertisements

Album Review: “Words With Enemies” by The Waffle Stompers

I first encountered The Waffle Stompers on September 24th, 2010, when they played a show at the Livingston Student Center (which, coincidentally, is where 90.3 The Core is located) at Rutgers University. They opened for Reel Big Fish. I specifically remember thinking to myself: I’ve never seen a group of musicians look so genuinely happy to be playing a show. However, like most opening acts, enjoyment didn’t breed interest, and I never acted to find out more about them. Fast forward to summer 2011. A friend, also on the music staff of 90.3 The Core, added some songs by The Waffle Stompers to playlist as a preview of this very EP. The two singles were called “Serious” and “Tired Of It.” At a college radio station that focuses on mostly indie pop and noise rock, a quality pop-punk/ska band in the playlist made my day. Out of Flemington, New Jersey, The Waffle Stompers rock out with some bouncy, energetic third-wave ska. They’re home-grown, entertaining, and proof that no matter what, ska never really dies.

The Waffle Stompers refer to themselves as a “post-ska” band. I’m not entirely sure what that’s supposed to mean. As a metalhead, I’ve written extensively on this blog about what I consider to be great post-metal (Junius, Russian Circles) and consider to myself to have some expertise on the topic. I also think in detail about what exactly the concept “post-metal” is. In my review of the new Junius record, Reports From The Threshold Of Death, I describe post-metal as “heavy music, working within a metal paradigm, that places great emphasis on unconventional song structures, loud-soft dynamics, and musical atmosphere (as opposed to riff/lead-based music).” If we understand post-ska as being a parallel concept to post-metal, I’m not actually sure that The Waffle Stompers’ description of themselves is accurate. At least on the surface, The Waffle Stompers are a fairly typical third-wave ska band; their single “Serious” literally sounds like it could have been taken off of a Goldfinger record.

But closer analysis and repeated listening reveal that this may be too hasty of a judgement. Maybe the description of post-metal isn’t a parallel description to that of post-ska – they don’t exactly seemed concerned with being atmospheric and artsy (which I think is the primary intent of post-metal). Perhaps The Waffle Stompers simply want to claim that they sample from an eclectic group of music; they their music moves beyond “just ska” by tossing in outside influences and remaining true to the classic ska formula – party music for band kids. Maybe, then, in asserting this, they want to make the claim that artistry doesn’t imply pretension.

Consider the first song on the record, “We’re In For A Long Night.” Upon starting the track, the first thing we hear is a heavily distorted wall of guitar noise fade in from zero. It’s coupled with a shamelessly auto-tuned harmonized vocal part. As it reaches its peak volume, we’re hit with a full-band blast of noise: a heavy “djent” crunch. Then, the tune launches into full blast, with a throwback horn attack (they utilize a trumpet – trombone attack; only tracks 3 and 6 have saxophone) and a power pop chord progression. I hear the intro to the song as a parody of cheesy pop-hardcore bands – it sounds like The Waffle Stompers are taking a jab at We Came As Romans. Indeed, the rest of the song supports that comparison, with pounding double-bass drumming and heavy power chords throughout. The band juxtapose this parody with intermittent ska fare with upstroke skank guitar and sugary horn lines. During these moments, the song sounds like it could have been lifted off of a Less than Jake album. This song shows that there is some subtle, surprising depth to the band’s music.

The third track, “Serious,” might just be the perfect ska song. Musically, it shifts between bouncy ska verses and perfectly harmonized pop-punk choruses and contains lyrics about New jersey, breakups, and other ska bands. The third verse is particularly entertaining: “I liked Pizza Day and The Aquabats until Travis Barker left, now what’s with that? / Then I saw him in Blink 182, what should I do? What the hell should I do? / I give up, I give in, look at me stuck in a Catch 22 with Blink 182 / I’ll commit suicide with a machine what do you think of me now?” For those not so well-versed in the NJ ska scene, “Giving Up, Giving In” is a song by Catch-22 off their classic 1998 record Keasbey Nights.

The Waffle Stompers switch gears with track 4, “Days Like These.” The song starts with a contemplative guitar progression over surprisingly introspective lyrics. They gradually add instruments and build the track up into a plodding, groovy emo song – it sounds like Goldfinger forcing themselves onto Say Anything’s record …Is A Real Boy or an early Brand New song. The song is notable for its complete lack of ska-ness. There’s no attempt to upstroke on the guitar lines and no snare accents on the downbeats. In eschewing the standard tropes and making a disparate style their own, they differentiate themselves from their competitors. This is musical territory that a band like Reel Big Fish is more likely to enter in live parody than on record.

For the most part, The Waffle Stompers sound like a typical ska band. And the thing is, that’s OK. That’s what most people who listen to this record want to hear, and they won’t dig deeper than that. However, upon closer listening, it’s clear that the band have a nuanced humor to them. Most ska music is intentionally lighthearted and upbeat, but comes off as silly. The Waffle Stompers, however, manage to keep the good traits of the genre while still sounding like a serious rock band. Maybe that’s closer to what the band mean when they dub themselves post-ska. They abandon all the sardonic pretension and idiocy that continually pops up in the music of bands like Reel Big Fish and Less Than Jake and just write fucking great songs. However, the take-home message is just this: whatever post-ska may mean, I hope to hear a hell of a lot more of it in the future.

If this sounds like an interesting record to you (as it damn well should), you can find more information on The Waffle Stompers on Facebook.


Album Review: “Reports From The Threshold Of Death” by Junius

Post-metal is one of the most surprisingly broad genres of music that I’ve found. For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll define post-metal as heavy music, working within a metal paradigm, that places great emphasis on unconventional song structures, loud-soft dynamics, and musical atmosphere (as opposed to riff/lead-based music). With this definition, bands as disparate as Oceansize, Horseback, and Battle Of Mice fall under the umbrella of post-metal. Howeer, to me, what really differentiates post-metal from other genres of metal is the measured precision with which the music is composed. Indeed,  Aaron Turner of the legendary post-metal band Isis encapsulated this idea nicely when he termed the style as ‘thinking-man’s metal.’ The end point of this discussion is this: that it requires a good amount of patience and desire to really appreciate music like this.

So how does this discussion apply to Reports From The Threshold Of Death, the new album by art rockers Junius? Clearly this band is influenced by that spacey brand of heavy music, but it’s tough to see exactly to what extent they can be called post-metal. On one hand, their instrumentals seem to be heavily informed by metal bands like The Ocean or Cult Of Luna; the chord progressions and clean vocals definitely draw upon that sort of emphasis on atmosphere. Yet at the same time, their music contains some not-so-subtle hints of more mainstream influence – I’d go so far as to suggest that lead singer Joseph Martinez sounds just like Chris Martin of Coldplay infamy (listen to the beginning of track 10 to be convinced). Additionally, their music utilizes synthesizers in the same way that Muse did in some of their earlier works. Nonetheless, I believe that the heavy attack of the guitars and drums that runs throughout the album decisively places Junius within the post-metal paradigm.

Consider “All Shall Float,” the second track on the album. The track greets us with a post-metal groove in 3/4 time, which serves to give it a lively, bouncy feel. Then, the song kicks into a more standard 4/4 meter when the vocals and synthesizer enter. The vocals are deep in the mix during this song; they’re more like another instrument than anything else. The verse contains an understated synthesizer melody that reminds me of the song “Space Dementia” off of Muse’s 2001 record Origin Of Symmetry. “All Shall Float” is a playful song, as it bounces between the lighter verses with multiple synthesizers (the Muse melody and an underlying pad that pervades the majority of the song) and the heavier, more intense choruses.

This song, interestingly enough, provides all the evidence I need to support my observations. Junius clearly work within the post-metal style. They ground their music in a recognizable style solidly yet avoid getting tied down in the tropes of the genre. Notice that there’s not a single harsh vocal on the album – growling and screaming are usually found in post-metal. Clearly harsh vocals don’t suit their purpose. I also love that the band are adventurous enough to integrate sounds far outside the world of metal – I’ve discussed some of these above. In short, Reports From The Threshold Of Death is eclectic – something that I believe a lot of metal music doesn’t really strive for. For that reason, I enjoyed the album and consider it a contender for best record of 2011.

If you want to find more information about Junius, you can check them out on Facebook.


Album Review: “Wildlife” by La Dispute

Last semester, I took a seminar at Rutgers called “Intertextuality In Popular Music.” The purpose of the class was to discuss the way that popular musicians utilize existing musical forms in their own music and the way that that influence can inform the purpose and meaning of their work. In the class, we studied the interchangeability of melodies and rhythms in 50s blues and 60s doo-wop, the way that 50s and 60s music influenced glam rock in the 70s, and the implications of sampling in modern hip-hop and electronic music. It was a really unique experience – giving a presentation on The Beatles’ White Album for college credit is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. However, my favorite aspect of the class was the final project – an extensive term paper where we were to analyze intertextuality in the work of one popular musician or band. Most people in the class picked simple, prominent examples: bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, etc. However, I decided to go out on a limb and write my paper about a relatively unknown band from Michigan, called La Dispute.

I had picked up a digital copy of their first LP Somewhere At The Bottom of The River Between Vega And Altair on a whim, based off of a recommendation from my last.fm account. They were listed as similar to a lot of bands I like: mewithoutYou, Trophy Scars, Thursday, etc. I first listened to it at the end of summer 2010 and was blown away. The lyrics and vocal delivery of Jordan Dreyer are otherworldly, and the instrumentals were a perfect balance of technical, atmospheric, and intense. In short, a record right up my alley. Indeed, I was impressed enough to devote a significant amount of time to the LP. In the paper, I discussed how the lyrics and vocal styles employed on the record are obviously indebted to Aaron Weiss of mewithoutYou. I also provided a fairly extensive analysis of intertextuality in the instrumentals, showing similarities between bands like Thursday, The Fall Of Troy, Glassjaw, and Isis. I got really into the project and believe I produced a damn-good paper, which can be downloaded here.

So it goes without saying that I was eagerly anticipating La Dispute’s sophomore album Wildlife, released October 4th, 2011. I picked up a copy of the album as soon as I could and was (predictably) blown away. Upon beginning the record, we are greeted by a guitar riff with a very odd tone – it’s very distinctive and has a spooky feel to it. The band then drops comfortably into a groove that sounds perfectly and unmistakably like La Dispute. Then we hear Dreyer speak up for the first time: “Night fell on me writing this and I ran out of paper so I crossed the name out at the top of the page. Not sure why I’m even writing this. But I guess it feels right. It sort of feels like I have to, like an exorcism.” This first song, “a Departure,” sets the tone perfectly for the rest of the album: it suggests that the album is a confession of sorts (a diary?) and introduces us to the band musically. Though the riffs and instrumentation are unmistakably of the band, they sound different, in a slight, barely perceptible way.

As I continue on to the second song, “Harder Harmonies,” the difference that I sensed during the first track becomes obvious: La Dispute have mellowed out. Even the faster, heavier choruses don’t have that same thirst for overt aggression – they’re more measured, more calculated, more melodic, in a dissonant kind of way. It’s an easy change to swallow, however, because the band integrate the change smoothly. Lyrically, much of what they do is unchanged: the lyrics tell an abstract, almost mystical story with a haunting quality of loss and emotional claustrophobia: “There’s a melody in everything, 
I’m trying to find a harmony but 
nothing seems to work,
 nothing fits…” Dreyer’s voice conveys this perfectly, with an intense, evocative, clenched-in feel.

“St. Paul Missionary Church Blues,” the third track on the album, continues these changes and builds upon them. On this song, they have a dense, post-rock sound that screams of the band Slint. It’s a sleepy, detached song that nonetheless conveys a certain energy. This is dark, wacky stuff – La Dispute are clearly a hyper-literate, musically-diverse band. The next song, “Edit Your Hometown,” hits us hard again with a bombastic, groovy Thursday-style riff with energetic, pounding drums. This is a rare instance where Dreyer’s voice takes a bit of a back seat to the instruments and allows them to carry the song. They even break out a little bluesy guitar solo at the end of the track, providing an extra flair to the tune.

Another notable song on the record is “The Most Beautiful Bitter Fruit,” which sounds like it could be taken straight off of an early mewithoutYou record. The tight groove of the drums in the intro and the jazzy quality of the chord progression is unmistakable, and it flows effortlessly into another slow number, “a Poem,” which is shamelessly emo, in the most radical, stereotypical sense of the term: Dreyer at one point screams “See, lately I’ve hated me for over-playing pain. For always pointing fingers out at everyone but who in fact is guilty and for picking at my scabs like they could never break, but they can.” The lyrics speak for themselves – they have an intense confessional quality. Dreyer would be right at home performing his lyrics at a poetry slam.

In the paper I wrote on La Dispute for my music seminar, I wrote in the conclusion that “they are the result of the progressive mindset within rock music, that the artist would be best off if they do a lot of different things with their music to make it as unique as possible (p. 13).” In this sense, Wildlife is a massive success. They took their distinctive style of music and matured past the need for extreme aggression and instead choose a subtler form of post-hardcore expression: atmosphere. There are a lot of slower songs on this album, which signals this change. This album is a big step forward for the band; they don’t sound very different, yet they’ve obviously changed significantly. However, what they’ve gained in self-control and texture they’ve lost in singalong material – while Somewhere At The Bottom Of The River Between Vega And Altair contained several memorable, anthemic tunes, this album is more introverted, which is neither good nor bad. It’s just a different album for a different mood on a different day. La Dispute have thus established themselves as one of the most intense, vital acts in modern hardcore music, and with Wildlife, have released an incredible musical statement that differentiates them from all the wannabe-emo-punk acts floating around today. They’ve really grown up, and it’s magnificent to hear.

If you want to find more information about La Dispute, check them out on Facebook.


New Music: “Junk Of The Heart” by The Kooks

The Kooks, to me, are a little bit of an enigma. Their music is frequently lumped in with other UK pop-rockers like The Fratellis or Arctic Monkeys, and in some sense, I can tell why people do this. Alternative rockers from a similar geographical area breaking into the public’s consciousness at around the same time – it seems vaguely logical. However, I’ve always thought that the comparison is a little inappropriate for The Kooks – while the Monkeys’ debut record Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not is a classic in its own right, The Kooks have displayed a greater emotional depth in their music. Think what you want about him as a human being; Luke Pritchard has an instantly recognizeable voice, as well as the ability to convey intense emotion with it.

The Kooks’ 2008 record Konk is full of heartfelt pop songs that manage to maintain their sharp, rocking edge. Tightly written, tastefully produced, The Kooks showed us an ability to be distinctive while working within set pop  formulas. The subject of this review, 2011’s Junk Of The Heart, is their highly-anticipated follow-up. In some respects, this is the same old Kooks: simple, easy-to-listen-to melodies, Pritchard’s signature croon, etc. Yet the band makes a conscious effort to broaden their sound by including synthesizers and new styles of production. It’s tough for me to know exactly what to make of this change. On one hand, I’m always interested to hear bands alter their sound and try something new – that’s true innovation. But on the other hand, if bands make the change simply for the sake of changing, without attempting to fully integrate their new influences into their existing repertoire, it sounds forced and insincere. As much as it pains me to say, I think Junk Of The Heart places The Kooks on the forced side of that disjunct, and the quality of the record suffers as a result.

Take the ninth track on the record, entitled “Killing Me,” as an example. The intro passage to the song is dominated by a trite, 80’s pop synth pad that sounds like it was tossed in for the sole purpose of adding another instrument. The song itself is unremarkable – Pritchard croons with his standard style; it’s structured like every other pop song ever written. Becoming little more than background music after the first minute, it lacks any energy or distinctness. The fade-out of the track adds a chorus-like shimmer to the synthesizer tone that makes me think of The Killers’ Hot Fuss gone wrong. As much as it pains me to say, this comparison seems to be representative of the album overall.

The lead single for the record, “Is It Me,” is another exercise in mediocrity. Admittedly, the song features a driving rhythm with forceful guitar playing that initially makes it stand out, but once again, that synthesizer melody (which, to the discerning listener, should sound exactly like the melody employed in “Killing Me”) bogs the tune down – they sound more like Coldplay here than their old rockin’ selves. In the interest of fairness, however, the track is salvaged by a gritty punk rock bridge near the end.

This album begins with the title track, a song that I believe represents just how weak Junk Of The Heart is, all-things-considered. Their shameless stab at modern pop glory is evident even in the first few seconds of the album – the massive amounts of compression on the drum intro removes all trace of the human element – they sound like they could have been programmed on a keyboard. The cheesy Phil Collins synthesizer is ever-present; I just can’t get past how middle-of-the-road it is. Throughout the course of the record, the saving grace is Pritchard’s voice – a strong lead man can carry even the lamest of albums. Yet even Pritchard can’t carry a song when the lyrics he sings are this standard and soulless: “I wanna make you happy / I wanna make you feel alive / Let me make you happy / I wanna make you feel alive tonight.” A nice sentiment, certainly, but this song sounds more Maroon 5 than The Strokes. Pritchard’s words here lack the characteristic edge that made Konk an instant classic.

As was the case with ME & LP’s debut EP Chez Raymond, it kills me to give this album a bad review. The Kooks’ music represents some of the happiest memories of my life – it’s safe to say that Konk is one of my favorite pop records of all time. But when a band drops their edge so blatantly to pander to a mainstream audience already overflowing with lame music, I think it’s a really sad day. In a way, it makes sense that The Kooks went in this direction – they’ve always been a pop band and have always written songs that sound as good on first listen as they do after careful digestion. Yet I maintain that it’s possible to ‘go pop’ without losing your ability to craft memorable songs – consider The Mars Volta’s underrated 2009 LP Octahadron. When it comes down to it, I can imagine housewives liking this album, and am having a hard time enjoying it. Perhaps their new sound will grow on me, but in the meantime, I just can’t recommend this album, at least in comparison to their previous work. Maybe The Kooks will gain some new fans; unfortunately, they’ve lost me.

If you’re interested in Junk Of The Heart, check out The Kooks’ homepage.


New Music: “Dualism” by Textures

Metal music often appears ridiculous to outsiders because of the plethora of highly specific subgenres that fans of the style create. Is it really necessary to define grindcore with highly sexual lyrics as ‘porno-grind’? Do people really expect a group of bands dubbed ‘post-ironic beardcore’ to be taken seriously? Yet I think of all of these subgenres, the most obnoxious and unnecessarily specific has to be ‘djent’. The name itself, according to Wikipedia, is an onomatopoeia for a specific type of guitar sound, achieved by palm-muting with the guitar tone shaped in an appropriate way. The name only makes sense if you listen to a band that plays metal in this genre. Pioneered by extreme metal gods Meshuggah, the genre is very underground, with a small but rabid following.

Textures, as a band, follow very strongly in Meshuggah’s footsteps. The Norwegian six-piece released their breakthrough record Silhouettes in 2008. It is both a great album in its own right and highly representative of the djent style. Yet one can’t help but feel when listening to it that the band are trying too hard to represent their influences, and in doing so don’t have much of an identity of their own. Dualism, their new record (release date 9/27/2011) seems to be a huge step forward for the band. Textures have always been a little more eclectic than their prime influences, eschewing much of the polyrhythmic composition in favor of some more ambient/post-metal sounds. This album sees them focusing even closer on those influences, employing a much stronger heaping of clean vocals and some more standard metal riffs.

The record begins with a bang: the song “Arms Of The Sea.” The song begins with a huge, lumbering drum fill and heavy, drop-tuned power chords. The chords are very rhythmic and staccato, but have an oddly endearing melody at times. The song them tears into some polyrhythmic chugging with dirty growling/screaming hybrid vocals – this first verse is undoubtedly the most brutal and technical moment on the record. Just when the listened feels that the assault is too much, the band mellows down into a clean vocal chorus tinged with an atmospheric post-rock jangle riff – it would feel right at home on an Isis record. This contrast epitomizes what makes the album so excellent: it switches seamlessly between the intense metal assault and a more measured melodic sound.

The third song, “Reaching Home,” demonstrates the post-metal side of the band very nicely. Lead vocalist Daniël de Jongh does his best Loïc Rossetti impression, who you might know as the lead singer for German post-metal band The Ocean. Indeed, this song seemingly borrows heavily from that band’s sound (or, at least bands like them). The clean guitar riffs accent the heavy-yet-not-overbearing rhythm playing smoothly. The song, while not what a long-time fan of Textures would expect, works very well in the context of the record. Interesting side note: the song contains absolutely no harsh vocals.

Track five, “Consonant Hemispheres,” has an interesting song structure. It starts with a melodic riff, given a fuzzy edge by a cleverly-placed delay pedal, and builds into a polyrhythmic drum pattern that somehow manages to play a supporting role. I really like how the band don’t feel the need to make the record only about the complexity – the difficult drum part is hidden beneath a bunch of post-metal guitars. The song gradually builds into a prog-metal section that calls to mind some stuff from Protest The Hero’s new record – the singer even does his best Rody Walker impression (though let’s be honest, he’s not even close). The song continues to build in complexity with harsh vocals and a heavy power chord attack. The song ends abruptly after a closing section that pummels the listener with some intense death-metal pounding. The steady crescendo of the song, coupled with the intensity of its ending, make it one of the highlights of the record.

Well into the album’s 56 minute running time, “Minor Earth Major Skies” is another heavy number. The riffs sound to me like they would be right at home on a Gojira record. I like the way they juxtapose the lighter, ambient guitar melodies with the massive, drop-tuned power chords. It’s really striking; moments like that (around 1:30 into the song) are the times where Textures really shine as a band. The end of the song is neat – it’s breakdown-fodder metalcore inspired (think a band like We Came As Romans) and kind of an odd choice, but it works.

Album closer “Sketches From A Moonless Statue” serves very nicely to sum up the record. It begins with the melodic post-metal noodling then abruptly tears into a brutal metal riff, with harsh vocals galore. Like a lot of the songs, the heavy part starts out straightforward and gradually builds in compositional complexity. At its height climax, the song legitimately sounds like something off of Meshuggah’s obZen. It’s a perfect way to close out the album.

On first pass, Textures could easily sound generic. The djent style is a little trite, in that bands that do it tend to sound like “all those other” metal bands. Yet Textures do a nice job mixing it up. Indeed, what could be a typical, uninteresting record becomes subtly eclectic. On my first listen, I didn’t like what the record had to offer. I was particularly thrown off by the large quantity of clean singing, in contrast to the harsh vocals I would have expected. Yet after another more penetrating listen, I grew to appreciate the contrast that the lighter parts provided. Listening to an hour of straight power chord chugging gets boring, no matter how adept the band is at writing complex polyrhythms. Textures stir the pot with a subtle, nuanced sampling of tropes and sounds from different genres of extreme metal, and as such, have released what is surely one of the top metal records of 2011.

Dualism was released on September 27th on Nuclear Blast Records. You can find more information about the band at their homepage, which links to a free stream of the album.


New Music At 90.3 The Core: The Front Bottoms

It’s a rare feat for a musician to strike a true balance between artistic and entertaining on one particular piece. There is a ton of fun party music out there, and there is also a ton of artsy stuff that nobody in their right mind would ever want to listen to if they’re looking to have a good time. The more and more I think about it, the more clear it becomes that entertaining music and artistically-aimed music are almost mutually exclusive. Yet I can think of a few counterexamples to this observation: specifically, the records We Are The Only Friends We Have and Somewhere In The Between by Piebald and Streetlight Manifesto, respectively. Each of these records is elegantly composed at every turn, both lyrically and musically, while still retaining a sense of enjoyment: singalong choruses, rousing melodies, etc. It’s as if you can tell that the bands understand that music can be both artistic and entertaining at the same time.

I think my example above constitutes an ‘exception that proves the rule;’ the fact that I can only think of two examples out of all the music I listen to goes to shows that this is indeed a rare feat. Recently, I added another record to this exclusive list: the Slow Dance To Soft Rock EP by The Front Bottoms. It was randomly given to me by a good friend earlier this spring, and I’ve listened to the album basically nonstop since. The Front Bottoms are based out of Bergen County, New Jersey and play quirky, emotional, energetic indie rock: imagine the musical child of The Mountain Goats, Vampire Weekend, and Franz Ferdinand. The band is composed of singer/guitarist/lyricist Brian Sella and drummer Matt Uychich. They have a massive sound for a two-piece band, as their music is full of other flourishes like horns and strings, a sound which is captured in live performance by playing the samples through the PA system. Their new self-titled LP (released 9/6/2011) is, technically speaking, a compilation album, as six of the songs are lifted directly off the aforementioned Slow Dance To Soft Rock EP. The other six songs on the record are brand new for this release.

The record begins with one of the strongest of the new tracks, “Flashlight.” Beginning with a simple acoustic guitar melody, the song quickly tears into a frantic post-punk inspired groove, complete with a subtle, understated guitar lead. Then singer Brian Sella chimes in with a line that simultaneously sets the tone for the whole album and is strongly characteristic of the band’s lyrical content: “Please fall asleep so I can take pictures of you and hang them in my room.” Creepy, yes, but the lyric seems to be a perfect microcosm of their style.

“Flashlight” segues cleanly into the band’s most recognizable (and in my opinion best) song, “Maps.” This song is one of the ones previously released on Slow Dance To Soft Rock. The two songs are very similar, with mostly the same drum pattern tying them together. This song showcases the band’s use of non-standard instrumentation, as the track is held together by a simple yet memorable string orchestration. The second verse to the song also contains what might be my favorite lyric in any song ever: “She sees these visions, she feels emotion / She says that I cannot go, she sees my plane in the ocean / But what about your friends, don’t you love ’em enough to stay? / And I said, if I don’t leave now then I will never get away / Let me be a blue raft, on a blue sea I’ll blend right in.” What always manages to impress me about Sella’s lyrics is his ability to bare his soul while still making the listener want to sing along. It’s a truly rare talent, and if any one trait about The Front Bottoms’ music will get them recognized, that will be the one.

Another notable track on the album is “Swimming Pool.” Unlike “Flashlight” and “Maps,” the song has a lazier, more straight-up indie rock groove with piano accompaniments. Sella’s lyrics continue to take center stage here: “Follow an orange extension cord under a carpet to a closet door feeding a blacklight that will someday make me very, very, very, very, very rich.” The force of his lyrics is greatly multiplied by his distinctive delivery that lies somewhere in between Aaron Weiss’ tortured spoken words that he delivers for mewithoutYou and the pop-punk yelp of Travis Shettel, of Piebald fame. One of the other cool tracks newly recorded for this album is “The Boredom Is The Reason I Started Swimming. It’s Also The Reason I Started Sinking.” This song is a little simpler than some of the others, with very little guitar. The melody consists of percussive bells that lend the song a light, almost twee feel. Lyrically, the song oozes post-emo confessionalism: “I could stand up, I could man up, it’s just so convenient to be fragile.” The more and more I hear his lyrics, the more and more I am impressed and inspired by his ability to confess such intimate things on record.

The front of the CD has a sticker that describes the album as “Fiercely addictive, oddly endearing… a cinematic view of suburban angst and summer love gone awry.” I think that is a perfect description of the music of The Front Bottoms. The rhythms are fun; infectious. The melodies are upbeat and memorable. At the same time, Sella’s lyrics display serious artistic skill; he is a legitimate poet. After listening to their music as much as I have, I get the sense that they play their songs simply because they love to do it, which I feel that people can sense just from listening (even if it’s a casual listen). At the same time, I question the decision to re-release Slow Dance To Soft Rock. Even though it’s not strictly speaking a re-release, I don’t like the way they intertwine the songs together on the album. One of the things I loves so much about Slow Dance To Soft Rock was that it was a very cohesive record; the songs has a certain flow that make the songs in combination better than each of them considered alone. I think that is lost by the addition and interspersing of the new songs. If I were The Front Bottoms, I would have released the new songs as a separate EP and let it be. However, re-releasing the songs to put out a full-length record is definitely a smart business decision, as a full-length is more likely to attract attention. When it comes down to it, though, it doesn’t matter at all because the songs are so god-damn good. If you listen to this record and really like what you hear, I strongly recommend rearranging the songs to recreate Slow Dance To Soft Rock, because I think the flow between songs adds a lot to the album. Either way, keep an eye on The Front Bottoms. They are right on the verge of real success.

You can like The Front Bottoms on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. Peace.