31 October 2009

Flood Of Red – Leaving Everything Behind

Scottish sextet Flood Of Red bring their own brand of emo urgency on this debut full-length, though not without mis-steps like the wrong-footed, ill-advised introductory track. But once the soppy 'The Edge of the World (Prelude)' falls by the wayside, the band's natural pace comes to the fore. For the most part, this is reasonably busy melodic punk rock, with distinctly late-nineties lead guitar melodies. Not a bad thing, for those who recall the glory days of Gameface and Sense Field.

Speaking of Sense Field, the vocals are intriguing: they contain enough personality to engage, but there is a high-register softness to them that sits rather uncomfortably with the angst they're aiming for. Such juxtaposition is perhaps the intent, and sometimes works effectively as a council-estate Mars Volta. But over the course of fifty-odd minutes, they can grate. What presumably aims for intense lyrical poignancy misses the mark somewhat, as song after song features lines like 'I'm so scared of everything' and 'I have never been so scared'. The words are clearly shortcuts to emotion, but they ring hollow.

There is the occasional electronic beat or stab of synth, but such events are throwaway details. Blink, and you will miss what are effectively novelty, an obliged concession to modernity, rather than a desire to push things forward. There are times when the dynamic range extends beyond medium to up-tempo rock: 'Electricity' is a brief interlude of sonic introspection, which leads seamlessly into the more substantial 'I Will Not Change'. While it's no 'Parabol'/'Parabola', it's a decent stab at injecting some art into their well-trodden template.

What is here is competent. The lead guitar flutters freely through melody and riff, though the rhythm guitar is a tad slushy. Combined with the singer's soft timbre, the mix runs the risk of collapsing into liquid homogeneity. One suspects the band has missed a trick here: they could potentially make a virtue of this aural coalescence by upping the reverb and stretching out in a My Bloody Valentine/Serena Maneesh-style dreampop reverie. Concluding track 'The Edge of the World' actually hints at this kind of sound. Conversely, if they want to bring the rock, they could aim for a producer like GGGarth for their next record, a man who brought fellow Celts Kerbdog and Biffy Clyro into brutally effective clarity.

In terms of modern emo, Flood Of Red are more comparable to the softer, sensitive (remember when 'emo' was an abbreviation for 'emotional', rather than a pejorative for kids in eyeliner?) Thursday than the epically melodramatic My Chemical Romance or 30 Seconds To Mars. I want to like this more than I do. The band has no small amount of talent and the occasional spark of imagination. It's just that such sparks are too rare, and their songs get lost in among each other, in a near hour-long slog of driving riffs and soft singing. Flood Of Red have potential, but Leaving Everything Behind presents too large a lump of music for the ideas on display. Tightening up the sound for the next album, as well as finding their own identity, should pay dividends for them.

***

POSTSCRIPT: This is my first review for The Music Magazine. Check 'em out!

29 October 2009

Akron/Family: ‘River’

Taken from lovely current album Set ‘em Wild, Set ‘em Free, 'River' is rather more joyous than one would expect from a group of Young God alumni. It’s the kind of thing one might compare to The Flaming Lips, if only Wayne Coyne’s travelling circus had released anything decent this decade. Opening with a more organic take on that wonderfully sinister Massive Attack 'Angel' beat – albeit with some shaker thing going on - ‘River’ builds fantastically.

The singer has that super-American nasality to his voice, not unlike your man from They Might Be Giants, though perhaps a tad warmer. This tune is thankfully less wacky than, well, pretty much anything by TMBG (although 'Birdhouse in Your Soul' is forever a pop classic), with gorgeously busy arrangement. In fact, when 'River' does kick in, the vocal melody does recall the playfully innocent, heartening, verses of 'Birdhouse...'

The words don't seem to make too much sense, but they sound nice when placed in close proximity to each other, which is really all you could ask for from this sort of band. The whole shebang has that great-outdoors party feel that we associate with Animal Collective in the oh-nine. But where the Maryland sometime-quartet bring the neo-Beta Band synth-shine, this is organic as fuck. The good kind of organic, like Alasdair Roberts or Earth. Not the bad kind, like Newton Faulkner or Dent May. Just get the album, as this isn't even the best song on it. And I don't even have much time for Americana.

Download it here.

03 October 2009

Jay Reatard – Watch Me Fall

Matador (2009)

Internet punk rock darling Reatard is back with his second Matador album (let's face it: Singles '08 was an album on staggered – and ridiculously diminishing – release). But does this new record see the rock world ready to live in his shadow, or is he fading all away?

Whether Jay is heading down the dread road of 'maturity' is as yet unclear. He's less overtly aggressive, that's for sure. Gone is the energising comedy-horror intensity of Blood Visions. In its place is a more subdued, though arguably no less disconcerting, mood. 'I'm Watching You' (presumably the same song that was missing from review copies of Singles '08), rather than breathlessly ripping through frantic chords, is positively jolly in its hazy 60s, via Inspiral Carpets' organ-indie, pastiche. This just makes his singing 'I'm watching you, and everything you do' that bit weirder.

Watch Me Fall is approximately half the tempo of Blood Visions. Despite that, there is the occasional 'Hang Them All' which captures the brutalist pop charm of a 'See/Saw' with ease. The mid-way switch in the song is a lovely surprise, too. Overall, though, the guitars are lighter, Reatard opting for indie jangle. This sound admittedly fits the relative aesthetic levity of the songs, and his singing is now oddly reminiscent of Suede's fey frontman Brett Anderson (especially on the aforementioned 'I'm Watching You' and 'Can't Do it Anymore'). If this is a conscious effort to distance himself from the rapidly expanding throng of lo-fi trust fund punx, Jay is to be commended. He's certainly more imaginative than the fuzz-drenched muppets he's leaving in his wake.

'Rotten Mind' is a striking pop gem, and its juxtaposition with the sinister introduction of 'Nothing Now' (the evil twin of Terrorvision's 'Alice, What's the Matter?') displays a sense of dynamic structure that would justify this evolution in the Reatard sound. But there's something missing. While Reatard does not need to bludgeon in order to be good, you do get the sense there's a bit of an identity crisis going on. Like Andrew WK, you're happy for him to leave the mosh pit, but his first steps out of there are slightly shaky.

As a portent of things to come, Watch Me Fall is heartening. It's more varied than any of his past single albums, and hits spots both familiar and new for him. It's just not quite the killer release for which Matador may have been hoping. Early Mondo Generator did this kind of thing better, and Reatard himself has hit greater heights, with Blood Visions and Lost Sounds. Look away from the hype, though, and this is a solid rock album.

01 October 2009

Clutch – Strange Cousins From the West

Weathermaker (2009)

Clutch, those grizzled Maryland rock veterans, have been kicking out various forms of jam since the early 90s. Their sound has taken in post-hardcore, aggro-stoner and retro boogie rock. Which makes us wonder: which Clutch will turn up this time?

It’s pretty impossible to dislike Clutch, unless you dislike rock itself. Firm cult favourites from their debut (‘A Shogun Named Marcus’ is an underground anthem) and even before (Legendary label Earache released the ‘Impetus’ EP), they brought the mid-90s stoner/space rock as magnificently as Kyuss and Monster Magnet. And, as lynchpin of the former, Josh Homme, has carved out a second career in QOTSA, Clutch, like the sea, seem eternal in their restless power.

After nearly losing it at the end of the 1990s, with the unfocused Jam Room, 2001’s self-explanatory Pure Rock Fury saw them fired up once more. Strange Cousins From the West is their fourth since then; the latest in a run of consistent quality. And, while the quintet (since 2004) have consistently evolved – within their blues-hardcore template – this latest one sounds oddly familiar.

Rarely does a post-Nirvana band release nine albums, discounting the weekly releases from various distortion-pedal crews. So it should be unsurprising when the songs on said ninth album are reminiscent of past glories. Especially when those glories are worth revisiting. Yes, those snaking, catchy-yet-complex riffs, recent-historical urban mythologising and vintage sound point to one thing: career-high The Elephant Riders (1998).

Of course, if Strange Cousins… were as good as that, this would be an automatic 9. That it isn’t is no shame, as it would also mean it was superior to any QOTSA album after 2000. Or any Black Mountain album at all.

Clutch spoil us from the outset with, as Westwood might say, hit after heavy hit. ‘Motherless Child’ rolls in on one of the heaviest bouncing riffs since Entombed redefined ‘death’n’roll’ over a decade ago. If ‘Struck Down’s riff isn’t instantly lodged in your head like a psychotic lumberjack’s axe, then your dope-smoking has affected your short-term memory. ’50,000 Unstoppable Watts’ looks on paper like a song Dr. Brown might write, but he’d never have been this good at fusing science with Hendrix riffs.

Album highlight is the frankly bizarre ‘Abraham Lincoln’. As if Akimbo’s shark attack concept album last year wasn’t surreally elegiac enough, Neil Fallon and co. bring a gross-years-tardy tribute on a slow, martial beat and ever-awesome matching guitar and vocal melody. This isn’t wacky stuff, though: these boys mean it when they tell his assassin: ‘no grave for you’. Even odder is the fact that this is ostensibly a call-back to 1995 song ‘I have the body of John Wilkes Booth’. Talk about setting a president. Sorry.

The musicologist in me is ever-uncomfortable about white men bringing the blues-rock. And looking backward for inspiration. It’s also frustrating that the band insists on such a clean guitar sound. While it’s undeniably accessible to the curious, the playing suggests a heavier sound would be infinitely more satisfying. Like, say Andy Sneap’s work with Iron Monkey, or Steve Feldman’s with Unida.

However, this isn’t the dull Black Keys. And Strange Cousins… is sufficiently imaginative to work. The heaviness? It’s still more energising than Wolfmother, Kasabian, the Enemy, or whatever passes for big rock these days. If you like the riffs and weirdness, get this listened.

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