22 November 2009

Flyleaf – Memento Mori


Polydor (2009)

There is something to be said for second chances. Upon first hearing Memento Mori, second album from Texan major label melodic metal crew Flyleaf, it didn't make much of an impression. Or, to be more precise, it made a very poor impression. Their first album, 2005's self-titled effort, was quite the concise display of the genre. While it was unlikely to challenge the classics of recent mass-appeal metal – such as Incubus' Make Yourself or, perhaps more pertinently, Paramore's Riot! - it was a fun way to pass your time.

Memento Mori, initially at least, was less fun. Its 43 minutes (when we discount the international mix of 'Again') were rather a drag, and it didn't sound like it was a bold step on from the debut, as one might expect from a sophomore album. The guitar, especially, was – as they might say in Texas – mealy-mouthed. Further listens reveal an album more full-blooded than originally suggested. 'Beautiful Bride' is a fantastic tune, chugging groove riffs intertwined with a strong, individual, vocal performance. It's anthemic and dynamic: a vibrant start to the album. The pacing, guitar tone and vocal melodies are reminiscent of the ethereal debut album by A Perfect Circle.*

'Something's missing in me', Lacey Mosley sings in 'Missing'. While the song-strength holds out at least to the point of this song (admittedly only four tracks in), it's nevertheless a portent of things to come. As strong as the first half of the album is – somewhere between the first and second Paramore album, (f)emo fans – the second sees the band stagnate somewhat. There are one or two ballads here ('Set Apart This Dream', 'Tiny Heart'), but the prevailing sense of sluggishness is more due to a lack of real inspiration. 'In the Dark' brings faster riffing in parts, but it seems a bit too contrived. 'Now for the faster song', you can almost hear them yawn. Perhaps this is overly harsh judgement of what is ostensibly smart pacing, but the problem lies in the failure of such pacing to be felt over the course of the album. If you mix speed and ballads in with your mid-paced rockers, the overall effect shouldn't seem so one-dimensional.

At this point we should broach the subject of Christian rock. As an entity, I don't mind it as much as many other observers seem to. Bob Dylan's late-1970s conversion led to his best music of that (post-Desire) period. Chicago doomsters, and noted God botherers, Trouble (they had a record called Psalm 9) were one of the finer metal bands of the 1980s. The greatest album of this decade was about how 'Texas is the centre of Jerusalem', and contains comic discussions between God and his devoted, though self-aware, subject. Flyleaf, at this point in their career, are nowhere near that level. Nor are they Stryper. They're more a kin to POD, whose similarly accessible brand of metal could be listened to without once turning your thoughts to the spiritual.

So is the case with this. Debates over the point(lessness) of religion to one side for the purpose of this review, religion has a centuries-long history of inspiring art. Rather than being defined by, or even inspired by, the religion that precedes Flyleaf (let's face it: rarely does a band find itself described as agnostic rock, so why the focus on Christianity?), this is a chart rock album like most others. Maybe I'm not listening sufficiently closely. The album's title is, of course, a reference to divine judgement; the ever-present spectre of death's possibility. The cover art depicts imminent mortality, and its observation thereof by an implacable, regal, figure. The songs do little to communicate this.

One would imagine, if one were to meditate on a religious rock band, possessed by a fanatical fervour, wondering about the razor's edge on which we reside; that mortal coil off which we could soon shuffle all too easily... that such music would be imbued with an urgency to justify its faith. Judgement is looming; that point in time we face up to cold evaluation in the harshest light of day. What have you done? What are you doing? What change are you effecting, either within yourself or others? If, at such point the Rapture occurs, how inspired are your listeners? For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.

Or are you simply retreading the musical footsteps taken by Lacuna Coil, The Gathering, Paramore and Evanescence? Using religious imagery, the sounds of sanitised emo-core, guts and viscera hidden away by over-production, and the blind faith of the Christian rock market, to lead you to the everlasting light of the pay window? To create largely agreeable pop-rock is one thing. It's a fine skill, for which many bands are suitably rewarded. Memento Mori is certainly no worse than the most recent Incubus or Deftones albums. But to dress it up in religious imagery, in mock-heroic robes, and hope titular association with a historical artistic movement is enough to raise it on angels' wings, is a leap of faith too far.

* A Perfect Circle were, of course, rather opposite in their belief to Flyleaf. 'How your saviour has abandoned you / Fuck your god, your lord, your Christ / He did this / Took all you had and left you this way / Still you pray' makes you wonder if there is any intentional influence.

10 November 2009

Converge – Axe to Fall


Epitaph (2009)

Massachusetts-based Converge offer a convincing case for best metal band of the decade. Consistently brutal, intense, intelligent and aesthetically astute, they effectively put a lid on the 90s noisecore subgenre with their epoch-defining Jane Doe, in 2001. Essentially a concept album about a relationship gone horribly wrong, it was followed up three years later by the bleak You Fail Me, itself a drained husk after the 'Bitter and Then Some' Jane Doe. The more straightforward (save for the exceptional centrepiece 'Grim Heart / Black Rose') No Heroes followed in 2006. Though less inspired, it was effective in consolidating the Converge legend.

Now, and not without expectation, comes Axe to Fall. The band's status has been reflected in the guests on here: Steve Von Till from Neurosis; three quarters of Cave In; all of Genghis Tron, among others. Thankfully, the Converge identity is sufficiently strong to assimilate, rather than be defined by, these guests. You wouldn't know Cave In play on 'Effigy' if someone didn't tell you. Ditto former Entombed guitarist Uffe Cederlund on 'Wishing Well'. Thankfully, the songs benefit, whether you notice the personnel or not.

In a reductive sense, it could be argued that Axe to Fall is Converge's thrash album, after their noisecore (2001), hardcore (2004) and metalcore (2006) records. That would obviously sell their sounds short, but the increase in Kurt Ballou's staccato riffing and Ben Koller's new-found fondness for pasting the double bass drum like he's Dave Lombardo or Gene Hoglan is rather noticeable. First song 'Dark Horse' explodes into action, roaring and flexing like Iron Maiden's Lucozade ad song ('Phantom of the Opera', in case you didn't know) re-written for the UFC era. Indeed, a good portion of the songs on here are brief, violent, attacks on the ears and mind: guitars and drums squalling, spinning and flying off in all directions. Jacob Bannon – sounding incrementally more human through the course of this decade – rants and howls throughout, of revenge, anxiety and dread: 'I'll do anything that I can do / To lock the window beasts are climbing through'.

There is counterpoint to the rage and bluster. As with past records, these moments contextualise, as well as break up, the frenzy. 'Damages' chips and gnaws away at you, angle-grinding post-noise; a virtuoso Wolf Eyes, by way of Discharge's 'Protest and Survive'. Steve Von Till's grizzled, veteran, Lanegan-esque tones bring melody and variety to the closing stages of album. Like a Neurosis song, 'Cruel Bloom' offers the extremes of calm and punishment. Though you know it will kick in with some force, the song does so in a way that maintains the sense of melody and space that makes the track so delightfully ominous.

Concluding 'Wretched World' begins with the insistent clicking harmonic of a clock tick-tocking. Mookie Singerman, of New York techno-grindcore band Genghis Tron, sings on this one, and it continues the paradoxically bruising melancholy of that band's last album, Board up the House. Singerman intones, with far more confidence than in the past, of 'a broke life's shattered art'; two bands holding fire for a beautiful finale that at once caps off another brilliant Converge record and whets the appetite for 'Tron album number three. While the news that this album would feature a host of guests suggested a mess of sounds, and perhaps even career desperation after seemingly exhausting the avenues of hardcore/noisecore/metalcore, it has paid off. Certainly, on this last pair of songs, the guests bring their own sound and identity to the mix, while never detracting from the cohesion of the record. It's a tribute to a band that keeps developing their sound while never appearing repetitive. In a world of lo-fi and shoegazers, this is rock music in HD.

***

POSTSCRIPT: Yeah, that was a cheesy last line, but I needed a convenient way to finish the review for Fact. Otherwise, I'd have banged on forever about the album. See, I review a fair few things, but rarely do I get asked to write up a band of whom I have been a fan for years. And I know a couple of their albums really intimately, so the temptation was to go super-in depth on the little differences, and what the album means in the grand Converge narrative. Of course, Fact is a very cool publication, whose readers are more interested in minimal house and dubstep. So I have to be careful not to completely alienate them. I mean, if I was writing for Terrorizer or someone, I might be able to do that dorky stuff, but this game's about trying to read your audience innit. If you can't read them, they won't read you. And other cliches. So I'll probably do the in-depth dork-out stuff when I get with the albums-in-2009 post.

But before I finish, 'Damages' really is a classic Converge song. Up there with 'The High Cost Of Playing God', 'You Fail Me' or 'Grim Heart / Black Rose'. Seriously good, in other words. And you think this post is nerdy? Just wait for the next one...

08 November 2009

Cold Cave: 'Death Comes Close'

Cold Cave follow their acclaimed recent album with an EP for Matador. Main tune, and album cut, 'Love Comes Close' comes close to being really good. But there's something missing. Our man Wes Eisold used to be in screamy hardcore band Give Up The Ghost. Really good, it was. But times change, and Wes is to be applauded for the stylistic leap he has taken for the Cold Cave project. Only problem is it's a bit by-numbers (as much as a Michael Gira-fronting-New Order deal could ever be). It's catchy, and well-made, but a bit karaoke, and lacks that steely inhumanity that characterises the best synth pop. It’s 'Goodbye Horses', by way of Flight Of The Conchords’ David Bowie impression.

The other tracks on the EP are far more successful. Killer electro-pop sounds either like robots making music with heart-warming humanity (Kraftwerk, Perrey-Kingsley, Yello) or humans making music with heartless efficiency (everyone else). R&B songstress Cassie got this right on her ‘Me&U’ single, as Eisold does on ‘Double Lives in Single Beds’. Opening like a pop take on Burial's ghost-bleeps haunting housing estates, its vibrant, broad, synth brush strokes give it a sound of its own.

'Theme From Tomorrowland' sees androids dreaming of electric romance in fibre-optic bedsits. There's even a hint of Springsteen's escapist fantasy, albeit updated for a digitally nihilistic age, our protagonists singing 'I don't know where I'm coming to / And I don't care if I never ever get there.' Final track, 'Now That I'm In The Future', is the musically darkest song, threatening to suffocate the listener in the shifting sands of cyberpunk excess.

The overall experience is emotionally hollow, but with a strange feeling of science fiction satisfaction, like getting pick-pocketed by a replicant in metallic leggings. 'The future comes when the past decays', Eisold observes. Whether this is a reference to his falling out of love with hardcore punk, or to the current trend for faux-naive synth-popsters springing up like so many silicon shrooms, is unknown.

07 November 2009

Lightning Bolt – Hypermagic Mountain



Load Records (2005)

Hey! Remember the 2005 project? Well, I put the kibosh on it because, well, I didn't get my act together quickly enough and, let's face it, nobody wants to know what your top 50 of one year is. I like to think it was endearingly quixotic. Anyway, there were some write-ups that I completed that didn't end up on here at the time. And, seeing as I just wrote about the new Lightning Bolt album, I figured why not publish my thoughts on the record directly preceding it? So here we are. This does not mean I will suddenly stick all those completed reviews on the blog right now. That's because I have an even more 'endearingly quixotic' project in the works, of which this album is most likely not a part. Can you guess what it is?! Ooh, exciting innit.

[As this is old, and part of the 2005 project, there will probably be references to that. And recent events that are now dim and distant. Please excuse these. I'm not editing them out, as I like the historical artifactitude of it all. At which number would this have been, pop-pickers? Funnily enough, it'd likely only have been one or two places above this one, the last post made while 2005 project was still alive. How weird! Anyway, here we go.]

***

I want to stick this album higher than I have done, but there is a flaw preventing me from doing so. Before that, I would like to focus on the many positive attributes Lightning Bolt brought to the table in the oh-five.

For those who don’t know, Lightning Bolt are an incredibly energetic power duo from Providence, Rhode Island, and signed to Load Records, home to many energetic American power- bands. The unifying theme of the label essentially consists of DIY-sounding, angry (but in a fun, rather than angsty, way), noise-rock bands with a definite punk rock sensibility. Check it out for it is, along with Crucial Blast (Genghis Tron [they're now on Relapse - me, in 2009], Skullflower, Geisha etc), where it’s at for modern noise rock at the moment.

Hypermagic Mountain is the fourth album from this fuzzed-out rhythm section, and it is epic. But when I say ‘rhythm section’, this is not a detail easy to infer from listening to the music, for it is intensity in Ten City. The bass is distorted almost beyond recognition, and sounds very high, almost like a normal electric guitar. This, coupled with Brian Gibson’s virtuosity on the bass – able to hit rhythm, riff and solo like he was ringing a bell – legitimately remind me of the late Cliff Burton, Metallica’s second, and pretty definitely most well-loved, bass player.

The drumming is equally fantastic. Like Gibson, skinsman Brian Chippendale plays like everything is a solo, but with such rhythmic precision and visceral impact that the listener is never left resenting such a display of technical skill. It is this combination of immense technical acuity with punk attitude and compositional skill that has led them to be described as both punk rock and prog rock, a laurel few bands can boast.

The ‘punk’ aspect is evident in the rough and ready delivery of the music, as well as their frenetic live shows and overall aggressive sound. The prog aspect, though I would not use the term to describe them, is more justifiable now than ever before. The crazy time signatures and song construction sounds like it has more in common with the improvisation of free jazz than the planned-out prog, but that depends on how the Brians write their songs. So that angle is possible, though debatable, even with the recent more towards ten-minute songs (‘Dead Cowboy’ and ‘Mohawk Windmill’ take a bow). More compelling is the nomenclature they give their music: albums called Ride the Skies and Hypermagic Mountain, as well as songs like ‘Infinity Farm’, Dracula Mountain’ and the excellently-monikered ‘Crown of Storms’ suggest a penchant for fantasy/flights of imagination in keeping with a lot of prog.

Anyway, this album is pretty brilliant. ‘Magic Mountain’ is especially notable for its almost unbearable rising motif: the bass slowly, jaggedly, crunches up the gears as though it was a particularly testy Mitsubishi GTO, while the drums punctuate each grind, as the music rises and rises. Up, and up, new gear; up and up… there is brief catharsis in rock-out, but soon the duo is back to the building, building, tightening that elastic band til you think it’s gonna snap. It goes higher and higher, with a drone now in the background, building and building, and it explodes again with a minute left in the song! But it’s still building. Then the bass-line gets stuck in a circular pattern, as though their car was stuck in mud. Now it’s upper register bass loops as the GTO struggles with all its might to get out of the mud. The bass/engine is whining in the upper register, sounding like a guitar, and the tensile strength of the tune is being taken to its very limits. And then – it stops.

Sadly there comes a point, admittedly on track nine (of twelve) where the flaw hits you: there is just too much. My idea of great punk/hardcore/Noisecore albums is that short sharp shock effect. The best Dillinger Escape Plan release is less than eight minutes long. My favourite album of 1999, the Coalesce swansong [not a swansong any more! - me again], is twenty-three minutes. The problem with a release of this type being so long is that, rather than being shocking and awesome, just becomes slightly fatiguing. Worse, you get desensitised to it. When you’ve had eight tracks of this excellence, a ten-minute song is not what the doctor ordered – unless it is a complete change of pace.

So that is the issue with what is otherwise an absolutely scintillating album. It’s a shame, because the album directly prior, Wonderful Rainbow, was shorter and didn’t get old, so you can infer how awesome this could have been. I really want to tell everyone to rush out and get this, so buy …Rainbow instead; you’ll get the idea.

05 November 2009

Lightning Bolt – Earthly Delights


Load Records (2009)

Lighting Bolt are a tough one to review. They have always been off in a world of their own. It's a world of sky-riding, wonderful rainbows and hyper-magic mountains. A world where cover artwork is rendered lovingly, and innocently, to brilliantly detailed effect. Seriously, their sleeve art is clearly the portfolio of someone who has the hand of a savant and the mind of a brilliant six year old. Their albums are just as vivid and innocent: two-instruments (bass and drum, though you'd never believe it, listening to them) battle and collude to confuse and edify their listeners. It's like nothing else. Only now, in bands like That Fucking Tank, is anyone approaching their laser-like, chaotic minimalism. That's pretty much the definition of 'original'.

But how original can it remain, a decade on? Two musicians, playing complex rock music, can only go so far, right? Wonderful Rainbow (2003) was arguably a pinnacle for the duo; vibrant aural colours splashed all over the place, crashed like waves against psychedelic cliffs. A tag-team beatdown, blows raining down on you as the pair seemed to alchemise constant fills and virtuosity into a noise bordering on pop music. The epic Hypermagic Mountain (2005) bordered on prog: an hour spent in their world of 'Mega Ghosts' and 'Infinity Farms' bordered on too much. Songs up to ten minutes long led to the sonic equivalent of barfing after consuming too much sugar and spinning around.

Four years later, the philosophical change is clear. The simple exuberance of old has been replaced by a more fuzzed, Gang Gang Dance/Black Dice aesthetic. The vocals, in as much as they were ever present, are still here. They sound as much like a giant wasp screaming through a megaphone into a tin bucket filled with tracing paper as they ever did: akin to Zen Guerilla covering Kyuss' 'Mondo Generator'. They fit the new lo-fi sound very well, even if the lazy swagger introducing 'Colossus' makes you think Buzz Osborne is about to sneer his way into the mix, such is its recollection of early 90s Melvins slacker-chic. 'Flooded Chamber' is a theoretical step in the right direction, too, as the LB bring chaos and constantly-changing sounds to the fore. Problem is, it's a bit too random, like the finely tuned, controlled chaos that defined their earlier work has now bubbled over. It'd be exciting if it wasn't so desensitising.

Conservative as this sounds, and as much as we like bands to push themselves as far as possible, the best material on here is actually that which sounds most like their back catalogue. 'Funny Farm' is a perfect case in point: straight-up punk rock pummelling, mixed with that perfect combination of addictive hooks and technical ecstasy. It's such a frazzled blast of high energy sound-spikes that you find yourself going all Super Hans as you proclaim the crack to be rather moreish. Change works superbly on 'Rain on the Lake I'm Swimming In', a blissful vignette that articulates perfectly the cartoon idyll in which the pair seem to reside. 'S.O.S.', too, is a new side of Lightning Bolt that work really well. Where usually their heaviness and intensity are filled with fun and colour, the directness and effected shouting suggest, if not actual aggression, something in that area. It's a thrilling change of mood.

And that's what's perhaps most interesting about Earthly Delights. Where most bands still front-load their records (on account of the fear that you'll hit Shuffle as soon as something displeases, like a bedsit record company exec), the 'Bolt seem to ease you in before really testing you. The first few songs are like a recap of where they've been, combined with an abstract of what they intend to do for us over the next 50 minutes. It's only once we're settled in that the fireworks fly. It's a bit of a shame that only half the album is both novel and exciting (by the ridiculous standards they have set for themselves), but this is objectively one hell of a journey. If you're new to the band, there may be no better place to begin than here.

03 November 2009

Seeland: 'Call the Incredible (Advisory Circle mix)'

Heroes of electro-nostalgic reassurance-core, Seeland, get fiddled with by The Advisory Circle, in an unsettlingly relaxing track. It's rather a subtle remix, TAC stripping the backing vocals and general sonic bric-a-brac from the cyber-Richard Hawley original (the B-side of 'Library'), and replace it with the feeling that our imagined Hawley has slipped some Rohypnol in your drink in the back room of a pub on the outskirts of Sheffield. Which is better than the vague aftertaste of Jethro Tull that the original leaves you with, admittedly.

It all gets a bit woozy, with a Boards Of Canada melody line wandering into the mix to replace the chiming futuristic cityscape synth, and you're left feeling maybe too comfortable. 'It's up to you', actual singer Tim Felton gently intones into your shell-like, as the minimalist plucked strings ebb and echo in the back of your skull. He makes it seem like the choice is yours tonight, but you're too far gone. He's feeling up your thigh, and you know it's not right... but his hand is warm and strong. Damn it, Seeland, no means no!

02 November 2009

Evangelista packaging fetish

Clipped cover art. Is nice.
Lovely tracklisting. Side one, to be precise.
Naked graffito. You can see the grain of the paper, actually.
Record sticker. See, you miss all this with your crummy mp3s
Yep, I got a new camera. And, with it, the glorious return of Packaging Fetish! Yay!

01 November 2009

Evangelista – Prince of Truth

Constellation Records (2009)

Former Geraldine Fibbers vocalist Carla Bozulich released a fantastic album in 2006: Evangelista. It was evidently so good (along with the fact that she now had a band) that she released her next album, Hello, Voyager, under the Evangelista alias. That was one of the finest records of last year. Prince of Truth is the second Evangelista album – can it continue the run of excellence?

Short answer: yes. Bozulich is an otherworldly talent, and the players she has been working with for the last few years complement her perfectly. Hello, Voyager was a record of vast emotional diversity; it touched on the rain-spattered melancholy of Evangelista, but juxtaposed it with exuberant exhortation to the listener, defying categorisation. It translated, with seemingly matchless intensity, to the live setting. She pulls you into her personal underworld, strips herself and the audience emotionally naked, and makes you love it.

Prince of Truth is less extravagant, in the PT Barnum, big top, sense, but absolutely destroys on other levels. 'You Are Jaguar', for example, stirs up a bewildering whirlwind of intricate, lovely, noise. Unlike traditional noise-music, this isn't a brew of distortion, drone and feedback, but an instrumental arrangement that brings to mind the best of Godspeed You! Black Emperor condensed into four minutes. This shouldn't be too surprising: the album was recorded at Hotel 2 Tango in Montreal, with players including various Quebec post-rockers. But where, say, Silver Mt. Zion settles for so-so singing, the likes of Nadia Moss and Thierry Amar – as well as Tzadik collaborator Shahzad Ismaily – get to work with one of the finest vocalists around.

This is most obvious on the desolately exquisite 'I Lay There In Front Of Me Covered In Ice'. There is organ, percussion, guitar and more, but it's all merely aural mise-en-scène for Carla's gentle duet with herself. While she can channel Hades through her body and out of her mouth in quite frightening fashion, she can also sing as gently, touchingly, as anyone. She sets a forbidding scene as vivid as the Bad Seeds' 'Weeping Song': “go tell your momma there's a dead man in the bathwater / Or go tell your father that the town's lost another daughter”.

That's not to say she doesn't bring the fury and vocal brimstone when necessary, as on the aforementioned 'You Are Jaguar'. Prince of Truth sees Bozulich bring everything, as she usually does, at the right time. I could mention the wonderfully sparse string arrangement on 'Iris Didn't Spell', the surreal film noir of 'Tremble Dragonfly' or the epic, pitch black concluding lullaby of 'On the Captain's Side'. But it's all so consistently good that this review would stretch into the thousands, rather than hundreds, of words.

Carla Bozulich should be an icon at this point: Nick Cave without the horrid recent cabaret-and-'tache phase; a more prolific Scott Walker; a sexier Blixa Bargeld; an infinitely better version of pretty much any post-rock this decade. And yet, not post-rock at all. Not alternative country, nor near-industrial, nor no-wave. A personnel list on Bob Mould's self-titled 1996 album simply read “Bob Mould is Bob Mould”. In that case, the only justified point of description would be to declare, admittedly obviously, that Carla Bozulich is Carla Bozulich.

***

You can also read this review over at Fact Magazine. And it's one of their Recommended Albums, as well it should be. I'd also like to mention how tough it is to review Carla. I was going to review her live show from last summer, but Fact declined. She apparently wasn't sufficiently cool, though thankfully, they are now on board with her awesomeness. Sometimes 'cool' isn't directly related to how dubsteppy it is. But I digress. She's tough to review. In a way, I was quite relieved I didn't have to review that gig, because it was such an emotionally intense, personally moving, experience, that it would have been hard to express to the reader. I know that's the coward's way out; reviewing isn't supposed to be easy. And it is supposed to be about articulating the intangible; expressing quite why a particular experience or work of art is worthy of someone's time.

So I'm glad I got to do this. Carla's records are never easy, either to listen to or to explain. This one went okay though - I'm quite happy with it. And the gig? Hopefully I will be sufficiently motivated, in the near future, to put together a list of my favourite gigs this decade. Rest assured it will be high on that list.

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