Tuesday, 26 May 2009
Prog, in its contraction, has become a journalistic shorthand for musical excess. 200 Tons of Bad Luck, the second release from Crippled Black Phoenix following 2006's A Love of Shared Disasters, is a contraction of two albums (The Resurrectionists and Night Raider which are still available to buy via their label Invada as a deluxe box set) and is an album that has progressive tendencies. I mean that in the best possible way. Grouped around Justin Greaves, Crippled Black Phoenix are a revolving collective that attempt to realise his vision. They have been described as a “post-rock supergroup”, mainly due to the fact that Dominic Aitchison, bassist in Mogwai, is involved and Greaves' own musical past. Having been the drummer in Iron Monkey and Electric Wizard, Greaves is consciously attempting to distance himself from any scene and instead has created a pulsing, cinematic release that celebrates the unbending human spirit, shot through with flashes of humour and positivity.
The progressive tendencies are most starkly realised on the 18 minute suite 'Time of Yer Life/Born for Nothing/Paranoid Arm of the Narcoleptic Empire', beginning with a sampled motivational speech by Evil Knievel, given while visiting a school, over plaintive minor key chords before building on these themes and moving seamlessly between movements. Knievel comes across with all the false bonhomie of the confidence trickster, a sinister presence rather than an enlightening one. The second movement is announced with a simple guitar figure before descending into an Isis-esque breakdown, and then finally abandons itself into arpeggiated synths and a (whisper it) guitar break worthy of Gilmour. At 18 minutes it is by some distance the longest track on offer here, but is never ponderous or lugubrious. All the familiar post-rock tropes are in place, but they are not dealt with in a hackneyed way. It characterises much of Crippled Black Phoenix's work; uplifting and stirring, with no bleakness or negativity.
Then there's the stoner rock elements in songs such as 'Rise Up and Fight' and '444' which both combine desert blues with the sort of quadraphonic synthesiser sections that sound as if they were programmed by Alan Parsons for the Dark Side of the Moon sessions. '444' also contains several Eastern-influenced chord progressions which are a common aural theme throughout the album, and comes across as Eastern drone filtered through QOTSA. The reverb soaked guitars of 'Wendigo' are similarly slowly consumed by strings, horns, the drone of a harmonium and then finally an Eastern motif.
There are various tone poems included on the album. 'Crossing The Bar' utilises a sawed cello and intricate, finger-picked guitar before the pulsing beat subsides to a skeletal piano motif that drifts dreamily into a synthesised ending. The hymnal plainsong of 'A Hymn for a Lost Soul' takes a group vocal over a simple piano motif, but it in its simplicity the tenderness and heart at the centre of the hymn shine through.
There is a black humour at work here. It can be evidenced in the song titles, the lyrical themes and the snippets of carnival music and other textures that contribute to the album. It can be evidenced in the spoken word samples chosen to illustrate various sections of the album (“We gotta loudspeaker here and when we go into battle we play music very loud...” from '444' and the aforementioned Evil Knievel speech). Considering Greaves' battles with post-traumatic stress disorder and varied personal problems this black humour is not unexpected.
Post-rock implies some form of rejection of rock's ethos, which makes their description as a 'post-rock supergroup' a falsity. They embrace a number of splinters from various 'rock' genres and weave them into the fabric of the album. This is why, essentially, an attempt to classify their music or relate it in terms of the personalities involved is futile. To describe them as a supergroup belittles the talent and skill on show; it implies a triumph of ego, whereas the album is about a sublimation of ego. On an album such as this there has to be a willingness to let go on the part of both performer and listener. Learning to forget.
The album rewards patience, and at 70 minutes it is long by modern attention spans, but stick with it. On their second album Crippled Black Phoenix liberally mine a wide range of genres and musical ideas. A good album should be a journey, should demand patience, and 200 Tons of Bad Luck does just that.
This article was originally produced for www.godisinthetvzine.co.uk. To read the music review of 200 Tons Of Bad Luck by Crippled Black Phoenix please click on the article title.
Thursday, 21 May 2009
On record Deerhunter invoke a sense of wilful and selfless abandonment, a hypnotic, chiming effervescent fog amongst ambient drones and distorted walls of noise. From the garage squalls of Turn It Up, Faggot! and Cryptograms to the growing sophistication of Microcastle/Weird Era Cont and the sumptuous 'pop' of Rainwater Cassette Exchange and varied other recordings, their canon contains a wistful and doomed romanticism. For a group who constantly sound as though they are on the brink of being consumed or obscured by the music they create, the task at hand will be to create something tangible live.
First band to perform on the night were Maryland based trio Baby Venom and they do so with an unmistakeable verve. Unfortunately they are let down by technical proficiencies and the formless nature of some of their compositions which undermine their otherwise charming naivete, although they slowly begin to win over the sparse crowd. Extra Life hail from NYC and peddle a combination of Gothic avant-pop and progressive post-rock. No amount of labels placed on them can describe how painfully awful they are as a live proposition. The first line intoned by frontman Charlie Looker is “I remember when you couldn't cook your own dinner...” They never really recover. Looker's vocal affectations place him somewhere between Maynard James Keenan and Mark Greaney of JJ72. In a strange sort of cultural exchange the vocalist talks with an American accent but sings with an Irish inflection. The over elaborations of their set are not matched by technical ability, and much of what they are striving to achieve doesn't come off.
So after two underwhelming (and unrelated – neither band are on tour with the main act) support acts Deerhunter take the stage to Bruce Springsteen's classic outsider anthem 'Born To Run' and immediately conjure up walls of shimmering, ethereal noise. The intensity is not slackened at any point during the early numbers, as songs bleed mercilessly into one another. Vocals as texture, rhythm, repetition – these are all key facets of Deerhunter's recorded output and are equally as vital to the live 'experience'. Sound design (courtesy of their sound engineer) allows them to add space and dynamic to the performance, for Bradford Cox's vocals to be drenched in reverb, elongated and subsumed within the soundscapes. 'Fluorescent Grey' and 'Wash Off' are particular highlights.
Biggest cheers of the night go to the Microcastle material, with previous single 'Nothing Ever Happened' the first to be aired. Driven by its propulsive rhythm the urgency and immediacy provoke the heartiest response from the crowd. The new tracks aired provide further evidence of the growing maturity of the Deerhunter sound. Given that both Bradford Cox and Lockett Pundt have used side projects (Atlas Sounds and Lotus Plaza) as outlets for the more experimental side of their musical personae it is no surprise that the new material has a more straightforward sound, although the demarcation is not as obvious. The title track from their latest EP Rainwater Cassette Exchange is played, showcasing their appropriation of various strands of 60s psyche-pop, doo wop and girl group into their song structures. 'Saved By Old Times' is stylistically similar in both mode of delivery and sonic adventure, until the outro is drowned in a sea of noisy melodrama which is near deafening.
After a brief interlude they retake the stage and launch into 'Cover Me (Slowly)' and its companion piece 'Agoraphobia', which is sung live by Bradford Cox rather than Lockett Pundt who sings the album version. 'Agoraphobia' in particular is a real gem, with the harrowing tale of constriction and abandonment translating successfully to the live arena.
Deerhunter are gradually settling into their role as an important band, with an impressive back catalogue to draw from. They truly were on top form, with Bradford Cox keeping the crowd constantly entertained with banter and breaking into half-formed cover versions. However it is the band's effortless renditions of the waking dreams their songs inhabit that is the star attraction.
This live review of Deerhunter was written for www.godisinthetvzine.co.uk
Monday, 18 May 2009
A frayed, tattered American flag adorns the cover of Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free, with the fifty stars of Old Glory replaced with a cosmic, tie-dye swirl. This is important, because in Akron/Family's work the constant friction between collectivism and individualism is at large, and much of their work concerns itself with interconnectedness between nature and humans. When questioned on how they view their music Miles Seaton (one of three multi-instrumentalists in the band) replied “The music functions simply as a sound or a sonic story of a communal structure”.
This sense of togetherness, of how we relate to each other, is experienced in the chaotic group vocals of opener 'Everyone Is Guilty'. Phrases are repeated until they become mantra. Full of throat and heart, they almost cling to each other, no surprise given that after 2007's Love Is Simple founding member Ryan Vanderhoof left to join a Buddhist centre. One of the less imperceptible lyrical fragments on the album is “Last year was a hard year for such a long time”. Losing a founding member has that effect on bands, and you could forgive them for untethering themselves in the aftermath of an admittedly amicable split, but in this case it has re-enervated Akron/Family. Seth Olinksy moved from Brooklyn back home to rural Pennsylvania (also the childhood home of third member Dana Janssen), and in doing so the band have discovered a sensitivity and optimism. The response to the line goes “This year's gonna be ours”, and the whole album is imbued with this sense of hope.
Musically they oscillate between styles, from the heavily percussive, Afro-inflections of 'Everyone Is Guilty' to the pastoralisms 'Set 'Em Free' and the more mood based programmed electronic subtleties of 'Creatures' to full on hypnotic psychedelia on 'Gravelly Mountains Of The Moon', a heroic and non-ironic prog song title, to the fuzzed-up freak garage on 'MBF'. They can lithely and quickly switch between these styles and genres, a key component of the multi-instrumentalist's arsenal. The overall dynamics of the songs contribute to a much broader and coherent aural canvas, and the constant segues and juxtapositions between styles are well rendered, with an impressive breadth of influences that are all subtly woven into the mix. Previously their releases were de-centred, while Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free harbours a focused approach throughout, although there are still incongruous elements that don't quite sit right in the middle section of the album. A minor gripe, but one that stops the album getting a higher score.
There are obvious similarities to Animal Collective, in both name and deed, and these comparisons are inevitable. Listening to 'River' you are drawn almost inexorably to this conclusion, with it's combination of shimmering atmospherics and military rhythms. But listen again, and beyond the approach to sound collages, subject matter and melody there is a rawness, a keening and bruised sense of hope. The rousing finale of 'Sun Will Shine' and 'Last Year' is where the album's bliss almost reaches a tipping point.
Their third release finds Akron/Family conceptually less constricted than before, less wilfully obtuse, and the new found freedom allows them to be even more creative than before in their search for self-definition. The challenge has always been there for Akron/Family to harness their improvisational tendencies and sense of community and togetherness on record, and with their latest they have succeeded to an extent. For a band with such a chaotic (and always evolving) live sound and a keen improvisational bent, getting the songs down on record is always going to pose a challenge, yet Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free is a satisfyingly coherent snapshot of where they currently are. It's not a release that attempts to be definitive and provide answers, remaining cryptic until the end. Togetherness is the key. Don't worry, if there is hell below we're all going to go.
This article was originally produced for http://www.thelineofbestfit.com/. To read the music review of Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free on the site please click on the article title.
Sunday, 17 May 2009
It is titled Octahedron and appears to be developing the emotionally wraught and (whisper it) more commercial vein that appeared on Bedlam in Goliath. I'm not going to tell you where you can listen to it now, or link an illegal leak, but urge you to wait until 22nd June and judge for yourself. Chances are it will probably stream on MySpace or Spotify the week before the release date. It sounds great, and I will be purchasing it with my filthy coin. They've lost a lot of fans with their last few releases and I hope that this recoups a few, they deserve it purely by dint of releasing one of my favourite albums of the last 10 years (and one of the best debuts ever) back in 2003 with Deloused In The Comatorium.
More news on their official site.
Thursday, 14 May 2009
Monday, 11 May 2009
Brosseau's voice quavers above the mix, occasionally cracking with emotion, weaving itself around the gentle finger-picked guitar and additional instrumentation. The intimacy of the recording creates a wonderful live sensation and this sense of authenticity lends an understated gravitas to the recording.
The album is bookended by two versions of “Favourite Color Blue”, a clever narrative device that reprises the themes, both lyrical and aural, of the album. The opening version is sparse while the closing version adds oscillating, undulating synthesis to create new spaces and areas of melody. But throughout it all Brosseau's vibrato vocal and rustic guitar lines shine through, creating a dialogue with the opening version.
Musically he is closer to contemporary troubadours such as Bright Eyes and Willy Mason, but thematically he is positioned alongside the anti-folk movement. The ability to combine both disciplines is something Nick Cave has long been a master of, and in the gradually developing verses of “Favourite Colour Blue” Brosseau combines a similar sense of devilry and irreverence, romantic innocence with carnal desire, poetic observations of banal, everyday occurrences with more spiritual considerations.
The traditional aspect of his songs would leave us to believe that he is a man desperately out of time, a renegade from the Winsonian Anthology of Folk Music, but his influences are more contemporaneous than this as he adds vocal textures and subtle electronic touches (“Boothill”) alongside processed drums and lo-fi fuzz guitars (“You Don't Know My Friends”). “Youth Decay” is just Brosseau and an electric guitar, gently coaxing minor key cadences from his instrument. “Chandler” adds splashes of colour to the sonic palette but the overall impression is the same – the faint tremolo, ultra clean guitar tone and reinvention of 50's harmony group songs aren't a million miles away from what Bradford Cox is achieving with his varied musical output. And when he delivers lines like 'I want to drive her to Reno, in a stolen El Camino' the air of railroads, crossroads and dusty saloon bars is inescapable.
Brosseau remains insightful at all times, his songs full of small town melodrama, downtrodden yet celebratory and insurgent. The album's title is a faded joke, full of careworn bonhomie, borrowed from a biography of Albert Camus. There is a dichotomy at play in Brosseau's work. Fittingly for a boy from Grand Forks, North Dakota that has settled in Los Angeles he doesn't know whether he wants to make us laugh out loud or cry at the rich vein of emotion that courses through this body of work. Posthumous Success sees Brosseau begin to make sense of the rich musical tapestry and cultural inheritance to which he belongs with confidence and skill.