New Politicians – Remission

After a long, long hiatus I have returned to my music review blog. My absence owes to a lot of creative projects demanding my attention, and it’s frankly taken the better part of a year to sit down and start writing again. One thing that prompted me was the return of New Politicians with the record Remission. They asked for my opinion, personally, and so I listened a few times and gave it some serious thought.

Right out of the gate, I remarked to them my struggle with the vocal mix. Much like Drag A City, the band’s previous record, New Politicians have a (pleasantly) straight-forward vocalist leading simple yet effective melodies across wide fields of ringing guitars and washy drums. The vocalist is not Scott Walker – and the music isn’t Einsturzende Neubauten – so there is neither the occasion nor desire for every syllable of the vocalist to be perfectly audible. But as I listened, I couldn’t help but wonder what they’re hiding (not out of shame, but simply in the course of their effects choices) when they dump grand hall-scale reverb on the vocal channel.

So I went back to my old review for Drag A City and did a comparison of reactions. What I realized then, which I had somehow forgotten, was that one of New Politicians’ hallmark sonic choices was to hold mood and atmosphere up on the same level as catchiness or pop structure. Their priorities are evident in their mix, and one can easily determine that while some choices are “heavier” than others, New Politicians are not “extremist” in their aesthetic views. Having the potential for pop appeal does not eclipse their love for building environments and cinematic mood – items that do not register as having particular importance to pop audiences who often want to feel like the singer is belting out whole notes right into their ear-drums.

I got over the vocal mix and started to consider the larger sound and the dreamy, distant quality of the vocals as a fixture inside of the bigger picture. Beginning with “Revelator,” we’re confronted first by a dusty, droning guitar finding it’s rhythm just in time for drums to roll in and pick things up considerably. It’s a rocking opener, something appropriate (given that it’s played loud enough) for an old highway cutting through desolate American desert, presumably on a pilgrimage to Joshua Tree. The drums are balanced and temperate, never rising too far above their insistent rumblings or shimmerings, riding thunder into lightning.

Increasingly, other bands have started to converge on similar territory (Ticktockman’s Faded Shapes comes to mind) – but these bands, in an effort to set themselves apart, have leaned more and more on synthesizers and truly alien guitar effects. New Politicians, conversely, have a fairly pure rock sound – on the surface. But beneath the sweeping guitars and spare, cavernous vocals lies the faintest hint of a synth pad or sample. It has the “forth dimensional” effect of being invisible but still having a profound impact on the sense of space and scope. It’s a simple thing, too. This is the kind of subtlety and “detail-orientedness” that sets New Politicians apart – just not in any immediate or obvious way. Their magic creeps on you.

By “Cut A Hole,” you realize the vocal reverb situation isn’t meant to protect the quality of the singing from the notice of the listener, and it isn’t meant to temper the ferocity of the vocalist (of which there is little to temper.) That distance has been instituted, from song to song, simply to drive a retro-ish, mystical feeling that gradually strikes one as being timeless. Perhaps the vocals were tracked in late 1960’s Los Angeles; early-80’s Manchester, even; or were they part of the 80’s post rock resurgence of the early 21st century? You get the point. In the same way that Sinatra’s voice transcended the recording technology of his time, New Politicians have harnessed a similar power for their own, and in a way appropriate within their genre.

While the second song drags at it’s spot in the order, there’s an undeniable logic to following Revelator with a sluggish, mournful response. The song, by itself, is quite beautiful – with crashing, tumbling choruses that descend, shimmer, and burn. The guitar solo at two minutes and thirty-five seconds is gentle and pushed deep inside the approaching dust storm. There is a humility to the guitars that I find refreshing, without being totally pedantic and obvious (I’m looking at you, Coldplay). The bass guitar, with its broken rhythm, bumps and rolls intermittently – which, in itself, creates a clear line-of-sight for the drums. A fabulous arrangement.

“Been in the Wars,” it would seem, wastes no time in picking up the energy again, to the point where you may feel pushed and pulled extensively by the drastic shifts in feeling from one song to the next. I didn’t resent that, but it makes the track ordering seem very suspicious to me. Why is that important? Because they didn’t put out a single or maxi-single – they put out a 7-track record. The juxtaposition of one song after another has a power – sometimes to tell a story explicitly or build a modular arch of energy you could graph. Remission’s trajectory is scattered and full of surprises. Depending on the mood of the listener, this can either be invigorating or irritating. Even now, I struggle with my own feeling about this where Remission is concerned.

This third track, the album’s most brisk and bright, has the feel of added clarity – the guitars slightly less jangling and a bit more hard and “sharp,” cutting with a bit more ease as it incises the mix. There’s that sense of riding along vast stretches of sun-bleached, two-lane blacktop while prairie winds briefly interrupt that feeling of being scorched alive. The bands cuts out at just a few second prior to the four minute mark, emptying to silence, before reemerging from the darkness with a filtered, humming, twisting sonic apparition that sounds like a magical confluence of sampled guitar and synth with a little bit of human voice thrown in. I love it, but I haven’t listened to it enough times to discern what he’s saying.

“Images” slows to a crawl so we can live in some of that oppressive heat – well into the night, along the curbs of suburbs and into bedrooms and smoking a cigarette at the wheel of a car that might not start. This song, apparently, drums up a bit of nostalgia for me, maybe because of a passing resemblance to some of the aesthetic experimentations of Lansing-Dreiden’s Incomplete Triangle and the role that record played in my young adult life. It’s a slow, weary stumble down the cool, disaffected emptiness of memory lane, and it’s spot-on.

At track five, “Killer on the Mend” is among my favorites from the album – a slow ride, to be sure, but also a gentle glide over and through the Black Hills, spare white clouds dotting an impossibly open, impossibly blue sky as the sun shrinks from its violent rage into the embrace of the horizon. At two minutes-nine second, a passage opens filled crashing cymbals and cascading guitars and what may be the faintest hint of organ ushering us to the exit for an expansive outro.

The title track starts off with a lovely pair of alternating chords, and features some of my favorite vocals from album. They seem more assertive here, a little more daring and melodically/dynamically ambitious. These chorus pop, explode with slow-motion flames and sparkling showers of glass and dust. And for all its relative bombast, Remission’s title track still has that same open, pleasant appeal that has been spread evenly across all seven songs. The bridge at three minutes and forty-four is massive and bittersweet, chill-inducing stuff. A glorious fall, for miles and miles, to the earth. It is perhaps the most rousing and elevated point in the topology of the record, and suddenly the album’s trajectory makes sense to me: everything was pointing here. After diving into its most beautiful and expansive moment, the song lets-off the gas and we’re left with half-a-minute of the whispers and echoes of whispers of what came before.

“The Idealist” closes out the album with an unsettling chord progression, waltzing through the ruins of sand-covered Victorian ballrooms. It’s a strange, Ballardian mishmash of Old World elegance and modern American deterioration. After the title track’s heightened emotion, The Idealist seems caught between genuine distress or grief and genuine ambivalence, with verses that drop their vocal melodies at the end of each stanza like “what the fuck is this thing and what good is it anyway?” before rushing into romantic, spinning choruses – like leaping out of the heart-dead now and into pools of the past that seem more alive than the present.

And then it was over. Well, almost – New Politicians have taken to a “false” ending motif across three of their tracks that seems to hint at some other reality just beneath the drape of this one. And again, New Politicians are all about the little details, even when the immediate effect of their music is an overwhelming wall of sound. These little “tails” holding onto the last few moments of songs like “The Idealist” hint at other things – strange and new. In its entirety, Remission is a very satisfying record that manages to both intrigue and satiate. New Politicians continue to build and refine a sound that, while fresh and wild on Drag A City, has matured and emboldened itself considerably on Remission.

Instrument of Karma – Teleport (from the archives)

[This is the first album review I had ever written, back in February of 2010 on a now defunct site. I decided to share it here for posterity. It is presented as it was originally published.]

I have to be honest with you all and say now that I’ve never formally sat down and written a review of an album. Undoubtedly, I’ve had many discussions about this record or that, but in an increasingly fragmented culture I find it hard to have these discussions about artists I actually like. So while everyone is discussing what Lady Gaga is wearing, it’s made the open contemplation of music a lonely business.

With this in mind, I’d like to talk about a band from Texas called Instrument of Karma – or IOK. I first ran into them on ReverbNation, a wonderful social networking site that is literally all about the music. They’ve made it easy for artists to connect with each other and to offer mutual support (and, point in fact, your visibility and rank is entirely dependent on what the website refers to as “Band Equity.” Quite a concept, huh?

As a user of ReverbNation, I began to seek out other users in the hopes of improving my standing within this given community. At first, the process seemed laborious – tedious, even – as I searched through page after page and became a fan of hundreds of different artists and bands. In the early days, I would not have expected to discover all the great music that I now enjoy. But paramount to all others, IOK is my absolute favorite.

Plenty of artists have been supportive and complimentary of my own work, but I have not felt the same appreciation for any other band than I do IOK. To be sure, IOK is perhaps my favorite band of the last decade – mainstream or otherwise. To illustrate why this is the case, I will discuss their album “Teleport.”

IOK is comprised of Jim Moon and Matt Spear. They don’t exactly have defined roles in the band, but Jim Moon is the principle lyricist. From what I’ve seen, they both play synthesizers, they both program, and both share the task of singing. Matt Spear incorporates guitars on certain songs – but we aren’t talking some industrial rock noise as though they were a throwback to 1996. Rather, I find them more akin to bands like Radiohead, T.V. on the Radio, and perhaps VNV Nation.

But to constrain any concept of what IOK sounds like based off the work of others is a disservice to both the band and to my reasons for appreciating them. As it happens, they really don’t sound like anyone I’ve ever heard – which is dangerously exhilarating.

I find that our culture is readily dismissive of electronic music – and why not, after years of trance/techno/house glut that have obscured the truly innovative and fearless artists who use electronic sound. Even intelligent dance music (IDM) has run its course, and used record bins in franchised book stores can be used to note the high-water mark of that particular genre. For artists like David Bowie or Peter Gabriel, the use of electronics were novelties – not inextricable elements of their art.

The current sound of IOK is different. It is steeped in electronically-produced environments, cascading with digital textures and flickering bursts of color. The digital warble of pitch and time effects, the wash of white noise, the drone and sizzle of electric guitar within impossible, cavernous spaces – each of these elements are only part of the world of IOK. The truth goes much further.

“Teleport,” the record in question, is a complete sonic experience. There is literally nothing missing, no lapse in judgment, no preclusion of structure or purpose. The record begins as though the record itself was aware that you were listening to the news not a few minutes before. As I experienced the record, it presupposes that you were leading your life normally beforehand, and an adjustment must be made gradually to swallow you up in the world of “Teleport.”

The first song, “Art, machine vs. Miliscary” opens with cyclic political sound bytes, echoing and drifting in the ether. Voices are pitched down, looped, broken. The content is obviously referencing Bush-era politics, and already the lacerating smugness of those times and those people rush back to fill you with dread, perhaps even a sense of self-righteous indignation. A stuttering, marching beat enters, punctuating the progress of sour ideals. But then a forwards/backwards guitar seeps into this mix, and it is as though you are watching the sunrise for the first time in a decade. Within no time, and I assure you, this song will provide you with the sensation of being free – in all senses of the word.

Jim Moon’s vocals are misleading. He calls out through immense reverbs and delays, cluttered with computer-generated harmonies, resonating within the music and not sitting on top of it. Some of his words appear to be lost, but closer listening reveals something I believe is integral about this band: they are highly literary and supremely thoughtful. And though his contemplations aren’t whispered directly into your ear, they do instill a sense of what is being said. Content and delivery are matched appropriately, and you learn to allow the sound of “Teleport” to consume the vocals as though swathed in an infinite blanket.

The use of drum machine-style loops is also misleading. Breaks and changes recur under the translucent skin of the synthesizer and guitar, but the surface repetition feels more like pulses of energy than dance-floor absurdity. This should not suggest that IOK’s music is without movement, or rising and falling energy. Just the opposite: “Teleport” is entirely about energy. It just so happens to also be about the coupling of sound with ideas – which is not a common trait of dance music.

After the first three songs you begin to understand the style with which IOK approaches the arrangement and choice of sounds. There are surprises even here, with your toe in the water. After “Leeches” – a bright, bristling song – the song “Deadly Aria” is perfectly juxtaposed. A piano ballad with bells and mounting layers, “Deadly Aria” visits a darkened and reflective space. It is, among the plentiful variety of “Teleport,” perhaps the song most likely to hit indie-rock radio waves. But the short echo and warble of the piano is unsettling – and although beautiful, it evokes despair.

Two songs will catch your attention in the midst of “Teleport” for the solitary reason that they are principally acoustic guitar songs. “Teleport Part One” is the first to occur, and although augmented within the fractal and digital world of IOK – it is beautiful and complete. The other is perhaps my favorite song off of this record. “Someone” is a burdened, somber piece that seems to drift through the real world in slow motion. For myself, it creates a deep impression of solitude and longing – but more so foreboding and distrust. Perhaps I am projecting these feelings from myself, but great music dictates nothing to the listener – great music provides the mental tools with which the listener can tangibly identify his own emotions.

“Teleport” runs the gamut of what I would describe as “implied competency.” Certain songs like “Info War” and “Plight of an Iraqi” strip away what the listener may or may not have understood about the album and drags them into repetitious spaces of an almost childlike familiarity. We are a generation of children who grow up playing with novelty toys (and even books) that made strange and bit-crushed sounds – as such, it was inevitable that we would grow up to address these childhood experiences in our adult music.

The motifs of marching beats, pulsing energy, and textural shifting remain in place throughout these songs, however. Especially on tracks like “Teleport Part Two” and “Windmills on Mars” – where undoubtedly the music places its full attention on the musical environment that the album creates as a whole. It allows the listener to drift and understand what they are hearing in the sense that they are listening to an augmented reality – just a little further beyond what they knew.

Lastly, “Energy” and “Books not Bombs” pull the listener’s head above water for a moment. “Energy” allows you to hear the vocal and lyrical content with some well-timed clarity in the middle of the record, whereas “Books not Bombs” demonstrates IOK’s enormous capacity for creating the sensation of luminescence and not just color or texture.

In closing, IOK has achieved the sense of overwhelming cacophony without having actually created it. Each element, given appropriate attention, can be distinguished from the rest. Every sound is discernable, but the music relies on you to do the detective work – to pay attention. The downside is that we live in a culture where listening to Lady Gaga requires absolutely no effort. The upside is that if you should learn to listen, this record will reward you for years to come.

The Divinity of Art

Art is there whether you turn towards it or away from it. It continues to speak long after we stop listening to it; it continues to grow long after we die. Art transcends its creator – and through time, art betrays or subverts or even redeems the intent with which it was born. Art is the small piece of you that truly IS immortal and worthy of immortality; the part of you that glimmers in the darkness and sparks the wildfire of creation against an oppressive vacuum. That empty nothingness is the natural state of the universe – one without you – and your art is a direct threat to its cosmic regime. Art, and the act of creating art, is the physical realization that you are your own god of your own world.

Jason Rubenstein – New Metal From Old Boxes

Why isn’t progressive rock – full of the things we love like guitar or story-telling or actual virtuoso performances – more popular?  It’s not exactly clear why, at least not to me, but it could have something to do with the average person’s threshold for the level of rhythmic and melodic variation present in most prog-rock.  Some people need the simple comfort of straight four-to-the-floor beats, 120 beats per minute, guitar-bass-drums, done in under 5 minutes.  Oh, and no vocals?  No hit song for you.  Sometimes I need that too, frankly, but not all the time – not exclusively.

Other times I want dynamic music – I want some theatricality, or mathematical brilliance, or spiritual elucidation.  Modern rock and most metal out there can be compared with the tea-cup ride at Disney Land – you stay on a fairly even plane, rising and lowering but a little.  Prog-rock, on the other hand, has the capacity to grow into the biggest and meanest roller coaster it wants to be.  Progressive rock is, quite often, free from convention; less restrained by the wants and needs of disc jockeys and car commercials.

The logical conclusion here is that prog-rock can easily incorporate the rage of metal without bowing to metal’s clownish ham-fistedness or unrewardingly abrasive tack or tough-guy image.  Prog-rock can be angry and sometimes even violent.  Even without vocals!  France’s legendary prog-rock group Magma provided such a stark contrast to other feel-good hippy progressive rock of the time with its bite and militant propulsion that filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky selected them to write music for the bad guy Harkonnens against Pink Floyd’s heroic House Atreides in his unrealized adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune.  It can also be said, with healthy certainty, that King Crimson’s song “Level Five” is still one of the most hardcore, screaming, dark, and ass-kicking-est pieces of Western music to have been conceived of in the last thirty years.

Now what?  Now, Jason Rubenstein.  He may have his own storied history of making music over the years, but “New Metal From Old Boxes” is a break-through – to my ears, anyway.  As I have described it elsewhere, this album is replete with an articulate viciousness.  This is not an over-the-top mad-dash for the loudest, most obnoxious noise – but rather a calculated aural assault with something to say (clearly, with perfect annunciation) before it bashes your head in.

How do you accomplish something like that without appearing silly or contrived?  Well, you have to truly shock the listener – and if you can’t do that with your image, like Marilyn Manson (for a time) or Alice Cooper before him, you have to do it with your sound.  The next issue, then, is how does one achieve that?  With strange, alien noises made from unidentifiable instruments?  It’s been done to death (thanks alot, Mr. Fripp, Mr. Belew.)  To be fair, we all (myself included) love to believe it’s all been done before.  So why did I find this album so shocking?

First, the piano is very prominent.  That, in and of itself, is no innovation – but its application here is really quite striking as it pounds out heavy, simple phrases before splintering off into a million wild, little tangents.  Take, for example, “The Contemplation Of The Cosmologer.”  As an opening track, it establishes some of the ground rules for this new and expansive universe we’ve stepped into.  Hit ‘play’ and right off the bat the drums, guitar, and piano blast a winding, marching pattern that begins to transform slightly over time until an insane segue-way at one minute-three seconds, which launches us into a new space altogether: one with a distant, piercing synth pad hovering like a strange light in the sky.  The song shakes up again, revisiting the earlier groove but expanding it through added unison layers that give it a fiery texture.

The magic is that the backbone of the record is rooted in the use of clean, traditional instruments.  The guitars are not made to sound like deranged space orchestras, the organ and piano inhabiting a mostly “realistic space.”  And, with due respect to King Crimson – there’s no leaning on vocoder for seven minutes.  This is not to say that there are no unconventional sounds on this record, as evidenced by the reverse-bell intro to “Calculation and Walkaway.”  It is to say that the core of each song – the meat of each song – is raw and straightforward.  I would amend that by saying it has a raw clarity, rather than a lack of finesse.  “I know that’s a guitar, that’s a rock organ, that’s a piano, etc.”  There’s no head-pounding overboard compression to make things sound huge – that’s what the arrangement and its dynamics are for.

The musicianship is first-rate, precisely delivering the arrangements with expert confidence.  On this second track, we divide the first minute and forty-seconds between (seemingly) simplistic, vociferous, heavy (almost “metal”) phrase and a separate, compellingly discordant phrase at a quicker pace.  It’s easy to follow along, but challenging in its own way as I try to fill my head with imagery from the song.  It all leads into an extended breakdown gliding on ride cymbals and a low string synth pad following the bass.  The drums pick up pace, and a descending guitar line appears to the right… then a piano follows it to the left.  The song continues to build, smashing through each repetition of the phrase over a double-kick that really gives the song a dizzying, careening – yet oddly controlled – feeling; one that is palpable.

“The Set Up” surprises with it’s jazz piano interruption – keeping you on your toes and refreshing the rising action of the upward melody plodded out by overdriven organ, piano, and guitar.  The repetition in this song is particularly interesting to me, when at one minute and forty-eight there’s an elaborate, extended guitar solo.  Everything else begins to loop, as though trapping this free and wild thing inside of a cage.  This song continues with a pattern I’ve noticed regarding structure: these songs often come full circle and take you back to the beginning.

By track four, I’m wondering if the record is starting to lose steam.  However, midway through “The Blow Off” I realize things were only getting started.  The break at one minute-eighteen and subsequent hand percussion and low piano key has an amazing effect juxtaposed with the start of the song, paving the way for wailing, wounded guitars to weep counter melodies at each other.  We push through into another accelerating, ascending passage that spills out into a different time signature, wailing guitars returned, and a low, dark piano banging out jittery line before exploding into a fantastic, frantic, and utterly impeccable arpeggio.  This is the magic of progress music in general – the amazing and sometimes gorgeous stuff hidden deep within.  This is not low-hanging fruit, but it is the sweetest.

Now, while I’d love to talk about “Unspeakable Highways,” and how it has some of my favorite guitars on the record, awesome jazz piano where you least expect it, and exquisite retro synth solo that absolutely kills – I have to talk about my favorite song on the record, “A Burden Of Secrets.”  This is the longest cut off the album, and it’s fantastic.  It has a cascading, downward opening that resets itself and spills down through an intermingled trickling of guitar and piano, then the filter on an analog synth peaks up above the unison phrase right before a truly unusual, other-worldly sound cuts-in.   It gives the song a breath just prior to diving into a heavy, head-banging episode with a ghostly guitar solo looming overhead.

We track through one section after another, building momentum with each shift.  Then, at two minutes-forty seven, the storms clears and open jazz piano rings gently for a few measures… but it’s not long before the momentum resumes.  The abrupt transition at three minutes-forty six lets loose a dizzying burst of energetic piano that pleasantly reminds me of Mike Garson – and this leads us to my favorite room, elevated by a faint pad that gently lifts the pounding piano alongside the guitar as it takes off.  The song is full of confounding interruptions and bizarre tangents – but it’s all delivered with amazing clarity and timing.  This “montage” approach to musical progression is disjointed and a bit jarring, but also rife with brilliant moments that tie it all together and set this song apart in a big way.  This is a stunning musical experience; full of shock and awe and audible conviction.

“The Snowflake Defines The Weather” starts out with a fairly straight-forward rock beat – and you might mistakenly think this song won’t be near as mind-bending as the last.  In fact, it might be even crazier.  While less fragmented, the progression moves and gestates radically just the same.  The arpeggio at twenty-seven seconds is absolutely insane – individual notes in the sequence fluidly filled-in by – alternately – piano, organ and guitar.  Just… woah.  I had to play it back a few times to absorb the dense, rich sonic information contained in that moment.  Chills up the spine and everything.

“Frankenstein On The Red Line” is a delivery device for some righteous organs – nice and crunchy – but more importantly it serves up a killer minute and twenty-second analog synth solo that is so brilliantly out-of-control that it grinds the song to a halt and explodes into squelchy noise.  I wanted to dislike this song because of the title (for reasons unknown to even me) but that desire was untenable.  This song is truly awesome.

And while I enjoyed “The Steppes of Sighs” parts one and two and “The Barbarian,” it’s a span of the album I’d rather you discover yourself without preconceptions, lest I wring-out every bit of magic through my analysis or heap more redundant praise onto this review.  That being said, “New Metal From Old Boxes” deserves to be mentioned.  It is, I think, my second-favorite track on the album.  Since it is the title track, I look at it as somehow being representative as a statement of the album as a whole: perhaps this is the culmination or the logical extreme of the jagged, angular, dark, textural world we’ve encountered various corners of thus far.

In a way, it’s very different from the other songs – and for all of their similarities, each individual song does manage to bring a new dimension to the record…which is obviously what keeps it interesting.  And yet this song in particular begins with a metallic phase that immediately establishes a new tone, and the dark, low striking of a piano emerges from underneath a low-pass filter, bubbling up to the surface.

The song proceeds to rock, as you might expect it too, but considering it’s the second-longest track on the album this all feels a little more monotone and reserved than “A Burden of Secrets” did.  And I like that, because the record has demonstrated it’s boundless energy and capacity for doom and destruction and even elation – every high and low you could conceive of – it hasn’t quite hit on a balance the way the title track does.  For me, it’s partially assisted by the atmospheric bits and pieces at the beginning, middle, and end of the song – threaded through the fray like evanescent moments of reflection.  Beyond that, it’s this ability to conjure up specific moods using the same basic tools (and few effects or oddities) from song to song that truly surprises – how vastly different this song feels from the others, despite sharing a similar genetic code.

Maybe prog-rock is dead, maybe it isn’t.  Maybe it lives on in the people who seek it out, and those who continue to explore its infinite reaches.  One thing I know for sure is that “New Metal From Old Boxes” stakes-out at new territory despite what it may owe to the past and the pilgrimage made by bands like King Crimson – it is definitely a new beast altogether, with different values and an undeniable vitality.

As a Millennial, I know instinctively that this is music shaped by an earlier generation, owing to a pre-existing (and perhaps fading) mind-set – one that requires the audience to engage the sound and engage it for longer than three and a half minutes.  This isn’t background music (unless you live alone or your co-habitants are as badass as you are) and it isn’t particularly relaxing… or all-that uplifting… but it is incredible nonetheless.  Majestic, really.  Even with the assistance of modern technology, this was a massive and convoluted undertaking that showcases, above all, a hyper-literate musical imagination with soul.  For all of it’s cruel, shadowy math – this album is also incredibly human.  We, as a species, should be proud.

Kairos – Self-titled EP

Balancing on a knife’s-edge between modern pop and nostalgic Pacific coast rock, this EP from Kairos is a strong, adept debut.  From the first song, “Casanova,” and onward – we are treated to catchy hooks expertly woven between synth and guitars, crystalline vocals, and kinetic drum performances.

There’s a smoothness and stride present throughout the record – which harkens back to the methodical, plodded-out proto-pop-rock of Fleetwood Mac, Blondie, and others.  Even so, each song throws you for the occasional loop, dropping a beat here or incorporating retro synth sounds in aggressive, modern ways there.

Part of me feels like if Goldfrapp went further with traditional instruments and started to sing with better diction, she might approach something like this.  Even so, there is a lot of inimitable magic on this record, from “Dirt & Grit” and its momentary swell of low-end guitar(?) to the wailing, soulful backing vocals during the chorus of “Can/Cannot.”  Kairos really owns their sound; it’s tidy and elegant, full of soft, imaginative impulses and a rapturous feeling.

“Casanova” begins with a plain, sluggish drum march and gentle synth delivering a flute-y or reed organ-like solemnity and immediacy.  The bass enters with the vocals – a slight, tasteful chorus effect flattening and widening the sound of the voice in a way that spreads evenly over the mix.  Strumming guitar flanks the lead guitar, mournfully plucking out a calm, affecting melody.  The song builds into a slow-whirling chorus, assisted by a synthesized harpsichord pattern.  I find this song incredibly beautiful – something lovely, warm and human against a cold clockwork backdrop.

Following on the heels of such a romantic song, “Sister” needs to – and indeed, does – give adequate build into its energetic, multi-layered inner-core.  The base synth layer pitches up and down, a sharp snare cracks into place – an abrupt, jumbled drum flourish of some kind sets the kick into motion (not sure how I feel about it, but it’s kind of “fresh,” in a way) – but it doesn’t matter.  My opinion is always true for me.  As the song continues to accumulate its disparate pieces – the neon, chrome-smooth vocals, the start-stop wavering synth playing call-and-response with the guitars – it quickly makes you want to move… or at least bob your head.

Despite not pushing the mix in your face or using much noise at all, songs like “Sister” and “Dirt & Grit” are quite aggressive in their own understated-way.  Kairos makes the best of using insistent beats to drive – and then dive – the song’s overall energy.  They manage to switch the song up in a number of ways that command your attention, succeeding where bands like Curve have sometimes failed.  The flailing guitar towards the end of the song is a healthy sign of raucous verve – an underlying capacity for chaos and anti-cerebral performance that makes the otherwise widespread restraint of the band seem genuine and tactical.

“Cold Habits” follows the fragmented, rising-action approach of “Casanova” and “Sister,” but this is increasingly important because none of Kairos’ music is, on this EP, all that straight-forward.  They have a wily sensibility in their rhythms and melodies, built with familiar-seeming instruments and component sounds.  It’s a strange song, with a jumbled drum beat countering straight-forward guitars – but that’s rather refreshing.  In fact, it’s stuff like this – the calculated and challenging nature of this choice – that makes me like this record as much as I do.

If you ironed out all the personality from the band, you would be left with bland, derivative pop anachronisms.  It is because Kairos turns everything on its head in the small, strategic ways that they are able to create impeccably evolved permutations of ideas planted in the subconscious of the millennial generation by baby boomers and generation X – and define themselves in spite of all that baggage.

Next, “November” leads with a chorus-effected rhythm guitar establishing the vocal melody.  The four-to-the-floor drums give the song sufficient forward-momentum, but the plainness of such an element (no matter how effective) is tastefully off-set by the lagging snare and toms.  The synth pad in the background is non-invasive, providing a lush bedding for the guitars and vocal to fill.  The “insivibility” of the synth and bass is deceptive; beneath the sweeping guitars and rolling drums, they hold a great deal of the song up where it can truly soar.  Perfect road music.

“Can/Cannot” matches – and perhaps exceeds – the consuming melancholy of “Casanova.”  As the closing track, it packs a big punch in its massive, glowing choruses.  A soaring voice rings through expansive reverb under the lead vocal, and it’s one of my favorite little details in this song.  I’m also pleased by the minimal synth lead following the choruses, and in particular how it rings out toward the end.

There’s something slightly whimsical – or, maybe, surreal – about this music.  It somehow evokes raw, human drama and emotion as we truly know it in our daily lives and pits it against something impossibly gorgeous and fantastic.  It is, perhaps, a reflection of that inner-world, looking out upon the mundane outside and imbuing it with color and light.  Maybe it’s all nostalgia – Casio-tone childhoods ruminated half-ironically in a dive bar.  The broken, endearing, utterly tragic legacies left to us by those who came before – subverted, humanized, given advanced and durable meaning.

Kairos’ EP is an excellent collection of off-kilter pop of incredible depth and charm, full of disciplined emotion and brilliant arrangments.  Future repeated listens will yield more secrets and new synapses and continued enjoyment… but the first time you hear it will be magic.

One Sock/Placebo – Hive Plot

It’s been some time since I dropped myself down into the middle of a new environment.  Strange confluences of sounds, floating and thumping and twisting magic.  There are instances when a piece of music has the effect of walking into an impossible room, where fantastic things are possible.  More convincing than any film or video game, music – left to its own devices – can submerge us in vast, spectacular beauty.  Hive Plot demonstrates just as much.

Let’s back up.  By “environments,” I’m not necessarily referring to “ambient” or “atmospheric” music.  Pop music can create lush sonic landscapes, like Peter Gabriel’s Up did.  And while I can jam to Pete Namlook all day, eventually I prefer something with more propulsion: Orbital, for instance.  For me, Orbital’s Insides was a life-changing, perspective-shifting discovery.

Orbital’s previous and subsequent albums are each wonderful and distinct in their own right, but none have maintained quite the same hold on me; Insides was special.  Ever since my first listen as a younger man, I’ve been wondering why.  I think it’s because of the particular aesthetic they played with in that singular instant in their discography – a fluid merging of synthetic and real-world sounds, with an effect both cinematic and deeply visceral.

Insides was full of mystery and exotic newness in way that I found comparable to Dogon’s The Sirius Expedition, The Future Sounds of London’s Dead Cities, and this record: One Sock/Placebo’s Hive Plot.  While the sonic similarities are greatly outnumbered by the dissimilarities, Hive Plot’s capacity for luscious, alien gorgeousness (anchored to its own odd and unique human-generated character) makes it worthy of the comparison to Insides.  They are, from top-to-bottom, different records with entirely differing sonic messages – they just happen to be in a very special class of record together.

The album begins with an old record spinning.  A music box gently hammers out a melody, modulated by the introduction of a synth pattern.  The pattern begins to pick up steam, gliding a smooth rush into booming kick drums.  Spurning the trappings of trap music, or the pedantic step-by-step of dub step, “Adcazer” gets big and beautiful without “dropping the beat.”  There’s no freak-out; that’s not the intended energy of the song.  It’s an introduction: a cool morning breeze through the window, bottles clinking against one another as they hang in a chime.  And then, as you look out the window, your heart begins to swell and pound at the astonishing view of an ancient, golden city and all the life that it contains.

“Associationville” switches gears abruptly – but One Sock/Placebo immediately demonstrate their ability show you – and hook you on – something new and immediately engulfing without skipping a beat.  The song begins with a rather conventional, modern EDM sonic premise: massive, thudding kick – answered by glass-crush distorted claps – atop some foreboding synth pad – fractured by hype-inducing samples of god-knows-what, including a lovely – albeit an extremely dated – synth arpeggio cascading downward.  Random, but cool – it fine-tunes the mood just so.  The next moment, you can feel that undulating dub step-y bass work its way in before you even hear it.  You just know it’s coming.

But what happens directly after is actually quite compelling: a skittering, filter gate chops up a ghostly synth pad as it soars overhead like a massive storm cloud, casting a heavy darkness over the continuing beat… and then everything slowly subsides into a reflective, low-tone organ.  A bass note lets out a single, wobbly descent.  Temperate melodic loops supplant the trudging kick and clap at the start of the song.  A simple, insistent and gentle kick thump – joined by an equally placid bass loop – propels us along down the next corridor of the song.  It’s magical.

Just as a rainstorm leaves a dripping calm in its wake: the world has changed.  For those few, sun-kissed moments in the newly rain-soaked world… everything sparkles.  Gamelan and island bells drift left and right, a distant metal grinder screams from the next block down.  The beat picks up again, those crunchy claps no longer so fearsome.  The song ends on a slow fade, with delicate “synth choir” stabs lining the exit.  A truly wonderful experience of a song.

“Chasing in cars” follows directly after, a gradual building of layers that eventually explodes with orgiastic polyrhythms in the shape of a song.  Plucked strings, bells – an almost hyper-naturalism.  I see the time-lapse footage of a flower; the germination of a seed, the piercing of the earth, the wild and twisting dance toward the sky, the sprouting of the extremities, the blossoming explosion, pollen whisked away on the fine hairs of a bee’s leg, and the flower fades.

The introduction of actual, human female vocals is a welcome change to the established sound palette of the record, but it’s used sparingly with a great deal of imagination.  The voice wavers and floats into view, emerging from darkness.  Indistinct utterances, pieces of a muted melody.  Increasingly, her voice is scattered this way and that, intermittent echoes that last half a second.  You hardly notice as the song begins to incorporate clicks and rolling, stuttering kicks.  Before you know it, the song begins to disintegrate, layer by layer.

“Scx” creeps out from underneath a heavy low-pass filter into full, clockwork splendor – pitting disjointed loops against one another over heavy stop-and-go drums.  And then, like a massive wind-up toy, it begins to slow and fade. To its conclusion.

“Gutted” is somehow approachable in a conventional way, but also discombobulating with its windy bass lines and tricky, deceptive drumbeat.  I think the sounds are mostly straight-forward, which is disarming for the listener after an exotic assault like “Scx,” but the constant switching-up of established patterns is where One Sock/Placebo have fun with the listener.  At each stage in the game, Hive Plot undermines expectations, subverts convention, and retains beauty and musical dignity all the while.  Even the gradual, resonant sweep of noise during this song is pleasing and exciting – a simple element adding a real sense of velocity to the song.

On the heels of such minimal experiments in polyrhythm, “Subconcious Waffles” brings back some of the fleshy, silken, raw textures employed earlier in the record, with mallet instruments colliding side-to-side, looped backwards, spread evenly over strong, upbeat drums.  This song is somewhat reminiscent of some of Jega’s work, in that certain songs really explore all sides to one kind of sound through a number of prismatic perspectives – in this case, a soft mallet-struck bell tone – only merely assisted by the hints of sitar or subtle synth patterns that are sprinkled here and there.  The meat of the melody is devoted to one tone; one tone drives the song forward over the rumbles, thumps, and taps.

The seventh track, “Naurra / The Dream Interlocution,” begins with a gorgeous amalgamation of synth pads and textures, some shimmering crystalline and others distorted and rough-edged.  The ongoing motif of bells is present here, holding up the melody while the bass-line descends.  Echoing, shifting fragments of drums scatter across the stereo field, broken and fluttering against a black sky.  Noise and texture play an important role in the arch of the song, pushing the intensity along with the intermittent use of fractured ride cymbals and the unstable drum pattern (popping massively under the enormous weight of the compression used.

Hive Plot ends with “Iasoka,” which begins in a way that makes me think of what the Geinoh Yamashiro Gumi might do with a Korg Electribe.  The sound evolves, of course, expanding beyond its modest beginning and widening with a ping here, an echoing “thing” there.  Then drops the beat – quite the way you might expect.  Its as if the record was waiting this entire time to deploy that faux-dub step move, a sudden peak in energy emptying out onto a sluggish, anvil-smashing beat.  The rolling loops and emerging patterns sweeten the deal, but I’m almost disappointed.  I sort of wanted the record to go completely sideways and hand my one more confounding mystery before the end.  Instead we have a seemingly familiar – and decidedly safe-sounding – conclusion.

While some artists claim to work under the auspices of magic, Hive Plot manages to bring that magic to show-and-tell.  Granted, you have to pay attention to what the music is doing, otherwise tracks like “Associantville” can appear to bombard you and then abruptly abandon its bombardment in a strange, back-door way that seems strange and dishonest.  Follow the interplay of disparate rhythms, the power of sheer noise to drive a song’s energy and sometimes color its melody – this record is a learning machine, built from components both future and past to inform the present time-traveller as to the true nature and beauty of this universe we call sound.

Jupe Jupe – Crooked Kisses

On the surface, Jupe Jupe’s Crooked Kisses feels very familiar.  Broken down into its individual elements, songs like “Pieces of You” draws from sounds pioneered, re-hashed, or otherwise reminiscent of Franz Ferdinand, The Cure, and others in that vein.  The vocals, however, don’t sound as though they’re trying to affect Robert Smith, Dave Gahan, or David Bowie – not specifically.  The vocals have their own unique, understated personality.  They breathe out solid spans of simple melody, encouraging the both the frenetic energy of the guitars and drums – and the gradual, looming flow of a synth pad.

“Never Ask Why” begins with a pleasant distorted synth pattern ringing out through a light reverb and to one side of a plucked guitar.  The production has a clean, open feel – every instrument perfectly defined.  The sound is not, however, injected with the meaty, neon massiveness of The Crying Spell.  From an arrangement standpoint, this makes sense.  As the song progresses, you hear a recurring string-machine melody – very retro, indeed – gliding gently over the raucous start-and-stop rhythm of the song.  This record teeters between the soft touch and a hard brilliance from beginning to end.

The third track, “Love to Watch You Fall,” also begins with a minimal synth sequence – foreshadowing a future melody.  However, almost immediately you get a far less stern vibe from this song with its straight-rock beat and sixteenth note synth patterns.  From there it heads into a strange and perhaps tongue-in-cheek pre-chorus sung with monotone aloofness.  The chorus is even more colorful, with a playful, popping synth following the vocal melody.  It wasn’t so catchy on the first listen, but the song ultimately grew on me.  As we progress closer to the end, the addition of a squelchy synth to the left and double-time hi-hats gives the outro the perfect boost.

“Whispers Kill” starts off with what at first seems the perfect lead-in to a hard-hitting electro-dance-rock track… but the song is nothing of the sort.  A panning synth shifts from center to right, delivering an insistent low-note over a ghostly, distant shadow of a synth pad.  The drums cut in along with a low guitar, setting the stage for a “late-50’s-early-60’s-esque” pop aesthetic – replete with (synth) chimes, mellotronish flute and strings, and straight, no-frills guitar playing lock-step to the drums.  They are recreating something of that “American Graffiti” feeling here, by way of David Lynch and a little John Barry.  The tremolo guitar is the perfect addition, cementing a very carefully thought-out mood.  It’s strange and satisfying at the same time, and when the chorus arrives you really get the total vibe of groovy, Soviet-era romanticism; a love song between spies.  It’s playful, imaginative, and impeccably arranged.

By the fifth track, it’s clear that each song is a different entity, and not given over to a single formula or template.  Hit-or-miss, each track has a unique identity that rarely tips its hat towards the others.  “All The Things We Made” is articulate and dynamic, building from low verses to a marching, illuminated chorus.  Here and there I detect what I think is a timpani or large tom, thundering beneath the outro of the song.  It’s a wonderfully effective addition to the sound, giving the song a slightly cinematic feel.  Without getting insanely loud, the band manages to create the sensation of an intense swell before leaving on a warbly, over-driven note.

“Autumn October,” lush and dreamy, feels like a salve after the hidden darkness of the previous track.  This song, as with all of the songs, represents a specific relationship between quiet and loud; they all play with sonic density in a particular way.  As I listen through the album, the mix and mastering impresses me more and more.  I feel like my ears aren’t being inundated with noise in order to get across “toughness” or “intensity.”  All of that work is done in the arrangement.  There’s an aesthetic fidelity to the mix that allows the music to naturally form its own rising and falling action.

Returning to the post-punk dance floor, “Vicariously” is driving, leaning on a strained guitar line that steps down and back up – very minimal, reminding me of the Pixies for some reason.  The chorus is all 80’s synth pop, though, throwing-in claps and massive, synths.  The synth work, overall, is spectacular.  All of the synth parts standout on the record, holding up entire sonic ideas on their own and not merely complimenting the guitars.  This song in particular is one of the most energetic tracks on Crooked Kisses, and it’s placed at the right point on the album just before “Darkness.”

The eighth track divides its time between a David Bowie-type verse and disco-rock chorus that seems to split the difference between The Killers and Franz Ferdinand.  Although not my favorite song, there’s an undeniable, dance-inducing quality to it.  This song grows on me with repeated listens, and it may at some point become my favorite.  For now, though, I feel that this is the first instance where we aren’t exploring anything new on the record.  I have a feeling that when I return to this record in a few months time, I’ll be hearing it in an entirely different way – a testament to Crooked Kisses’ rich sonic fabric.

“Hollow” begins with a toy-like atmosphere – driven by the choice in synth patches and the bouncy drums.  Even so, the song empties out onto a gentle beach, vocals echoing over the horizon.  As though rolling on waves, we rise up into the chorus with its marching insistence.  I don’t know why I get this seafaring imagery from the song, but it does evoke that sensation of cruising over blue water, the sun glinting off waves in the distance.  The song is very catchy, and by the end I was humming along to the melody.  There’s something plain and honest about it, and enjoyable in that way.

The album ends with “New Stars in the Sky,” a song caught between the slow, moody vocals and the insistent sixteenth-note pattern.  There’s a little funk in there, England in the late-70’s.  The song is gloomy and sexy; something James Bond might have on his iPod.  It’s definitely one of my favorites, full of stylized heartbreak and classic cool.  It’s also a great song to end the record with, showing something a little different before departing.  “New Stars in the Sky” made me want to listen to the album over again.

Crooked Kisses is a mostly sleek and colorful record, full of surprises and variation.  I feel as though there are plenty of bands that tread the same territory, but few with the same imagination and personality.  The vocals never go wild with emotion, but they are not robotic and lifeless, either.  As a band, Jupe Jupe have created a lovely, sometimes dark, and open sound that stayed with me and didn’t wear out my ears.  No complaints here.