CHARMS – Human Error

Human Error is the new album from CHARMS – a towering inferno of 10 bristling-hot songs deep in the pitch-black vein of darkest rock.  Full of torn, jagged textures, seering drones, and glorious, glorious noise – this is a guided tour of hell.  Right off the bat, there’s a lot of lovely sonic torture going on – beginning with “C.O.D.,” which erupts from a flatlining guitar thrum into a propulsive, crushed drum lead-in.  This in turn collides with the main thrust of the song – a thrashing, primal scream in the darkness, before dropping lower into a verse.  The voice – indie-rock incantations at the alter of horror.  It builds in desperation and terror as the song closes in on the end, the band lifting up this powerful voodoo to its double hit conclusion.

CHARMS’ new record represents a dramatic evolution from what they were up to a few years ago.  Human Error is dark, heavy – brimming with winding progressive passages, supernatural textures, earnestly hair-raising moments, and freaky dissonance.  Oh, and energy – copious amounts of dark energy.  It doesn’t just scorch; it shimmers.  In a way this violent mutation reminds me of The Flaming Lips’ Embryonic – with its in-your-face, crunched, and decidedly more ferocious tack.  Human Error, on the other hand, isn’t playing cute in the shadows; this is not a picnic in the graveyard.  This is The Rite of Spring for the 21st century.

“Sirens” is an excellent example of this – leading off with a surf-zombie tumultuousness.  The rising synth appears out from under the vocals, seemingly from the ether.  The song empties into a new chasm, an arch of voices in harmony rising just above the yawning mouth of oblivion.  We land back on our feet for precious moments, until “We don’t care if it’s the same siren” dumps us into a deranged waltz.  This isn’t at all meandering – there’s a subversive logic underpinning it all, like the grand scheme of some omnipresent villain.  Rather, it’s incredibly mesmerizing.  Even if the words are lost on you, you won’t be able to deny the band’s ability to tell a story through arrangement and performance alone.

The bleed from “Sirens” into “Kill Data” drives this continuous – perhaps even “conceptual” – aspect of the album.  “Kill Data” breathes new life into the pacing of the record, with greater attention to high-contrast dynamics, dunking down into a swinging, plinky synth pattern that belies the sprawling hellscape that lies ahead.  Even there, in the darkness, there is still so much “color” and “vibe” to explore.  While this album may be bent on conjuring demons, it doesn’t detract from the band’s ability to weave illustrious frameworks for their songs – beautiful megastructures that are then set alight like a funeral pyre for the world.  

“Coco Flash” rises from the grave in a slow pitch-bend upward, revealing itself in bursts as a synthesizer and not, in actual fact, the call of Cthulhu.  The reason why this warlock rock hasn’t lost its steam 4 songs deep into the album is because it continues to surprise in little moments along the way.  Oftentimes I felt lost in the mazes the band laid out, but always morbidly fascinated with where I was at any given time, especially “Coco Flash”s squelchy, gloomy clearing from 2 minute 15 second until 3 minutes 48.  The variety present on this record is immense, but rather than depicting a band not sure of where to go, it feels like they know precisely where to go – and more importantly, when to go there.  The start/stop chant pulls to a power-drained halt, the perfect segue to “Gold Statue.”

Throughout the album, the drums have this rolling momentum, trudging through rigid marches into iron-fisted thrashes like a machine that knows someone is trying to drown it.  It pulls us into the lair of “Gold Statue” with might, set against a blank canvas eventually imbued by a Dead Rider-like push-and-pull in the rhythm between each instrument as they begin to stack, smeared across guitar work slightly reminiscent of Mirrors-era BATTLES.  However, the band also knows when to simplify – when to hold back and drop the feeling down.  It is, from one end to the next, an overwhelming record.  And then moments like 1 minute 40 seconds to 3 minutes 10 – this lovely clarity presents itself in a woeful, descending synth line – a shady respite from the burning sky.  This too shall pass.

“Only Is Gone” is like the nightmare chase scene of the album, with it’s urgent energy-builds and insistent beat – whereas “Dream Fever” is a massacre in a small, closed room; running into walls and getting blood everywhere.  “Ana Ko” doesn’t feel like we’re getting any closer to the devil at the heart of this thing, but it is easy to bob your head along to than most of the other tracks.  In that way, it’s a welcome break from what is fast-becoming routine evil – it’s windiness is circular, pointing us back to familiar moments within the song in a way that is, in this context, more approachable.  The synth collapse at the end is superb.  “Separator” has considerably more punk in its blood, dragging angels into the mosh pit.  Throughout the record, the sometimes subtle and sometimes overt uses of synthesizers really drive home the occult feeling of the record – they are incredibly tasteful, challenging, unnatural, and perfectly situated in the mix at any given time.

“Telesnow” closes Human Error in a somewhat predictable way – calmer, cooler, more atmospheric and less driven outright.  Black sludge leaking through the walls; the howling of wind down an empty, filthy corridor; the thunderous clanging of an approaching abomination.  Surely, we are at the center of the pentagram now.  The guitars have a hollow heaviness, both weighing them down and sending them crashing against the wall.  Cut-off filters drag the synth in and out like a red tide.  The voice banishes the stars.  The hum of untethered guitar travels, lonely, across the wilderness.  It climbs steadily toward the peak, just in time to watch the sun die.

Human Error is a Lemarchand’s box of an album.  Gorgeous, intricate, mysterious, enthralling, and – at its core – deeply disturbing, perhaps even horrifying.  And in that way, quite enjoyable.  Whether that combination gives you the warm-and-fuzzies or shivers, the masterfulness with which this record was written, performed, and produced is incontrovertible.  It is a singular listening experience, rooted in a dark dimension with its own set of cruel elements.  It delivers emotion, intelligence, and terror with some hyper-competent rock ’n’ roll.  Short of being produced by Satan, this album could not have been a better ride into sweet, sweet damnation.  Fantastic.

New Politicians – Room 101

Room 101, more so than New Politicians’ other releases I’ve reviewed, seems far more shameless about how it exploits our pining for yesteryear – the guitars of “Disarmer” and “Newspeak” point straight at The Cure like the accusatory finger of a zealot.  The title track – with it’s mournful chord progression and heart-broken lullaby waltz – has ripped its essence and vibe from Muse at their lowest volume or Radiohead at their most wistful and lovesick.

Let me be clear: New Politicians are master songwriters; the presentational quality of their music on record is superb; and they can create a compelling arch – from song-to-song and overall – in the span of a 5-track EP.  Don’t mistake my targeting of their musical references and homages – and desire for belonging –  as being critical in the strictly “negative” sense – I just feel the need to be aware of it, and to share that awareness in my review.  It does eat into where they might score on originality, but not in a self-crippling way.

I fought myself over this review.  I wanted – perhaps needed – a shock to my system.  I needed a reason to come back and put pen to paper.  This record wasn’t what I was expecting, in that sense.  It did nothing to disband the sense of urgency I felt about examining a new record and exploring every skin cell and follicle. It did not satisfy my craving to immerse myself in a sonic environment I could spend years unraveling.  I learned to love this record on its own merits, not those I was searching for.

The problem is that Room 101, from beginning to end, is a deeply pleasant listening experience – not a visceral one.  Marginally sharper, more matured ideas flowing out from an increasingly capable band, fast becoming veterans in their own right.  The problem is that New Politicians demonstrate a reassuring and consistent competency in each facet of their music – lyrics, production, “moments” – they are not short of ear-worming hooks, either.  But there is no audible risk of failure.

At the time of this review, I have listened through Room 101 ten times – including a few times in my car.  I study the now-foreign streets of Seattle in the ripening end of Spring with suspicion and smugness.  Even in my crankiness, it’s a fantastic record for the road.  It rolls with you, not over you.  The harmonies are a joy to follow, especially the vocal layering on “Darkhorse.” The cynical, winding, Placebo-esque lyrical flow of “Pyromantic” situated against an appropriately heavy arrangement.

Beyond the faithful word-smithing of the record, the vocal delivery is similarly confident and familiar.  “Room 101” begins to take on a drunken, seasick chant that unravels the song with its profane refrain – welcome edginess.

Musically, everything is frustratingly as it should be: the drums sound exactly right – open, bright, and airy.  Even the filtered drum intro that emerges from the tuning of a radio dial at the head of “Newspeak” is impeccable in it’s quality, character, and sonic footprint.

The lead guitars, with an emphasis on their flawless, neon color and presence (for the first three songs) lend little to texture, saving that level of nuance for the processed lead vocal.  “Pyromantic” is a notable exception, placing the guitar work inside of a larger environment and at a greater distance, with a more distinct chance of a noise-wash threatening the melodic substance of the guitar’s sound in an exciting way.

“Room 101” itself requires the solemn acoustic guitar strum and clean, descending lead.  Everything, including the reverse guitars threading in and out of the bridges, is right where it ought to be.  Throughout, Room 101’s bass guitar holds down with a firm grip of timing and support – only getting a little extra room to shine in “Pyromantic.”

I hate guessing at the messages behind songs or the broader statements behind entire records – but the general sense I get is that lyrically – and in a backward sort of way, musically – Room 101 as a record intends to invoke a near-post-apocalyptic, melancholic reflectiveness on personal and societal carnage and decay.  Without reading too far into the lyrics, I glean particles of indignation, despair, isolation, and a touch of paranoia.  Surely, a sober reflection on this time in American history without the sickly, sticky-sweet mess of any overt politics.  A sanitary gloom.

Room 101 is as much a feeling as it is a record – strapped down tightly in some ways and freed up in others.  It’s a new record, to be sure, but not wildly dissimilar from New Politicians’ previous work.  Even so, I certainly find myself enjoying this record the more I listen to it, perhaps more than the others I’ve heard from them.  They remain largely unchanged in those most critical of ways… making for a lovely record, even if few risks were taken.

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.