Light Veins – Wasteland

“Wasteland.”  The word itself evokes a specific set of images, and beyond that – a feeling.  When I think of that word, I think of vast emptiness.  I imagine a world, dry and lifeless, slowly crumbling in a fine chalk under the relentless sun.  The sound of such a world ought to echo across barren horizons; it ought to illustrate the forlorn and hopeless dimensions of a place devoid of human life, or devoid of humanity.

Light Veins, from Australia, achieves this feeling and portrays it with patient conviction.  Slow, rumbling ambient passages fill the sky as guitar and drums plot out a course through Wasteland.  In parts, the EP is menacingly quiet as though plotting to erupt.  And while the “emptiness” and “darkness” of it all sounds discouraging or pointless, Light Veins’ portrayal of these feelings is compelling and, oddly, satisfying.

The EP opens with “Prologue” mid guitar tone, as though interrupting a pre-existing train of thought.  It is as though this place had been here long before the listener arrived, waiting for eons.  Even within the short span of the song, there’s a progression from the lowly, reflective bass and guitar into a strange, gnarled metallic swell.

It immediately sends us out into the low, rumbling wind of a charred plateau – the title track, “Wasteland.”  The sky is red, fragmented by a black lacework of clouds.  The ground is hard, hot underneath our feet.  The sun is a distant white circle, muted and obscured, subjugating all below with its repressive heat.  A sudden flash of rock metal drums, chugging with verve alongside the guitar, comes and goes.  The rest of the song finds a more tenable pace, feet slowly climbing over jagged ridges and down into crumbling ravines.

When you pass through the droning ambience of the EP to the heart of each song, there is a passing-resemblance to other post-rock.  But Light Veins is far darker than Mogwai, more selective and restrained in its sonic palette.  This is a welcome restraint.  With recorded music, the possibilities are endless, and Light Veins’ ability to commit to a sound, or a feeling, or the elaborate construction of an environment is not compromised by a misled desire to incorporate lots of variety.  Some records are, in my estimation, supposed to be complete listening experiences, and Wasteland is one of them.

That being said: it’s not all gloomy, sluggish soundscapes and morose tinkering.  Some of the sounds are thought-provoking, like the dial-up connection sample at the end of “Absence.”  On the heels of “Wasteland,” “Absence” might be a little too slow for it’s placement on the EP, but it is still quite beautiful in its own understated way and a worthy stretch of the overall journey.

“Absence” feels like wandering through a deserted city at dusk.  Shadows fall across unpopulated plazas.  Wind pushes great clouds of dust down the funnel of an alleyway.  We come across a building and step inside.  In the corner of the room there sits a computer terminal, covered in the dust of an age.  But the damn thing is still on, the screen asleep.  We disturb it, and it tries to make a network connection.  It’s all for naught; there’s nothing out there left to connect to.

However, our stop-off in the dead city wasn’t fruitless.  Armed with foresight, like a long-range “Looking Glass,” we can see ahead, out past the city, where our journey continues.  The song rocks: it drives you, forging ahead with powerful, rolling drums.  Guitars erupt with fire, blistering and hard-edged.  The pinched guitar tone at two minutes-twenty three second is an excellent and subtle way to change things up before diving right back into the wild, thrashing of the song’s battle-scene climax.  These kinds of details in the production, the care and inventiveness with which they were authored, is the underlying magic of the EP.

“Epilogue,” though predominantly a drone besieged by the sound of pouring rain, is lovely and refreshing.  We’ve exited the Wasteland; we’ve left the mid-day darkness of an unforgiving hellscape – in all of it’s panoramic glory – for the benevolent calm and spiritual salve of cool, insistent rain.  And for the first time, a piano is introduced to the palette of sounds.  It plays a simple, delicate sequence of notes underneath a spoken-word sample of a man pontificating on the essence of virtue, taking a direct cue from the Tao Te Ching on “higher” and “lower” forms of virtue.  Real virtue is staying alive.

The Tao Te Ching also says something I found appropriate in the consideration of this record and my personal experience of it: “Tao is an empty vessel; yet its use is inexhaustible.”  This conundrum is precisely why I like Light Veins’ Wasteland: it was just a series of recordings that were smartly written enough to accommodate the listener’s own imagination.  The openness of the record, fenced in only once or twice by defiant samples with no specific context, is exciting – not boring.  I could have written out a hundred or more different experiences from this record, for its use is truly inexhaustible.

Despite the flat, overly compressed drum mixing and compression, this record sounds very good.  The guitars take on a number of tones and characterizations.  Noise samples and loops are used sparingly, tastefully.  Each composition has its own soul – its own ingrained human weight and truth.  Wasteland is dark and wondrous – both crushing and uplifting – and no matter what sort of journey you seek inside of it, you’ll want to revisit it again and again.

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Western Haunts – Western Haunts

Having seen Western Haunts perform live in the cavernous space of the Vera Project, I can personally attest to the authenticity of Western Haunt’s sound – its vastness, its emotion, and its sheer sonic power have been translated in the recording with amazing fidelity.  From the first song, “The Green Room,” the listener is led along a shimmering, electric, tree-canopied river towards a distant virtual mountain vista.

A descending vocal loops in repeat, washing over itself, descending into the rich, floating environment behind the rolling drums and into a soft explosion of guitars, bass and synth.  The sound triumphantly conveys the listener across the threshold into the first appearance of the vocals at two minutes-fifty one seconds.  The burst of an upward piano arpeggio – countered by descending chords – is ripe with beauty and vitality.  But there’s no time to stay longer.

We plummet immediately into “Magazines.”  An annex leads us into a long tunnel system; a forlorn and derelict megastructure of immense scale.  Magic, spritely particles of light follow, swirling around our heads.  At one minute-thirty five, a low, subtle descending chorale synth provides the right amount of the mysterious amid the fantastic.  The overall sound is captivating; it washes over you with its equal parts of familiarity and strangeness, swelling with richly textured beauty and strain.

Ghostly backing vocals chase the pleasant, youthful-sounding lead singer.  Like the young apprentice hero of a Joseph Campbell-brand myth – this lonesome voice echoes it’s frail, gentle humanity throughout the massive, unrelenting musical environs this record is comprised of.  The guitars are arrangement slaves, nothing showy or obscene.  These are arrangements, not a series of ridiculous compromises between egomaniacal session players.  The drums are spare and open, reliable and strong – a modest vampire feeding off the emotional energy of the band – but only taking what he needs and giving more in return.  The bass competently holds down the primary melodic posturing of a given arrangement: upright (figuratively), honest, and clean.

The production itself isn’t so complicated: steady, mature arrangements, clean recording, meticulous mixing, choice reverbs and compression effects.  However, it comes down to which reverbs and where, the precise brilliance of the guitar tone, the preservation of the bass guitar, and stereo positioning of each drum element.  The specificity with which these things were done is exactly why this record excites the imagination and has the effect of firing on all cylinders, even when it takes a chance.

“Come Around” draws more from the alt-country heritage of the band, until it blindsides you with a throwback surfer chorus – which somehow totally works.  It’s assertiveness marks a departure from the placid, smooth nature of the first two songs.  The feeling of the song I can only describe as walking along a beach in the blistering heat of the late afternoon.  The sun fries everything; it bleaches stone and bakes the sand.  Sweat dries to your face as fine salt when the wind passes over the water and inland.  Flawless blue skies above, and yet everything has a golden suggestion to it, like a memory.

“When The Lights Dull” goes even further away from the start of the record with it’s near-somnambulant quality.  The synth work on this record is understated, but the opening sound here is pertinent to the establishment of the song’s mood.  It starts to take shape slowly, but not near as gradually as “The Green Room.”  Within the first minute, a tambourine shakes out a rhythm over harmonized vocal stabs and crashing cymbals, bearing the phrase “The lights… dull.”  It is quite effective and expertly executed – and most importantly, it sounds awesome.  The guitar interlude at three minutes-thirteen is again basic, but exceedingly complementary.  Also, that’s an outro to kill for.

“Novocaine” might be the most challenging song on the record, with an odd, broken melody coupled with start and stop passages.  And while I may not be able to pinpoint its feeling or that place in my mind where I can picture it, the song doesn’t suffer for lack of performance or imagination.  “A Memo” follows, a minute-long segue of reverb-soaked tunnel noise which morphs into a blaring, unsettling cacophony.

“Sirens Den” is a standout track, with a pseudo-reggae vibe buried deep inside the chest of Western Haunt’s other borrowed genres.  It has a classic rock feel to it, bringing Pink Floyd and The Wailers to mind in near-equal measure between the distant, shimmering organ and the backing harmonized vocals.  I love the vocals on this record.  I just do.  The mix, compression, microphone, preamp, and voice itself: they all combined to create a unique identity for the lead vocals, but they also impeccably incorporate backing vocals in a tasteful way.

“TV Glow” introduces a little more hand percussion into vibed-out surf rock – which, I suppose, always leaned on certain western music elements (specifically, mega-spacey guitars.)  The vocal melody has a slightly “spiritual” sensibility, as though indirectly descended from blues and gospel.  Sprinklings of synthesizer help maintain a fantastical element to the music, and that sort of approach kind of reminds me of Fleetwood Mac to a degree.

“It’s Not Enough” ends the record on a lighter, sweeter note.  Listening to it, I realized that when I describe a record as cavernous, that could be taken to mean that it is empty somehow.  I don’t mean that in this instance at all.  All of these songs are “big,” or have some element of major a major scope incorporated into it – but that space is filled with intricate writing and finely-honed performances.  This is the Venus of records: a world so inundated with atmosphere that the surface of the planet remains enshrouded in exquisite mystery.

It might take nothing to compare Western Haunts and their self-titled record to certain aspects of Death Cab for Cutie, Wilco, AaRON, Pink Floyd, or other more recent dream-pop/alt-country/shoegaze/post-rock… but no one sounds quite like this.  Not exactly.  And that counts for something.  In order to distinguish themselves, Western Haunts took risks with – and ownership over –  their sound.  Nothing appears phoned-in or thoughtlessly stamped on the record.  It truly sounds like a group of unique individuals, all of them very talented, who then elected to trust each other in order to make a more perfect whole.  What they created, perfect or not, is an inspiring, jaw-dropping listening experience.

VibraGun – Vibragun

Shoegaze has, too often, collided with other subgenres of what is ostensibly rock in order to truly differentiate itself as a unique genre.  When people my age hear the term, we immediately think back to The Jesus and Mary Chain or My Bloody Valentine.  When a modern band (one that didn’t originate from 1980’s England) lays claim to the genre, they usually don’t know that whether they recognize it or not, the genre is dead.  No one refers to Mogwai as shoegaze, nor Explosions in the Sky, for that matter.  The reason is simple: those bands inhabit a current and vital genre of music called post-rock, the genealogy of which is easily traced back to shoegaze — but they are two separate things.

Does it matter?  To me, yes: it does matter.  I have a visceral reaction to bands whom opt to model themselves and their aesthetic after a dead era: a time and place that has long-since passed.  It feels disingenuous and conceited; from the outside it appears to others as an inside joke, given over fully to it’s smug sense of irony.  Just because a handful of people can’t think of anything better to listen to than old MBV and Cocteau Twins records doesn’t give them any right to “revive” or reinvent those sounds of yesteryear and wink while asking the audience to indulge in a nostalgic circle-jerk.  And to be clear, there is almost no part of me that considers Dinosaur Jr. to be shoegaze, despite historical record or prevailing opinion.

So, I’ve painted a pretty bleak picture here regarding my feelings about shoegaze and bands that want to be shoegaze, specifically.  The question, then, is how well VibraGun (self-identified as shoegaze) and their self-titled album fare given the circumstances?  In a word: “convincingly.”  Because while VibraGun is a 21st century band from Seattle and not a thirty year-old, tragically fashionable outfit from England’s underground – they have still managed to harken back to the sounds and feelings shoegazers will find familiar and they also bring in plenty of new energy and ideas that show you just as much of the future as they do the past.

Shoegaze, in my mind, is marked by a number of important elements.  Typically, the melodic content of the song trumps the rhythm.  Drums often times sound small, nestled within vast swathes of velvety guitar and synth (in particular, considering the MBV sound.)  That’s not exactly the case on Vibragun.  The drums are plenty big, and the mix between guitars, synth, vocals, and bass never cower in the face of or overwhelm the drums.  That is, in my estimation, a more modern approach to mixing – the search for balance and harmony, as opposed to surrendering to the strongest elements of the mix completely.  MBV’s Loveless, for example, sounds as though the drummer had not been invited to sit in on the mix sessions.  Teeny, tiny drums (if any) swallowed up by a massive, undulating wall of sound: that, to me, is the essence of shoegaze rock.

I can’t get anywhere in my thinking if I continue to refer to this band as being shoegaze.  I suppose if they actually stare at their feet during performances I might go along with it, but for now I can’t.  I have to judge my enjoyment of this record independent of its genre.  And honestly, I thoroughly enjoy this record.  It evokes soft comparisons to Seattle’s Ticktockman and Ilan Rubin’s The New Regime, especially during “Send Me to Dream,” the album’s opening track.  The song has a driving, humming quality – full of color and light and hidden pieces of magic.  The grunge-like bridges of “Oh yeah” nicely break-up the insistence of the song.

I’m a fan of the distinct and healthy tone of the bass guitar, as deep as it is biting.  On “Supernova Comedown” you can hear the bass sitting calmly at the center of a storm comprised of bright, distant guitars.  The mix, with the exception of the airy, flat snares in “Dream Disintegrate,” is absolutely lovely.  Though it lacks the immediacy of modern pop rock, it excels in exploring the soft, dreamy sonic territory staked out by the band’s instruments and arrangements.  Vibragun benefits from a strong, decisive, and competent production – from mixing to mastering.

The vocals are also pleasant to hear.  Both male and female vocals (whether in harmony together or solo) convey a gentle, lush quality.  I was reminded a little of early Foo Fighters and a younger, more sensitive Dave Grohl.  But whereas Grohl needed to push his vocals to grab ahold of pop audiences used to hearing mostly the vocal melody in any given mix, VibraGun can take it easy.  This band allows it’s vocals to soak into the sonic juice of this record and become a part of a larger feeling.  That, in my estimation, is shoegaze.

“All The Cool Kids” sounds closer to the MBV paradigm of shoegaze rock than any other song on the record, if MBV fed their drummer a modest amount of cocaine and let him/her sit in on the final drum mix once their head was clear again.  Vibragun’s drums are too beastly to subdue; too precisely executed to gloss over entirely.  The moaning harmony of the vocals are especially reminiscent of Loveless, warm and muted and perfectly situated in the mix.  Another good sign: while I love synthesizers, I’ve yet to be able to identify their presence on this record with complete certainty – another hallmark trait of shoegaze.  Remove those synths, however, and I’m sure more than just a few songs start to fall apart, or at least fail to meet their full sonic potential.  It’s hard to recognize the important and the invisible until you remove them.

“Get Away” is more closely-aligned with the Cocteau Twins’ school of shoegaze, with the first half of the song dominated by gentle and articulate female vocals, wide-open sky guitars, and a looped machine-like gallop.  At the midway point, the song gives way to a stage-echo tambourine and acoustic guitar strums.  It evokes a beautiful Summer day, traveling vast distances over verdant green American interiors.  Guitars build slowly and finally let loose with a big, heavy rock passage – all the while maintaining this dream-like aura.  It’s a gorgeous, emotion-inducing journey home.  And while “Can’t Breath in This Place” doesn’t pack the same emotional wallop that “Get Away” does, it also takes the listener on a journey through heavy open verses, it’s dark and despairing chorus, and it’s folksy acoustic guitar ending.

“Dirty Thing” is a surprise ending for this record, with a schoolyard punk melody that’ll get stuck in your head right away.  And even as the song evolves and shows you that it is far more complex than the first few beach-bum rock bars of the verse let on, it stays with you.  I could listen to the vocalists harmonize until the end of time.  There are certain dynamics between singers that can never be totally resolved or perfected, but Vibragun does a damn good job of showing how well these singers work together.  This song is a spirited, fun, and lucid ending to this record.

Whether VibraGun is shoegaze because they say so or because some asshole with a blog does, their music certainly transcends the typical trappings of that or other genres.  I think the biggest “pro” argument to make for VibraGun in referring to themselves as shoegaze lies in their vocal styling, and not the smattering of seemingly familiar shoegaze elements sprinkled throughout the album.  But honestly… who the fuck cares?  If it sounds good, it is good.  I try not to know a whole lot about the people I write about; I just try to familiarize myself with their sound.  I don’t have to care what they think or why they do what they do.  I only care whether or not I enjoy the sound or hate it.

VibraGun’s self-titled album is a highly-enjoyable listen.  It takes you to many places within a particular sonic world.  It shows you what is important, what is new, and what is conducive to the dream we’re all living in.  It is most definitely worth visiting and revisiting, so this is a record you would want to own – and certainly not one you would want to miss.

Combinator – Vice & Passion

The debut, 4-track EP from Seattle-trio Combinator is composed entirely of fun-loving, colorful, and expertly performed funk-rock staples.  The bass is played with loving precision; it’s tone painstakingly crafted to achieve a meaty, slippery texture that rolls right through each phrase and passage like it owns the place.  The drums are passionate and vibrant, driving songs with consistency and clarity.  The guitar isn’t too showy, but despite bowing to each arrangement, they establish a unique personality within the world of the record.  The guitar style leans on Latin rock just as much as it does funk or rock, showcasing both a hunger and talent for variety.

The arrangements are just this side of homage to the funk-rock of the past.  Easy comparisons include Red Hot Chili Peppers, Santana, The Police, and even a little Zappa – but Combinator has rendered a very pure and traditional interpretation of the genre that might fool you into thinking you’ve discovered a great little gem of a record from the early 70’s or mid-90’s.  The pervasive, gentle distortion on the vocals help to reinforce the idea of a velvety, smoky anachronistic sound.  It’s an aesthetic I can identify with.

Despite this, “Bleeding In Full” is full of modern drive, as though the comparisons I listed before adopted a more punk-like attitude (without sacrificing musicianship.)  The trio performs impressively together, firmly in the pocket and always ready for each progression to arrive.  The timing of ideas, and not just the performance, is another crucial aspect of what helps this collection of songs succeed, and “Bleeding in Full” demonstrates this as well as any of the songs.  It also fairly catchy, and poses a dual threat in that regard: for all it’s nuance and complexity, you can still recall the melody and feeling from memory.

“Keep Us Cool” turns the knob up on the funk, breaking out the staggering funk bass and wah-pedal guitar.  The addition of a backing vocal harmony in the chorus brings a new dimension to the band, nailing that particular bit of referential musical nostalgia.  The band knows, implicitly, how things ought to sound.  They didn’t leave anything out for the sake of expediency – they reach for those moments that end up solidifying the listener’s experience.

“Tight Ropin’,” on the other hand, progresses a little further into the future, and it also feels a little more personal than the other songs.  Rather than starting off with the band in full-swing, the song establishes a new, solemn mood that manages to retain the colorful vitality inhabiting the other tracks.  While the band may be, at present, incapable of invoking “darkness,” the combination of the downbeat reggae feeling and floating backing vocals paints a convincing portrait of desperation and uncertainty – at least as it translates from the raw, tropical quality of Combinator’s sound.  The lead vocals drop more passion here than the first two tracks, effectively touching on the emotion at the crux of the song.

“Bigger, Better, Faster, More” is the closing track on the EP – dirtier and harder, it represents the inverse ratio of funk-to-rock established in “Keep Us Cool.”  The guitar solo on this track stands out, given more room to spread it’s wings and soar over the slow and deliberate chugging rhythm.  While the drums don’t have near as much opportunity to show off, they steadfastly support the other two-thirds of the band, commanding tempo and pushing dynamics across the band.  This song has attitude – genuine attitude, coming from the timeless world of Combinator.

While the appeal of this record rests with your love or hatred of the funk-rock genre, there’s no denying that Combinator nailed the sound and soul of it with Vice & Passion.  With an emphasis on musicianship and arrangement, the band succeeds in broadcasting their special blend of influences and original ideas even when the recording itself sounds time-stamped.  The production and mix are competent, but they partially obscure the full sonic potential of the band (in particular, with regards to vocals.)  Still, Vice & Passion showcases a band’s love and attention to detail for their instruments and their genre with conviction and imagination.