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.

The Crying Spell – Spectrums of Light

Assisted by immaculate mixing and mastering, synth-rockers The Crying Spell have built quite the machine with their new album, Spectrums of Light.  Each individual sound is carefully sculpted and meticulously positioned across the stereo field.  The sound palette dazzles on this record, tasteful and immediate.

There’s a great deal of deliberate care taken with the thumping presence of the drums, the electrifying synths, and the considerate guitar-work.  The majority of this sound is rooted in the staples of pop music: front-and-center vocals, relentless hooks, and straight dance beats.  The successful amalgamation of 80’s synth-pop, 90’s synth-rock, and new-millennium electronic alternative provides Spectrums of Light with a timeless quality.

While “This is Our Time” evokes the post-punk feeling like Joy Division (crossed with a little bit of Goldfrapp’s production style), “Sailing On” contemplates the off-kilter new wave influence of The Cure – while “Crash Into The Sun” explodes with the infectious, dance-inducing energy of New Order or Duran Duran.  In terms of today’s artists, The Crying Spell’s clean and majestic sound rivals that of M83 (who lack the powerful vocals of The Crying Spell) and Metric (who lack The Crying Spell’s clarity.)

It’s all well and good to throw out one comparison after another – but, speaking for myself, those are important to consider and weigh against the whole sound.  Homage is not a crime, and nostalgia is not a weakness.  Spectrums of Light, as a record, makes no effort to hide or obscure its wide breadth of inspirations.  This sounds like a record made by people who have always loved this particular kind of music and its many iterations and offshoots over the years, ready to take it to the next level.

Is there some sonic ground retread here?  Undoubtedly, but it is executed here with awesome conviction and respect, devoid of a heartless sense of irony.  The important part of this album, however, is what The Crying Spell has done to set itself apart.

“5:18 (Spectrums of Light)” starts the record with a waving synth pad, cycling beneath a cut-off filter pattern that gives it a backward feeling – suspended inside massive and reverberating darkness.  The vocals announce themselves inside a shifting, echoing cavern, spare and gradual.  As light synths shimmer and an electric guitar manifests in the distance, the kick drum counts out its four-to-the-floor beat.  Then a U2-ish double-echo guitar springs to life, gently fluctuating from side-to-side.

Each change – each added layer – is electrifying.  The song builds and builds, subsiding at around two minutes twenty-five, stripped back to synth particles and drums.  The vocals are quiet – more enmeshed in the mix than the songs to come, calling out a refrain that is buried, beautifully, beneath the production.  It’s a smart, calculated introduction to the singer’s voice, which indeed becomes louder and more upfront – beginning with the second track.

“Sailing On” is easy to follow, full of familiar rising-and-falling patterns of energy.  The song is also surprising atmospheric, with silky and gliding synth pads adding a vibrant texture.  The synth work – from the patches to the arrangement and performance – are second to none.  Nothing is wasted in terms of sonic real estate, and the effortless control exacted over each part guards the song against overwhelming your ears.

I’m a sucker for records where synthesizers, played by hand or sequenced, do a great deal of the heavy lifting in an arrangement.  Spectrums of Light hits that magic ratio of synth-to-guitar; the guitar is reserved for specific moments in a given song (like the bad-ass solo at three minutes two seconds) while all manner of synth parts continue to play throughout and provide the main melodic basis for the song.

The third track, “Elemental,” kicks off with a slightly dirty lead synth part that early Depeche Mode would have approved of.  Once stripped away, the lead line continues on a down-sampled FM piano, reducing the intensity while keeping the melody going – a very well thought-out bit of layering.  Songs like this demonstrate The Crying Spell’s ability to make themselves at home in the arena or in the club.

The chorus brilliantly splices a handful of different synth samples and sequences between vocals, breaking up the repetition of the song.  It’s utterly impossible to sit still while listening; I have to bob my head or tap my toes.  At all times I’m reminded of the strength of the mix – lush, reaching out for every magic frequency and dodging an excess of noise.

“This Is Our Time” has a more rock feel to it, guitars playing a bit of an expanded role in the song than they had previously.  Still, the synthesizers act out and draw attention to themselves with great confidence and to great effect.  The breakdown at two minutes twenty-three opens the song wide with a heartbeat kick thump pushing the song through a rich throng of synth atmospherics.  The song has a great driving energy, like revisiting golden, fond memories of summer road trips past.

Track five is “Crash Into The Sun,” kicking off with a noisy, high-pitched synth before diving into a steady dance beat.  Synth parts are icy and spacious, with a heavy low guitar during the chorus.  The distant guitars at two minutes twelve only stay for a couple of bars, but the help the song dramatically shift from the spacy, neon-drenched feel of the body of the song into something just a little different.

“Never Before” is the obvious single on the record.  But I’ve noticed that nothing on the record has felt like filler up to this point.  Everything I’ve heard has radio-feasibility, each song is strong in its own regard and has thus far completed the arch of the record in a satisfying way.  By the time we arrive at “Never Before,” however, we are ready for a bad-ass, life-affirmative anthem.  It’s one of those songs where the band probably had some idea of the sheer power they were summoning in process of writing it.  From the reliable, pleasant lead synth to the raucous chorus and even the hand-claps towards the end – they knew what this song was before it was completed and they nailed it.  It’s that strong of an idea.

Following on the heels of such a track is no easy feat, and luckily “The Dead War” is up to the task.  The album needed to revisit some darkness – some aggressiveness – at this point in the track-listing.  The more I listen to it, the more I like it.  There are subtle hints of Killing Joke here and there, nothing specific – but with it’s abundance of metal drum flourishes and squealing guitar solos, it represents a similar hybridization of heavy rock and the synthesizer.

Even then, it’s full of surprises – like the marching, funeral dirge at four minutes twenty-six with fluttering, bittersweet guitars and rolling snares, voices calling out.  It totally immerses the listener in a moment, full of powerful imagery that holds your attention.  At the moment, it’s my favorite song.

“We’re On Fire” recalls the skinny, stripped-down dance rock of Franz Ferdinand.  Even then, The Crying Spell brings more color and vibrancy to the table, whereas Franz Ferdinand (especially their vocalist) can sometimes sound a little dull, their energy muted.  The Crying Spell is predicated on strong ideas and strong executions, nothing limp or half-assed.  If the sound is going one direction or another, they commit to it and take that sound or arrangement to its logical extreme while maintaining a gold standard in sound quality.

“Lipstick Crush” is a lower, sexier song without quite the same positivity or bombast of the previous tracks.  At this point I realized Spectrums of Light is one of those classic – and I mean classic – road records.  It’s an album I would insist on bringing along for any road trip, because even here at the ninth song and first “low-point” – the beat is still keeping me pumped and alert.  I’m constantly engaged by the music, my interest never taking a nosedive.  The nods to 80’s pop are strategic and elegant, reflected in vocal echoes and the impeccable symbiosis between synths and guitar.

By track eleven, “Shatter,” we’ve been shaking ass for a good forty-three minutes.  This song, with its sparseness and cold, is positioned perfectly to bring the energy down as the album begins to draw to a close.  The shifting, hyper-real loneliness of the organ synth rings out in a pitch-black cathedral, further illuminated by the vocalist.  The refrain “give your love to me” is sung with a raw soulfulness, pitch perfect for the quiet desperation of the song.  Eventually, thin and dry bits of synthetic percussion permeate the darkness, driving a slow, life-support machine rhythm.  Okay… new favorite song.

“Butterfly Hurricane” brings back that energy we’ve grown to love and desire throughout Spectrums of Light.  Straight-synth patterns and bouncy drums get us nodding our heads again and singing along with the chorus.  Whether The Crying Spell are “dark” enough or “light” enough for you, it’s hard to resist such catchy music.  In the vast pantheon of pop music, this is perhaps the most enjoyable band in its class.  Beyond the technical excellence that marks this band and this record – they’re just a lot of fun to listen to.  You can read into the lyrics or not, you can have whatever kind of experience you want from this record – but the one thing this record won’t do is let you down.

Because Spectrums of Light refer to synth-pop from bygone eras, they are drawing on the collective consciousness of a generation that remembers and continues to pine for that “golden age” that some argue began with Joy Division and died with Orgy, only to be reborn with M83 and others in this, the present day.  But even Joy Division was inspired by The Sex Pistols, and they in turn had their influences and so on.

Bands that stake out new territory are always coming from somewhere.  The best of these bands have always sought to improve upon the past, thereby injecting something of themselves into the new iteration.  The Crying Spell, in my opinion, represent the absolute best “next step” for synth-rock that I have heard yet.  There’s clear evidence of their boundless imagination and precise craftsmanship in every second of every track.  A truly masterful record that combines technical sophistication with clear, audible artistic passion.  One of the best records of the year, guaranteed.

Neil Jones – Albali

 

It doesn’t seem like music is really pushing the envelope anymore.  Most of the “innovators” in electronic music, for example, follow well-tread patterns, latching onto fad after fad in a mad dash for relevance on the dance floor and elsewhere.  There are, of course, always exceptions to the rule; they, unfortunately, reside far underground where most people may not hear them.

Most of this powerful, courageous, accident-prone music confuses or startles the uninitiated listener, suddenly confronted by a vast array of alien sounds and rule-breaking with impunity.  If one looks upon all of this with a certain curiosity and willingness, one would discover the whispers of familiarity and convention deeply embedded in even the most vexing song.  Neil JonesAlbali demands this open attentiveness from the very first track, “Fornax I.”  In order to look up at the sky and see all of the stars, you have to lie on your back first.

“Fornax I” is piping with alpine mystery and gradual majesty.  The song clearly announces the presence of brass on Albali, as well as scattered bits of synth and samples adding a fantastical sort of texture.  Layered with piano and a number of other elements, familiar sounds begin to mutate and gestate into entirely new creatures, populating a rich and colorful environment.

“Er Rai” is much more indicative of the overall style and sound of the record, propelled by light, pattering drums and a gorgeous guitar melody.  Little details, like the dry and hollow plucks of bass echo quickly across the stereo field – and the ebb and flow of a synth arpeggiator rolling in and out.  The vocals are gentle and hushed, but certainly in tune and on time and full of verve.  They give themselves over to the dreamy feeling of the song and command no more attention than the other elements.  It’s the right choice, because it accurately reflects on its true lineage: folk.

Folk music is something I’m only marginally familiar with.  I consider the handful of Damien Youth bootlegs I have and listen to worthy of the “folk” designation.  Be that as it may, I hear plenty of other musical worlds present here; not just that of folk.

Most of Albali maintains a dreamy, atmospheric quality that reminds me of Sigur Ros and, sometimes, Amorphous Androgynous.  In other places I can hear classic progressive rock, especially King Crimson’s Islands and Pink Floyd throughout the years.  Albali has no trouble in blasting well past those comparisons.  There’s a real dynamism present here; an undeniable and deeply-felt vigor.

Each arrangement, including the devastating “Meissa,” is performed with the utmost precision in timing and dynamics while the mix allows the monstrous, cavernous space of the song to soar of its own accord.  This song in particular seems to evoke Pink Floyd – with the wet, chorus-effected organ and the insistent picked guitars.  The brass is masterfully employed in this song, lending a slightly heroic/slightly downtrodden cinematic feeling.  The brass, refreshingly, plays a large part throughout the entire record, and isn’t just a gimmick on one song.  It’s vital to the ecosystem of this record, giving life and dimension to the instruments beneath and around it.  It harkens back to an older era, but not in a stale or uninspiring way.

Other instruments are not leaned on too much, as in the case of the strings.  The opening strings to “Wezen” – perhaps my favorite song on the record – are delicate and dry, vibrating in the space of a real room and groaning softly underneath the guitar and mournful brass.  The sparse piano sends chills down my spine, reaching out for those obvious and perfect moments that hit home.  It’s a song that reaches right into your heart with its heavy sadness and beauty like an icy hand.

After so much bleakness and solemnity, you would think the charming and delicate “Acamar” would be a welcome change of pace – and it mostly is.  However, when the drums build up and begin in earnest, their sound is flat and unimpressive.  Considering the depth of the rolling, low-frequency throb or the full-bodied piano – these drums miss the mark.  I’m not sure what precisely I would have preferred, but something about these drums down sit well with the folksy staggering rhythm of the song nor the lush feel of other sounds.  They didn’t sound like part of the original arrangement of the song – but that’s only my impression of the performance and mix, and not a statement of fact.

Midway through the album, we encounter “Fornax II,” which resumes some of the style of its predecessor – only this time evolving towards a different melody and conclusion.  Both songs have a wondrous, peculiar sound – as though Philip Glass built a “California’s Gold”-style antique music machine with his own take on foot-pedals, pumps, pipes, bells, and whistles.  The layers are dense, precise and full of a unique and authentic character; it is unlike most anything I’ve heard.

“Regulus” makes use of layers underneath a slow, simple melody floating down a river.  Chunky blues guitar emerges, laying a smoky haze over the track.  Subtle, tasteful synth-work builds upon the electric piano and acoustic guitar.  Again, the drums are underwhelming, the crash cymbal sounding fake next to the amazing bits and pieces floating around it.  It doesn’t entirely kill my enjoyment of this song, and it doesn’t ruin the record – but I’d be lying if I said I liked it.  The song intensifies over a marching snare while the vocals begin to distort.  Everything gradually flows into this heavy moment and the overall result is palpable.

“Angetenar” is a soothing, if mournful, instrumental track that mirrors the effect of “Elnath” on the pacing of the record: supplying adequate space for the intense moments of “Regulus” and “Arcturus” to dissipate, respectively.  Besides “Fornax” one and two, this appears to be another “cycle” or pattern to the record.  That, or its just my imagination.  Like his mixes and arrangements, Neil Jones’ album itself provides plenty of leeway for your imagination to roam.

“Sirius” has a more disjointed and scattered feel to it than “Regulus,” with hurried acoustic picking, swelling human voices, meandering piano, and a soulful electric guitar.  By the end of the song, you feel a bittersweet desperation, as though racing against a glorious red and orange sunset.

The title track returns to the carefully plodded and articulate style of the other songs.  It evokes the image of rain, the mountains, the sea.  Great, old trees peaking beneath the thin veil of an early morning mist.  The chorus, full of ascending notes, elevates us further towards the summit to examine the full scope of the horizon.  The woodsy, pure folk acoustic guitar keeps us tethered partly to the ground – a sense of reality, full of its own small, raw beauty.

Albali ends with the piano-led “Achenar.”  The slow, steady rising of the brass helps the songs take shape, reaching once more towards the sky.  The busy piano notes, like stars, entrench themselves in the thick and unyielding darkness of the night sky.

Albali is one of the most astounding and affecting records I’ve heard in years.  It takes chances, but lacks any hint of recklessness or lack of calculation – with the exception of some select drum parts.  Everything has an incredibly purposeful and carefully-sculpted ring to it.  The mix enforces space and balance – judicious choices made in the face of strange sonic combinations.  Neil Jones’ voice is extremely pleasant, boosted by the other voices softly resonating behind him.  From beginning to end, this record is magic.

Whether you like folk music or not is immaterial.  Albali’s emotion and its truth transcend the petty labels we assign to music.  This record is timeless and at home on any world you can point to in the night sky.  It’s not just ear-candy; it’s ambrosia for the imagination.

Jayce Nall – I Make Noise

I Make Noise, the album from solo artist Jayce Nall, is eight tracks of jubilant, infectious modern synth-infused alternative pop.  Right off the bat, “All We Need” launches full force into a four-to-the-floor beat, 80’s synth pads, gesticulating arps, and a clean, proficient lead vocal.  It draws on of New Order’s appeal and Duran Duran’s confidence while sounding like neither.  There is something else at play, though, and you don’t hear until you dive further into the record.

The second song, “Magic,” is far funkier and laid back than “All We Need,” grooving to a walking bass line and offbeat guitar strums.  There’s far more of a Daft Punk influence here, and yet Jayce Nall’s vocals and production style keep it within the same ballpark of the rest of the record.  Rather than appearing as though he can’t decide on a sound, the impression I get is that he is competently exploring a number of different ideas. 

The main synth lead on “Where I Leave” seams to pay not-so-subtle homage to M83’s “Midnight City,” whereas the rest of the song sounds like a careful examination and variation on the nerdy earnestness of The Postal Service, especially with regards to the vocal delivery. 

However, the full-bodied guitar solo at two minutes-thirty nine breaks out of any comparison.  It’s fairly unique, from tone to melody, and sufficient in providing this song with a distinctive soul beyond that of a clever homage.  Being the most potentially “derivative” song, it is still great fun to listen to, and in some ways exceeds my enjoyment of “Midnight City.”

“Red Lights,” on the other hand, has a totally different feel than most anything in its class.  The guitars aren’t overly complicated, the beat is simple enough to follow, and the song’s overall structure is fairly conventional.  That being said, Nall takes full advantage of the flow he’s created and, somehow, it snuck its way to being my favorite track.  

This song, more than anything, convinced me that Nall is creating smart pop music: calculated, efficient, and spotless.  He can sing his own melodies; he doesn’t reach too far.  As a producer, he’s covering himself from top-to-bottom with a solid mix, catchy hooks, solid arrangements, and capable performances.  There are no bum notes or skipped beats, but it doesn’t sound totally machine-made, either – even on a danceable, saccharine-sweet song like “Glow.”

“Gun” made me realize that there was one other important comparison to make other than those I’ve already mentioned.  Abandoned Pools, and its principle member Tommy Walker, released a criminally over-looked album in 2001 called “Humanistic.”   In it, he successfully married Smashing Pumpkins-style rock with an electronic infused pop sensibility, maneuvering deftly between many styles and feelings in a way very similar to Jayce Nall’s “I Make Noise.”  I believe that while Nall may never have heard of Abandoned Pools or that record, he represents an evolution of that same concept – and a worthy one, at that. 

That may not sound fair to Nall’s deserved sense-of-self and unique identity, but the history of music, in my opinion, relies on progress.  What pleases me about Nall’s music is that while I can pick out similarities wherever I please, I’m only able to do that because I’m enjoying what I hear and it brings back fond memories.  For Nall, it’s probably most important that he is able to express himself and create the things he wants to hear.  For me, it’s most important that I am able to identify with the music and understand where it falls in the pantheon of pop: is this progress, or are we slipping backward?

“A Face I’d Like To Punch” has a wonderful drive to it; you can’t help but move while you listen.  Again, the mix is clean and balanced, impeccably sculpted to accommodate each element in the mix and each change in the arrangement.  Melodies, harmonies, and rhythms are expertly chosen.  I keep looking for missteps, but I get caught up with enjoying the song too much to find anything.  Overall, the record has a fun and free-spirited aura about it, effectively neutralizing negative feelings that may be in the vicinity.

Even the standard-operating-procedure gentle closing track, “Lift My Eyes” – with its typical, folksy guitar strums and lyrical romanticism – is quite beautiful and convincing.  Nall is an attentive student of the album arch, of pop music in general, of song structure, and apparently recording and mixing (you can do a lot worse with a laptop recording setup.)  I wanted to complain that the mastering of the album was, overall, a little quiet… but I don’t feel that way on the second listen. 

Frankly, I’m a bit jealous.  I can see what Nall is doing, how he’s doing it, and why – but he actually did it and he didn’t screw it up.  He made a fun, danceable record with heart and brains using minimal gear and maximal grasp of modern pop music convention.  I can’t wait to hear what he does next.

Nikmis – MAGIC

MAGIC will be tough to review.  My only frame of reference for this kind of music is Wendy Carlos and a handful of obscure composers.  However, that’s also partly why I am compelled to listen through and careful describe my experience of this album.  It is completely and utterly different than just about every record I’ve reviewed, and there’s not a lot in my personal library of music that is even remotely similar to Nikmis’ beat-less, baroque, and thoughtful record.

“Mini” features wavy synth pads, subtle cut-off and resonance manipulation, spikey patterns – everything floating atop a continuous bass synth loop.  Individually, these elements don’t seem to point towards a classical sensibility – but this music roughly approximates the nuance and complexity of classical music, drawing on sound music theory to draw the listener further into the world of the record.  You stop looking from the drums; expectations are managed by the affect of the creeping pace of the song.

Each song demonstrates the power of simple waveforms to deliver the impact of an orchestra by stripping sounds into clean, pronounced tones and showcasing the arrangement.  Despite the machine-like precision of this music, there is a distinct human element at the heart of it all, a well-spring of musical imagination surrounded by wires, knobs, keys, and circuitry.

“Worry” expertly evokes the dainty, affable quality of harpsichord-laden chamber music without relying on the FM synthesis of a harpsichord sample.  The entirety of MAGIC revolves around analogue electronics, and is therefor reliably distant from whichever instrument it is trying to approximate at a given time, but in such a way that demands your attention and extols the virtues of electronic music’s malleability.  It’s as if we’re inside of a “Westworld” scenario, with 19th century England as its theme, filled with robots on horse-drawn carriages or bowing politely to one another in a shimmering, spring garden.

“Uste” takes us further down this rabbit-hole.  I can see these humanoid machines, dressed in powdered wigs and the robes of ancient human nobility, dancing elegantly in a machine-crafted replica dance hall.  Even so, there is nothing “fake” or “empty” about this experience, or the feeling that the record produces.  You begin to inhabit the moment of these songs, letting the intricate arpeggios and incidentals wash over you in a smooth, flawless wave – dipping with each rest just as a chamber orchestra might.  After “Mini,” there’s not much in the way of conventional 4/4 time signatures or dance-floor chord progressions.

I personally choose to look at this record as though there is some kind of arch, or journey, that each song completes as you listen.  I have no basis for thinking this, but it helps me to enjoy a record by giving it some imaginary context; a story, with which to visualize the sound in my head.  To be perfectly fair, Nikmis may not have intended any particular story or single experience to rise up from this album.  That being said, MAGIC is a complete and other reality – captivating and mysterious, but invitingly expansive.  If Nikmis did not create this music to spur the listener’s imagination, than MAGIC is a wonderful mistake.

“Clest” is the first track to incorporate any discernable percussion: in this instance, a low, drum machine thud falling on the start of the beat.  We’re still a few light-years from shaking ass on the dance floor, but the guidance of the waltz is just fine like that.  Towards the end, there appears to be a gentle, descending “tom roll,” but like the kick drum it almost seems to only add to the melody and not to get your toes tapping.

There is, undeniably, a videogame aspect to MAGIC – as well as anime, for that matter.  However, most of the classic videogame composers my generation grew up with – from Koji Kondo’s “Mario Theme” to Nobuo Uematsu’s work on the Final Fantasy series – seemed to be far more interested in abandoning their classical influences in favor of, say, reggae (in the case of Mario) and only resorting to dramatic, orchestral music when a suitably dramatic animation sequence precedes the next “boss fight” (in the case of FF.)  Nikmis seems to be swimming directly against that current of videogame music thinking, so I think that the intimation of a “videogame” quality is not justified in this case.

“Woder” is an epic, painterly examination of life in cybernetic polite society – constructed with a rolling bass clef, chimes, and a virtual “woodwind” section of synths.  The elongated outro is perfect form, drawing from the musical aesthetic masterfully.  At nearly eight minutes, the song has such excellent pacing and structure that I hardly noticed its duration.

“Tiss” is somewhat darker, a nice switch considering the overbearing pleasantness of the previous three tracks.  Steeped in undulating sequences and shifting tempos, soft sprays of noise and the instant leadership of main synth pattern.  “Name” seems to be a slightly more romantic reflection on the template established by “Woder,” but contains plenty of excellent and distinguishing elements, including bubbly upward synths near the four minute mark, and an abrupt, temporary fill from synthesized drums two-thirds of the way through.  Then, at six minutes-fifty, the classical composition begins to fail, and the song appears overtaken by a tear in the virtual environment, exposing the mechanical components underneath – a “behind the curtain” moment.

“Darden” has a very masculine and aggressive feel, less flowery and more playful, galloping on cybernetic horses as robot dogs track a genelab-reproduced Vulpes vulpes through the hologram green of a Martian estate.  It’s dynamic and exciting, illustrating a chase from beginning to end with ups, downs, twists, and turns.  “Twell” is equally as energetic, hard-pan patterns and unison synth stabs and, here and there, a middle-eastern scale.  There’s also a flood of new textures in this track and still no skimping on arrangement.  There’s an adventurous spirit to this song that adds perfectly to the overall experience of the record.

“Shuy” is a marked departure from the confidence conveyed throughout MAGIC.  It has a far darker, more elusive mood than any other song with a gentle, underlying sense of chaos.  The parts all fits together, mostly, but they seem more jagged and less connected – broken in a way.  As the song approaches its end, and the conclusion of MAGIC draws near, all of that clean and present feeling has begun to sour, breaking down in tone and performance – as though running out of batter.  There’s something appropriately bittersweet about that, and although my least favorite song on the record, it completes its function.

MAGIC was a tough review.  In the end, however, I think I managed to dig out of it what I initially liked so much about it and couldn’t identify – I like it both as a work of art and as a statement.  Here is something beautiful and elegant: new sounds from old patterns, new interpretations from old institutions.  There are not many people out there doing what Nikmis does, and certainly very few people who do it as well.  And while MAGIC may leave some people scratching their heads, it will mostly certainly inspire others.

Supercomputer – Supercomputer

Modern indie rock is marked by some ubiquitous sonic items.  Over the last two decades, we’ve witnessed the slow infection of indie rock with electronic sounds; the thoughtful studio-degradation of sounds; raucous, sputtering drumbeats; mournful and idiosyncratic electric piano.  Radiohead has had a large hand in shaping the landscape, clearing the way for groups like France’s AaRON, New York’s TV On The Radio, England’s Elbow,  and – curiously enough – Massive Attack has begun to slide that direction as well.

I can understand why: in the same way that Flying Lotus and has ilk have captured the zeitgeist of turn-of-the-century electronic music listeners, Radiohead presented the world with an open-ended and inspiring outlook on the very extremes of indie rock music.  They – along with The Flaming Lips, Beck, and a handful of others – built the foundation for much of what we’ve heard in the last few years.  It’s reassuring to hear the natural progression of these things take their course, tracing clear lines to a noble origin.

The real magic, however, lies in the unforeseen mutations along the way.  Bands who emerge from a clear sense of the past have the important task of taking the audience further than we’ve been before.  Some bands rise to the occasion, and others fail.  Supercomputer, and their self-titled album, is a sharp and earnest group of musicians, with a peculiar mix of stability and chaos.  The album is filled with high-tensile songwriting and performances.  The lead singer has his particular range of delivery, but he nails his parts by accurately reading the song’s energy from one passage to the next.

The guitars are surprisingly “vanilla.”  I wouldn’t count this aspect against any record that includes wobbly synths and vocoders peppered about where you least expect them.  They keep the listener rooted firmly in the universe of rock music, shunning most overly-processed effects (the exception of some minor delay use) or cryptic patterns.  The guitars are impeccably played, recorded with mix-appropriate tones and distortions (there are one or two pleasant surprises along the way.)  The bass guitar, on the other hand, was slightly quieter than I preferred but it was still audible.  The reduced attack on the bass notes at the start of “Lebanon” are perfect in feeling, groaning beneath a filter-sequenced synth and clean, open vocals before the drums roll in.

The drums explore several different styles throughout the record, given over to the feel of the song or sometimes fighting the song openly.  On “Lebanon,” they’re slippery and jazzy, tumbling this way and that with broken fills.  They have a wonderful sense of timing, colliding with the band on a rhythmic tight rope throughout the track.  The drum sound, to me, is always a solid indicator of the strength of the overall mix.

Nothing can upset the balance between instruments more than the drums, and while they have excellent presence on this record they rarely ever overshadow the guitar, which in turn allows just enough room for bass and vocals.  “Movers and Shakers” exemplifies this perfectly.  The band chooses to overwhelm with spaced-out reverb guitar towards the end, dwindling to a buzz and setting the stage for “Echo Well” nicely.

With “Echo Well,” the delay-effected guitars bring to mind Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes,” pre-empting the shuffling march of the drums.  The song starts out fairly straightforward, caught in a pleasant loop.  After some time, however, the drums begin to switch up, dropping hits and delaying phrases as shimmering synth gently flits about.  As we close-in on the last minute of the song, we hear our old friend, the Korg Kaoss Pad.  Although it’s not used in quite the same way that Radiohead or others have used it, I was proud of myself for picking it out.  More than that, I thought it added a wonderful, non-melodic element of chaos and even “emotion” to the song as it degenerated.

If you that found that passage odd, “Last Gasp” arrives just in time to demonstrate a clear talent for conventional songwriting and production.  But it’s a ruse: the song undergoes a strange and sudden transformation halfway-through, dropping down into a scattered synth suspended in the darkness.  Then, out of nowhere, the song remerges in a crushed, distorted box; slowly winding back up into the original sonic space of the song.  We’ve been thrown for a very weird little loop, but it’s a welcome shake-up: this band is not afraid to break out of what they are doing in pursuit of the most interesting sound it can muster.

“The Sun” begins with an introspective guitar strumming underneath the vocalist.  The band comes crashing in after a few bars, stabs of synth pads and intermittent clouds of vocoder remind me of Pink Floyd to a small extent.  There are some great moments of texture and space underneath the song: the clean, broad strum at two minutes-twenty seven; the abrupt shift to chugging, in-your-face guitars dropping like pillars on either side of the stereo-field.  Gradually, those guitars relent and the song reverts to its acoustic guitar strum under the refrain “You saw right through me…”  The build begins once more, reaching higher and higher… and then the fade.  I would have waited a few more seconds – we were just arriving at the summit of this mountain, and I wanted to look around a bit longer.

We move on to “Take It Down,” which is  slightly reminiscent of Radiohead’s “Jigsaws Falling Into Place.”  But then, who knows from what previous artist Radiohead lifted its influences.  Despite the passing resemblance these songs share with one another, one cannot ignore the pronounced “American” quality to Supercomputer when juxtaposed with Radiohead.  Radiohead sounds uptight and dour; whereas Supercomputer sounds free-wheeling and capable.  I’ve realized that just because I’m reminded of other artists only means that this band has managed to port into music I’ve absorbed in my young adulthood, music that has seeped into my subconscious.  I feel as though I’m on the record’s wavelength, and the sensation is affirming in a way.

Even more so when considering the rustic, insistent waltz of “I’m Still The Same,” which serves as a segueway between first and second halves of the record.  It has a bright, room-mic quality, like a cut from Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk experiments jammed out to its logical conclusion.  It has a mysterious way of preparing you for the smooth, open, and dynamic “10,000 Stories Tall.”   This song, slower and packed with extreme depth, is both challenging and gorgeous.  It is comprised of bits and pieces, roughly the same sketch of a chord progression, spilling over different spaces and riding solemn electric piano.  It crumbles into the bramble of quick acoustic guitar strums, flecks of golden light over the deep waters of the bass, fenced in by the tall green reeds of a pump organ.

“Lebanon (Revisited)” leads us back to the beginning through the atmospherics of the album’s opening track, with the notable exception of some lovely, distant guitars and a frenetic, sparkling arpeggiator.   If there’s one thing I’ve learned about this record, it’s that there is a recurring desire to surprise the listener and blast a few thousand light years beyond audience expectation.  At the one minute mark, the song erupts a la The Flaming Lips with thunderous drums and the soft cacophony of wild guitars electrifying the background.  It is, perhaps, my favorite song on the record.

Supercomputer closes with “Two Timer,” parts one and two.  Part one begins with a spare, jazzy atmosphere.  I continue to be impressed by the drum performance and mix – they are exceptional.  The natural “woodiness” of the piano carries through, spread nicely across the stereo field.  Sprinklings of electric piano and bells bring out the wistful, wintery character of this song – streetlights in a snowy, northern city.

We’re dropped directly into the ascending synth sting chords of “Two Timer Part Two,” which feels part of the same universe of the previous song but assumes a new energy – a quicker pace and something darker about it in general, as though looking at the previous song from the other side and revealing something close to menacing or disconcerting.  The breakdown and buildup in this song rides the echoing vocals to great effect.  The build continues and lets out in fragments and shreds.

This album properly demonstrates a band’s power over its influences.  What did artists of the past get wrong, and what did they get right?  What can I add to the pantheon of this musical genre – what am I driven to say and how shall I say it?  Supercomputer has created an album that competently answers those questions, and defines itself quite clearly as a unique entity.  No one else could have made this record, not with its twists and turns and penchant for sonic risk.  As I’ve said before, the stable and sober guitar work keeps the band from spinning off axis altogether and allows the effects and experimental elements to run freely.  The execution was new and good.  This is an album that needs a second or third listen before you can begin to really ‘get’ what’s happening, but when you do get it, that magic will stay with you.