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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.