Jason Rubenstein – New Metal From Old Boxes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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.

Light Veins – Wasteland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Combinator – Vice & Passion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like Dogs – The False Starts EP

Serious, heavy rock.  As the opening track, “Medicate,” zooms into focus, the song explodes with raucous energy.  Not long after, however, it finds a solid rhythmic footing in the verse.  The drums are full and vibrant, the guitars biting and perfectly balanced between melody and noise.  The vocals are confident and straight-forward.  There’s a 90’s “plausibility” to the sound emitting from Like Dogs’ 5-track EP, The False Starts.  Despite this, there are plenty of invigorating and inventive moments on the record, bristling with a refined and present production quality.

There’s a certain level of nostalgia ingrained in the sound of the EP overall, from the vanilla heaviness of the opening track to the chugging insistence of “Sleeping Truths.”  As a person who grew up in the grunge-rock mecca of America – Seattle – I feel I have a fairly informed perspective on what Like Dogs are attempting to do, even when it moves beyond grunge with the bombastic lead synth on the second track.  But rather than remaining inside the safe barriers of pop-structures and chord progressions of a bygone era, the epic and engrossing “Sleeping Truths” surprises and surpasses the tone established at the beginning of the record, blossoming in full by the end.

As the record progresses, the guitars never slip from that precarious perch of delivery both coherent melodic information and noise; the drums never stray from the energy of a given song, and accompanying synth layers serve as an altar upon which Like Dogs makes its sacrifice.  The dark, groovy power of “Find My Way” rides on a powerful beat and expert guitar arrangement.  The sudden and purposeful obscuring of the voice at three minutes-forty feels unnecessary and a bit distracting, but it doesn’t linger.

“Countless Times” feels like a conscious departure, embracing a far more open arrangement with room for vocal harmonies and a greater range of dynamics.  There’s a classic or timeless quality to the feel of the song; its aesthetic confounds with both its strange newness and nagging familiarity.  There’s something comforting about that.  It evoked memories of my youth, but slightly blurred and idealized.

The EP ends with “Problematic,” which continues with the open format arrangement: less glazed over with grunge-rock fuzz and more articulate.  Leaning on a muscular yet complex rhythm, the song succeeds in establishing a specific mood of anxiety and wonder.  The world of this record is both frenzied and gorgeous, constantly building itself out in chaotic splendor.  From one song to the next, Like Dogs displays a raw yet elegant musicianship and a singular compositional style.  Great care has been taken to honor the influences behind this music without eclipsing the natural merit of the artist’s own ideas.  The tidy production assists in communicating both the nuanced and obvious sonic concepts employed here, and it’s worth mentioning that without the competent mixing and mastering of this EP, some fraction of my enjoyment would have suffered.

1.1 Immermann – Extra Knusprig

There are, in essence, two kinds of record I like.  The first, and most pervasive in my library, is the category of music that reflects my personal taste most closely.  I’m talking about music that, right away, speaks to me and my own tastes or values.  These are bands and albums that go right to the heart of me, resonating off of an internal architecture that seems to anticipate the sound.  Those records are also, often times, boring to discuss at length.

The second category of music I like is one I do enjoy discussing.  It’s music that challenges my mind and pokes holes in the comfortable world I would have otherwise built for myself purely out of music that placated my personality or patronized my self-image (it’s not the 90’s anymore, and for good reason.)  Extra Knusprig – the second album from Adelaide, Australia’s 1.1 Immermann – is a record that, for me, pushes beyond the familiar (or perhaps shows you what lies just on the other side).  It’s inventive, surprising, confident, and coherent.  I felt my mind expanding and changing a little as I listened.

At every stop along the way, 1.1 Immermann’s guitars are tidy, diligent, and meticulous.  The bass guitar is fluid, roving and fearless.  The use of effects and synthesizers and samples are incredibly measured and tasteful; they are almost always in support of the arrangement and mood.  The drums are, in my view, the soul of the band.  They audibly guide the trajectory of each song.  The other players are so adept, however, that the drums don’t needless distract in their mission to drive progressions forward; everyone seems to keep pace just fine.

This is also an incredibly progressive band, one that would make both jazz and classic rock titans (like King Crimson) proud – but not for any sort of emulation or particular homage.  Make no mistake, 1.1 Immermann is on its own planet.  The record is chalk-full of unique, windy passages that sometimes lead you someplace unimaginably new and other times right back to where you started.  Between the album’s ‘segues’ – short, spirited grooves far more interesting than your standard album transition – Extra Knusprig’s real “songs” are elaborate journeys full of bright, exuberant imagination and relentless energy.

There’s natural, organic positivity that emits from the sound of the record overall.  While “Zebralion” starts out reflective and distant – gentle but insistent guitar strums over a test tone – the song suddenly “snaps out of it” with a lightning flash of synth percussion into a pleasant, if adamant, groove.  This is a record that likes to use its legs; it likes to wander down the street and see what’s up.  Of course, down around two minute-ten, the scene changes and night begins it’s slightly menacing descent.  Not thirty seconds later, the song shifts again.  This is not unlike lucid dreaming: the strange, magical environment and the conscious exploration of a fantasy – and when things get weird, you fly off to the next chapter.  By five minutes, the song has blossomed into a beautiful swirling, cascading feeling.  It’s riveting and intoxicating in its effect.

“The Conch” is my favorite song off the record.  Deceptive and sly, it kicks off with a straight beat – but within a matter of bars, there are stutters and stabs impelling the “simplistic” groove to mutate gradually.  The switch-ups are flawless: the execution of their ideas is just as impressive as the ideas themselves are.   There’s impeccable musical timing to the record throughout; it knows just what to say and when to say it.  The song continues to expand with logical expansions, purposeful flourishes, and eventually some pretty wild tangents.  The guitar solo at two minutes-fifty is expertly restrained, beginning choked and intermittent before filling in more and more, and then diving into some serious math with the band.  And when three minutes-fifty rolls around, I have a sense of how I arrived at this place, but the destination is still somehow totally unexpected.

“The Big Squeeze” is also a standout track on the record.  It is perhaps the most cinematic of all the songs, evincing the band’s ability to establish and maintain a thick, unbreakable mood.  There’s a sense of intrigue and shadow, but not “darkness” or grimness.  The band appears incapable of moping around or exhausting their inherent drive.

The production of this record – the mixing and editing – does a superb job of drawing the listener’s attention to all elements in an organized way, maintaining an emotion and keeping the humanity of the record intact.  The mix manages to show off the texture of each instrument or synth patch or sample, and not just the melodic content.  It is suitable that a record with such innovative arrangements should have an innovative mix, as well.  “The Hate Camel” is a great of example of this, and of all the songs this one takes the most playful approach to the use of samples with an audience applause recording cut into the hypnotic acceleration of the song at the three minute-forty-five mark.  It has a strange effect on the ear, to be sure, but this band thrives on strangeness and newness.

The fourth and last segue is also an example of the mix showing you different sides of a track, taking a pleasant, if standard, groove and then abruptly shifting the instruments off to the side and into the corner for a vocal harmony to appear.  Simple, bizarre, smart.

“En” is built on a series of complicated grooves, as opposed to the wider and more gradual progression of “The Conch” or “The Big Squeeze.”  It’s harder to follow, frankly, but extremely rewarding.  There are a dozen singular and compelling moments throughout the song, each with its own distinct tone and feel.  The tape cassette sample at three minutes isn’t just a sample: they drop a single phrase of the song into this diegetic moment and then leap right back out of it.  It’s a fun experiment, but if it hadn’t been executed as smoothly it would have been a bit irritating.

“Samizdat” does a fair job of representing my overall impression of this record.  This song, like the record, is a detailed exploration of rhythm and dynamics; of melody and strategic dissonance; of imagination and technical proficiency.  It’s scary that this much imagination has found such a reliable set of hands to communicate such complex and stirring ideas.  More importantly, they have taken chances and have endeavored to show the listener something new.  They have succeeded.

For myself, I have struggled and ultimately failed to find anything about this record I don’t like.  But considering 1.1 Immermann have a stronger sonic palette than Radiohead, the same boldness of The Bad Plus, an imagination that matches (and in some ways exceeds) McDonald and Giles, and a technical proficiency beyond any band remotely in the same class or particular strata of genres (Battles sounds boring and childish in comparison) – I can’t say I’m surprised.  Extra Knusprig is a wonderful and exotic experience.