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.

Western Haunts – Western Haunts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VibraGun – Vibragun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Combinator – Vice & Passion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

회사AUTO – _N

Remix culture has, in all respects, imploded.  On the one hand, you have some remixes that become international singles and reshape the ever-changing face of contemporary pop music.  On the other hand, you have upward of a gazillion laptop producers roaming a vast wasteland of emulation and experimentation that often disappoints or irritates.  Growing up in the 90’s I can remember an age when remixes were far less abundant due to the limitations and cost of technology.  Now, anyone with a smart phone can slice and dice music however they see fit.

What ought to be a liberating new commonplace art form has become a cesspool of talentless, tasteless novelty-seekers.  They put on their DJ hats and give themselves ridiculous names and don’t even bother to listen to “the classics” in the pantheon of remixes.  They are cowboys; they follow their own rules, often times headlong into sonic disaster.  They lift entire songs and jab them here or there with a handful of pitiful attempts at re-invigorating them.  It’s self-indulgence at its most oblivious and nauseating.  Surely, there must be some exception to the rule, right?  Yes, there is.

Few artists I know have the massive discography of Zach Mason.  Using a myriad of monikers, Mason has plumbed the depths of remixing popular music into extravagant, inventive superstructures.  He’s able to take a familiar song and turn it into a living environment, full of mystery and usually confounding in its scope.  He drowns old music in lush, cascading synths; his laid-back percussion loops supply adequate motion and energy.  “I know,” as an example, shatters a classic into a fragmented memory, stitched together like a digital Frankenstein.  Echoes careen from side-to-side, pitch and time effects scatter the root sample, dragging us into an LSD-inspired chasm.

“ॐ om ॐ” naturally emerges from a fluid transition, opening into a bubbly and dimly-lit video arcade.  The looping drum-break keeps us moving through one 8-bit corridor after another, diving into water, strange lights flitting about.  We surface inside “do U believe.”  Here, we find ourselves within the shimmering cavern of a pop song’s interior, reverberating from without and down through little windows set high above.  Layers upon layers wash over us and we empty out into the sea.  The sky above is perfect blue.  The water is glimmering white with the sun.

“Ηδω.”  As though waking from a dream, we fall onto the floor.  We get dressed.  We lock the apartment door.  We walk down to the street.  We miss the bus.  We cross the bridge.  We count streetlights as we pass them.  We stare at the neon beer logo through the glass.  We spot a cop arguing with two homeless women.  We sit down at the bar.  We pay for a drink.  We black out.

Like a semi-lucid dream, we wander deeper and deeper into a subconscious world of sound amalgams and mutations.  “no friend” take a 90’s favorite and pitches it into a throbbing, spacey mutation, full of glinting stars and thumping bass.  “acid ocean” sets us at the water’s edge, contemplating an impossible sunset.  It’s a calming, mysterious track packed with textured atmospheres and subtle loops.  Gradually, a rhythm begins to emerge, light percussion filtering in.  At two minutes-thirty, the track switches up and incorporates a gentle whip on repeat.  It’s exotic and alive – fantastically new.

The minimalist 8-bit disco of “my fantasy” builds and expands while maintaining its simplicity.  Like any good RPG, it leads you right through the thick of a strange new world, this one populated with considerate melodies and shifting spaces.  “patience is painful” rides a wire between electro-funk and synth-induced anxiety.  “>>we will progress>>>>” splits your attention between an eloquent monologue on capitalism and a trucking, sampled-saxophone-laden track that makes me feel like I’m watching Democracy Now! on DMT.

There is absolutely an exception to the rule of the new generation of remix artists.  This exception arises whenever the “art” of the remix is reinterpreted by a new generation with careful consideration and immense effort.  The expansive universe of _N drew me in and electrified my brain with a whole new set of synaptic connections.  That is 회사AUTO’s true power and what sets him apart from others: a total commitment to a brave, new sonic world.  It’s a massive, cavernous album – and extremely ripe for exploring.

XVIII Eyes – I’ll Keep You

Here’s an impeccable mix showcasing powerful and simple arrangements.  It’s pop music, not entirely unfamiliar but certainly a reliably satiating listen.  The drums are large and clear, the guitars and bass guitar locked into both the groove and the emotion from one song to the next, and the vocals inhabit a space as unique as the voice itself.  But is that enough these days?  Can a band just write and record a solid batch of songs – real songs – without dressing it up or getting ironic?

I’ll Keep You will make you believe.  Even including the intermittent synthesizers, this record sounds like a band (well, a band underneath a healthy sheen of crystalline production) and they sound like a band that means it.  The use of synth, spare and discriminating, does not draw attention to itself with obvious emulations of the 80’s.  It provides strange, lush dissonance to the title track, “I’ll Keep You.”  In “We Only Talk in San Francisco,” they take on more melody and it’s smooth, square sequence pairs nicely with the insistent guitar.

The fact of the matter is this: there’s no challenge in this record.  There’s nothing about it that is terribly experimental or that is not immediately approachable.  Save for a few notable exceptions, not a single sound grates unusually on the ear, and alternatively – nothing is lost or scattered in the mix.  As a listener I was able to immediately embrace the choice of guitar tones; the aura of the vocals; the warm presence of the bass guitar.  Even so, the sound is not without distinctiveness.

Sounding like a conglomeration of existing artists – the best parts of those artists – is, indeed, one plausible way to achieve something new, but only if the intent is to explore what remains of the existing terra infirma on a much-peopled continent.  I’ll Keep You includes it’s fair share of these moments.  “No. 7” has a rolling, hushed aggressiveness that evokes the feeling of running: blood pumping, heart racing, and lungs icy-cold.  At a minute-forty, the song breaks into a brilliant, eddying waltz – as though we had been conveyed to a massive waterfall via the river wild.  Immediately following this chorus there’s an audible drone, like a train-horn blaring.  It’s one of the few strange (although still sonically appropriate) moments on the album.

“I’ll Keep You” and “We Only Talk in San Francisco” are, in my view, the two strongest singles off the record, which usually means I stop listening to them first.  But overall, the record has a fluid and consistent competence; measured and focused executions bring the simple arrangements to life.  The performances are clean, but not inhuman.  The machined quality of the record does not spoil the warmth or cold it emits.

“To Be Animal” is closer to a ‘deep album track,’ but it’s a rich and varied song, full of rewarding moments and a markedly dark mood.  It’s a lovely and sweeping track, full of power and less conventional guitar tones than the record has offered thus far.  The band has a good handle on the “pulse” of a song without succumbing to a straight four-to-the-floor beat.  Whether intentional or not, I found the music physically moving.  Not in the sense that I wanted to dance, per se, but rather that I felt my head, neck, shoulders, and my hands and feet responding to the chosen tempos; beats, breaks, and grooves.  At times, the record can sound a little like it’s been grown in a lab.

“Multiples” is one of my favorite songs, beginning with a hypnotizing guitar phrase, distant cymbals, and a groaning bass line.  It’s creepy in a conventional way, but evocative and intriguing.  Layered guitars further in usher the song to it’s ass-kicking switching of gears.  At a minute thirty-eight, the songs starts rocking.  Biting guitar distortion, rumbling bass guitar.  The drums are, as they have been throughout the record, huge.  They roughly have the same shape and dimension in every song, but they found the right recipe so I wasn’t missing the element of variety so much.

The band has a talent for killer choruses and hooks that stay with you.  They fire on all cylinders.  There’s something traditional and fettered about that, to me, but on the same token it’s a testament to the seemingly flawless quality of this record.  Can something be missing if nothing is missing?  Not if it didn’t impede your ability to enjoy the listen.  In my case, it didn’t.

There’s something deeply satisfying about the grid-like efficiency of this kind of rock, both in its concurrent truthfulness and artifice.  Some might chalk it up to the influence of a metronome, but I look at it as being something larger; I look at it as an aesthetic.  And more to the point, I’ll Keep You may not harken back to the 80’s or 90’s explicitly, but it does inhabit it’s own reality, rooted in some place and some time.  The magic of this era in music that we all live in is that the listener can decide on those things for him or herself.

Slow Year – Slow Year

A new release from Hush Hush Records, Slow Year’s self-titled record spans a brisk 32 minutes and 7 tracks.  The runtime is just long enough to immerse you in the sonic environment Edward Haller has engineered from, seemingly, a million pieces.

From the very start, Slow Year shimmers and bristles with countless particles of sound – both musical and textural.  “Sparrow Crowned” is a disjointed, revolving mass of sonic found objects.  Distant, rippling synthesizer sweeps over lo-fi bursts of machine noise.  There’s a gentle and amorphous melody that draws you into and through the heart of the track, spurred by intermittent kick thumps.  “Thank you,” an anonymous filmic sound bite repeats with audible relief.  And then, appearing not unlike a black storm cloud across this sparkling, golden sky, a pitched-down vocal melody warbles with melancholy; it’s tone both alien and soulful.

I don’t know that it’s a standard thinking or any kind of universal constant that electronic music is inextricable from a “science fiction” or fantasy aesthetic.  To be fair, electronic producers are asking relatively ‘normal’ folks to hang up their desire for guitars and other trappings of popular mainstream musical culture in exchange for a bevy of sounds that are, insofar as we know, impossible in the natural world (unless, of course, one is aided by psychotropic drugs.)  Even so, I’d prefer to think that it is the fantastic, and not necessarily the pharmacological, that is the driver behind the color and shape of forward-thinking, intelligent dance music.  (ed: But I’m obviously wrong!)

More to the point, the imagery that music evokes is often times the lens through which I examine electronic music – especially when that electronic music is predominantly instrumental.  I can’t say that I have the same vision in my head when I listen through “Lord Pretender” each time, but the progression of the track – the sequence of events – is uncanny.  It begins in one place and takes you to another.  Nothing new in that regard, but without a strict four-to-the-floor drum beat and explicit, over-the-top bass and treble melodies, discerning that progression and appreciating the unique journey, beginning to end, of a song like “Lord Pretender” becomes a challenge.  Lazy listeners may not endure it, but spending time with a song is much like spending time with a person – you will most likely develop an appreciation for them (and it) over time.

Slow Year, both the album and the artist, don’t appear to be hung up on providing the listener with footing for each step of the way.  Sometimes, as new sounds are introduced in the progression of a song, the overlap with established sounds has a “blinding” effect on the ear; there’s too much new information occupying one instant to accurately decipher everything that is happening.  The handiest tool in Slow Year’s possession is space – space that is established using reverbs, but also space established in the open expanses between loops and one-shot samples.  “Vermona Hiss” is a perfect example of this principle.  Rhythmic bits and pieces fall in and out of place, strung together by roving, string-like drone, flecked with digital abnormalities.  The beat produced by the drums is superseded by the simple, but informative, bass synth – which forces out a broken marriage of rhythm between the two.  With Slow Year, the things you don’t hear are just as important as those you do.

“Blood Apple” changes gears, however, and provides a much more identifiable, “militant” drumbeat.  The kick drum itself sounds noticeably more traditional and clean in comparison to other kick drum sounds used throughout the record.  As the song continues, the drum becomes more insistent and builds into near-march.  Then, it relents mid-way through – only to begin the process of building up again.  The descending synth melody is also far more conventional than other melodies throughout the album, but as the second-to-last track it’s a refreshing change of pace that doesn’t betray the established approach Slow Year is taking to atmosphere and texture.  Conventional or not, nothing is actually simple on this record: every sound has it’s own sheen, it’s own quality, and it’s own life.  The songs, in a way, become ecosystems for both conflicting and complimentary life forms to engage one another.

An alternative view the sounds employed by Slow Year revolves around our memories of particular instruments and other noise-emitting objects.  The piano at the beginning “Song You Liked The Most” plays a hopeful and familiar chord progression – only, it’s set at the far end of an icy cathedral.  Pitch-affected vocals return with their otherworldliness: a recurring theme on this record and perhaps a key component Slow Year’s overall approach.  But at the heart of that sound – a shifting, robotic utterance – I can still discern the human breath pushing that sound out and into whatever effects processor stands between us.  The real magic, however, is that I might just be imagining that, and there never was a human there to begin with.

Slow Year ignores no detail.  It does not contain any inadvertent sound, nothing weak or mistaken or undecided.  Haller, clearly, spent an enormous amount of time and energy ensuring that the listener would not blink: there is no lapse in the forceful energy from the start of one song to the next; there is no single moment devoid of purpose where the listener can get away with tuning out only to come back with the next downbeat.  The music works fine as background noise, but that’s not how to get your money’s worth from Slow Year.  We recommend headphones and a half-hour block of “you-time” to appreciate this record.

Slow Year is, in parts, ethereal.  In other parts, it is hard and molten.  Sometimes, you’re in the home you grew up in, playing the family upright piano.  Other times, you are in a completely unknown corner of the universe evading capture.  The one constant throughout is Slow Year’s sonic quality.  It truly is a record that goes deeper and shows you more the longer you listen to it.