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Tag: post rock

Album Review: Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! [Constellation]

The small subgenre of music known to most as post-rock seems to have run its course. That’s not to suggest that the steadied and beautiful hands that craft such intricate melodies have stopped doing what they do best. No, like any particular style of music, there are ebbs and flows, and what was once popular suddenly becomes shunned by the fickle masses as they search for the “next big thing.” You take a look at bands like Sigur Ros and Mogwai, and simply glancing at their catalogues will show you how the quality of their recordings appeared to drop compared to their earlier, late ’90s efforts. Of course the more you create the more material there is for comparison and criticism. Had there been more Nirvana or Beatles records, maybe their legacies wouldn’t have heen as strong as they are today. And while some of the disdain for many modern-day post-rock efforts stems from recycling old sounds and failing to make forward evolutionary progress, nobody seems to be entirely sure where to go next. A band like Swans certainly qualifies for the post-rock label, but have always had a large following among heavy metal, industrial and post-punk fans too, and being able to keep toes dipped into multiple pools has benefited them greatly. It’s helped their new record The Seer rank among some of 2012’s best. But when you break the genre down to its basest instincts, the ultimate goal is to make primarily instrumental music that speaks to our emotions and sends chills down our spines. You don’t even need to be original if what you’re creating pushes the right buttons. That principle applies to all music, with the understanding that it’s better to be good than cool.

In a sense, with their return from a hiatus along with their first album of new material in 10 years, Godspeed You! Black Emperor are filling a void we didn’t know was there in the first place. Though their music has little to no vocals save for the occasional sound clip, the band’s mission is far more politically oriented than you might expect. They’ve never shyed away from commenting on world issues, and the collective’s unofficial frontman Efrim Menuck has been called an anarchist on more than one occasion. They insert themselves into this commentary and these situations even though you won’t hear it addressed in the songs that they play. Well, as they argue (and it’s one of the reasons they took nearly a decade off), their music is created based on both physical and political pain happening around the world. They vanished about a year after 9/11 and as the U.S. was starting to become involved with Iraq and Afghanistan. You’d suspect these things would inspire the band, and their 2002 album Yanqui U.X.O. was its own political statement, with missiles on the album cover and interior artwork drawing connections between major record labels (AOL Time-Warner, BMG, Universal) and various arms manufacturers. There’d be plenty more political fodder and terror to draw from moving forwards for the band, but they chose to explore side projects and other avenues of creation for awhile. Now with the U.S. all but out of Iraq and Afghanistan wrapping up as well, one would hope that a period of relative peace was right around the corner. Yet Godspeed came back to life in late 2010 bigger and bolder than ever, though existing solely as a touring entity. Then came an October surprise. At the start of the month they announced there’d be a new album called Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, and that it would be released in two weeks’ time. They dropped that bomb on everyone.

Yet GY!BE would save their biggest shocker for those that actually listened to the new album. They haven’t changed their sound or done something drastic and unexpected. Quite the opposite in fact. These new songs sound more focused, beautiful and impressive than just about anything they’ve ever done. Nobody quite sounded like them during their initial run in the late ’90s and early ’00s, and nobody still sounds like them today. To those that would say this is a classic case of absence making the heart grow fonder, there’s an equally compelling argument to be made that expectations have only grown for the band in their time away. Just take groups like Pixies or Pavement as examples. Both went away for awhile and left some seriously important and great music in their wake. Upon their return, they chose to tour and only play their old stuff. Pavement has once more vanished into the ether, a band of myth and legend, while Pixies continue to tour and rake in cash almost exclusively because they can. But for so many success stories that don’t want to or are afraid to mess with their back catalogue and legacies, there are the ones that push forwards and hope for the best. Dinosaur Jr. and Guided By Voices are two good examples of bands with solid second halves of their careers (so far), while grunge stalwarts like Stone Temple Pilots and Soundgarden seem to be having the opposite effect with their “comeback” records. But getting back to Godspeed, perhaps they avoided some of the backlash that’s associated with comeback records because of the quick turnaround they pulled. Announcing a new album and then immediately selling it at shows followed by a traditional store release two weeks later didn’t give anybody time to react. With prejudging almost entirely removed from the equation, the collective listening experience has been tempered and thoughtful and understandably gobsmacked at how excellent these songs really are.

It’s a huge help that two of the songs on Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! are tracks the band was playing around with since 2003. There are live recordings of “Mladic” (formerly known as “Albanian”) and “We Drift Like Worried Fire” (formerly known as “Gamelan”) from the pre-hiatus period, making their studio recorded inclusion here a satisfactory note for long-time fans. What’s most fascinating is how much both of the songs evolved due to time and the addition of new players. They’ve kept many of the same parts so they’re recognizable as the same songs from years ago, but so much has also been re-imagined and re-purposed to give these songs a fuller and more dynamic feel. “Mladic” is heavier and more visceral than ever, slowly building over its 20 minutes with Middle Eastern-style guitars before hitting its stride in the final seven minutes with pure noise and intense orchestral changes. Rarely have GY!BE gone so dark, but it’s also immensely important that they do take those emotions to heart as part of a healthy balance with the lighter fare. It’s an exploration and ultimately expulsion of their demons, filtered through the glasses of an influential band like Swans. Once all that hand wringing finishes in dramatic fashion, relief and calm take over and provide solemn guidance through the rest of the record. “We Drift Like Worried Fire” is positively placid by comparison, and in fact shows off the band’s tender and minimalist side. Starting with precious few notes on a guitar, the track accrues more and more elements to create a lush stew of infinitely measurable beauty that is likely to make the boys in Sigur Ros jealous. At that point in time, about 10 minutes in, a peak is hit and there’s a sudden explosion of joyous emotion and sonic glory that is just about enough to restore your faith in humanity whether you lost it or not. The whole world suddenly fades away so you can be fully present in that moment because it is a knockout punch.

Naturally, the two shorter tracks on Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, clocking in at 6.5 minutes apiece, can feel like stopgaps compared to the duo of big showcase 20 minute monstrosities. If you buy the album on vinyl, “Their Helicopters’ Sing” and “Strung Like Lights at Thee Printemps Erable” don’t even make the main 12″ but are instead relegated to a separate 7″. That doesn’t make them outcasts though, and if you buy a digital or CD copy of the record their placement at tracks two and four creates a nice buffer between the longer pieces and allows the group to continue to throw curveballs and variations in their already distinct sound. Both tracks are drones that are positively hypnotic when listened to with eyes closed and a clear mind. “Strung Like Lights at Thee Printemps Erable” shows off a little more instability than its nearly equal length counterpart, but both bear an eerie sonic resemblance to some great moments on the F#A#∞ record. It’s just another great reminder that no other band has quite the mastery of sound or has carved such a distinct place for themselves in the world of post-rock. No matter the state of the genre right now or in the future, there’s very little that can change the power and emotional wallop this record packs into its four tracks and 53 minutes. We’ve missed you, Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Welcome back.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Mladic

Buy Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! from Constellation Records

Snapshot Review: How to Dress Well – Total Loss [Acephale/Weird World]

How to Dress Well, aka Tom Krell, doesn’t make music that’s easy to listen to or enjoy by any stretch of the imagination. That can also be considered part of his charm though, that he doesn’t bow to anyone’s standards. There are influences, that’s to be sure, and you could hear flashes of Bobby Brown or Michael Jackson in some of the tracks on HTDW’s 2010 debut album Love Remains. Those influences were filtered through Krell’s unique lens, and there was such a lo-fi, effect-laden treatment to everything that it often felt like you were listening to an R&B record underwater. Krell’s falsetto vocals also tended to sound like they were recorded from the opposite side of a room, the distance providing a chasm of disconnection against the intimacy of the lyrics. It was a symbolic gesture more than anything else, as we’d later come to find out that his struggles with depression have often kept his family and friends at arm’s length. That more or less informs how the new HTDW record Total Loss functions, although this time the production work has become more polished and easier to listen to. Krell is also much more up-front and personal this time too, and it makes for an open wound of a record that’s an emotional wrecking ball with a heavy dose of beautiful composition. The R&B flavor is still present on this album, but it’s a little more scaled back and minimalist in terms of composition. There are plenty more icy textures that glide and drift past instead of big beats and vocal posturing. If you’re expecting a bunch of “Ready for the World” clones to create clear highlights across this album, you will probably end up sorely disappointed. There are tracks like “Cold Nites” and “& It Was You” that are some of the most fascinating and complex pieces Krell has ever put together, and while their melodies affixed with accoutrements like finger snaps and intense vocal harmonies may have a lighthearted air to them, the lyrics are anything but. Where this record truly excels though are in the moments when atmosphere truly takes over and beauty shines through. There are post rock symphonic bits like “World I Need You, Won’t Be Without You (Proem)” and “Talking to You” that cut so deeply while saying so little that you halfway expect Krell to turn into Sigur Ros at times. That’s a very good thing, and it shows plenty of promise for his future records. Then again, those same sorts of elements were all over last year’s Just Once EP, and they’re only minimally represented on Total Loss. In a sense, the mixture of different styles on this record can make it seem less than cohesive at times, and the lack of important benchmarks across the whole thing can leave it feeling a little front-loaded. This isn’t a perfect album, nor does it quite accomplish the great things Love Remains was able to do. What truly holds this record together in spite of everything are the lyrics, which tend to devastate at every turn. But while this record weaves its way through darkness, the end starts to shine some light through in a powerful and meaningful way. “Set It Right,” in which Krell names the many friends and family members both living and dead that he’s loved and cared for in spite of everything, is probably the most important track on the entire record. “As far as love goes, it’s one step at a time,” he sings like somebody hoping to rebuild a long dead or dormant connection. With any luck, this album marks yet another step in the right direction for How to Dress Well.

How to Dress Well – Ocean Floor for Everything
How to Dress Well – Cold Nites (Pete Swanson Remix)

How to Dress Well – & It Was U

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Album Review: Efterklang – Piramida [4AD]

Have you heard Efterklang’s 2004 debut album Tripper? If not, now’s as good of a time as any to look it up. Spotify can help you out on that one if needed. Anyways, back then the Danish band had about 10 members and created atmospheric post-rock soundscapes that effectively brought to mind Sigur Ros with a little more electronic undercurrent. Fast forward to the present, and Efterklang is now a three-piece band that more or less creates beautiful and heartfelt pop songs. The difference is pretty huge, though it helps that they retain small pieces of their earlier selves. You can’t quite blame the band for wanting to find true success, but the way they’ve gone about it sometimes feels like too huge of a sacrifice. A lot of the elements that made them distinctively great have been washed away to make melodies easier to digest and remember. That’s largely what sabotaged their last album, 2010’s Magic Chairs. In preparation for the release of their new album Piramida, the band released a trailer that shows some of the lengths they went to in generating audio samples for it. In short, they traveled to Spitsbergen, Russia, located on the edge of the North Pole and home to Pyramiden, a town that was abandoned in the ’90s and remains as a decaying ruin today. They climbed inside huge, hollow tanks and recorded vocals and noises with the impressive echoes. They ran down boardwalks and plinked glass bottles with the microphones capturing it all – over 1,000 samples used across the album. Such effort is more than admirable, as not many artists would go to such lengths to add such unique charms to their records.

If you give a really close listen to the entire record, the little effects become that much more apparent and make what you’re hearing immensely more impressive. The only percussion on “Dreams Today” is the sound of footsteps across wooden planks. “Told to Be Fine” has a large hollow metal object being struck by something that sounds like but probably isn’t a basketball, while “The Living Layer” makes use of the many ways glass transforms sound when tapped at different angles and levels. Charming and well placed as all these elements might be, if you didn’t know to listen for them you probably wouldn’t notice or care where they came from. Efterklang might well be amateur foley artists, adding sound effects to movies after the fact because camera microphones didn’t pick them up properly. The point being, almost all of it could have been recreated in the studio without the need to go to an abandoned ghost town near the North Pole. That shouldn’t lessen or cheapen the experience of listening to Piramida because clearly the band was inspired by their trip in the right ways, but you are left wondering if they could have done something more or different with what they collected during their journey. For example, to make an atmospheric, post rock record like their earlier work using these sounds would be inventive and set them apart from their peers. Sadly, they didn’t do that. What they did do was create a smart and beautiful pop record that will impress you the more time you spend with it. The intricacies of opening track “Hollow Mountain” begin to reveal themselves once you realize it stacks upon itself by starting with a slow music box-like churn and not even launching into the first verse until two minutes have passed. From there, strings and horns all show up and eventually vanish amid icy synths, martial percussion and Casper Clausen’s relaxed vocal. The song makes for a decent single, but “Apples” which follows it is probably just a touch catchier and more upbeat.

There’s nothing on Piramida that’s intensely happy or toe-tappingly fun, but no matter what mood or shape the songs seem to take, they’re almost all compelling in one aspect or another. “The Ghost” starts innocently enough, but builds with unique percussion and harmonized vocals before entering a hornet’s nest of brass that eerily and enviously recalls Radiohead’s classic “The National Anthem” at its most frenetic point. Ballads like “Sedna” and closer “Monument” stand as particularly strong examples of how measured and carefully plotted arrangements can exude passion and elegance with lyrics that just as equally inspire. If this album has one unabashed highlight though, it comes from the 6.5 minute “Black Summer,” which transforms itself over its run time via intense build ups and releases aided along the way by stark piano work, the South Denmark Girls Choir and a jazzy little saxophone solo at the end. It’s exactly the sort of song you wish was the blueprint for the entire record, best blending the band’s earlier work with their more recent stuff. Alas, they don’t all operate at such a high level even if they’re all successful in one aspect or another.

It’s both a help and a hindrance to Piramida that despite their common elements each track could stand up well on its own. On the one hand, you want each individual track to be as strong as possible so you can drop in anywhere on the album and enjoy it. On the other hand, you also want that sense of wholeness in a record, where the entire thing goes down effortlessly in one 45 minute chunk. Efterklang aren’t quite able to strike the right balance here, which ultimately weakens the album’s overall impact just a touch. A bigger issue is the band’s indecisive nature when it comes to their sound. The atmospherics they’re creating are undoubtedly gorgeous, but they often feel taken down a notch when paired with more standard choruses. If they just surrendered to the melody instead of shoehorning differing structures in, the album would lose a lot of commercial viability but gain a greater sense of exploration and originality. Sometimes it’s more about the risks you don’t take than the ones you do, which is absolutely the case here. Still, what we do get from this record is largely quality, and a marked improvement over their last couple efforts. Let’s hope it’ll only get better from here, and that they won’t have to go to the other side of the world to make that happen.

Efterklang – Apples

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Snapshot Review: DIIV – Oshin [Captured Tracks]

Let’s just get a couple need-to-know bits of information taken care of right away. DIIV is the band formed by Beach Fossils touring guitarist Zachary Cole Smith. They used to be called Dive, but decided a few months ago to change it because a Belgian band has been using the moniker for more than a decade. Now when you write DIIV, you’ll know exactly what band is being talked about. After signing to Captured Tracks last fall, they released a few 7″ singles to quite a bit of buzz. Their full length debut Oshin is hot off the presses, pulling together most of those singles along with a bunch of new material. As to DIIV’s sound, it fits well under the label of dream pop, but plays with the conventions of that genre just a bit to make you question whether it’s properly applied here. Many of the songs on the album are instrumental, or at least instrumental adjacent. The ones that do have lyrics are often buried, processed or echoed to the point where you can’t make out what’s being said anyways. The times you can are typically when the song title is repeated over and over again. You’re not intended to gain understanding or purpose from the words; it’s the melodies and the way they’re presented that affect your enjoyment of this record. In that sense the listening experience is like that of a post-rock album, only with each journey packed into three minutes instead of eight. Surrender yourself to the waves of guitar washing over you and get transported to another time and place. There’s plenty of beauty to be found in these tracks, but it’s often the muscular kind of Explosions in the Sky rather than the more subtle crest and fall of Sigur Ros. It’s best on display via “Doused,” which brings forth an intensity and tension the rest of the album lacks. Placed at almost the very end of the record though, it’s off-the-map thrill ride vibe feels like a reward rather than a way to show up everything that came before it. Oshin actually thrives because of the way the whole thing is arranged. Individual highlights like “Human,” “How Long Have You Known?” and “Sometime” are parsed out generously from start to finish, and though the moments in between can sometimes sound like unimportant interludes, everything is essential if you listen to the record in its entirety in order. While the shimmering guitars are probably the most stand-out thing about the album, DIIV’s secret weapon is the rhythm section. It gives the record heft and propels things forward rather than simply allowing it to float in the ether. That’s an essential component giving the band more gravitas and separating them from similar-sounding peers. Oshin might not be the home run the band was hoping to hit in their first time at bat, but it’s a very strong triple that shows serious promise for the future. You couldn’t ask for much more.

DIIV – How Long Have You Known?

DIIV – Doused

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Album Review: Sigur Rós – Valtari [XL]

Nobody makes a record quite like Sigur Rós. Many have tried, and all have failed. This niche they have carved out for themselves puts them in a rather unique position; one where expectations are almost simply that they just make music that sounds beautiful. The consumate professionals they are though, the band hasn’t simply rested on their laurels and made the same record five times over. They’ve spent the last 15 years refining and twisting their post-rock crescendos in new and exciting ways that may not always have worked but still kept fans engaged. They earned so much credit for the brilliance of Ágaetis Byrjun that nobody even blinked an eye when they invented their own language. The point was to show how the voice is but another instrument, and you don’t need words to express your feelings if the melody already does that for you. They furthered that point by titling their 2002 record (), with a track listing that was (for all practical purposes) “Untitled #1” through “Untitled #8”. They followed that record up with Takk, an album that pushed at the edges of restraint and took on a sunnier, more explosive disposition. Yet that still didn’t quite prepare you for 2008’s Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, which featured the band trying to trim the bloat of some of their grandest and most atmospheric work in an effort to fully harness those moments of pure release. The shift was both a blessing and a curse. Great as it was to hear Sigur Rós breaking out of their mold a little bit, they didn’t fully commit to the idea and the album wound up uneven as a result.

After more than a decade of the recording and touring cycle, Sigur Rós decided to take a bit of a hiatus in 2009 to spend time with family or work on other projects. Frontman Jónsi Birgisson first made an atmospheric instrumental record with his boyfriend Alex Somers called Riceboy Sleeps, then took on a legitimate solo album that was heavy on pop and light on atmosphere. The band tried to keep up with their schedule of releasing an album every 2-3 years by unleashing Inni last year, a double disc live album and DVD recorded at a couple shows the band played in London in 2008. That served as a great reminder of how the band’s catalogue has evolved over the years, though it didn’t do much to hint at where they might head next. In an interview in the Wall Street Journal late last year, band members described their new album Valtari as “introverted,” “floaty and minimal,” “ambient” and “a slow takeoff toward something.” All too often what the music makers hear versus what the music listeners hear tends to be two different things, but in this rare case the record comes as described. That can be a positive or a negative depending on how you look at it.

If you were thrilled by how Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust changed the game for Sigur Rós by taking them in a poppier, freak-folkish direction, Valtari will instantly feel like a betrayal of that and a step backwards. Fans of the band’s earlier material that was largely atmospheric and measured should find solace that the new album is ingrained with that same spirit. Yet it’s still missing one essential component. For years, the best word to describe Sigur Rós was “epic.” Jónsi would play his guitar with a violin bow, and the noise would be so expansive it could topple mountains and carve out canyons. The visual representations of the music are intended to be equally impactful. In their video for “Glósóli” kids jump off an oceanside cliff, and their video for “Untitled #1” has schoolkids playing outside in a post-apocalyptic wasteland while wearing gas masks and building snowmen out of ash. As a mode of contrast, the video for Valtari‘s first single “Ekki Múkk” is nearly eight minutes of grainy footage showing a boat floating through the air over the ocean. That does not lend itself well to the word “epic”, and neither does the song. So while this record might be long on mood and time, it comes up short on big moments. That doesn’t make it bad, just once again different from everything else they’ve done.

The classic Sigur Rós move is to steadily build tension within a track and then give release in an outpouring of noise. That’s the standard for post-rock in general, actually. The closest thing you’ll get to that on Valtari is “Varúð”, which develops into an ocean of loud right around the 4.5 minute mark. A track like “Rembihnútur” however, becomes loud out of sheer necessity given the number of instruments and moving parts attempting to fit into that space. Graceful orchestral swells primarily take the place of widescreen guitars, and percussion seems to be a second thought or entirely forgotten on many of the songs. Similar things could be said about Jónsi, whose vocal presence vanishes entirely from the last third of the record. As one of the band’s most unique and greatest assets, his absence is felt the most, even if he’s pounding the keys on stark piano-driven pieces like “Varðeldur” and “Fjögur Píanó” instead of singing. But such twists are part of what make Sigur Rós such a compelling band to listen to time and time again. Just when you think they’re headed into autopilot, they hang a left and take a new road.

With the consistent sonic maneuvering between records, one of these days Sigur Rós is going to turn down the wrong path. Valtari could well be start of the band’s slow decline from their mountaintop. The record’s biggest strength and weakness is its complacency. Six albums in, so many of us want more with each new release, and this album is one case where the band is giving us less. The soundtrack to the most immense and incredible natrual wonders of the world has been replaced by the experience of sitting by a lake in the woods at sunset. The way the light shimmers off the calm water is breathtakingly gorgeous, but plenty of people will shrug their shoulders and ask where the beaches and waves are. For an oft minimalist record such as this, sometimes you need to just sit back and appreciate how little it takes to craft something that’s meaningful and emotionally stirring. Sit in the dark and let the music steamroll over you, giving it your full and undivided attention for an hour. If you can’t detect the care, precision and love poured into it, perhaps this isn’t the record for you. This is one for the socially awkward, the mentally calm and the extremely artistic. It stands to be their most divisive long player to date. Whether you love it or hate it or simply feel indifferent about it, you still can’t deny this album is anything less than beautiful. From that point it’s just a matter of if that beauty goes beyond skin deep.

Sigur Rós – Ekki múkk

Buy Valtari from Amazon

Album Review: Explosions in the Sky – Take Care, Take Care, Take Care [Temporary Residence Ltd.]

Explosions in the Sky have reached what some might call an impasse in their careers. After churning out 5 albums in 7 years, almost all of which featured their signature and exciting instrumental post-rock sound, they simply vanished for a period of time. 2007’s “All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone” may not have been their strongest effort, but it did do the best for them sales-wise, a likely response to their relentless cycle of recording and touring over the previous few years. Explosions in the Sky are, after all, a thrill to see live, often attacking their songs four electric guitars at a time and not being shy about meandering into extensive and thrashing solos. When you don’t have any singing or lyrics to back you up, that just puts more pressure to keep crowds engaged in what you’re doing, and these guys handle it better than most vocal-heavy bands. They’re also smart and creative enough to differentiate themselves from a number of their counterparts such as Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor via the way they approach each song, sticking to their guitars and meandering through soundscapes rather than establishing the long-running dynamic of the slow build to explosive noise. This is the style that has sustained the band for the entirety of their existence, which hasn’t really needed changing because of its originality but nevertheless might have been getting a little tiresome around 2007. So they vanished for just a little bit, hopefully to think about what they’ve done and where they’ve been and if they could creatively sustain themselves for presumably another few records. So unlike the amazing TV show “Friday Night Lights” which they soundtracked, which is ending this year after five seasons, Explosions in the Sky have chosen to return for their sixth record, “Take Care, Take Care, Take Care”.

If you’ve heard an Explosions in the Sky record before, you can take comfort (and care) that “Take Care, Take Care, Take Care” doesn’t do anything to change that dynamic. If anything, this new album is more like a reboot of the EITS sound, bringing things back to their most basic elemental core and doing away with any small indulgences that may have been made on the last couple records (see: piano). Once again the carefully crafted songs are distinctive only to this band, and they prove not only to themselves but everyone else that they know exactly what they’re doing. Many other, relatively similar bands have come and gone these last 10 years, but these guys remain because of their tenacity and smart compositions. The power as well, that invisible driving force behind the music, remains intact along with the ability for these songs to evoke strong emotions ranging from a dark sadness to trembling joy and everything in between. While the band does more often than not take the studious approach with 6+ minute passages, at times they’re able to collapse their ideas down to a normal song length, as “Trembling Hands” does with 3.5 minutes of pure energy, a deft pace established at the outset by some heavy percussion and later met with equal vigor by the guitars. The 8 minutes of “Human Qualities” is purely fascinating for the way it slowly spirals downward into near silence before naturally rebuilding to an even stronger place than where it began. The true highlights of the record though come with the final two tracks. After two sparsely plucked electric guitars spend the first three minutes of “Postcard From 1952” meandering and weaving around one another, the drums begin to stir along with the harmonic mixture of the guitars. The notes themselves prove to be just as compelling as two human voices harmonizing on the high and low end of the same note. The heaviness builds to a tipping point, and as the chords begin to reach red levels, there’s a pull back where everything just calms down and peters out. It’s not about denying what might otherwise be viewed as a tension-relieving payout, but rather exercising restraint in the face of mounting pressure. Very few bands can pull that off in a compelling fashion, and Explosions in the Sky is one of them.

What the closing track “Let Me Back In” does is point squarely in the direction of a future for a band that until recently questioning whether it even had one in the first place. Beginning with a highly muffled tape of a woman speaking slowly twists and turns into a soundscape that is at war with itself. One minute it’s subdued and wandering in a daze while the next it’s charging forwards with the force of a thousand elephants complete with machine gun drumming and white noise guitars that consistently pile on top of one another. It is both a spectacular example of where they came from and their roots inspired by way of Mogwai but also marks progression. There are small pieces in the track’s 10 minute duration that mark new and unexplored territory for Explosions in the Sky. The progression of the song itself is more structured and strategic than before, with not only a clear beginning, middle and end, but also a full circle logic where the song ends exactly where it began – with 30 seconds of this muffled woman crying out into the darkness all alone as the world fades to black around her. Not the most pleasant thought, and it’s not the most pleasant song from the band, but not many people listen to this band to be put in a good mood. It’s the epic closer “Take Care, Take Care, Take Care” needs though. While the record itself doesn’t feature the band at the height of their 2003 “Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place” powers, it does serve as a strong reminder of exactly how this band has lasted so long, and why they’ll probably survive another 10 years if they really want to.

Buy “Take Care, Take Care, Take Care” from Amazon

Show Review: Godspeed You! Black Emperor [The Vic; Chicago; 3/28/11]

Upon announcing their impending return nearly a year ago, Godspeed You! Black Emperor laid out a plan that essentially involved touring around the world from December through the end of March and nothing more beyond that. They would not be considering any offers for interviews nor would they be booking any more tour dates beyond the pre-determined countries and cities until they had some serious time to think about it. Well, the band has done exactly as they said they would, save for the couple of Canadian tour dates that were added for the end of April. Those Canadian dates are all that’s left, save for the final U.S. date in Detroit this evening. But for the past three nights, GYBE has established a sold out residency in Chicago, playing at the historic Metro twice and The Vic Theatre last night. If you know anybody that attended all three of those Chicago shows, or multiple dates in a row in another city, you might want to check on them to make sure they’re okay. Seeing this band live puts a tremendous physical and mental strain on a person, and to do so over and over again can destroy the unprepared.

The stage setup is rather simple and unassuming upon looking at it with the lights up, but that’s kind of the point, as the focus is not to be directed towards the band members. Instead, when the lights do dim and the band members begin to emerge one by one on stage, they’re moving in the shadows and remain so for the duration of the show. Only minimal overhead lighting allows for them to see their instruments and one another as needed. The main visual part of the performance, nearly as important as the audio portion, is plastered onto a large screen behind the band via multiple film projectors. During the quieter moments, if you were standing in the right place, you could hear the clicking of the film and the whirring of the projectors as they presented stimulating and thought-provoking images as a companion to the songs. Speaking of quieter moments though, at a Godspeed You! Black Emperor show it is essential to show the utmost respect for the performance and hold your tongue for the duration and only applaud during the transitions between songs. Apparently some people at The Vic did not get that message, because between the two guys standing in front of me that insisted on talking much of the time and the drunk girl that kept yelling things at the band whenever the room fell silent, there were a few times when it was easy to get pulled out of the musical trance and back to the reality of being trapped in a large room with some idiots. As is their way, the band never actually uttered a word the entire time they were on stage, allowing their instrumental compositions and their visual counterparts do all the speaking for them.

One of the most fascinating things about Godspeed You! Black Emperor in general is just how they take the elements of traditional post-rock and turn them in many respects on their head. The way the violin and cello create this often sad symphonic side works in tandem with the ever-building guitar melodies until it all crescendos into a massive wave of punishing heavy metal is unparalleled today and a big reason why GYBE is such a revered collective. On its own, the band’s catalogue is best digested by yourself with headphones on and a dimly lit room free of distractions. Establishing the right atmosphere is key to opening your mind to the possibilities each track explores. Severe emotional states are also common when listening to the band, as one song may push your eyes to well up with tears and another might have you fearing for your own life. That’s a big part of the mental toll the music can take on you, and matched with the visual aspect of their live performance it gains even more power. The black and white footage of desolate country roads and empty buildings make you feel lonely even in a room filled with people. Billowing smoke and raging house fires help showcase the scary power that nature can play in our lives, though it may also have you wondering how you might be able to get out of the venue were a similar emergency suddenly emerge. Pages of the book “The Anatomy of Melancholy” slide past on one side of the screen, while on the other grainy strips of film are burnt, laying to waste captured images somebody undoubtedly hoped would remain permanent. No, the GYBE live show is not an exercise in fun or optimism, but then again neither is your average symphony or opera. The sweeping drama of it all and the way we relate to the elements at play determine what we get out of the experience.

The physical toll a Godspeed You! Black Emperor show has on you is also a comination of things. The most robust moments in any individual song can give your eardrums a heavy shaking both via headphones and at a concert venue, but when seen live that shaking hits your whole body. You get pummeled by a wall of sheer noise that only gets worse the closer in proximity you are to the stage. Adding to that is the general difficulty of standing in the same place for 2+ hours while experiencing this. In an ideal situation, GYBE would be playing in seated theatres or churches with pews. The Vic does have a couple of small seated sections, but everything else is standing room only, which is how most experienced the show on Monday night. I stood the entire time and by about mid-way through the set needed to lean on a railing next to me out of concern that I might collapse, the physical and mental exhaustion finally overtaking me. It may sound like an overreaction, but a number of people around me walked away at various points to seek out potential seats in a balcony area. The good news is that everybody seemed to weather the storm okay, though that’s not to say many weren’t shaken. And in the midst of the simply mesmerizing set, there was still a lot of excitement over both the general experience as well as hearing GYBE “classics” like “Gathering Storm”, “Sleep” and “World Police and Friendly Fire”. It was a night most if not everyone will not soon forget, a testament to the raw power of this band and the indelible mark their records have left on people that have heard them. If you’ve already seen them live, you understand what I’m talking about. If not, there’s but a few dates left for you to experience this before the band’s future once again falls into jeopardy. For the rest, live recordings and YouTube videos will have to suffice, of which many do a solid job showing off exactly what you missed. Godspeed You! Black Emperor start all of their shows with the song “Hope Drone”, during which the titular word “Hope” is projected onto the screen behind the band members as they each emerge onto the stage. As the show wraps up and things descend into white noise and visual static, and we walk away barely on our own two feet, that hope somehow still remains. Let’s try as hard as we can to keep it alive for as long as possible, that Godspeed will continue beyond their current expiration date of April 2011.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Yanqui U.X.O.

Buy “Yanqui U.X.O.” from Constellation Records
Buy “Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada” from Constellation Records
Buy “F#A#∞” from Concstellation Records

Album Review: Mogwai – Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will [Sub Pop/Rock Action]

It’s still very early in 2011, but I’ll put down money right now that no band comes up with a better album title this year than “Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will”. That’s what Mogwai titled their seventh album, and when you’ve been making people’s ears bleed profusely the last 15 years with your excruciatingly loud rock music, that’s a title you earn. Yes, this band has been making post-rock music since the time that post-rock probably wasn’t even a term. They’re one of the originators of the genre, and it’s appropriate that they burst onto the scene with their best and most exciting record in the form of 1997’s “Young Team”. Mogwai are also the sort of band that profusely divides music lovers, some view their songs as noise for noise’s sake, while others studiously analyze each composition for the peaks and valleys and undulating beauty of it all. The thing about being around for so long and putting out so many albums though is that you can’t keep doing the same things over and over again. Like any good band, changing up your sound and trying new things is imperative to your survival. Mogwai’s first album was so raw and ferociously loud that it metaphorically scorched the Earth. Since then, they’ve gotten quieter and more studious, pushing for greater beauty in their tracks. The last couple records sounded more like a band on their last legs, tired and worn out and punching those chords in without too much emotion. Yet a song like “The Sun Smells Too Loud”, off 2008’s “The Hawk Is Howling” still broke into new territory by putting away a lot of the guitars in favor of keyboards, synths and a drum machine. It was the singularly arresting moment on an otherwise mediocre effort, but it left the door open to some ways they might be able to break their sound through to the next level.

Instead of taking that leap forwards to where they need to go, Mogwai instead chose to look to their past for “Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will”. They reconnected with “Young Team” producer Paul Savage, likely in the hopes that he would drag out the spark that he first saw in a very young group of guys from Glasgow. The good news is that Savage seems to have brought the band out of the funk they’d been in the last two records, because in listening to the new album you come away with the impression that they’re re-energized and enjoy making music again. As for the songs themselves, well, a bit of restored energy can only take you so far; creativity and innovation have to take you the rest of the way. Opening track “White Noise” marks perhaps the most lackluster start to a Mogwai album ever, but that doesn’t mean the song is necessarily bad. It’s graceful and lovely and embraces you with some soft piano while resisting some of the post-rock cliches of slowly building to a loud guitar peak. The restraint shown is admirable, even if it doesn’t get you fired up for the other songs to come. And as a continued sign of progression, “Mexican Grand Prix” is all synths, keyboards, bass and drum machines in what amounts to a dark electro-inspired cut. There’s a strong 80s influence that might bring to mind a band like Neu! or Kraftwerk with a more modern M83-like twist. It sounds almost nothing like the Mogwai we’re familiar with and that’s one of the big reasons why it’s one of the record’s strongest efforts. If only they’d do more of it. Fuzzed out electric guitars are the very first things that seduce you into “Rano Pano”, and they pretty much stay that way as other small bits and pieces come together to create a wall of sound that’s pretty much become a band standard by now. There is a moment though, with about 90 seconds left in the track that the volume level escalates from 2 to 10 in an instant that comes across as something invigorating and visceral like many of Mogwai’s earliest material. Unfortunately that’s just a few moments on an otherwise very autopiloted song.

The way that the guitars, synths and piano all interact on “Death Rays” turns it into a shimmering and soaring spectacle better than Mogwai has done in several years. It’s another one of those restrained moments where the band takes a subdued melody and makes it their own in the best sort of way. The buzzsaw electric guitar that cuts through the fray in the last couple minutes is also one of the best riffs they’ve cranked out in a short while. Things get back to “rocking out” mode again with “San Pedro”, yet another bit of normalcy for Mogwai, though with the added benefit of sounding just a touch more raw and energized than much of what was on their last album. Or it could just be that it sounds more white hot than usual because of the quieter, more beautiful moments it’s surrounded by. The grand piano and splashes of keyboard on “Letters to the Metro” give the track a very soulful base along with emotional resonance that is sad but cathartic. Mogwai likes to use distortion on their vocals when they have them on a track, and they break out the Autotune for “George Square Thatcher Death Party”. The guitars may be mixed pretty significantly into the song, but they’re the least important part of it next to that pitch-shifted singing and smartly used synths. The way that “How to Be A Werewolf” calmly moves from subdued synths to a really sharp rock song feels completely earned over its 6 minutes. The band doesn’t blind or deafen you with pure noise but instead relies on strong melody amidst the heavier guitars. The way they squirm and slide rather than simply attack head on shows that Mogwai has learned a thing or two in their somewhat lengthy careers. “Too Raging to Cheers” is one of the more lackluster efforts on the album, notable really only for the small dose of violin that shows up all too briefly for a few moments. But what would a Mogwai album be without an epic closer? “You’re Lionel Richie” is 8.5 minutes of what this band does best, which is lull you into a false sense of relaxed beauty before pulling the rug out from underneath you with a wall of heavy guitars. It’s a dirge that likely hopes you’ll recall similar death marches “Like Herod” or “Mogwai Fear Satan”, the only thing is this one’s not quite up to that level of brilliance. Even if it were, there’s the whole “done it all before” aspect that would lessen its overall impact anyways. Just because the song isn’t among Mogwai’s 5 best doesn’t mean it’s still not good though. There’s plenty to like about it, and in terms of a way to wrap up the record nothing else seems as fitting.

“Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will” may not be the greatest Mogwai record, but it is a very exciting one. The band seems more awake and aware of their history and are trying to move in a direction that both honors that and also progresses forwards. The increased use of piano and synths on many tracks breaks out some different sounds and tempos as the band holds back on a number of peaks and valleys they’d normally traverse with the quiet-loud-quiet dynamic of electric guitars. This is engaging material despite the subdued nature of it all, though some will argue that it’s just a bit boring. At the very least it’s better than what they’ve been doing, essentially stuck and running in place on their last couple efforts. There are a couple songs on this album that either don’t quite live up to their potential or slide backwards into the same tropes that have become old hat by now, but for the most part Mogwai is in a better place than they were two or three years ago. Hopefully these new, less heavy compositions don’t do much to change the intensity of their live shows, which is the best thing about the band. Apparently so is producer Paul Savage. We can’t quite roll out the “Welcome Back” banners for these guys just yet, but if they keep steady on the path they’ve started anew here, Mogwai could very well be rising from the ashes within a few years. Maybe there is a chance they’ll make that genre-defining album before they reach an expiration date.

Mogwai – Rano Pano
Mogwai – San Pedro

Buy “Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will” from Amazon

Album Review: Yuck – Yuck [Fat Possum]

Considering the reverence with which everyone speaks about the 90s, it should come as little surprise that they’re experiencing a bit of a revival right now. Of course these various decade genre revivals are coming quicker than ever these days as more acts are paying close homage to their influences rather than adventuring out of the box a bit more and attempting something new. The 80s sprung back to life courtesy of The Killers and the host of other bands that rode the same wave to success. There hasn’t really been a singular trigger for this “return to the 90s” movement, but a whole bunch of reunions probably has something to do with it, as much if not more than 90s-leaning bands like Japandroids, Surfer Blood, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and No Age have these last couple years. At the very least, those of us that lived through the 90s and loved the music from it are now given a chance to in some senses re-live a lot of those things once again from an older and wiser viewpoint. Also, those significantly younger kids born in the 90s now have a good introduction to an era that they probably never knew in infancy. So long as we’re giving the 90s a second time over though, let’s try to be just a little more critical and careful about what bands thrive and which ones can go ignored. By now most of us should know better, right? It is with that mindset you’re invited to have a glance at the world of Yuck. Here’s a group of young guys from the UK that have clearly obsessed over guitar squalor and art-pop of the 90s and their self-titled debut album not only proves this but on that same token smartly elevates them to nearly the level of the greats they’ve learned so much from.

From the very first notes of energetic album opener “Get Away”, Yuck have instantly transported you back to a time when the fuzzed-out electric guitar was king. There’s a heavy crunch of a melody that envelops you as singer/guitarist Daniel Blumberg’s vocals come filtered through a layer of grittiness and crackle that has an almost Malkmus-esque Pavement feel. Additionally, there’s a squiggly, high-pitched guitar solo that emerges above the fray a number of times on the track that’s eerily reminiscent of J. Mascis and Dinosaur Jr. Not a lot of bands can pull that off convincingly, but Yuck do it not only on “Get Away”, but also on “Holing Out” and “Operation” as well without even blinking. Distortion pedals take over in full on “The Wall”, a pretty jangly number that’s quite catchy with a Guided By Voices/Pavement vibe to it. The vocals are so buried and undercut that at times the guitars just completely overtake everything standing in their way, much like the proverbial “wall” in the song’s title and lyrics. Acoustic guitars, crisp vocals and harmonies on “Shook Down” do a lot to change the vibe of the record and display some sonic diversity from Yuck in the early goings. It’s one of those sad-sack teenage ballads with just a hint of pep in its step despite the yearning aspects. It’s also a nice change of pace between the loud (but fun) guitar sandwich of “The Wall” and “Holing Out”. Teenage Fanclub meets Elliott Smith courtesy of the acoustic “Suicide Policeman”, just as an almost sunny melody complete with harmonies, xylophones and horns meets some not entirely upbeat lyrics. Still, the track is one of a handful of exceptional standouts that also includes the song that follows it, the classic Yo La Tengo-baiting “Georgia”. The male-female harmonies are used exceptionally well next to the energetic, distorted electric guitars and a stronger-than-usual rhythm section that really carries the track. For a song like “Stutter”, you get the impression you’ve heard a number of ballads just like it before from a number of different bands in a number of different places, but can’t ever quite put your finger on just when or where. That’s actually a big part of Yuck’s charm, in that they’re able to bring a whole lot of fond memories to mind but never so explicitly that you feel like they’re ripping somebody off. It’s just original and dynamic enough to work in their favor. There’s something R.E.M.-ish about “SUnday”, and most likely it’s the way the guitars function in the song because it’s definitely not the vocals. Either way, the song is just another one of the many late album delights hiding out where you least expect them. Just before closing things out, Yuck throws an instrumental our way courtesy of “Rose Gives A Lilly”. It does what any lovely post-rock inspired instrumental should do, which is hold our attention for the duration. Things move organically then into the 7+ minute post-rock/shoegaze finale of “Rubber”. The song trudges along in slow-burn fashion, like watching a house engulfed in flames via slow motion. There’s a dark and sinister quality to the sheer squalls of noise that wash over you time and time again, but it’s immensely beautiful too. If you’ve not yet seen the music video for “Rubber”, which is “dog-gone” interesting, it brings a new-found appreciation to oddities that you can’t erase from your head but kind of don’t want to.

A big part of what makes Yuck so interesting and impressive is the variety of sounds that they explore on their debut. Sure, every song is 90s-centric in one way or another, but other than that it’s a small challenge to box them in a sonic corner. One minute they’re doing a high energy fuzzed out rock song, the next an acoustic-driven ballad and the next a gob smacking post-rock jam. None of it is particularly upbeat or happy, but when you really think about it, the 90s weren’t either. The grunge movement, among other things, was born out of frustration with growing up. Hell yes it’s tough to be a teenager today, because until they can create a pill that gets all those crazy mood swings and relationship difficulties under control, it’s going to remain tough. Yuck may not have the grunge sound, but a lot of their songs do focus on breakups and other adulthood struggles. Just barely out of their teens themselves, a lot of what’s on this self-titled album may be drawn from autobiographical experiences. The only real problem with the lyrics are that there’s the occasional clunker in there that just doesn’t quite work despite their best efforts. Those moments are few and far between though, and instrumentally things are so strong and sharp that the words matter just a little bit less. Of the many artists reaching back to the 90s for inspiration, Yuck turn out to be among the strongest thanks to those seriously great musical chops. At the end of last year, a number of publications named Yuck among the crop of fresh new artists to watch for in 2011. The good news is that they were right, and the band’s debut record is one of the stronger things released in these first couple months of the new year. Whether it can sustain such momentum and stick with people all the way through the best of’s in December, we’ll just have to play a game of wait and see on that.

Yuck – Georgia
Yuck – Rubber

Buy “Yuck” from Amazon

Click past the jump to see the music video for “Rubber” (NSFW)

Album Review: Esben and the Witch – Violet Cries [Matador]

When you name your band Esben and the Witch, bright and sunny pop music would appear to be the antithesis of the message you’re trying to communicate. Nobody in the band is named Esben, and as far as seemingly factual biographies go, nobody in the band practices witchcraft either. Instead, they took their name after the title of a Danish fairy tale, and unlike the cleaned up Disney versions of stuff, the tale of “Esben and the Witch” doesn’t have a happy ending. Watch the band’s video for “Marching Song”, and you’ll notice that one doesn’t exactly end on a positive note either (band members get increasingly bloody and beaten as things progress). Naming their debut full length “Violet Cries”, which is impressive and surprisingly original in and of itself, is yet another grand indicator of what you’ll be getting yourself into long before you even hear a single note of music. That the band largely succeeds at creating this gothic mood of darkness and dread is a strong testament to their talent and makes for an interesting auditory journey.

“Violet Cries”‘s first track “Argyria” stands as a pretty great introduction to Esben and the Witch on the whole. It creeps along slowly at first, all atmosphere and carefully picked electric guitar, then builds louder and louder with fuzz, distortion, heavy drumming and singer Rachel Davies breaking out her finest miserable wail. The louder things get, the more propulsive and menacing it is. In efforts to both show a high degree of restraint as well as sustain the song for nearly 6 minutes, things do calm down again so Davies can deliver some verses and trade all of that bloodlust for mere dread. And so it goes for the album’s duration, alternating between all the darkest of the dark textures underneath the rainbow, the guitars consistently buzzing like a man standing behind you with a chainsaw, the drums pounding with sledgehammer-like force, and all the while Davies writhes and moans like a woman possessed. Really it’s Davies’ strong and immense vocal range that gives Esben and the Witch most of their power. She’s able to go from porcelain doll to tortured soul at almost the drop of a hat, and it adds spice to moody pieces like “Marching Song” and “Warpath”.

Unfortunately, a sustained mood and a great voice only get you so far. Proper hooks are by no means essential for an album such as “Violet Cries”, but at the very least you’d like for the majority of songs to be distinctive and somewhat memorable. As it stands, about half the record achieves that, while the other half just sort of blends together with the same ominous atmosphere. Cohesiveness is key for a band such as Esben and the Witch, but when taken too far or on the fumes of an idea that’s not 100% fully developed, problems can arise as they do here. Ultimately it results in an album that’s smart and exciting and not so much innovative but done quite well, which is why Esben and the Witch have been earning a fair amount of buzz so far in 2011. That, and a few of their early tracks showed real promise. Most of those tracks once again make an appearance on “Violet Cries”, and they’re the ones that still stand the test of time as being among the band’s strongest. Hopefully this debut record acts more as a learning experience for the band, pointing them in a direction that will yield better, more revelatory results. For now though, we’re left with a solid soundtrack to a horror film, but one that occasionally has gaps where not much happens and the lead characters seem to forget there’s a killer on the loose. Perhaps the body count will be higher next time.

Esben and the Witch – Warpath

Esben and the Witch – Marching Song (Snorkel Mix)

Buy “Violet Cries” from Amazon

Album Review: Braids – Native Speaker [Kanine]

By oh so many indications, 2011 is set to be the year that post-rock finally strikes it big. There is no official explanation as to why, save for saying that the sound is simply evolving and other elements are being incorporated into the more traditional post-rock sound. Of course post-rock in and of itself is a hazy term, loose on purpose to be a catch-all for stuff that sticks out like a sore thumb when placed against a standard 3.5 minute pop song. As such it’s experimental and more often than not immensely beautiful no matter if a band is using four electric guitars or a whole orchestra to get a point across. There’s also a solid rejection of verse-chorus-verse structuring, catchy hooks, and short, to-the-point statements. Post-rock is an adventure, a journey into the vast and unknown wilderness where discovery is half the fun. It is the realm of Sigur Ros and Explosions in the Sky and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, along with Mogwai and Tortoise and Pelican. Thanks to a band like Braids and their debut record “Native Speaker” though, a musical genre that has reached something of a standard way of going about things gets reinvigorated with a few curveballs.

When reaching for their comparison chart, there’s probably higher than a 50% chance most people will try to define Braids as supremely indebted to Animal Collective. “They’re like Animal Collective, only if they came from Montreal,” somebody will say or write. While there are some similarities between the two groups, such as the somewhat liberal use of gurgling electronics and an overall natural flow to the song arrangements, there are far more differences worth paying close attention to. Braids doesn’t have much in the way of filtered/warped vocals (outside of the occasional echo effect) or harmonies. You can also understand and make sense of what singers Raphaelle Standell-Preston and Kathie Lee are singing. To put it another way, the vocals are “decipherable and intelligible”. They’re also not nearly part of the hippy-trippy freak-folk movement, because while a number of their songs are in the 6-8 minute range, there’s not a singular moment that feels over-extended or jam band-y. Think less psychedelic and more of a shoegaze-inspired pop thanks to creative arrangements and not a whole lot in the way of instrumental passages (save for the last track on the record). Of course that description doesn’t even suffice for this band, as they are notoriously hard to pin down into any one sound for too long. That’s largely why it’s easiest to put the band underneath the larger umbrella known as post-rock. Despite the apparant variations in styles from one song to the next, there are so many elements that hold steady across the record that everything comes off as striking and organic and exciting. Fuck genre tropes, Braids are content to carve their own path through this wilderness landscape.

“Native Speaker” begins with the first single and much-hyped track “Lemonade”, and it’s one hell of an introduction to Braids. While the sound of a babbling brook or creek may be confined to the opening track alone, it’s largely a statement for the entire record. The music softly and beautifully moves along, twisting and turning and moving around rocks or whatever else might be in the way. Somewhere in the distance a bird chirps, frogs jump around for fun, and occasionally a deer will come by for a drink. It takes over two minutes for “Lemonade” to reach a chorus, but that’s of little consequence since that time was so well spent building layer upon layer as keyboards pile on electronic elements pile on booming drums and finally guitars. Standell-Preston’s vocals hold a calm demeanor when they first come in, but that gets thrown pretty much to hell once she raises her voice to ask, “Have you fucked/all the stray kids yet?”. When the chorus does finally land, it’s a scorned scorcher, as the lines, “what I’ve found/is that we/are all just sleeping around” soar like they were launched off a mountaintop. The immediate lesson, and one that’s equally learned by most every track on the album, is that you don’t fuck with Raphaelle Standell-Preston in both vocal strength/range and personally as well. At seconds under 4.5 minutes, “Plath Heart” is the shortest song on “Native Speaker”, and it’s a synth-fueled dreamscape with an almost Dirty Projectors-esque bent to it. The vocals are practically cutesy and playful and a keyboard-created steel drum pushes that vibe further, but the lyrics betray that with a little bit of anti-relationship sentiment. That’s where the title really comes into play, because if you know how dark and depressing Sylvia Plath’s writing is, you know that a Plath heart isn’t something worth smiling about. A lovely lullaby is how the 8+ minute “Glass Deers” begins, with the keyboards lightly plinking as if singing you to sleep. The vocals play along too, even when Standell-Preston repeats over and over again about how she’s “fucked up”. Eventually though, while the melody remains on a lovely even keel, the vocals soar to an extreme as Standell-Preston begins to yell at the impressive level of Bjork or Karen O. That quiet-loud-quiet-loud singing trend continues for the duration while the lyrics are a bit more upbeat about loving someone even with all their faults. The atmospherics continue with the title track, in which the main part of the melody are a couple of quiet keyboards and a looped electronic bit that simply float in the ether. Not content to just let it sit there though, guitars and random noises begin to permeate the mix, piling on top of one another the way that great post-rock songs do. Harmonies are introduced, the vocals soar yet again, and then in a flash, all is quiet once more before the track goes gentle into that good night after 8.5 minutes of writhing around.

Have you ever been in an apartment or hotel room when a very loud rave is happening right next door? You can hear a muffled version of the beats through the wall and they totally keep you up as you’re trying to sleep. “Lammicken” exploits that sort of noise as the backing melody, along with a looped and melodic “ohhhhaaahhhohhhh”, both of which are the only two constant things about the track. “I can’t stop it,” Standell-Preston sings over and over again with varying degrees of forcefulness. Through it all, white electro-static builds and builds up in the mix, and as already mentioned, there’s no way to stop it. It overtakes everything else near the end of the song, before finally abruptly quitting in the last 30 seconds as the original backing melody plays the track out in a much more ominous fashion than before. A series of synths layered on top of one another mixed with some drum rim hits is how “Same Mum” begins, and once the playful vocals come in it becomes one of Braids’ poppiest and most immediate songs despite lacking a legitimate chorus. Some lightly picked Grizzly Bear-like guitar comes in about mid-way through the track, shortly before a 2 minute instrumental breakdown that also has some xylophone making an appearance. The final 90 seconds brings a slow down in tempo as the guitars disappear and vocals return with Standell-Preston providing interesting variations on the phrase, “We are from the same mum”. That’s the last thing she says on the entire record as we’re then led into the instrumental closer “Little Hand”. Beginning as a spacey, pulsating deep synth, keyboards begin to plink out a jaunty little melody that’s practically the sonic equivalent of twinkling stars. Carefully picked guitars weave themselves in and out of the mix as there’s just a hint of Sigur Ros-like atmosphere, even if there is no build to a huge crescendo. Instead, the melody slowly fades away as gently and calmly as things began.

What makes Braids so interesting is their ability to sustain a melody no matter how long or short a track might be. Their five minute songs are just as great as their eight minute ones because they all feel like they’re going somewhere. Even if a track only has one line in it, repeated ad nauseum, it’s the WAY the line is sung, along with the sounds surrounding it that keep the listener fully engaged. As such, Raphaelle Standell-Preston deserves much of the credit for her powerful and highly expressive vocal performance that soars far above and beyond your average female singer. The rest of the band are by no mean slouches either though, as the tracks on “Native Speaker” end up being not so much songs but immense compositions that are complicated even when they sound remarkably simple. The only spots where the quality dips on the album is near the end. After establishing a moody intensity on the two 8+ minute epics in the middle of the album, attempts to rise back up again at a more brisk pace don’t ever fully succeed despite their best efforts. It never gets boring, it just all sort of blends together in one cohesive piece of slow burn, synth-filled post-rock that’s simply not as distinctive as everything that came before it. Despite this, “Native Speaker” is most definitely one of the best records that will be released this month, and Braids one of the best up-and-coming bands you’ll hear about in 2011. There was a pretty heavy load of hype surrounding the band heading into their debut, and the good news is that most of it is justified. There’s room for improvement, but when your first album is as good as this one, Braids might just be one record away from truly becoming a universally respected and beloved band. It’s almost ironic that they also just happen to be from Montreal.

Braids – Lemonade
Braids – Plath Heart (via Pitchfork)

Preorder “Native Speaker” from Amazon

Album Review: Mogwai – Special Moves [Rock Action]

For Live Friday this week, considering that Mogwai coincidentally also released their first live CD/DVD on Tuesday, this is going to serve as something of a 2 birds, one stone type of situation. If you’ve never heard a Mogwai record before, that’s something you need to experience sooner rather than later. The band’s largely instrumental compositions are post-rock of the most epic sort, often slowly building in ferocity until peaks are reached and there’s a cathartic release of skull-pounding noise. It’s something they’ve been doing for over 13 years and 6+ studio albums, and though the sentiment tends to be that they’ve started to get stale and have been treading water the last couple albums, there are still clear highlights on each to make everything in their catalogue worthwhile. Yes, albums like their debut “Young Team” and “Rock Action” will always hold a revered place amongst Mogwai fans, but scorched Earth later period songs like “Glasgow Mega-Snake” and “Batcat” will be there too, mostly because they’re so damn good.

New York’s Music Hall of Williamsburg isn’t exactly the most thrilling venue to create a live CD/DVD, that is compared to other bands who choose to make their live recordings at special anniversary shows or at a highly unique location or something similar. The combination package, the CD portion of which is titled “Special Moves” and the DVD portion titled “Burning” was recorded in total over 3 nights at MHOW, but constitute what might be considered a very accurate portrayal of what you’d see and hear at your average Mogwai show. It’s also a very well balanced collection of songs, selecting songs from each of Mogwai’s albums and not displaying any particular favoritism towards any period of their careers. And while requisite mind-exploders like “Mogwai Fear Satan” and “Like Herod” are staples of virtually any Mogwai show, they also dive a little deeper beyond the flagrantly fantastic for a subdued moment like “Cody” or the not-quite-obvious choice of “I Love You, I’m Going to Blow Up Your School”. What really stands as a testament to how amazing Mogwai are live is how well they’re able to take these career-spanning songs of various quality and seamlessly blend them together to the point where everything sounds mindblowing. Sure, there are some epic standouts, but despite this not being a greatest hits record it can often feel like one, with just a tiny amount of crowd noise in between to remind you that it’s live.

In terms of the “Burning” live DVD that you can get as part of the live package, it’s a black-and-white affair directed by the great Vincent Moon along with Nathanaël Le Scouarnec. The “Special Moves” CD might be a great audio representation of Mogwai’s music in a live setting, but to capture the full effect you absolutely need to see what’s happening on stage. From the smart lighting work to Martin Bulloch’s shockingly effective drum work, those are just two big positives among a wealth of them proving that this band is best when they’re both seen and heard. There’s not a ton of overlap between the CD and DVD tracklistings, and the DVD-exclusive renditions of “The Precipice” and “Batcat” are pretty jaw-dropping in their own right amongst heavy-hitters like “Hunted By A Freak” and “Like Herod”. And while the DVD may show you what a completely enthralling experience Mogwai’s live show is, unless you’ve got a gigantic TV with an extreme number of speakers you’ll never be able to fully recreate what it’s like to be in the same room as the band mows down a large crowd with an intense amount of noise. Your entire body vibrates, your hair stands on end, and more than likely you’ll have some hearing damage to contend with. For those who aren’t going to be able to catch a Mogwai live performance anytime soon, or simply just want to have a recorded show at their beck and call, “Special Moves” and “Burning” are your two grand companions for that. They also serve as a fantastic introduction to the band if they’re new to you.

While I am unable to offer you some mp3s from “Special Moves” for your downloading pleasure, thankfully I do have a relatively large archive of Mogwai live bootlegs I can choose from. So what you’ll find below is a session the band did on BBC Radio 1 back in 2006 around the release of their album “Mr. Beast”. Naturally then, most of the tracks pull from that album, but it still gives a pretty strong impression of what Mogwai sounds like live, even if it’s not quite the quality “Special Moves” and “Burning” have to offer.

Mogwai – Friend of the Night (Live on BBC1)
Mogwai – Glasgow Mega-Snake (Live on BBC1)
Mogwai – Summer (Live on BBC1)
Mogwai – Acid Food (Live on BBC1)
Mogwai – Folk Death 95 (Live on BBC1)
Mogwai – Travel Is Dangerous (Live on BBC1)
Mogwai – We’re No Here (Live on BBC1)

Buy “Special Moves” and “Burning” in various packages from Rock Action

Album Review: Jonsi – Go [XL]

The solo debut from Sigur Ros frontman Jonsi Birgisson came out last week, and though I had every intention of reviewing it then, after the half dozen listens I usually give records before forming opinions about them, I was still struggling to gather my thoughts. Living up to the powerful legacy that Sigur Ros set for themselves can be tough, especially when you’re on your own (just ask Jonsi’s OTHER side project with his boyfriend Alex Somers, titled Jonsi & Alex aka Riceboy Sleeps), and determining whether Jonsi’s new solo album “Go” is worthy of that high bar is really what kept me up at night. Of course the common element among all these things is the vocal performance of Jonsi himself, whose angelic singing pretty much requires bits of beautiful instrumentals to create cohesion and inspire. To help out with such a task on this “solo” effort (in name only), he recruited famed indie composer Nico Muhly to arrange many of the tracks, which of course benefits the record greatly. Jonsi’s boyfriend Alex also played on most of the songs on “Go,” and multi-instrumentalist Samuli Kosminen added strings and woodwinds and guitars and all sorts of digital production work to get this thing sounding unique. And the album does manage to ultimately separate itself from the other Sigur Ros material, but not so much that it feels uncomfortable or even like a mild betrayal of what we’ve come to know Jonsi for in the first place.

Perhaps the main difference between Sigur Ros and Jonsi’s “Go” is the overall tone. Whereas Sigur Ros tends to focus on the ethereal quietly beautiful moments, drenching them in an instrumental haze that tends to be tonally all over the map, Jonsi by comparison goes straight for the jugular with a triumphant, upbeat pop sound. Sigur Ros likes to do 6 minutes of slow burn builds into an explosive triumph of epic proportions, and Jonsi holds down a frantic tempo and prefers a verse-chorus-verse song structure that wraps up in under 5 minutes (most of the time). Really a lot of what you need to know about this Jonsi album can be deciphered just by a careful analysis of the cover art. You get a sketched black and white picture of Jonsi, dressed in a military-esque garb, with a rainbow of colors spraying off his shoulder and neck. How fitting then that many of the songs on “Go” sound like they could be military anthems for battles in some imaginary world with imaginary characters, while at the same time maintaining a radiant joy that can’t help but fill your heart with hope and general positivity. Not that past Sigur Ros albums haven’t been, but listening to this Jonsi record is, on all accounts, a delight that makes it difficult to criticize.

If I do have any problems with “Go,” and in some respects I suppose I do, it’s mainly rooted in the overall lack of emotional heft it conveys. Sure, there are a couple ballads in “Kolindur” and closer “Hengilas,” but outside of those darker, heavier moments, the record can feel a little TOO lighthearted and poppy. It’s like the difference between eating a rice cake and actual cake for a meal. The light and airy nature of the rice cake may be far healthier for you, but it doesn’t do much to fill you up in the end…and it lacks a little flavor. It feels like a weak meal because essentially it is. Cake, on the other hand, may be bad for your health, but a decent sized piece will fill you up and send you on the inevitable sugar high before you crash. For many of these songs, Jonsi goes the rice cake route, and without something heavier in the diet, you’ll finish and be left still hungry for something more substantial. The couple ballads add that extra heaviness to the record, and so they’re beneficial, but it’s just a little sad there aren’t at least one or two more of them – especially considering the amazing things Jonsi tends to do with them. Aside from that, I also am finding an issue with Jonsi’s decision to sing most of the songs on “Go” in English, which is the first time he’s really done something like that for an extended period. With all those Sigur Ros records, I fell in love with the band more because I couldn’t understand what was being said and Jonsi’s vocals served their purpose as just another instrument rather than actual words coming out of somebody’s mouth. Now that I can grasp the concepts and ideas that Jonsi is providing on his solo album, not only is some of the mystery gone, but I find my focus taken away from the overall instrumental compositions and instead focused on what’s being said. In other words, Jonsi singing in English is distracting to me much of the time, and it’s made it harder for me to get into this album as a result.

Between the three projects that Jonsi Birgisson is now involved with, I’d say that his latest *official* solo record ranks second best. While I did enjoy the Jonsi & Alex record from last year, its extended moments of quiet instrumentals just lacked a certain energy or structure. And of course Sigur Ros continues to hold my main attention for the time being, even if they are on a break while “everyone has babies”. Jonsi’s new album “Go” doesn’t quite snare me as much as almost any other Sigur Ros record, but that doesn’t mean it’s worse than them either. As a momentary distraction, or even a project to explore his lighter, poppier side, Jonsi and his friends do an excellent job crafting this album, and if this sounds like your sort of thing, you’d be wise to get yourself a copy. This especially goes for anybody who heard Sigur Ros and felt they were too heavy-handed or moody in the first place – you might find new things to like via the Jonsi record. Should the “brief hiatus” that Sigur Ros are currently on extend for some reason into forever, at least we can take some comfort that Jonsi will keep making good albums to help fill that potential void.

Jonsi- Boy Lilikoi (YSI)

Buy “Go” from Amazon

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