Archive for April, 2008

IN FLAMES – A Sense of Purpose (2008)

Posted in 2008 Music, Reviews on April 10, 2008 by monopolyphonic

In Flames - A Sense of Purpose The first big hint that, with A Sense of Purpose, In Flames are targeting the counterculture mainstream with every gun barrel they’ve got is the cover. Just look at it. It’s a ghastly melding of faux-Johnny The Homicidal Maniac and the color palette of As I Lay Dying’s Shadows Are Security. The Hot Topic crowd will love it.

While it’s true that In Flames were one of the first bands to tweak their sound for American approval, they’ve actually been more successful than some of their Swedish brethren (like Soilwork, who started sliding down hill with Figure Number Five, and have just kept going sense). Reroute To Remain, while a blatant shot for the MTV2 crowd, had a few decent songs on it. 2006’s Come Clarity was a (semi) return-to-form, an album which melded In Flames old and new, an album that was just as likely to please fans of The Jester Race as it was fans of Soundtrack To Your Escape (and of course, the naïvete of the latter audience would make the relevance of Come Clarity all the greater).

Well, now they’ve made this. I’m at a loss for words. It’s hard to describe how awful A Sense of Purpose is. It’s easily the worst In Flames album. But it’s so much more than that. This is the album that every talentless group of angsty teenage hacks throw together in a basement while their parents are off at work. This is something even metal neophytes will tire of quickly, because honestly, how many of them will still listen to this once they stumble across Colony (and they will stumble across Colony – albums like Colony do not stay undiscovered for long).

A Sense of Purpose is so awful that it’s hard to be constructive about it. The vocals are laughable; Anders sounds like a shadow of his former self. No. I take that back. He doesn’t even sound like he ever knew his former self. The death growls that graced the The Jester Race are gone, presumably forever. They have been replaced with a third-rate Chester Bennington imitation.

The guitar work is extraordinarily watered down. The “solos” here function as little more than phoned-in reprieves of mediocrity; they have a peculiar lifelessness to them, and they are completely lacking in any imagination. Anyone hoping to hear something along the lines of the solo from December Flower will be sorely disappointed. Then again, it’s a safe bet that anyone familiar with December Flower is either already sick of In Flames, or ambivalent about them.

The album begins with the single, The Mirror’s Truth. I have no idea why the band chose this to be their single. I mean, they could’ve really chosen any song; they all sound the same, and I don’t mean in that in an admirable way, like “wow! these songs are INTENSE!” – I mean that in a “why am I still listening to this?” way. The song unfolds with a total lack of energy, emotion or musical prowess, and sets the template for the rest of the album: mid-tempo riff, fake “solo”, power chorus, repeat.

Mercifully, most of the songs on the album are short (a blessing, in that typically the only valuable aspect of any individual song is that it ends). But A Sense of Purpose ruins even this with The Chosen Pessimist, the longest In Flames song to date (it clocks in at around eight minutes). Well, it sucks (obviously, because it’s on A Sense of Purpose). The first 3 minutes are a three note motif that’s essentially a simplification of the main melody ofThe Jester’s Dance. Nothing much happens. Then Anders begins to sing. His vocals here are truly nauseating; he sings clean almost the entire time, and he sounds like a bastard child of Johnathan Davis that’s being forced at gunpoint to “emote” on American Idol or something. Anders has never been a good clean vocalist, but here, his performance is simply unforgivable. The additional exposure of the lyrics here doesn’t help matters (as he whines, “tell me which side I’m on/approaching constant failure…”). The song ends with some strings and a go-nowhere guitar line; this juxtaposition would be nice if the song actually built to something. But it doesn’t. I can almost see the band chattering excitedly to one another: “hey guys! strings will help make this song emotional! right?”

I’ve had a tough time trying to review this album. It’s so awful that much of it simply defies the context of traditional reviews; a song-by-song analysis would yield nothing, as they’re all essentially identical in scope and execution. The simple truth is that much of the music here simply isn’t worth writing about. It’s only worth avoiding.



DESTROYER – Trouble In Dreams (2008)

Posted in 2008 Music, Reviews on April 8, 2008 by monopolyphonic

Destroyer - Trouble In Dreams Trouble In Dreams is an album that I’d be hard-pressed to recommend to someone without knowing their musical tastes in detail. There’s a lot of material here that could be potentially off-putting to people, be it in the song-to-song musical unpredictability, or through any aspect of Dan Bejar’s presence (the totality of which is peculiar, to say the least). In many ways, Trouble In Dreams is the most peculiar indie album of the year so far, rivaling Xiu Xiu’s Women As Lovers – the fact that it wears a guise of familiarity only makes it stranger.

Bejar may be best known for his work with The New Pornographers (and more recently, with Swan Lake), but Destroyer is his brainchild, so it’s unsurprising that he’s the most integral part of the equation here, more than anywhere else. What makes Destroyer so intriguing (or possibly nauseating, depending on your point of view) is Bejar himself. He treats his role of vocalist as a more theatrical one than a musical one, an outlet to let his bizarre but fascinating lyrics unfold with a gleeful whimsy.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on the album’s centerpiece, Shooting Rockets (from the Desk of Night’s Ape). Lyrically, the song is a sprawling beat-soliloquy in which Bejar ruminates on everything. And I do mean everything. Sometimes, it’s more personal, like his role in Swan Lake (“saw you in Swan Lake, you were great/saw you down in Strathcona Square, devouring an After Eight/who cares! I didn’t mean it…”), or a dismissal of some wayward self-reflection (“it’s not that I quit/it’s not that my poems are shit…). Other times, it’s more ambiguous in nature; musically, a wailing blues-rock electric guitar permeates the entire thing, like a coffeehouse patron excitedly interjecting, “preach on!”, while quiet piano lines trip and fall into unexpected momentums.

While the above statement might seem a bit too vivid for the uninitiated, it should be said that Trouble In Dreams is the kind of album whose music inevitably conjures up images. The song Rivers is a perfect example, sounding like a musical collage of, well, different kinds of rivers. First you have slow, lazy ones, portrayed by the expansive, pounding piano at the beginning, and then there’s more powerful ones with their fierce currents (as portrayed by the crashing drums and Bejar’s excited yelps in the final chorus of the song). And finally, there’s the smaller tributaries, drifting off to places unnoticed (as exemplified by the final sections of the song, as it fades out).

As expressive as Bejar’s music is, his lyrics are more so. At times, he’s playful, as in Blue Flower (“blue flower, blue flame/a woman by another name/is not a woman…”), and other times, he displays a lucid anger that’s a welcome change from all the faux-angst that’s polluting the airwaves (as in The State, in which lyrics like “the state cut off my arms, the state tore my eyes with her nails/he’ll just put on this earth a bad wind to trash the sails” are delivered with alarming dexterity). Despite the misgivings Bejar expressed in Shooting Rockets, his poems are anything but shit.

Taking all of this in to consideration, it kind of makes sense that the song Foam Hands was chosen to promote the album back in December of 2007. It’s the most accessible track, the song most likely to attract potential listeners who revere The New Pornographers’ latest album. When contrasted with the rest of the album, Foam Hands isn’t simple; it’s merely uncomplicated. The instrumentation is sparse, but still unconventional for a pop song, favoring low toms in the drums and muted, ever-shifting electric guitar (and the occasional piano chord). And while Bejar’s lyrics are less wordy here, they’re as elusive as anything else on the album.

While I am admittedly not as familiar with the work of Destroyer as I perhaps could be (considering the band’s first album was released back in 1996), I don’t think it would be overstatement on my part to say that Trouble In Dreams is more rewarding than the newest work by both Swan Lake and The New Pornographers. Bejar’s idiosyncrasies make him every bit as fascinating as John Darnielle or Jamie Stewart. Again, not everyone will like Trouble In Dreams (as not everyone likes The Mountain Goats and/or Xiu Xiu), but those who do will end up spending time trying to convert those who don’t.


AGALLOCH – The White (2008)

Posted in 2008 Music, Reviews on April 6, 2008 by monopolyphonic

Agalloch - The White Agalloch’s Ashes Against The Grain was arguably the best album of 2006. Admittedly, I teeter between that, and The Paper Chase’s Now You Are One of Us as the best of that year, but whenever it’s come up recently, I’ve been falling more on the Agalloch side of things. It’s such an expansive and harrowing work; listening to it is like seeing The Good, The Band and The Ugly for the first time. It’s huge, open, desolate. Stylistically, The White is the exact opposite. It’s very immediate and it’s not very threatening, though it does occasionally hint at darker things. And although it’s good, it’s a bit too focused on the lighter side of Agalloch’s sound for it to be admitted into the pantheon alongside The Mantle and Ashes Against The Grain.

Whereas Limbs kicked off Ashes Against The Grain with a hint of the heaviness that was to come, The Isle of Summer begins this album quietly, with some nature sounds and children chanting in the background. I’m not sure what it is about children’s voices that sounds so otherworldly in a context like this, but they do. Alcest used them to great affect last year with the appropriately titled Souvenirs d’un autre monde and here, they evoke the same kind misty atmosphere.

The Isle of Summer, however, is a much sparser song than Limbs, sounding more like The Wolves of Timberland (the band’s contribution to the split 7″ they did with Nest, and a fine piece of neo-folk), then it does an Agalloch song (wherein neo-folk is only a small part of the equation). The focus is on the crystal-clear acoustic guitar; there’s no menace or sorrow in the song. Even when the electric guitar briefly surfaces, it’s still a very pleasant affair. The last time we heard from Agalloch, they were burning a fortress against the sky. Now, they’re watching the sunset.

Songs like Birch Black tremble as they progress, hinting that they might take off into more troubling territory, but they just keep moving forward. It’s important to remember that darkness is as much a part of Agalloch’s music as natural imagery is, so while tracks like Birch Black aren’t bad in general terms, they fail to deliver in the way that we expect them to. The two best songs on the album work precisely because they’re darker. Of the two, the seven minute Pantheist is the best. It’s the EP’s longest song, and the dirge-like atmosphere of it recalls tracks like A Celebration For The Death of Man and The Misshapen Steed. Pantheist is dreadfully solemn, evoking images of some age-old religious sect marching calmly to a sacrificial temple in a forest. The acoustic guitar is still in the forefront here, but electric guitar lurks ever so quietly in the background, before Haughm’s ethereal vocal drones emerge like an ancient incantation (and then disappear just as quickly).

If Pantheist is the album’s best track, then Hollow Stone is a close runner-up. It’s a mostly ambient song, and it’s a nice counterpoint to the band’s last ambient track, Our Fortress Is Burning III, which closed Ashes Against The Grain with a series of dark electronic spasms. Hollow Stone isn’t dark per se, but it’s deceptively ambiguous. For every moment the music spends shimmering, there’s another moment of where the music itself seems to defy the very existence of light.

The final tracks, Sowlio Rune and Summerisle Reprise (both influenced by the 1973 film The Wicker Man ) are admirably pretty, but both songs also drift into new-age territory at points, something which is gravely opposite the aesthetic that the band have worked so hard to define (and both are marred by unnecessary samples in their most revealing moments). New-age is the antithesis of what Agalloch have crafted with the folk elements of their music, in that New-age is always familiar and always non-confrontational; that Agalloch share an admiration for natural instrumentation and a reverence (sometimes fearful, sometimes not) for the wonders of the natural world are the only two things that the two have in common.

I don’t dislike The White; it’s damn enjoyable on its own terms. But I think that more than anything, The White made me realize how unique Agalloch’s sound truly is, and how important despair and a carefully balanced sonic palette are to their music. How these things work together with the actual music is what make the band so elegant. True, The White is elegant, but not because of the band performing it.