Archive for January, 2010

ORPHANED LAND – The Never Ending Way of the ORWarriOR (2010)

Posted in 2010 Music, Reviews on January 31, 2010 by monopolyphonic

Wow, and I thought Ihsahn’s latest solo album was great (well, it is, but…). Who would’ve thought I’d find an even better album the very next day? To be fair, though, I kind of saw this coming; I had both Ihsahn’s After and this, the long-time coming new album from Orphaned Land sitting on my desk, and I just so happened to tackle the Ihsahn album first. But I had a feeling the newest Orphaned Land would top it, and it does. I remember back to 2004, when Mabool was released – it was the band’s third album, and it could not have defined “breakthrough” more if it had tried.

To begin with, no one had really heard of the band (prior to Mabool, they had released two albums on Holy Records that went largely unnoticed), and they seemed to generate a mystique that made them all the more fascinating (they’re from Israel! they treat spirituality seriously! they mix prog and death metal and Middle Eastern folk and yet sound nothing like Melechesh or Nile!). We obsessed over these things, and the album was quickly granted entrance into the pantheon of prog-metal classics. Now we have this, The Never Ending Way of the ORWarriOR; silly title aside, this is a monumentally progressive album. It’s an 80 minute suite of epic after epic, where Arabian elements work right alongside elements that are more…well, Western. It’s divided into three chapters a la Pain of Salvation, and none other than Porcupine Tree sonic architect Steven Wilson produced it. It’s simply astounding. I’ve listened to the album three times now, and I can’t really pin down the specifics. It’s the kind of album that’s so huge and inviting and executed so perfectly, that it’s really easy to get lost in. It ends, and you wind up enchanted. And then you want to listen to it again.

As I hinted at earlier, the only thing that’s really wrong with The Never Ending Way of the ORWarriOR is the title itself; sure it’s tied into the concept of the album, but not necessarily so; that is to say, the album doesn’t sink or swim based on the title. But the music – you can sense the dedication that went into everything. It took the band six years to compose and arrange Mabool, and I’m guessing it took a similar amount of time for them to do this one, too. But even if it didn’t, it doesn’t change the fact that this is some of the best progressive metal you’re likely to hear all year. Sorry, Ihsahn – you still rock, buddy.

IHSAHN – After (2010)

Posted in 2010 Music, Reviews on January 30, 2010 by monopolyphonic

Ihsahn was destined to have a solo career – anyone who heard Emperor’s final album, Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire and Demise, knows this. That album was entirely composed by (and produced by) Ihsahn, and from it, you got a clear picture as to what direction any future music he might compose would be moving towards. And though it took him five years (during which time he worked with his wife Ihriel in both Peccatum and Star of Ash), we were finally treated to a proper Ihsahn solo album (The Adversary) in 2006. Angl followed in 2008, and now, in 2010, we have After. It’s worth noting that each of these albums has gotten decidedly more progressive in both structure and scope, with After being the most progressive of the bunch. Listening to it is sort of like listening to a weird blend of an uber-thrashy Emperor crossed with Porcupine Tree and Ephel Duath’s The Painter’s Palette (not any of that new crap).

After tends to keep these elements from mixing too much, which is probably for the best (keeping that ratio going for 53 minutes might start to sound gimmicky at some point) .Austere highlights the Steven Wilson side of things beautifully; you’ve got your vocal multitracking, a slower, more intricate midsection of the song, plus some great fretless bass work, to boot. A Grave Inversed takes care of the thrash area of things, making sure to pile on guitar solo after guitar solo, while Ihsahn lets loose his trademark tortured wail for all denizens of the Earth and beyond to hear (the saxophone even gets tossed in the fray near the end, and flails around frantically, trying to stay afloat in the song’s outgoing tide of metal). Album closer On The Shores taps into a vein of some of that long absent Ephel Duath madness: it’s ten minutes of diabolical noise that recedes into a (relative) state of serenity for awhile, before picking up again (albeit less intense this second time around).

Listening to After kind of makes me miss progressive metal. Don’t get me wrong, I know the genre still exists, but to me, it feels like it’s been marginalized to a bunch of insincere side-projects on Inside Out (half of them with Mike Portnoy). After is significant because it’s both progressive and totally not afraid to rip your face off. That’s not something I seem to hear much of anymore. And while I certainly hope that Emperor at some point reconvene and release some more material somewhere down the line (it’s not that unlikely), I’ll be satisfied if Ihsahn can keep creating albums like these.

FOUR TET – There Is Love In You (2010)

Posted in 2010 Music, Reviews on January 30, 2010 by monopolyphonic

I guess I should start by saying that the Four Tet album I’m most familiar with is the remix collection he put out in 2006. And seeing as how it’s been five years since his last album proper (2005’s Everything Ecstatic, a wonderfully abstract collection of glitched-out jazzhoptronica – yeah, you read right; I stand by that) I’m not really sure how well I can contextualize There Is Love In You for the uninclined. But I can try. So with that in mind, here we go:

The first thing I notice about There Is Love In You is how startlingly…electronic it is; true, Four Tet albums were never not electronic in some way, but this album seems to have more in common with house/dance music than with jazz or hip-hop. It’s hard to listen to a song like Sing, for example, and come to any other conclusion. But not every song on the album sounds like it was made with Matthew Herbert in mind (please, don’t make the mistake of thinking that because I used the words “house” and “dance”, this is somehow a club-ready record as a result – because it’s not); a lot of the songs on here follow the post-rock wax/wane blueprint to great effect, and these are the songs on the album that stand out the most to me.

Most of these songs are shorter in length (between two and three minutes), which is odd, because if post-rock has established anything, it’s that “brevity=failure.” Still, Four Tet makes these songs come alive despite going against the genre’s principal aesthetics. The most memorable ones for me are Reversing (a shimmering of cascade of ambient loveliness, calling to mind the solo work of Sigur Rós’ Jónsi Birgisson) and Pablo’s Heart (which is a more straightforward composition: think Dntel crossed with +/-). The album’s longer songs are easy to get lost in, which is both a blessing and a curse; nowhere is this more applicable than with Love Cry, the album’s longest song (over 9 minutes). Listening to it is like taking a vacation and then forgetting where you went afterwards.

While it’s true that There Is Love In You definitely contrasts with Four Tet’s earlier albums (in more ways than one), there’s still a connection between them that cannot be denied. The flow of the songs is every bit as steady as the material on, say, Rounds, and the electronic manipulation that takes place here is (like on past albums) used not as an effect, but as an instrument, as a compositional tool. As long as Four Tet stay true to these structural/philosophical points, I don’t foresee a bad album in their future. That includes There Is In Love You. Even though that’s the now in the present. Word.

THE MAGNETIC FIELDS – Realism (2010)

Posted in 2010 Music, Reviews on January 28, 2010 by monopolyphonic

Stephen Merritt doesn’t have anything left to prove to the music community. The Magnetic Fields’ 1999 triple-album 69 Love Songs was an achievement that most artists can only dream of; it wasn’t noteworthy because it actually did contain 69 love songs, but because all the songs were fascinating. As grand as the idea behind the work was, the end result was astounding because of the amount of life Merritt breathed into them. Since 69 Love Songs, the band have gradually been releasing albums that are part of a trilogy, a trilogy defined by absence (of synthesizers, in this case), rather than presence. 2004’s i was the first of these, a first-person pronoun-centric collection of what were surprisingly elegant acoustic arrangements. 2008’s Distortion stood in marked contrast to i; the songs here were absolutely lovely, their Brian Wilson by way of Kevin Shields atmosphere something wonderful to lose yourself in. Now in 2010 we have the final part of the trilogy, Realism. Unfortunately, this album feels like a regression in many ways, taking the most off-putting elements of i and marrying them with what feels like a sarcastic childrens album from Hell.

This on its own doesn’t necessarily make for a bad album (at least not on paper). I’m sure Ween could turn such a thing into a masterpiece, or at the very least, something on par with La Cucaracha. But Stephen Merritt’s wit and humor are not served well at all by these puzzlingly snide songs. True, there are a few times on Realism where Merritt hits the rights notes, most notably on the opening track, You Must Be Out of Your Mind; it’s the only flawless song on the album, sounding like it could’ve been an acoustic b-side of California Girls from Distortion. The melodies and tone are similar, but the instrumentation is totally different, with You Must Be Out of Your Mind favoring chamber pop lyricism over fuzzed-out bliss. A few other songs work in spite of odd stylistic choices (Better Things would be worth listening to if those nauseating bird sounds would’ve been left out). But mostly, Realism leaves you with a sour feeling, the kind of sour feeling that comes only when a brilliant artist creates something that has thoroughly forsaken their abilities – and nothing having been gained from their creative sacrifice.

Realism is the quickest follow-up album The Magnetic Fields have released in ages; the four or five year wait period between albums that has become customary was cut down to just to just two here. Merritt said that he thinks of Distortion and Realism as a pair, and I believe him – there’s certainly a bond between the albums that exists solely because of the differences between them (it’s not just a “they have similar cover art!” thing). But bond or no bond, there’s no denying that Realism is disturbingly inferior. Well, now that this trilogy is out of the way, perhaps a return to synths is in order. Get Lost pt. II anyone?

BASIA BULAT – Heart of My Own (2010)

Posted in 2010 Music, Reviews on January 27, 2010 by monopolyphonic

Back in 2007, Basia Bulat released her first album, Oh, My Darling; it was an uneven record, with a few great songs on it (Snakes and Ladders, In The Night, the latter of which was mysteriously absent on the US version of the album – a shame, given it was easily the best song on the record), and a lot of other songs that simply weren’t all that memorable. I think the biggest thing I took away from Oh, My Darling was that favoring one instrument usually relegated to the sidelines in this type of music (read: the autoharp) does not, on its own, a good album make – you’ve got to use that instrument in songs that stand out, in order for the focus to mean anything. And that was Oh, My Darling’s greatest flaw: it seemed more concerned with fitting in than standing out.

The same can be said for Heart of My Own, although this album does increase the great-song-to-mediocre-song ratio a bit. Still, it’s hardly an improvement in the grand scheme of things; perhaps the best way I can describe the album is as a refinement of generalities. It starts well enough with Go On, a cloudy-sky folk portrait with a lush instrumentation that doesn’t stay in one place for very long. Unfortunately, Go On is the album’s high point. The other two noteworthy songs here don’t reach the same echelon. Gold Rush, operates on the same basic wavelength as Go On, although the mood here is brighter. And the album closer, If It Rains introduces gospel into Bulat’s mix, with moderate success; it can’t rival, say, Nick Cave’s O Children, but it does send the album off on a positive note. There. All done. You may have noticed I declined to describe the other songs on the album. That’s because there’s not a whole to say about them. They’re all songs we’ve heard before – they’re songs that are troubling in their familiarity, and aren’t really worth deconstructing.

Again, like its predecessor, Heart of My Own isn’t terrible, but it doesn’t have much of an identity; Laura Veirs’ latest album runs circles around it. This isn’t to say that Basia Bulat is incapable of releasing an album that’ll break out of the quagmire of low-tier singer/songwriter folks – quite the contrary, actually. She’s got a wonderfully expressive voice, and a definite ear for melody (albeit a scattershot one). But these songs don’t do much to showcase her talent; they restrain her more than they emphasize her. Perhaps her next album will push the envelope a bit more. For my part, I’ll definitely be willing to take a risk to see if it does.

BEACH HOUSE – Teen Dream (2010)

Posted in 2010 Music, Reviews on January 26, 2010 by monopolyphonic

Last year, Bat For Lashes set the new standard for modern dream pop with Two Suns; now, perhaps there are some people out there thinking I’m giving Natasha Khan too much credit, but to those people, I will only say “go back and listen to Two Suns, then report back to me.” I’m convinced that anyone of reasonable intelligence can’t remain in the dark about the album’s supremely ethereal beauty for long. So, now that that’s out of the way, let me bring this around to the topic at hand. Namely: Beach House clearly have a lot to live up to on Teen Dream, their third album and their first for Sub Pop.

Now, I’ve kind of always had a bit of a flawed relationship with Beach House. Their first two albums, 2006’s eponymous debut and 2008’s
Devotion, were very lush and atmospheric, but sometimes, the music got too comfortable with its own sense of serenity, and became stagnant. To give Beach House credit, they were confident enough in their sound to keep it intensely focused on the path they were heading; a lesser band might’ve balked at the prospect of so much tranquility on a single record, but Beach House embrace it as a virtue. That’s admirable, and more importantly, it made for some lovely (if, in my book, a bit one-dimensional) albums. I bring this up because now, having gone through Teen Dream several times, I’m still a bit puzzled what to attribute the band’s newfound musical vitality to, but in any case, I’m extremely greatful for it. If Beach House and Devotion were dreamy black-and-white photos, Teen Dream is a vibrant panoramic landscape. There’s a joie de vivre here that their other albums were missing – I just didn’t know they were missing them until now.

A huge part of this comes from one key modification to the band’s musical palette: the band’s omnipresent synthetic drum loops share the stage heavily with real, actual percussion, far more than they ever have before. This doesn’t sound like that big of a change, but it adds a whole new depth to the band’s music; compare a song like Lover of Mine to any of the songs off their earlier albums, and tell me that Lover of Mine isn’t the more memorable one, even though the actual drums on the song serve essentially the same function as their drum machine loops did. Elsewhere on the album, we find the band making minute, but dramatically effective changes that elevate their songs to a whole new level, be it the percussive crest on 10 Mile Stereo (the album’s best song), the slight upswing in tempo (as on Used To Be and Better Times), or just a more refined sense of melody and drive (the picture-perfect album closer, Take Care). In any case, the band simply have never sounded better. There’s no better way to summarize than that.

Teen Dream has all the makings of an indie breakout record, so don’t let it take you by surprise if the band show up on late night TV at some point, or get a few blurbs in Rolling Stone (note: both of these things may have already happened, so in case they have, I add this addendum – don’t be surprised if it happens more). In a way, the album showed me that the band wasn’t ever really missing anything on their previous albums, they just needed a bit of a musical makeover of sorts. Does it top Two Suns? Admittedly no, but it gives it one hell of a run for its money.

SPOON – Transference (2010)

Posted in 2010 Music, Reviews on January 23, 2010 by monopolyphonic

I’ve always said to people that I should like Spoon way more than I actually do like Spoon. I’m kidding, of course – but really, I’m kidding on the square (a phrase that means “joking, but really meaning it” – Al Franken semi-popularized its use in the new millennium; no, really). You see, Spoon have been have been steadily honing a very specific sound for the better part of a decade, and truth be told, it’s just not something I get in the mood to listen to often. So maybe I’m not the best person to be reviewing Transference. Or, on the flip side of things, maybe I’m the perfect person to review it; since my emotional investment in the band is minimal, I am, perhaps, less likely to wax excessively positive or negative about it. Yeah. We’ll go with that second choice.

Given that Spoon are one of the few bands who reside in the innermost sanctum of the indie rock pantheon, expectations are always high for their albums, and with good reason – their last three albums have been quite excellent (with 2005’s Gimme Fiction being my personal favorite). Some of that excellence is on display on Transference, but there also seems to be many, many times where the band are coasting along on autopilot, not really breathing much life into their music. I’ve listened to the album three times now, and really, there’s not much I can say about it other than it’s got a few good songs and more than a few forgettable ones. To make matters worse, it does not get off to the best of starts. Of the first four (yikes!) songs, only Is Love Forever? stands out memorably (and unfortunately, I fear if it were longer, it too might fail to leave any kind of lasting impression – as it stands, however, at just a hair over two minutes, the song works). The rest of these songs, while not terrible, feel empty in some way; they’re relaxed, mid-tempo jaunts through nowhere, certainly not the type of fair we’ve been accustomed to from Spoon for the past several years. The first single, Written In Reverse, is agreeable enough, but not much else. But Transference is not without its highlights – Got Nuffin (a song which got its own EP back in June) has the energy that much of the album lacks. Same goes for Trouble Comes Running and Out Go The Lights; I’m not sure yet if it’s a blessing or a curse that all three of these tracks show up near the end of the album.

I mentioned that I was reviewing Transference today to a friend of mine who had already heard it, and he told me that, while not being up to par with their past work, “a bad Spoon album is still better than most other bands’ good albums.” There’s a lot of truth to that. At no point did I ever want to turn Transference off when I was listening to it. But the album failed to burrow into my head. And since Spoon aren’t my go-to band to begin with, I doubt that this album will get many more plays from me as time wears on. Unfortunately, I think that last bit might be true even for fans of the band more devoted than I.