Archive for June, 2010

NACHTMYSTIUM – Addicts: Black Meddle part II

Posted in 2010 Music, Reviews on June 29, 2010 by monopolyphonic

Most (read: not all, but….) black metal bands worth listening to eventually reach a point wherein they evolve beyond the aesthetic constraints that their genre reveled in during the late 1980s/early 1990s: the thin, fuzzy guitars, the constant, galloping tempo, the ever-present lo-fi haze that envelopes each song like coffin. Nachtmystium are no exception to this; with their earliest albums, Reign of the Malicious and Demise, they embarked down the path that Darkthrone had laid down (and then circled back to, again and again) so many years before. With Instinct: Decay, the band’s sound opened up, becoming singed at the seams with prog and pysch rock flourishes, resulting in a sound that was as cerebral as it was violent and menacing. The band would perfect this with Assassins: Black Meddle part I; that album had more in common with, say, Sigh, than Burzum. So now we have Addicts: Black Meddle part II – that it’s a perfect spiritual successor to Assassins should come as no surprise. That it’s, in large part, more indebted to hard rock fist-pumping than anything else, is.

The one album I kept coming back to in my mind whilst listening to Addicts was Entombed’s landmark 1997 album DCLXVI: To Ride Shoot Straight and Speak the Truth, an album which nobody, not even fans of Wolverine Blues really saw coming. Entombed weren’t just crafting a stylistic anomaly with Wolverine Blues, and DCLXVI proves it. The band’s new direction, of mixing hard rock swagger and death metal’s confrontational spirit, would come to define much of their future releases. That mixture is alive and well on Addicts. And what’s more, it hasn’t sounded this good in ages. Then Fires seethes with jagged guitar riffs and Blake Judd’s visceral, tortured howling. For such an ugly, destructive song, it sure is a fun time to listen to. And I think that last part is what gives the album the bulk of its power: the songs all tie in thematically to a single idea, giving the album an authentic atmosphere that lesser black metal lacks.

I’ve listened to Addicts more than any other metal album this year so far, and it unquestionably takes you through the journey of an addict. The album begins, appropriately enough, with Cry For Help, wherein a raspy Judd intones over a sparse backdrop of delayed drums and chimes, “Nothing hurts more than being born.” It’s the sound of desperation in a lot of ways, the need to have something, anything, define you and provide you with meaning. It is, in short, part of a cycle that every addict winds up in at some point. Then, right on cue, High On Hate comes careening at you at 300mph. It’s the album’s only true black metal song, and it holds nothing back, and for good reason, too. This is the song wherein the addict’s high kicks in (the previous song, and the despair it held fast inside, brought us here, after all). It’s the rush, the instant euphoria, and the rest of the album rides out from there. No Funeral and the aforementioned Then Fires are upbeat, rollicking songs, songs that show the addict’s penchant for creating chaos in his altered state. This all culminates with the album’s centerpiece and title track, wherein the chorus unapologetically screams at you, “All I want…is more.” Addicts happens to be the song where the high starts to fade, so it’s no wonder it’s as ravenous a song as it is. The songs following it all form part of a downward spiral into withdrawl; they get moodier and slower as they progress, and Every Last Drop, the album’s final song, is an eight and a half minute death march to a place of unimaginable sorrow and desperation (hmm, much like the opening song). Thus, the album ends where it began: screaming at the agony that is now life.

Whew. Sorry for getting all analytical on you there for a second. But such thematic devotion is so rare in metal that I had to step in and make note of it. Addicts, in the realm of music in general, isn’t unique in what it does (The Velvet Underground did basically the same thing in microcosm with the song Heroin over forty years ago), but it is unique in terms of the genre in which it does it. Now, you might think I’m reading a bit too much into the album here, but frankly, the album doesn’t exactly mince words or moods or feelings while it’s playing; you’d have to do a whole lot of convincing to get me to believe that all this stuff is coincidence. Fortunately, if you’re still not buying it, let it be said that Addicts is an undeniably enjoyable metal album that switches gears on you on more than one occasion, and it doesn’t show off or compromise itself when it does so. That’s a rare thing nowadays. It’s not quite worth getting addicted to, but it’s close. Maybe too close…


THE PINEAPPLE THIEF – Someone Here Is Missing (2010)

Posted in 2010 Music, Reviews on June 19, 2010 by monopolyphonic

Over the course of the past several years (and albums), The Pineapple Thief have donned many different musical hats. Unable to wait for the next Radiohead album (which would eventually become In Rainbows), The Pineapple Thief released Little Man in 2006, and effectively gave us a Radiohead album in what turned out to be a year ahead of schedule. In 2007, the band decided to give their prog influences a bear hug, and released What We Have Sown, an album that’s as close as a new King Crimson-in-their-glory-days record as we’re likely to ever hear. And in 2008, the band released Tightly Unwound, an album that conjures all the best aspects of Porcupine Tree, Muse and dredg, together into one seamless collection of songs. All of these albums were released to little or no fanfare, and all of them remain (more or less) in obscurity. Which is a shame. And, after listening to the band’s newest album, Someone Here Is Missing, it’s even more of a shame for me to write that if this album remains in obscurity, there won’t be any harm done.

I’ve always had The Pineapple Thief’s back; I was hooked from the first time I heard 137. I remember obsessing over Remember Us, the final track from Variations On A Dream, for the better part of a year. I remember pre-ordering 12 Stories Down, of which only 1,000 copies were initially printed, the instant I could, so I could have the exclusive bonus disc, 8 Days Later. And with each release, the band have never failed to disappoint – until now. Someone Here Is Missing, the band’s eighth studio album, takes a drastic departure from the established complexity of the band’s sound. The Pineapple Thief’s music is densely layered and atypically structured; it’s not always easy to tell where their songs are going. But that’s not the case here. If pressed, I’d say Someone Here Is Missing kind of sounds like a mixture of The Smashing Pumpkins’ Zeitgeist, crossed with the least-inspiring The Mars Volta moments.

The problem with most of the songs that are present here is that they don’t flow forth from a well of ideas; typically, The Pineapple Thief songs would go from one section to another and another, being careful never to repeat one section for too long without augmenting it somehow. That’s not the case here. The songs take one idea apiece, and ride them out to their respective conclusions. What’s worse is that these ideas aren’t very interesting, a fact illuminated more and more as more time passes in each song. The blippy, no frills drumbeat of Wake Up Dead is the backbone of the song, which wouldn’t be a problem if more elements came in in a timely fashion. But they don’t – by the time the guitar comes crashing in three-quarters of the way through, we’ve checked out or hit “skip”.

And speaking of the guitar, my God, is it awful sounding. The same listless, neo alt-metal crunch permeates every single song, swirling about like a teen angst fueled hurricane. And it does so without any meaningful variation in any of the songs, save for some temporary acoustic noodling. Now, acoustic guitar has always played a role in the band’s music, but here, it doesn’t feel natural at all; the acoustic sections come off sounding timid, like they were placed there to counterbalance the atrocious metal tones, not because the song required them. The only song that rises above the mediocre fray here is the album closer, So We Row; but it comes too late to redeem an album that offered none of what we’ve come to expect from this band during the course of its run.

Someone Here Is Missing is an album that literally pained me to review. Seriously. My stomach twisted into knots, hearing a band like this fall from grace so hard. I read somewhere once that the worst thing that could be written about any musical endeavor was that it sounds as if it could have been written by anybody. Someone Here Is Missing made me feel like that at times, but throughout it all, I could still feel a faint glimmer of The Pineapple Thief emanating from somewhere in the music. In a way, I think that’s worse.

ANATHEMA – We’re Here Because We’re Here (2010)

Posted in 2010 Music, Reviews on June 11, 2010 by monopolyphonic

In an interview on Metal Underground, Danny Cavanagh stated that Anathema’s new album, We’re Here Because We’re Here is “by far the best thing we’ve ever done.” Strong words, to be sure, especially since this is the band that has given us three markedly different masterworks: 1996’s Eternity, 1999’s Judgement and 2003’s A Natural Disaster. But Danny wasn’t just inflating the band’s newest material simply because it’s the band’s newest material; he may actually be right. Listening to it, it’s undeniable that We’re Here Because We’re Here, an album that’s been in the works for years now, and has seen many false starts and about-faces, may go down as the crown jewel of Anathema’s oeuvre.

So, a quick history lesson: Anathema (together with fellow Brits My Dying Bride and Paradise Lost) redefined doom metal in the early 1990s; all three bands took the murky, slow-churned evil of Black Sabbath and sent it spiraling to depressive new lows. All three bands also seemed to hit their stride in 1995, which saw the release of Paradise Lost’s Draconian Times, My Dying Bride’s The Angel and The Dark River and Anathema’s The Silent Enigma, and from there, their careers took different turns. Paradise Lost now makes some kind of weird industrial gothic club music (kind of like what Theatre of Tragedy turned in to with Musique). My Dying Bride have stayed the course, releasing a new doom opus every couple of years. Anathema’s career change has been the most interesting, as the band began turning inward with each new release, making albums that were full of quiet catastrophes rather than guttural vehemence (yet which weren’t lacking in menace or despondency).

Nowhere is the more apparent than with the band’s last studio album, 2003’s A Natural Disaster. That album was a bleak affair, riddled with sorrow that seemed to be emanating from some place far away. But despite how burdened with emotion it was, it still all somehow felt fragile. It wasn’t melodramatic or maudlin. It felt very, very real. Few bands can defy the odds like that, and Anathema did. Now, A Natural Disaster is my favorite Anathema album, and I couldn’t help but make the connection that We’re Here Because We’re Here seems to be an inversion of that album, As dark as A Natural Disaster was, We’re Here Because We’re Here is as bright and life-affirming.

Let’s compare the singles, shall we? The first song that was made available from A Natural Disaster was Are You There?, and the first single from We’re Here Because We’re Here was Angels Walk Among Us (which features guest vocals from HIM’s Ville Valo, a band whose popularity in the US is not as inexplicable as it may seem at first). And while the phrase “are you there?” shows up lyrically in both songs, the tone is completely different each time. Angels Walk Among Us is imbued with spiritual resonance, while Are You There? is filled with regret.

“Spiritual Resonance” seems to be the theme here; there’s not a song on the album that doesn’t point itself towards the heavens (it must be said here that despite the occasional use of words like “Heaven”, “Angel”, “Spirit”, etc., We’re Here Because We’re Here isn’t a devoutly religious album; it’s merely one that’s concerned wholeheartedly with permeation of life, as opposed to the individuality lives). This inclusiveness is not hidden; it’s out in the open on songs like Everything, Universal and Presence (though they each take a different approach, tone-wise).

The culmination of all of this occurs (appropriately enough) on the album’s final song, Hindsight, which is a glorious, stately instrumental that slowly rises out of (and then descends back into) an airy bed of samples (some of which seem to be temporally connected to Anathema’s past, particularly to the aforementioned Eternity). This rise/coast/fall trajectory is a musical trick that’s been done for ages; it’s been used by everyone from Dan Deacon (on the song Snookered to A Silver Mt. Zion (on…well, most every song), but Anathema manage to take such a traditional formula and make something that’s surprisingly moving with it.

I mentioned earlier Danny’s interview on Metal Underground. Anyone who’s familiar with Anathema know that the band haven’t played anything that could be considered “metal” in over a decade now (old habits just die hard, I guess). And We’re Here Because We’re Here is no exception. It’s not a confrontational album. It’s not abrasive or ugly. It’s not loud. It’s not fast-paced and it’s not particularly energetic. But it’s a meticulously crafted album (Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree handled the production; that says it all right there), one that isn’t afraid to evoke capital-B big sentiments at every corner (and to set them against songs that soar, and dive, and soar again). Now that being said, there’s a fair chance that anyone who stumbles across this album by accident might find plenty dislike about it (the unapologetic use of major key, the incorporeal imagery, the overt lyrics). Any time you tackle a canvas with broad strokes, that’s bound to happen. But for everyone else, We’re Here Because We’re Here is likely to get caught in your soul. And stay there.

SLEIGH BELLS – Treats (2010)

Posted in 2010 Music, Reviews on June 3, 2010 by monopolyphonic

A lot’s been written about Sleigh Bells already, even though Treats is their debut album; the band whipped the blogosphere into a frenzy with a few raw, voracious demos last year, and a few well-received live performances (plus an opening slot for Yeasayer earlier this year) helped the band cement their status as the Buzz Band of 2010. And with Treats, Sleigh Bells arrive to claim what’s theirs.

But I don’t really want to talk about that. What I’d like to talk about for a moment is the loudness war. Now, I won’t go in to all the details on it; it’s quite technical, and if you care to read more about it, you’re welcome to do so. But basically, it breaks down like this: since the mid-90’s, audio recordings have become entangled in a sonic arms race. Albums are being mastered at louder and louder volumes, and everyone is struggling to keep up with everyone else. And it’s not just mainstream, top 40 albums we’re talking about here – it’s everything. That new Spoon album of yours could probably go toe-to-toe with Lady Gaga, level-wise.

Now, much has been said already of Sleigh Bells’ nuclear decibel hemorrhaging, but it’s worth repeating. To wit: Treats rides each and every one of its audio peaks like a malformed demon destined to wage war in the aural apocalypse; it corrals them all into oblivion, laying waste to everything and anything on the way there, and builds a throbbing dancefloor out of the rubble. And then it grooves on it. Yes, Treats gleefully embraces all the negative sides effects of the loudness war – the distortion and the clipping, the blown-out frequencies, the total lack of subtly – resulting in an album that’s ugly, hellish and violent. And, considering the idiom, brilliant. Your ears might want to ignore Treats, but your feet won’t. The album goes completely against the grain of what is expected from dance music. And yet, it still is dance music. Somewhere, John Congleton and Steve Albini are smiling.

With a few mild exceptions (the songs Rachel and Rill Rill – the former is what I could loosely call “ballad”, and the latter sounds like an outtake from Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots), Sleigh Bells don’t really deviate from their search, destroy and swagger MO, and the album is stronger because of it. Songs like Crown On The Ground, Infinity Guitars and A/B Machines haven’t changed much from their demo versions (save for some crisper percussion), and newer songs like Tell ‘Em (which sounds less like a sweaty club jam and more like a pep rally anthem) fit right in to the mix. But perhaps the most surprising song on here is Kids (which, in demo form, was formerly known as Beach Girls). Energy-wise, it stands up to every song on the album, but it curiously alternates between trashy hip-hop and squelching demonic breakdowns wherein vocalist Alexis Krauss relays her vacation anecdotes to us in her creepiest movie-nightmare voice.

Despite the unorthodox power Treats wields as an album, if you break it down, it makes sense. Derek Miller was formerly the guitarist of the hardcore band Poison the Well. Alexis Krauss was formerly in a producer assembled all-girl pop band called Rubyblue. Treats is what they made together; it’s the product of an unlikely pairing, a pairing that decided to it take some risks at a conceptual level – and they paid off. More music needs to do that.

Podcast respite (temporary!)

Posted in General on June 1, 2010 by monopolyphonic

Hey everyone,

So, in a rush to finish doing the sound design/mix for a friend of mine’s feature film, I’m gonna have to stop doing the podcast thing for awhile. I’m going to try to put up a couple of new review up each to week to compensate for this, so if you read this blog at all, well, keep reading!