Archive for the 2008 Music Category

WAVVES – Wavves/Wavvves (2008/2009)

Posted in 2008 Music, 2009 Music, Reviews on March 18, 2009 by monopolyphonic

Wavves - Wavves I’m gonna try my best to not repeat myself here. No, really. I gave a pretty good rant regarding my feelings with some of the more recently trumpeted lo-fi acts in my review of the debut of The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, so I don’t need to go into any more detail there, save for the fact that after listening to two albums, I can now add Wavves to the list of new lo-fi acts receiving acclaim that I feel is undeserved.

To give credit where credit is due, Wavves are quite dedicated to their lo-fi aesthetics; much of their music sounds as if was recorded with broken/sporadically functional equipment in a bomb shelter, or some other cramped and sonically unforgiving space. And unlike No Age, who’s total lack of consistency (coupled with halfhearted arrangements) left me underwhelmed, it should be said that Wavves are remarkably consistent. It’s just too bad that they’re consistent at being aimless. Now that’s a shame, and it’s a shame that carries across both of their albums.

The first of these, the self-titled Wavves (with two v’s, released on cassette last September), breaks down rather simply. It’s a steady mix of uninteresting garage-rock (Lover, Teenage Super Party), one-dimensional texture-fucks (Yoked, Space Raider) and two (count ’em!) good songs (Vermin and Beach Goth, which succeed because they suggest that there might, in fact, be something to them other than a wall of inconsequential noise).

Wavves - Wavves The second album, the similarly-titled Wavvves (with three v’s, released this week), fares a bit better because the production is a touch (read: a touch) cleaner when it’s beneficial for it to be cleaner (the crisp drums on Wavvves stand out, even when everything else still sounds like hell), but the album is in many ways even less impressive than the double-v debut. The irresolute filler-to-actual song ratio is still too high, and there are even fewer notable songs to mention here (of the twelve songs on the album, only Get In The Sun is worth returning to).

Having processed both of these albums together was an immensely disappointing experience; afterward, I turned on Merzbow’s Pulse Demon, and immediately felt both at peace and alive. You see, this is the issue I take with this new crop of lo-fi acts; they’re being heralded as raucous and aurally powerful, but all they’re really doing is taking some very ordinary songs and roughing them up around the edges. You can call it lo-fi, you can call it noise pop, you can call it “experimental”, but nothing you call it hides the fact these bands are being lauded not for their music, but for their noisy approach to it. No. I’m sorry, but that’s fucking bullshit. And that’s why I can’t get behind bands like Wavves – because their approach is both musically disingenuous and emotionally ineffective.

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STEVEN WILSON – Insurgentes (2008)

Posted in 2008 Music, Reviews on February 25, 2009 by monopolyphonic

Steven Wilson - Insurgentes Steven Wilson announced Insurgentes last July (although we weren’t exactly sure what it was when he did), and released it in October…well, sort of. With a limited number of copies available (3,000 CD and 1,000 vinyl), the album quickly sold out and became unavailable to most (myself included) almost as suddenly as it had arrived. Thankfully, KScope stepped up and re-released it this past Tuesday, so now anyone with $15 can get their hands on a copy.

The most important thing Insurgentes needs to do is somewhat metaphysical: it needs to justify its own existence. This is, after all, Steven Wilson’s first solo album, and when last I checked, he not only is the prog titan Porcupine Tree, but also half of No-Man, Continuum and Blackfield, as well as (presumably) most of Bass Communion and Incredible Expanding Mindfuck. Does he really need a solo album, or is Insurgentes just the guy from Porcupine Tree playing what are essentially the same songs under yet another moniker? The answer to that last question is a resounding “no.” Insurgentes (all two discs and 80 minutes of it) is dark and aurally hazy; as far as Wilson’s other works go, it bears the most resemblance to early Porcupine Tree albums like Up The Downstair, assuming they were first crossbred with Antimatter and early King Crimson.

So yes, Insurgentes is self-validating, so as a solo album, that automatically makes it a success. But there’s more to it than that. The album also serves to illustrate that Steven Wilson may in fact be that rarest of all musical beasts: one who is as talented as he is prolific.

NINE INCH NAILS – Ghosts I-IV and The Slip (2008)

Posted in 2008 Music, Reviews on June 30, 2008 by monopolyphonic

Nine Inch Nails - Ghosts I-IV Trent Reznor, now free from the shackles of commercial distribution, is dropping new albums on us all over the place (perhaps to make up for the 5-6 year gap us NIN fans had become accustomed to). The first of these albums is Ghosts I-IV, a four disc collage dark and minimal ambience. It’s a bit of an experiment for Mr. Reznor, whose previous work usually incorporates sounds like these as well as sonic turbulence of the highest magnitude on the same album (and often in the same song). It’s only partially successful. At times, it’s engrossing, but too much of the time, it feels like the aural equivalent of watching paint dry.

Nine Inch Nails - The Slip

The Slip, on the other hand, is a proper NIN release, and a damn good one at that. It feels sort of like With Teeth’s older, more mature brother. Now, I’ve got nothing against With Teeth, but after 6 years, I was ready to accept anything that Trent was going to give us with open arms and no complaints. But a few years have given me some distance, and I now can admit what I didn’t (or perhaps, couldn’t) back then: the five middle tracks of With Teeth, are, well, pretty terrible (with Only being the worst offender).

The Slip, conversely, suffers no such lulls. It’s just one groovy industrial rampage after another. The album effortlessly blends the texturization of NIN’s later work with the dark power of their earlier work, and it does without any of the With Teeth casualties. This may prove to be the best NIN work since 1999’s criminally underrated The Fragile.

Both albums were released online. Ghosts I-IV had a variety of pricing and package options, while The Slip was offered up to the masses as a gift (a physical release is planned for later this year). Ever since Radiohead shocked the music world last year by dropping In Rainbows on the populace for whatever they wanted to pay, the digital release idea has grown in popularity. The newest album by Saul Williams The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! (which was produced by Trent) was released in a similar manner. Elsewhere, Gregg Gillis of Girl Talk is following suit with his newest release, Feed The Animals, which is available from Illegal Art for the price of…whatever.

WOLF PARADE – At Mt. Zoomer (2008)

Posted in 2008 Music, Reviews on June 26, 2008 by monopolyphonic

Wolf Parade - At Mt. Zoomer For a band who were formed more out of necessity than anything else (Wikipedia informs me that Spencer Krug, former member of Frog Eyes, was offered a support slot for an early Arcade Fire tour; he hit up Dan Boeckner, formerly of Atlas Strategic, and thus the band was born), Wolf Parade have ascended into pantheon of revered indie rock idols startlingly quick. Their debut album, 2005’s Apologies To The Queen Mary was an extraordinarily tight collection of pop songs that were wound up like toys and marched off into the pleasure lobes of the brain, where they stayed, and stayed forever.

It’s taken the band three years to get the time to get a sophomore album together, and given the number of other projects the band members are/were involved in (Sunset Rubdown, Swan Lake, Fifths of Seven, Handsome Furs, Johnny and the Moon, etc.), it’s kind of miraculous it only took that long. The band could have offered us a great many things with At Mt. Zoomer, including simply more of the same (which, given the quality of Apologies, I’d gladly accept), but the band have spun their sound into something different here. Rather than go straight for the neural-pop pleasure center with laserlike precision, Wolf Parade give the songs on At Mt. Zoomer some room to move around in, and the result is an album that’s every bit as addicting and enjoyable as Apologies, but for entirely different reasons.

The biggest difference in the band’s sound is the increased presence (and altered role) of the keyboard. On older tracks like Grounds For Divorce, for example, the keyboard was strictly wound into the inner mechanics of the song; it functioned perfectly there as a cog of a well-oiled and magnificent machine, working together to keep the song going forward. Whereas on At Mt. Zoomer, the keyboard is given room to glide and dive inside the songs, sometimes pulling, sometimes pushing, but still functioning essentially as a momentum device. You can hear this everywhere on the album: in California Dreamer, in Call It A Ritual, in Fine Young Cannibals, and most notably in the opening track, Soldier’s Grin (which, if ever there is an indie carousel built, this would be the perfect song to loop while the riders circle endlessly).

While the band’s sound may be a bit different, the songs on At Mt. Zoomer are still incredibly infectious. The album’s first single, Call It A Ritual, might seem like an unlikely candidate to promote the album. It’s a thick song, filled with patches of hazy guitar and vocals that have nearly been drowned in reverb. The whole thing is punctuated endlessly by a serious, unbreaking piano. There’s nothing really too accessible about the track, but there’s something about it, some unnamed quality that instills the urge to keep returning to it. I think that the band opting to put forth Call It A Ritual says a lot about where the band are going with At Mt. Zoomer; in a way, the track is most indicative of the stylistic turn the band have taken here.

The album’s best song, the eleven minute closer Kissing The Beehive, blends the musical ideals of Apologies and At Mt. Zoomer into one song (with two distinctive halves). The first half of it is perhaps represents the culmination of the Mt. Zoomer sound. It’s bold, almost frightening at times. The second half of the song sees the band returning the no-holds-barred focus that was everywhere on Apologies. The swinging guitars, the lockstep drum and keyboard lines, even the vocal delivery, it’s all very reminiscent of tracks like Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts. The dual vocals here of Boeckner and Spencer Krug are breathtaking, as are the lyrics, which trade off optimism and monumental disappointments, one after another. I suppose I shouldn’t have doubted the band, but I must confess that I didn’t think (or know) Wolf Parade had it in them to make a song as huge and as intricate as Kissing The Beehive. But I’m glad they could. And I’m certainly glad that they did.

I think I’m in the minority with At Mt. Zoomer in believing that it’s every it as good as Apologies is. The general critical consensus with the album thus far seems to be that while it’s a good album, it’s ultimately missing something. I disagree. I think Wolf Parade are still too young of a band for us to start limiting what their sound is or isn’t, what they’re capable of and what they’re not. At Mt. Zoomer feels to me more like a revelation than anything else. It’s the sound of a band peeling back one more layer of themselves. And in the end, it’s an album that left me both satisfied emotionally, while also wondering what else the band might be capable of.

HD RATING: 9.5/10

LEVIATHAN – Massive Conspiracy Against All Life (2008)

Posted in 2008 Music, Reviews on June 20, 2008 by monopolyphonic

Leviathan - Massive Conspiracy Against All Life I have a love/hate relationship with Wrest, the sole member of Leviathan, and I somehow doubt that my use of the word “love” in this review would garner approval from the man, so let me elaborate: I have not enjoyed Wrest’s solo output as much as I’ve enjoyed his collaborative work. The two previous Leviathan full-lengths did not terrorize me as much as Xasthur or Blut Aus Nord consistently did, but Wrest’s bone-rattling wails were one of the high points of Sunn O)))’s Black One, and the lone Twilight album (in which Wrest contributed guitar, bass, drums and synthesizers) delighted me with its wickedness.

I suppose the biggest thing that continually irks me about black metal as a whole is the tired insistence of using conceits to establish a cold and frightening atmosphere. Black metal, perhaps more than any other metal genre, is all about atmosphere, and seeing as how the traditional characteristics of black metal are, shall we say, rather finite, the same stagnant, unfriendly sound keeps resurfacing over and over, ad nauseum. So the bands from the genre that I tend to gravitate to are bands that, more often than not, bend or occasionally break these constraints (the act of which is typically frowned upon by the black metal underground for not being true/grim/necro enough, or any combination thereof). A summation: I don’t think it’s necessary to keep writing and recording music in the style of Transilvanian Hunger anymore (and looking back, I’m not sure it was such a great idea the first time). To me, these were what the early Leviathan albums felt like more than anything else – heirs to the (Dark)throne.

Not so with Massive Conspiracy Against All Life, an album that is both violent, raw, and – this is crucial – audible. There’s no recorded-in-a-forest-at-midnight bullshit going on here. Wrest’s demonic atmosphere sounds all the more nightmarish because there’s a certain amount of plausibility to it. This Hell could be real. The album’s opening track, Vesture Dipped in the Blood of Morning, pulls no punches in making us realize this. While black metal classicists may be cursing the pagan gods over the album’s (relatively) clean production (and its balanced mix), their cries are more than likely falling upon deaf ears. The song is devastating, particularly the middle sections, which sound like some sort of infernal coronation for the condemned. The following song, Merging With Sword, Onto Them is equally potent in its aural misanthropy, merging a hazy guitar-laden wall with Wrest’s impeccable drumming (it’s worth noting that although Leviathan is a one-man project, the drums are Wrest’s main instrument) and his ever shifting vocals (which here are a mix of cold wailing and distorted grunts and screams).

So yes, songs like Made As The Stale Wine of Wrath and Receive The World are going to be among the best the black metal genre has to offer this year – but it’s Wrest’s ability to punctuate these onslaughts with more abstract musical ideas that makes the album as grand as it is. Consider how captivating the juxtaposition of the quivering guitars against the misty synths at the end of Receive The World are, or how the ambience in the middle of VI-XI-VI sounds a lot like a murkier (and even sparser) Stars of the Lid. There’s the twitchy, jagged guitars at the beginning of Vulgar Asceticism, who struggle initially to find their footing, before the song explodes, and the pulsing guitar white noise that closes the song out (calling to mind the third movement of Agalloch’s Our Fortress Is Burning).

The album comes to a close with Noisome Ash Crown, a song which boasts some of Massive Conspiracy’s best (and most abrasive) moments. The opening, with its steady low noise and pounding war drums, sound like what Abruptum might have been, were they ever tuned fully into the human frequency. The song spends much of its time in an intricate miasma, one as sunless as it is intense. It ends after some densely layered noise piles up to nigh unbearable levels, before the song drops off abruptly into nothingness. It’s a hell of an unorthodox way to end such a nightmarish album, but it’s especially fitting.

Wrest has an undeniable ear for crafting complex and nerve-frying material, material that’s as classically devout as it is evocative, material that’s not only full of hellbound bombast, but also eerily rich atmospheres and yes, dare I say, even some occasional surprises (imagine my shock discovering that the very last instrument you hear in Made As Stale As The Wine of Wrath is – gasp! – a crystal-clear bass guitar!). Massive Conspiracy is one of the few black metal albums that might manage to convert a few those who consistently avoid the genre for one reason or another. It’s not a pleasant album, but then again, it’s hardly supposed to be; there’s no room in Wrest’s demonic vision for serenity. And if the album penetrates into your inner-being, there might not be any for you, either.

HD RATING: 8.5/10

MAYBESHEWILL – Not For Want of Trying (2008)

Posted in 2008 Music, Reviews on June 16, 2008 by monopolyphonic

maybeshewill - not for want of trying With only one EP under their belt (2006’s Japanese Spy Transcript), maybeshewill have proven that they’ve got a knack for writing deft, intriguing instrumental music. It’s easy to lump the band into post-rock category, but unlike Explosions In The Sky or Russian Circles, maybeshewill’s music is primarily riff-driven, having more in common with metal than with post-rock (the band’s closest relative in the latter genre would be fellow Brits 65daysofstatic – both bands have an affinity for mixing electronics into their sound, as well as for writing their monikers without spaces). Not For Want of Trying is the band’s first full-length album, and while it’s not as taut as the Japanese Spy Transcript, it still exhibits some stirring moments of beauty.

Most of these moments occur near the close of the album, which is by far the strongest part of it. The final three songs in particular – He Films The Clouds Part 2, the title track, Not For Want of Trying and album closer Takosubo – form a dynamic triad of simplistic, raw and passionate energy. He Films The Clouds Part 2 (Part 1 was on Spy Transcript) takes a simple piano line and methodically piles on the ecstasies until it all gives way to the song’s lone lyric: “now we’re apart, though not through choice/do we stay mute, or raise or voice?” The lyric repeats again, this time by a choir (lifted up by the piano, which gleefully jumps octaves, as if everything depended upon it actually reaching the clouds). The simplicity of it all belies the beauty of it, and as the song winds down, the feeling of peace – of serenity – is strong. maybeshewill cleverly opt to shatter this feeling with Not For Want of Trying, a hurricane of a song whose anchor is in a sample from the Network, Sidney Lumet’s 1976 satirical masterpiece of the television era.

The speech is Howard Beale’s famous “Mad As Hell” diatribe; it’s arguably the most perfect monologue in all of cinema, and there’s absolutely nothing peaceful about. maybeshewill allow it to speak for itself, slightly changing their tone, mirroring every time Beale does, and when he asks for everyone to get mad, the band respond explosively. Considering how harrowing Not For Want of Trying is, it seems fitting that Takosubo acts as sort of a denouement for the whole album. So while the song consists of little more than sparse piano, the band are hardly going out with a whimper. Takosubo is merely the ash and smoke from the fires of the title track – and there’s nothing to indicate that that fire has gone out. It’s just a shame the band took as long as they did to get it started.

The beginning of the album is nowhere near as strong as the end; the songs all seem to blend together. Opener Ixnay On The Autoplay is almost like an electronically muddled twin of Takosubo; both songs share a similar (but inverse) purpose. Whereas Takosubo bleeds out of Not For Want of Trying, Ixnay On The Autoplay bleeds into Seraphim and Cherubim, a riff-driven song with a catchy piano hook. This song is followed by The Paris Hilton Sex Tape (a re-recorded version from the band’s EP). The song is…well, riff-driven, with a catchy piano hook. So is I’m In Awe, Amadeus!. The songs are so similar, in the riffs they use, and the piano lines that weave through them (which all have a minimalist, Phillip Glass feel to them), that hearing them all back-to-back is tiresome (even though each individual song has merit on its own). Ultimately, the songs lack identity, and I wish that maybeshewill would’ve injected these songs with more intent, as they did on the latter tracks of the album.

When the band step out of their mold and attempt something different, the results are somewhat sketchy. Heartflusters, the only song on the album with proper lyrics, feels out of place, especially when when crammed right into the center of the album. The dual male/female vocals in the track reminded me of From Autumn To Ashes, for whatever reason; they’re not bad, but the music here is the biggest issue – it’s too rigid and indifferent, and when compared to the other tracks on the album, it’s also completely lacking in impact.

Not For Want of Trying shows us, again, that the band have a promising future ahead of them; they just need to hone their songwriting skills a bit. Listening to the final three songs of the album, without interruption, is an absolutely joyous experience; it makes you wish that they band had
composed the songs to flow together more, as opposed to having them move around in circles as much as they did. Still, if you’re into emotive instrumental music, post-hardcore or post-rock, the album is definitely worth checking out. And try not to dwell on the flaws too much. The band have proven that they’ve got the potential for better albums, albums that are still unrealized by them. I’m confident that we’ll hear them someday. And next time, maybewewill.

HD RATING: 7/10

OPETH – Watershed (2008)

Posted in 2008 Music, Reviews on June 15, 2008 by monopolyphonic

Opeth - Watershed To say that Opeth had it all, and then abandoned it would be a tad melodramatic, but realistically, it’s impossible to deny that the band’s glory days are now behind them. This saddens me, as no one in the metal world did what Opeth did and continued to do up until 2001’s Blackwater Park. Their sound was indescribably elegant: intricate and fierce passages were entwined together with quiet, baroque motifs. Everything about the band’s sound progressed in this manner, right down to lead singer Mikael Åkerfeldt’s transformation from Angel of Death to choir boy at the appropriate time. The result of all of this was intoxicating. Here was a band that made music that was (at times) maddeningly aggressive, while at the same time being sophisticated and graceful.

The band began to falter a bit with Deliverance and Damnation, an experiment in which the band separated the two vastly different facets of their sound into albums of their own (with mixed results). They faltered some more with 2005’s Ghost Reveries (the band’s first album for Roadrunner Records, the premiere leader of U.S. playground metal). Ghost Reveries was an extremely disappointing release, wherein the band cheapened their rich sound by stripping it of all its baroque richness, standardizing their unorthodox brand of death metal and over-indulging 70’s prog oddities (weird keyboard lines, empty interludes, etc.).

Watershed is most definitely an improvement of Ghost Reveries; at least here, the band don’t sound like they’re imitating themselves anymore. They’ve made some changes to their sound (a lot of which I could do without), but it’s not all bad. Their sound is a mix of modern Dream Theater, Porcupine Tree and heavily diluted, Deliverance-era Opeth. The biggest problem with it all is that I’m not sure what benefit is served by Opeth sounding so deliberately little like themselves. Coil, the first song on the album, is a prime example. It’s not that it’s a bad song, it’s that it’s, essentially, a Porcupine Tree one. Everything about the track screams Porcupine Tree, from the instrumentation, to the production techniques, to the structure. The issue I take with this is somewhat metaphysical: while listening to it, I’m aware that I have access to a slew of Porcupine Tree albums, and I’m puzzled as to why I’m listening to Coil.

While the album opener might cry “Porcupine Tree!”, the album’s first single, Porcelain Heart, cries “Dream Theater!”. This is especially apparent in the guitar work of the song – the main riff (which is embellished with the often-ostentatious work of new drummer Martin Axenrot) and the galloping middle section in particular seem as though they would be right at home on Octavarium. But while the parts of the song may have their obvious influences, Porcelain Heart does indeed feel like an Opeth track (which is more than could be said for The Grand Conjuration, the first single off of Ghost Reveries).

My two biggest complaints with album lie in the vocal delivery of Åkerfeldt, and the structure of the songs. As mentioned previously, the fierce dual-nature of Åkerfeldt’s voice is unparalleled in the metal realm. On previous albums, he would spend most of the time growling, terrorizing your nightmares, while every so often transforming into a wayward lost soul to haunt your waking moments. On Watershed, that balance has been reversed, and Åkerfeldt spends most of his time singing clean. Every once in a while he’ll growl (most notably on Hessian Peel and Heir Apparent), but Watershed is an album with primarily clean vocals.

This is probably a direct consequence of my second (and biggest) complaint with the album. The structure of the songs have been simplified enormously, with the amount of acoustic or semi-acoustic material  greatly increased. While the band have always established, revisited and expanded upon motifs in their earlier works, you always got the sense when listening to these songs that they were always going somewhere new. But the songs on Watershed all have a more “verse-chorus” feel to them, even if they don’t all fall precisely within that framework. This is somewhat of a counter-intuitive thing to come to terms with, as the band have a broadened instrumentation on Watershed, (mostly due to the addition of keyboards provided by Per Wiberg, a full-time member of the band since Ghost Reveries). So while songs like Heir Apparent and Hex Omega are more diverse musically than the band’s past work, these songs actually wind up covering less ground (proving that the Opeth of old really did do less with more).

Watershed has the distinction of being Opeth’s most experimental release. The band expand upon a lot of their different influences here (and occasionally unveil new ones): prog (both new and old), jazz, even modern rock at times. The fact that it’s as hit-or-miss as it is was, perhaps, inevitable. But my outlook on the band now is far more hopeful than it was after hearing Ghost Reveries. Who knows, perhaps Opeth will hit upon some new magic as a result of this experimentation. Maybe then the band will recapture the power that the once had, the power that they’ve willingly forsaken in choosing to pursue this new path.

HD RATING: 5.5/10