Saturday, October 31, 2009

Baroness: Blue Record

Artist: Baroness
Album: Blue Record
Date Released: October 13, 2009
Genre: metal, sludge metal, progressive metal, alternative metal, hard rock
Rating: 8.5

Thunderous and Mastodonesque rockers from Georgia, Baroness have released the follow-up to their 2007 full-length, Red Record. On Blue Record, the band retains its Southern hard-rock sensibility ("Swollen and Halo" would make QOTSA proud) while continuing to lay out tracks that exude power and confidence.

The rhythm guitars are riffy and sludgey while the leads pour out crisp and melodic phrasings. The vocals are a mix of styles, sounding at times like Aaron Turner of Isis (check out the first few lines of the opener, "Bullhead's Psalm") while at others a touch more relaxed and clean. And the drums are unrelenting and fierce, providing the perfect support for the front lines.

Baroness is truly one of the best bands in the business, defying simplistic labels and expectations. Blue Record is a must-have for any lover of heavy and well-crafted music.

Irepress: Sol Eye See I

Artist: Irepress
Album: Sol Eye See I
Date Released: February 17, 2009
Genre: post-rock, post-metal, progressive, experimental
Rating: 7.6

Hailing from Massachusetts, Irepress have released Sol Eye See I, the follow-up to their 2007 debut, Samus Octology. Irepress play an extremely challenging and proficient brand of post-rock that borders on everything from post-metal through to jazz-fusion, math-rock and sludge. Unsurprisingly, the tracks themselves on Sol Eye See I are as frenetic and chaotic as these descriptions would imply.

The chug-a-chug metal riffs are often interspersed with washes of fuzzy guitar soundscapes, frenetic drumming and the electric guitar pickings that are characteristic of the post-rock genre. The tracks are all over the map, frequently starting and stopping on a dime. This isn't stuff you play in the background -- it commands attention and lots of patience.

Irepress is not for everyone, but listeners looking for something a bit different and daring will adore this album.

If These Trees Could Talk: Above the Earth, Below the Sky

Artist: If These Trees Could Talk
Album: Above the Earth, Below the Sky
Date Released: March 11, 2009
Genre: post-rock, progressive rock, instrumental rock
Rating: 7.2

If These Trees Could Talk is an instrumental post-rock group from Akron, Ohio. Above the Earth, Below the Sky is the follow-up to their critically acclaimed 2006 self-titled debut. The new album features much of the same elements found on their debut; ITTCT are emblematic of the post-rock genre, skillfully integrating elements from such artists as Explosions in the Sky, Mogwai and even Tool (check out "Rebuilding the Temple of Artemis" for a taste).

Above the Earth, Below the Sky is a solid and listenable effort, but the production values sound frustratingly thin and uninspired. If These Trees Could Talk are a very talented group of guys who have yet to reach their full potential. The best is still yet to come.

Future of the Left: Travels With Myself and Another

Artist: Future of the Left
Album: Travels With Myself and Another
Date Released: June 23, 2009
Genre: indie-rock, garage punk, punk revival
Rating: 7.8

Travels With Myself and Another is the third full-length release from the punky Welsh post-hardcore rockers Future of the Left. The tracks are high-energy and caustic with lyrics that are angry, scathing and downright obnoxious. But what else would you expect from a band that sounds like a bizarre intersection between Public Image Ltd. and Shellac? Track highlights include "Arming Eritrea," "Chin Music," "Throwing Bricks at Trains," and "Lapsed Catholics."

Promoted: Tortoise: Beacons of Ancestorship

I bumped Tortoise's album, Beacons of Ancestorship up to 8.7 from 8.2. Just love this CD.

Caspian: Tertia

Artist: Caspian
Album: Tertia
Date Released: September 15, 2009
Genre: post-rock, progressive rock, instrumental rock
Rating: 8.3

Massachusetts's Caspian hits the mark with their third studio release, Tertia. The tracks have the usual atmospheric and dreamy Caspian touches, but this album is blessed with a particularly strong melodic sensibility. Sonically, Tertia features moments of grandiose and richly textured soundcapes (including choral elements) that are often intermingled with softer touches, such as solo piano, acoustic strummings and clean electric guitar pickings (all laden, of course, with generous amounts of doubling, reverb and digital delay). The album will at one moment sound as heavy as post-metal Isis but at other times sound like Joshua Tree era U2. This is a beautiful and dynamic album.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Russian Circles: Geneva

Artist: Russian Circles
Album: Geneva
Date Released: October 20, 2009
Genre: post-rock, post-metal, progressive rock
Rating: 8.7

Geneva is the third full-length album by the Chicago post-rock three-piece, Russian Circles. This album comes only one year after their excellent and transitionary Station, and it finds the band continuing to explore new sonic spaces and possibilities.

Geneva features a broader arrangement than their first two releases, namely the addition of cello (Allison Chesley) and violin (Susan Voelz). The tracks are still epic and fiery, as exemplified by the goose-bump inducing "When the Mountain Comes to Muhammad" -- but now, with the added emphasis on more nuanced pacing and song-progression, the band is able to create sprawling and often meditative tracks.

Russian Circles, once regarded as being purely about the post-metal, is clearly moving away from sheer heaviness and the cliched progressions that have often marred the genre. Sounding much less like Pelican and more like Evpatoria Report, the band is continuing to evolve. And with Geneva, Russian Circles have produced their most realized work to date.

maudlin of the Well: Part the Second

Artist: Maudlin of the Well
Album: Part the Second
Date Released: May 14, 2009
Genre: progressive rock, indie metal, avante-garde
Rating: 8.5

Five years after their transmutation into the ponderous and esoteric 'chamber-metal' ensemble Kayo Dot, band leader Toby Driver reunites maudlin of the Well (abbreviated motW) for Part the Second [free download], an exuberant, fan-funded effort that is both a maturation and culmination of their unique 'bricolage' compositional style. Like Kayo Dot, motW revel in dream imagery, lush, dense arrangements and a seamlessly through-composed approach to writing. But unlike Kayo Dot, who, especially in their most recent work, tend to entangle listeners in lengthy, free-time, atonal jazz-rock enigmas, motW conjure melodically rich and inviting explorations of genre, providing vistas that are at once familiar and yet, like all of Driver's work, wonderfully strange and ephemeral.

By all appearances, Kayo Dot has had a strange and difficult road in the past few years, chiefly for having survived a reconstruction that began with the loss of all their personnel apart from Driver and violinist Mia Matsumiya. As a listener, it's difficult not to psychologize by drawing some comparison to the band's equally strange and difficult music. With that in mind, it's heartening to hear something so unencumbered, so pure and playful born from this reunion. Take "Clover Garland Island", which begins with stabbing drums and sinister chords and then innocently morphs into a laid-back funk groove overlayed with guitarist Greg Massi's wah-fueled explorations. Or "Rose Quartz Turning into Glass", the early part of which is borne on a piano riff evoking Steve Reich. This slowly trails off until it is only Matsumiya's violin, which is eventually joined by somberly strummed guitar and Driver doing his best impression of a wraith skulking through a graveyard. And then, well, it starts to sound a little like Floyd. You can almost see the smiles creeping onto everyone's faces during recording.

Admist all of this there are moments of stirring beauty, especially manifest on the final track "Laboratories of the Invisible World (Rollerskating the Cosmic Palmistric Postborder)". The song begins with a lone, meditative guitar and then Driver's wistful voice adds "We are bound together by a current of electricity." And then a voice seems to call to him from somewhere far away: "I want you to think about '93". The rest of the track is a breathtaking flurry of ideas building to a sprawling amphitheater of sound. And just when it all seems through, a piano shimmers in to deliver a brief, stirring epilogue to the album.

Part the Second is likely to be motW's swansong. And though their spirit continues on in the form of Kayo Dot, it has been clear since their second album Dowsing Anenome with Copper Tongue that Driver has very different and very ambitious designs for that moniker (Kayo Dot's first album, Choirs of the Eye, serves as a bridge between the bands' styles, and is considered by many to be Driver's finest moment). Hopefully, then, Part the Second will draw listeners to seek music from motW's earlier incarnation, who were, in their own time as they are now, as complete a musical anomaly as anyone is likely to hear.

Reviewed by Jayar La Fontaine.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Promoted: Anters: Hospice

As the year comes to a close, and as I revisit my reviews from the year that was, I will be adjusting some of the ratings. Some ratings will go up, some down, and some albums may be removed from the list altogether.

The first album deserving of a re-evaluation is Hospice by The Antlers. I initially gave it a 7.9, but this album is better than that. Much better.

It's a good one folks, so I bumped it up to 8.9.

Atlas Sound: Logos

Artist: Atlas Sound
Album: Logos
Date Released: October 20, 2009
Genre: post-rock, experimental, indie rock, alt-rock
Rating: 8.9

Atlas Sound is the solo project of Bradford James Cox, the lead singer of Atlanta four-piece Deerhunter. Logos is the follow-up to his debut, Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See but Cannot Feel.

Often awash in ambient textures and post-rock zone-outs, Logos is a gorgeously produced and intricate album that pays as much attention to texture and sound design as it does to sheer track strength. Featuring guest appearances from Noah Lennox (Animal Collective, Panda Bear) and Laetitia Sadier (Stereolab) the album is blessed with some excellent talent. The Sadier track in particular, the epic and washy "Quick Canal," is emblematic of Cox's ability to intertwine atmosphere with melody.

Though Atlas Sound could be considered more experimental and daring than Deerhunter, closer inspection reveals a highly accessible album. Don't let the labels fool you: Logos will appeal to a wide cross section. Don't miss this one.

The Flaming Lips: Embryonic

Artist: The Flaming Lips
Album: Embryonic
Date Released: October 13, 2009
Genre: indie rock, alternative rock
Rating: 8.2

Embryonic is a surprising and welcome return to form for these beloved freak-rockers. And by return to form I'm not talking Yoshimi -- Wayne Coyne and company have taken inspiration from earlier periods in their storied history.

The Flaming Lips have put aside the glitter and sparkle for this one, replacing it with some lo-fi atmosphere, tons of reverb and many shades of grey. That's not to say the album is gloomy -- quite the contrary. The track "I Can Be a Frog" (which features Karen O of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs) should put a smile on anybody's face.

Sound design and acoustics have replaced melody and sheen; On Embryonic, The Flaming Lips are wild and rowdy -- and at times even a bit jazzy. Embryonic is complex, noisy and experimental, making repeated listens a rewarding experience.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Wild Beasts: Two Dancers

Artist: Wild Beasts
Album: Two Dancers
Date Released: September 8, 2009
Genre: indie rock
Rating: 8.7

Two Dancers is the second full-length release from England’s Wild Beasts; the group have steadily climbed their way up the ranks of British music since they signed to Domino Records (Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand) in early 2007.

Falling somewhere between the aura of Sigur Ros and the intricacies of Foals, this album stands on the shoulders of their debut released last year. It builds on the characteristics of their established sound whilst bravely venturing into new musical territory.

Opener “The Fun Powder Plot” gracefully layers itself into an irresistible and frictionless groove. The relatively lengthy opener ends with a repeating haunting wail from front man Hayden Thorpe.

Thorpe’s salient voice delivers a fantastic performance on “Hooting & Howling”. During the introduction, the lyrics sit on top of the lone bass line remarkably:
Carry me hooting and howling
to the river to wash off my hands
of the hot blood, the sweat and the sand
“We Still Got The Taste Dancin’ On Our Tongues” opens with yet another streamline vocal hook, then the song develops to accentuate other traits such as the clever construction of the percussion. Considerable contagiousness is found in the flawless beats throughout Two Dancers, particularly on the track “This Is Our Lot”.

Even though I took a fancy to last year's debut effort Limbo, Panto, I really wasn’t expecting Wild Beasts to immediately release a charismatic follow-up of such distinction. Wild Beasts have masterfully moulded a sound so exquisite that they stand alone without the burden of guidelines or an overpowering fame. Two Dancers is sharp and proud; it is surely amongst the exclusive elite of British records released this year.

Reviewed by Leigh Padley.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Girls: Album

Artist: Girls
Album: Album
Date Released: September 22, 2009
Genre: indie rock, indie pop
Rating: 8.3

Girls is a much-hyped duo based out of San Francisco -- two guys riding the wave of excitement generated by a trio of highly successful videos for "Hellhole Ratrace," "God Damned," and "Lust for Life," Girls have managed to weather this storm of unrealistic expectations by putting out a remarkably solid debut album simply called Album.

Their sound could be characterized as being a bit retro, with hints of the Beach Boys and other surfer rock bands of the 1960's. You could characterize Album like that, but you'd probably miss the point. Intermixed into their sound are hints of Spiritualized, Pavement and Dinosaur Jr. -- not to mention some dark and sobering lyrics not typically found in the jangly beach-rock of a different era.

Album is a contradiction in terms: the tracks are kinetic, bright and colored by high energy, but the lyrical tone is one of pain, frustration and coming to terms with life's difficulties. It's this juxtaposition (or is it irony?) that propels this album to a higher level. Album is a highly accessible and enjoyable album from a new band that has managed to live up to a lot of the hype.

Built to Spill: There is No Enemy

Artist: Built to Spill
Album: There is No Enemy
Date Released: October 6, 2009
Genre: indie rock
Rating: 8.4

One of the most overlooked bands in the history of the universe, Idaho's Built to Spill continue to produce stellar albums after 16 years of loyal service . This year's release is no exception; There Is No Enemy does not venture into any new musical territory, but it showcases a band doing what they do best: the crafting of solid and hooky songs with fantastic lyrics and wide expanses of guitar zone-outs. Die-hard fans will be overjoyed. New fans have some catching up to do.

Monsters of Folk: Monsters of Folk

Artist: Monsters of Folk
Album: Monsters of Folk
Date Released: September 22, 2009
Genre: indie rock
Rating: 7.7

Hey, how can you go wrong when you put a band together consisting of Jim James (My Morning Jacket), M. Ward, Mike Mogis and Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes)? The album is tight, the tracks pop and the production is stellar. It's just lacking a bit of depth and cohesiveness.

Arctic Monkeys: Humbug

Artist: Arctic Monkeys
Album: Humbug
Date Released: August 25, 2009
Genre: rock, indie rock
Rating: 7.8

The Arctic Monkeys, victims of their intense popularity, have faced some fairly high expectations since announcing work had begun on their third full-length album. It’s fair to say that Humbug is an important album for the band; the effort will reveal whether or not the Arctic Monkeys have the resolve to make it past the two-album mark while still being able to progress their sound.

Queens Of The Stone Age front man Josh Homme produced all but three of the tracks and his influence can definitely be heard at points. This is as heavy as the band has ever sounded and it's fair to say that they've definitely taken on a new direction -- and one for the better.

Of the ten tracks on the album, the first that pricks the ears is third track "Dangerous Animals", which starts with the ominous words “pinned down by the dark", before launching into a hammering riff. Simple but hooky, the song exudes a menacing persona while beaming the familiar characteristics of an Arctic Monkeys song. Following on from the third track is the more subdued "Secret Door", which draws comparison with "The Only Ones Who Know", a track off their previous album from 2007, Favourite Worst Nightmare.

Front man Alex Turner’s lyrics have become more intriguingly themed in places, especially on the final track of the record, "Jeweller’s Hand", where he sings “But you know what it’s like to hold the jeweller’s hand, that procession of pioneers all drowned”, which hints at a potential change in lyrical theme for future work.

The third offering from the Sheffield based-band more than meets the high expectations placed on it. Humbug has a darker thickness to it than their previous albums, elevating it to their most established and conscious record to date.

Reviewed by Asa Masters.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Dananananaykroyd: Hey Everyone

Artist: Dananananaykroyd
Album: Hey Everyone
Date Released: April 6, 2009
Genre: math rock, new wave/post-punk revival, indie rock
Rating: 7.9

I've had a soft spot for this band ever since a love interest gave me a mix-tape with a Dananananaykroyd track on it a few years back. Cheesy and cringe-worthy, I know, but the early version of "Song One Puzzle" had a certain charm to it -- the rawness of the cherub rock-esque demo left a lasting impression. Now in 2009 the Scottish six-piece have finally released their debut album, Hey Everyone, and it doesn’t fail to impress.

After a highly excited introduction, the band manages to raise our pulses and warm our ears through its awesome display of power. Indeed, the first half of Hey Everyone is gleaming and it displays a startling amount of confidence for a debut. The Naykroyd proceed to thud their way through the tuneful songs, "The Greater Than Symbol And The Hash" and the anthemic "Black Wax".

A truly pummelled drum kit furiously backs the Moore/Ranaldo drone guitar riffage of "Pink Sabbath". This scolding song is a strong highlight located smack-bang in the middle of this feverous full-length. But not to worry, the hot-hooks and gallant chants continue until the album draws to its close. "Infinity Milk", "Some Dresses" and the fantastic ender "Song One Puzzle" all enhance the anticipation of their destructive live show.

I highly doubt I'm biased on account of my Dananananaykroyd foretaste -- after all, this band has spent considerable time on the road since their formation in 2006. I’m sure their well earned fan-base fully backs Hey Everyone as it's a very vibrant debut cleverly marrying the hardcore and shoe-gaze influences found on their early demo recordings.

Ultimately, this record is a lot of fun to listen to. Hey Everyone! roll up! roll up!, get your Fight-Pop!

Reviewed by Leigh Padley

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Albums now ranked by rating

Check it out: I've updated the sidebar to sort albums by ranking. But note, these rankings are not final. I'm going to review all my ratings before the year is over and make some final adjustments.

Tortoise: Beacons of Ancestorship

Artist: Tortoise
Album: Beacons of Ancestorship
Date Released: June 23, 2009
Genre: post-rock, experimental, instrumental rock
Rating: 8.7

: Beacons of Ancestorship is Tortoise's first album in five years; fans will rejoice to discover that the band's dedication to acoustic experimentation and genre-splicing remain intact. Boasting gorgeous production values, Beacons of Ancestorship is a showcase for a band that continous to explore new sonic space while at the same time putting out enjoyable and highly accessible music. Track highlights include "Gigantes", "Prepare Your Coffin", and "High Class Slim Came Floatin' In."

And So I Watch You From Afar: Set Guitars to Kill [live video]

And So I Watch You From Afar: And So I Watch You From Afar

Artist: And So I Watch You From Afar
Album: And So I Watch You From Afar
Date Released: April 2009
Genre: post-rock
Rating: 9.1

: Hailing from Northern Ireland, And So I Watch You From Afar (aka ASIWYFA) pound out high-energy guitar driven instrumental post-rock that combines the sonic sophistication of Explosions In The Sky and Mogwai, the heaviness of Pelican and the melodic/rhythmic complexity of Battles. But to say this band is derivative would be grossly unfair -- ASIWYFA is their own band with a sound that's distinctly their own.

And So I Watch You From Afar
is an embarrassment of riches, an album littered with powerful riffs, mind-bending grooves, virtuosic performances and intricate arrangements. Likely the best post-rock release of 2009. Track highlights include "Set Guitars to Kill", "I Capture Castles," and "Clench Fists, Grit Teeth...GO!"