This article is late for many reasons (mostly slothfulness) since I scour other year-end lists to ensure I don’t miss out on anything important. OCD has its advantages. So I’ll cover some bands rediscovering their roots, art metal being described as “dirgy”, middle-class dudes ripping off channeling Joy Division (yes, still), and some post-rock groups incorporating actual human vocals. That’s innovation !! I’ll run out of adjectives, make blatant misuse of semicolons, and repeat the same sentence in each review via synonyms.
My original intention was to scale back this year’s list since 2006’s article turned into a 10,000+ word behemoth. I never even expended that much energy for upper-year university papers. A little bit shorter, a whole lot sweeter, so was the plan that was made to fail. Now let me condescend your place in the world by using the collective terms “kids” and “folks”.
With 2002’s Diorama, Silverchair officially stripped themselves of the Seattle grunge-knockoff label, filling their music with vocal harmonies, orchestration, and horn sections. After singer Daniel Johns was sidetracked by his upbeat side-project The Dissociatives, they’ve come back together to follow-up on Diorama’s sound, dropping the minor chord sludge and adding synthesizers while moving toward an even more progressive sound. They are no longer cashing in a currently popular sound – instead ditching the teenage anger and doing their own thing. With the members now at age 27 and the front album art referencing Piet Mondrian (although 3D, how innovative!), you realize the band has obviously matured. Comparing the playful pop sounds of “If You Keep Losing Sleep” to their angsty single “Tomorrow” is kind of a mindfuck in seeing how artists develop. The basic rock three-piece is there, but they seem to take to the background, dominated by the orchestra and lead vocal. Johns still doesn’t seem to have mastered the art of writing lyrics; he probably should refer to fellow-countryman Nick Cave to see how that shit is thrown down. Overall, this album presents a nice escape from the usual banality present in pop music.
Instead of repeating their last album’s mistake of old man rapping, the Beastie Boys stuck strictly to their instruments for this release. As a result, the party-boy and/or politically conscious hip-hop was gone, in favor of funky dub that’s not too far off from the last half of Check Your Head. Of course, I don’t listen to this group for their technical proficiency, but their Caribbean percussion/jazz-infused jam sessions are quite groovy. With no track extended beyond four minutes, they’ve been able to create some groovy cuts that never failed to grab my attention.
Two years I expressed my sophomore cynicism when it came to Bloc Party. Unfortunately when songs are slowed down, their plodding nature finds Bloc Party at their worst with hearts so far down their sleeves that you can only look down upon it for the awkward lyrics uttered when attempting to be profound. The last tracks “Kreuzberg”, “Sunday”, and “SRXT” are a poor finish with all their Coldplay-isms where the emoting rings hollow. They ain’t no “This Modern Love”. Oh, yes, this is in the best list. The remainder of the songs all keep the tempo in check and the choruses singing of urbanite anxiety are huge. You got your post-punk and you got your dance, merged into a flustering maelstrom of kinetic energy. Just avoid the slow songs. Also, like 2005’s “Two More Years” was to Silent Alarm, the post-non-album single “Flux” is stronger than any of the Weekend in the City tracks, focusing more on the dance-oriented electronic sound.
Every Day was live jazz with some interesting electronic bits and occasional tangents into breakbeats that didn’t quite delve into the now-dated conventions of 90s trip-hop. Mad respect given to their label Ninja Tune, but it’s a bit surprising to have their latest album move toward coffee table downtempo for its focus on acoustic guitars and piano. All is not lost, for strings and brass instruments also make an appearance along with usual programmed bits. “As the Stars Fall” and UK release-only “Child Song” are likely the most similar to past albums, but otherwise these songs are closer-to-Earth minimal arrangements. Three guest vocalists appear, including Lamb’s Lou Rhodes on the finale “Time & Space”, where they seem to be the centre of attention rather than the music, as it was in the past. It’s a different perspective for a well-developed act, but The Cinematic Orchestra is still pushing emotional boundaries.
While Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born introduced a post-modern Wilco, on their latest you will not find deconstructed takes or references to The Conet Project. Instead, it’s simply classic rock with organs and dueling synchronized guitars. It’s good for when you’re having a bad day and hate the fucking Eagles, man. However, banality through yuppie soft rock is not present. It isn’t too far off from the mellow perspectives of Being There. Songwriting is a bit more traditional so some fans may be welcomed back after being weirded out by ambient noise freakouts and seemingly dadaist lyrics found in the last two albums.
From Beale Street to Oblivion
Attaining commercial success in the mid-nineties due to the alternative rock’s brief flirtations in the western pop music market, this long running group has fought on to release album after album to their now cult following. How many bands do you know from Maryland? That don’t suck? Now you know at least one. Involving a producer that has worked with Queens of the Stone Age, The Melvins, and Tool may not help much when it comes to getting rid of your “stoner rock” label, but Clutch has carved their proper niche in American music. This album is full of dense southern blues rock numbers, with Hammond organ, complimenting harmonica, excessive drum fills, and Wah pedal usage. “Electric Worry” is the standout track, with its shouted/clapped chorus and catchy guitar lick.
Their first two albums were retro-indie rock taking cues from folk, psychedelic, and 60s classic rock, which wasn’t quite my bag. For their latest release, The Shins have brought the rhythm section to the forefront and explore more contemporary sounds. The fast-paced “Australia” and hip-hop beat in “Sealegs” both indicate a band going in a new direction, complimented by the slower drum-less “Red Rabbits”, “Black Wave”, and closer “A Comet Appears”. Whereas their previous songs all sounded familiar in some respects, this new material distinctly sets a Shins signature that will hopefully lead to more experimentation.
After the critical and commercial demise of the Pumpkins, Billy Corgan went off to create the diet Pumpkins project Zwan and then recorded his (disgraceful) solo album TheFutureEmbrace. It seems he had to get over that the unwashed masses don’t listen to art rocks bands not named Pink Floyd. While this is not quite the aggressive return to Siamese Dream as some would like claim, at least he’s rocking out again. Pretentious Billy does return on the closer “Pomp and Circumstances” and we don’t want that, now do we? Well drummer Jimmy Chamberlin also got a solo album out of his system (it’s quite good) and he too is unleashing the fury on Zeitgeist. It seems seems like the drumming is the centerpiece of the recording, which is where the band’s strengths lies. Of course, the rest of the band is a substituted cast of players as James Iha and D’arcy Wretzky are nowhere to be found, but it looks like that doesn’t factor into the songwriting much. The music doesn’t introduce anything new to the Pumpkins oeuvre, but I’ve been more a “Silverfuck” than a “Today” type of guy, so this album suited me quite nicely.
It was a mistake for me to write Thrice off as another emocore band as I’ve been proven wrong by their last two releases. For the first two parts of an EP set referencing the four elements, the band successfully explores a range of post-hardcore mixed with electronic elements. There are obvious parallels to Chino Moreno’s projects here, with Fire being the Deftones to Water’s Team Sleep. The first part of the EP signified some of the emo attributes that I feared, but the latter Water lowers the whining and increases the experimentation. The surrounding ambient effects, mostly programmed beats, and plucked notes replacing power chords set the band’s work apart from other acts that try to sound like hard-asses by singing like adolescent boys. Stressing my dislike for that characteristic, my favourite track is the instrumental “Night Diving” where distant drones are interrupted by a simple call-answer guitar riff.
None Shall Pass is a proper follow-up to Bazooka Tooth, with an even wider cultural palette that explores jazz, ambient, and various forms of electronic music, tied altogether into a smart hip-hop package. Sonically, he’s not very far off from labelmate EL-P, but this product is a little bit more light hearted. My hyphen-happy self likes to describe Aesop as hyper-literate, lightning-fast verbosity, vocabulary-expanding, dictionary-reaching, sci-fi nerd-rap. His nasally speed-of-sound rhymes may turn you off but the production and lyrics in each song are so interesting that it keeps me hanging around. All Day is another entry in Nike’s iTunes Original Run series (brought to you by Fritos, Coca Cola, and Popeye’s Chicken), funding artists to product an album-length exercise mix. Some of these songs stretch even further away from his usual hip-hop base, including 32:45 in that sounds awfully similar to mid-90s Orbital…
The enjoyment of any Björk record hinges on your ability to appreciate her voice. Let’s get that right out of the way. Her a cappella album, MedÃºlla, from three years ago took itself a bit too seriously with vocals being electronically tuned beyond recognition, although the Mike Patton contributions were appreciated. This one is a little more fun release, although no less eccentric. Her propensity to hit a huge range of notes in most songs is still around, as are the mix of strings, horns, clever electronic programming, and cut-up beats. She brought in Timbaland to produced a few tracks but luckily it wasn’t ruined since he only contributed to 3 tracks (mainstream hip-hop hate here). She also has two duets with Antony Hegarty. LFO’s Mark Bell, who worked on 1997’s Homogenic (probably my favourite Björk release), produces a couple tracks and also has a remix of “I See Who You Are” on the UK and Japanese releases on this disc. The album as whole seem to have a water theme ongoing, with each track containing a related ambient outro: “Earth Intruders” (foghorn), “Wanderlust” (rolling waves), “The Dull Flame of Desire” (beating), “Innocence” (running stream, buoy clinging/bells), “I See Who You Are” (car wash? steam boat?), “Vertebrae by Vertebrae” (falling rain), “Pneumonia” (receding wave), “Hope” (call and answer horns), “Declare Independence” (drowning beat), leading into the sparse “My Juvenile”. These constant movements lead to a very fluid album that explore Björk’s wide range of talents.
Two Lone Swordsmen
Wrong Meeting / Wrong Meeting II
Aside from their namesake bringing up images of a male-on-male bedroom activity, Two Lone Swordsmen started out more than a decade ago somewhere between sci-fi lounge ambient and acid house, later being filed under the IDM tag along with their labelmates on Warp simply for their use of unorthodox samples. Given their genre jumping nature, they hopped on the post-punk funk revival bandwagon starting with 2004’s From the Double Gone Chapel, shifted to live instruments with background electronics. Two new nine-track Wrong Meeting releases delve further in alongside trashy rockabilly and Berlin-era Bowie with deadpan vocals and bass-driven booty-movers. Unlike System of a Down’s Memorize/Hypnotize money-grab, these two releases feel necessary by lacking a weak song in their full runtime. The second is likely the better of the two for its lyrics and tone, however the former’s closer “Get Out of My Kingdom” is my personal favourite track for jumping outside the mold with a haunting wordless female background voice over a simple drum beat and catchy rhymed male vocal refrains. I’m easily amused.
Snakes & Arrows
As far as I’m concerned, 1982’s Signals was Rush’s last notable release, with the mid-80s and onward reaching new heights in cheeseballing. 2002’s return in Vapor Trails is one of the pinnacle examples of extreme compression ruining production and musically it completely lacked character. Well they must have been invigorated by Trailer Park Boys cameos, since Snakes & Arrows is solid end-to-end. They’ve returned with a straight-up rock record containing strong songwriting and drummer Neil Peart’s lyrics of faith and conflict being quite relevant for the times (are these themes ever not?). You won’t find the technically proficient skin-work of the band’s golden era from the late 70s to early 80s, but Peart is certainly no slouch in these recordings. Many of the songs are complimented by strummed acoustic guitar while guitarist Alex Lifeson solos. If you’ve hated Geddy Lee’s vocals in the past, you’ll likely not be convinced to convert at this point, but there are a few instrumentals included in “The Main Monkey Business”, “Hope”, and “Malignant Narcissism”, the latter of which reminded me of Porcupine Tree in its short running time, except helluva lot more funky.
After two alt-metal albums and a stint of getting the shit booed out of them while opening for Tool, Tomahawk took a left turn for their newest work. Primarily a songwriting vehicle for Duane Denison, also former guitarist for The Jesus Lizard, they decided to make music for their namesake, reinterpreting traditional Native American songs. You can complain they’re pulling a Peter Gabriel-style misappropriation of others’ culture, but when you throw Mike Patton’s off-kilter vocal stylings on top, you have your in. In truth, most of the focus on the album seems to be set on drummer John Stanier (he also plays in that little-known band called Battles), who sets the tempo that other elements are synchronized with. Overall, the music is moody and most importantly, tasteful, although one’s hatred for Patton’s vocals may skew that opinion. Short sections such as found on “Sun Dance” have trashy freakouts that characterize projects like Mr. Bungle, but otherwise the instrumentation and chanting effectively recall Native songs while not becoming too tangential.
In an age of unnecessary reunion tours, this band from Amherst, Massachusetts returned at a time that feels right. Even after a ten year hiatus, they still have the energy and skills to not only pick up where they left off, but also improve on their best work. Knowing they already sounded like weathered men singing back in ’86, there are no complaints on the vocal front. But let’s be real, this is all just an excuse to hear guitarist J. Mascis rip it. In a corner, Lou Barlow weeps.
Onion Jack IV: Corrective Audio
As a segue between albums, these British electronic-revivalists decided to release a tour-only CD-R/iTunes instrumental EP. “Onion Jack” parts one and two both appeared as single tracks on their 2004 comeback double CD Wellcome, clocking in at 161/2 and 25 minutes respectively. Like its predecessors, part four is a sprawling dark electronic piece crossing beat-driven material with ambient come-down passages. It appears as one 35 minute track, however since its divvied up into 10 named sections, it’s really a 10 song EP without index points. Their worn-down urban aesthetic translates artwork directly into their music. Just as on Filthy White Guy, compositions are dense in texture. “Lambeth” brings to mind the tribal drum programming of This Morn’ Omina while the last segment “Sunbeam” contains clean synth chords and lush pads to wrap up the otherwise dissonant EP. On the whole, I hope their upcoming album, Machine Code, will contain part three of the “Onion Jack” concept.
As an act that doesn’t have a home in any sort of hip-hop world we know of, I’m happy to know that Dälek is still around to be creative and stay on the fringe. You can question how an act described as industrial shoegaze hip-hop can maintain accessibility, but they manage. For Abandoned Language, they turn down the distortion that has been growing over the last two albums, but the mix is still dense as ever. The rapping is still muffled into that mix, with sometimes indiscernible lyrics. Compositions are breathtakingly thick with ominous saxophones, synthesizers, and minimal drum programming complimented by a bass permeating every track that seems to have disappeared into that mix. The descending string-fest on “Lynch” brings to mind Scott Walker’s latest nightmares. These productions left me nodding my head while at the same time unable to comprehend just how complex the works really are.
There Will Be Blood
The film by Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love) had its theatrical release in 2008, but the soundtrack by Radiohead member Jonny Greenwood came out in late 2007, so it still counts! Mood: in distress with violins.
Known for his vinyl-sampling jazz percussion-fest albums and dynamically-created soundtrack to UbiSoft’s stealth video game Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Brazilian/British/honorary Canadian Amon Tobin decided to focus on found sounds for Foley Room to arrange songs with his own take on musique concrète. The cleverly named track “Kitchen Sink” kind of expresses the concept of the album; basically anything goes. His sound designs somehow manage to balance layers of a tiger’s growl, motorcycle engines, and water drops into cohesive pieces that function as songs. Instead of using a snare drum fill, cut-up metal clanging is used. A pounded barrel substitutes bass thumbs. His sonic signatures are still all over the place, creating an original work in his already impressive discography. Besides, it’s fun exercise to attempt identifying the source of each sound bite.
If you like lush Brian Eno-style ambient mix with droning, this is for you. As a double album containing only a series of elongated clean tones from strings, horns, synthesizers, effected guitar, etc., the latest Lid is surprisingly effective for how minimal it is. Sadly, there are no dolphin cries found in this release. 🙁
Conqueror / Sun Down/Sun Rise EP / Lifeline EP / Jesu & Elivium Split / Pale Sketches
The ever-prolific Justin Broadrick (Napalm Death, Godflesh, Final, Techno Animal) decided make 2007 the year where he would turn it up to 11. In frequency of releases. I placed last year’s Silver EP in my top five of 2006 and even though all these releases have the same musical strength, their sameness may have lowered the overall value. After this many releases in one year, the shelf-life of this act may have reached its end much too quickly. There are some golden moments amongst the almost 3.5 hours of 2007 Jesu including Conquerer’s 10 minute mid-point epic “Weightless & Horizontal” with all its hope and overwhelming buzzing guitars, Lifeline EP’s hypnotic “Storm Comin’ On” with Swans’ Jarboe on vocals, and “Farewell”, the opener of the Jesu/Eluvium Split 12″ with its disorienting unidentifiable digital sample panning back and forth behind the overlapping melodies and vocoders. What most people will find of note in this set is the Pale Sketches rarities collection. Most songs are more unconventional by Jesu-standards, leaning more to the experimental side. You’ll find more of a focus on electronic music that will recall Boards of Canada, if they started incorporating the odd metal riff. This is likely the most humanist work you’ll find in Broadrick’s catalog.
According to Burial’s interview with The Wire, he created Untrue with only 2 weeks (!) of production. Like Talk Talk’s later work, sounds are heard at a distance causing the listener to pay more attention… and the interesting parts aren’t necessarily in the foreground. The beat patterns supposedly define Burial as dubstep (who the fuck narrowly classifies music down that far?) so there aren’t many comparable acts. The samples recall voices buried in a radio feed with a constant vibe of ghostly urban alienation. The subtle nuances of samples surround the whole recording to a point where I couldn’t quite grasp the totality of its aural space. Repeated listens reveal new perspectives and yada, yada, yada; the album has much depth.
With a seven year hiatus between album releases, ex-Depeche Mode member Alan Wilder obvious took enough time to polish off subHuman (when he’s not ranting about the music industry). His previous hints at exploring blues are amplified for the duration of this album, with heavy themes and inventive sample usage creating a series of dark soundtracks. The wordless female vocals in “Allelujah” are not far off from Collide’s kaRIN and a funereal chain gang found on “5000 Years” recall VAST’s song “Dirty Hole”. Seven tracks clocking just over one hour represent Wilder at another creative peak, creating mostly instrumental soundscapes for those with the patience to catch onto it. I only wish I could check out the 5.1 mix.
As a companion to their live DVD documentary Heima, this double CD EP acts as a compilation of rarities and reinterpretations of previously released songs. Hvarf contains three non-album tracks including the more traditionally rock-ish “Hljómalind”. This is followed by re-workings of two songs from their ’97 debut Von; the title track and awesome “Hafsól”. Jónsi still sings like there are 10,000 cocks up his ass (oh, homophobia! jokes!) and the Icelandic language barrier is still there so I simply rely on the phonetics playing off instruments to attain emotional resonance. The Heim side is where the band performs a few of their tracks live, but acoustic. The electric bowed guitars and crashing percussion are absent making these versions not quite as large but the tension is increased many-fold as the live cuts don’t contain crowd noise so the session is kept intimate.
I guess Canadian broadcasters like that there’s a member of their nationality in this band so they can contribute to the Cancon quota while preventing the Canadian public from being inflicted another track from The Tragically Hip or fucking Matt Good. For their second self-produced album, The Arcade Fire has gone for an even wider and darker sound containing strings, pipe organs, horns, accordion, xylophone, etc. that becomes even more eclectic when presented live. They attack higher issues head on including commercialism, religion, poverty, and military conflict all to focus on the fact that yes, hell is other people… or at least the bureaucracies they create are. Unfortunately the songs are brought down to Earth when the voice of co-founder Régine Chassagne comes centre-stage, such as in the first section of “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations”. When her Québécois accent is exposed, the contrast to her husband’s fronting vocals are jarringly poor and highlight that she should stick to being just a multi-instrumentalist. It’s my time to put women in their place on the Internet!
Funky and soulful kraut rock dance punk with freakish lyrics! I don’t feel like writing anymore!
There’ve gone from black metal (Bergtatt/Nattens Madrigal) to classical folk (Kveldssanger) to ambitious industrial rock (Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven & Hell) to pseudo-cinema (Pedition City) and back again (Blood Inside). The Norwegian chameleons are back again with a very low-key electronic record, probably hinted at best by Blood Inside’s “Blinded by Blood” (say that 10 times fast). The promotional grayscale photography for the latest album gets all The Seventh Seal with black cloaks (er, hoodies) on Scandinavian shores and they back that image through a convincing cover of Black Sabbath’s “Solitude”, replacing dated flute with an appropriate saxophone. They present utter depression without any weaksauce involved. Take heed, emo bitches! The rest of the album follows this pattern, with deep despair covered through synthesized strings and Coil-ish dark hymns. The vocals are more subdued to avoid some of the cringe-worthy note-misses found on the last album. The last song, “What Happened?”, is an instrumental that closes with forlorn strings and drones, disappearing into 100 seconds of silence.
This UK band’s A Certain Trigger channeled Gang of Four, minus the funk, highlighting our current post-punk revival zeitgeist. For the sophomore release, Maxïmo Park kept the northern English accent and added the best parts of new wave (yeah, they do exist). The synthesizers are more pronounced, as are piano and organ sections. Some of the tracks lean more toward balladry, however the strongest tracks are the first two rockers, “Girls Who Play Guitars” and lead single, “Our Velocity”. Much of the lyrical content crosses the uncertainty of youthful abandon via literate emphatic songwriting. The production is glossier with more consistency between songs, but the loss of intensity and character when compared to their debut make the follow-up suffer.
A band that came out of the popularity of rock music across the pond in the 90s, the Manics somehow got lumped into the dreaded Britpop genre along with those effin’ Oasis. Unfortunately, they took a detour with 2004’s Lifeblood which was a tedious, over-produced pop record focused on keyboards and programmed elements with nary a hook. Like The Smashing Pumpkins, the band checked out their back-catalog and decided to make some nods to their own material. They’ve gone back to huge sing-along anthems completely focused on guitars. Songs like “Underdog”, “Rendition”, and “Imperial Bodybags” are fast-paced rockers that demonstrate the group’s always present political convictions. Single “Your Love Alone is Not Enough” contains guest vocals by Nina Persson from Sweden’s sugar-pop band The Cardigans, which is unsurprisingly infectious. All the tracks are of the upbeat variety aside from the hidden finale cover of Lennon’s “Working Class Hero”. Oasis lovers need not apply.
With 2004’s dual releases of B EP and EP C (reissued as one CD by Warp in 2006), Battles were kind of a math rock novelty act with all their repetition in unconventional time signatures of experimental tones. It was headphone music for the nerdiest of nerds. The new album is a fair bit more accessible with playful tones used alongside the indecipherable Animal Collective/The Knife-ish vocoder techniques. “Atlas” became somewhat of an indie hit for its hooks, highlighting what sets this band apart from other technical-skill oriented rock acts: they have groove. For all those taps and pedal effects, their demented circus music still has a constant chug that acts as a head-nodder while having the depth to require a few listens to grasp its rhythms.
I find Toronto’s Do Make Say Think are more organic compared to the calculated approach by more popular post-rock acts like Explosions in the Sky. These jazz leanings tend to follow when you consider the band being composed of multi-instrumentalists, including two drummers. Whereas most bands just repeat melodies ad nauseam (ruining future listening sessions), these guys are more about the groove, avoiding meandering compositions, but instead setting out with interesting destinations in mind. The opener “Bound to Be That Way” references Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, while “The Universe!” hits like a sequel to Broken Social Scene’s “KC Accidental” off You Forgot It In People, which a few members of this band also contributed to. In “A Tender History in Rust”, they literally get their pastoral on. The band’s segues are pretty seamless as they jump between genres song by song.
Like …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead did with 2005’s Worlds Apart, Modest Mouse had done with 2004’s Good News For People Who Love Bad News, leaning away from experimentation that may have driven off some of the indie kids. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Mouse continues on the same trajectory, releasing pre-album single “Dashboard” that made old school fans twinge at its radio accessibility. Singer Isaac Brock still has a massive shouting lisp that makes the band so unique. How cruel is it to put an ‘s’ in the word “lisp”? While these songs don’t balance hooks with disorientation as much as the past, entries like “Florida” and “Fly Trapped in a Jar” are bound to get your pasty ass moving. The lonely horn in “Spitting Venom” highlights likely the most epic song on the album, however “Parting of the Sensory” is best in the bunch with a sorrowful violin-led intro that crescendos into a country shindig with with a cacophony of plucked acoustic guitar, voices, hand-claps, and foot stomps. It’s no drugged-out The Moon & Antarctica, but at least they’re going forward.
Composed of two members from mclusky and bassist from Jarcrew, this Wales noisy post-hardcore act made probably the most immediate and irreverent record last year. They are a three-piece where guitar is the furthest instrument from the mix, with an overdriven, fuzzy bass sound made so popular by From Death Above 1979 (MSTRKRFT sure does suck.) The lyrics seem to have a political bent, but for the most part they’re more a series of disconnected words that amuse when jumbled together. The point-of-view is really a continuation of mclusky’s fist-pumping, basement dirty punk with synthesizers thrown into the mix. It’s in the tradition of Big Black, whose member Steve Albini had engineered mclusky’s final album The Difference Between Me and You is That I’m Not On Fire.
Maybe Canada doesn’t suck after all? I have my own opinions about my homeland’s cultural cringe when it comes to media, but acts like Holy Fuck are the exception. Most electronic instrumental-only acts use meticulous studio tweaking to realize their finished products, but these guys attain their goals through improvisation, including a live band with two drummers. You can call it a mash-up of styles, collage of disparate sources, or a cornucopia of sonic interweaving; I just think it’s a fun listen. Now at the start of the song “Safari”… is that… Blades of Steel?
Over the past five-plus years, German label Hymen Records has been coming out with the best electronic music around. With their namesake being a play on a reference from Philip K. Dick’s novel “A Scanner Darkly”, Substanz T is no exception from Hymen’s roster, exploring drum’n’bass and dub mixed with psychedelica in an industrial setting. While technoïd may not yet officially be a music genre, this act’s originality is unmistakable. Beyond E is even more cinematic in scope from previous affairs, with the dense compositions drawing comparisons to Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, albeit with stronger ambient leanings. The female vocals found on songs “Orbit 32”, “Sonique”, and “Truth” sound like a sparse Madonna at points, but at least it isn’t Sinead O’Connor. This mostly instrumental, bass-heavy downtempo music will be attractive to fans of Amon Tobin, especially for the post-industrial dark ambient tracks found in the latter half of the disc. This is the perfect soundtrack for your cyberpunk dreams.
While the Internet music nerd press are busy humping each other over this release, I’ll simply claim it’s an enjoyable listen. Nothing more. It’s post-modern! Ironic! Self-aware! Contemporary! Of the times! Non-serious seriousness! Political apolitical! Androgynous! Smörgåsbord of genre! Contextualized dance music with a brain! Eh? At least the John Cale cover of “All My Friends” from its iTunes-only EP gets rid of the annoying piano loop.
If I wrote this piece at the end of 2007, Spoon’s latest album would’ve been much higher on my list. However, principal songwriter Britt Daniel’s less-is-more approach to indie pop isn’t quite as transcendental after multiple listens as I originally thought. At a length of 36.5 minutes and with most cuts hitting 3 minutes, at least this album is catered toward my ADHD oh-something-shiny frame of mind found on most days. 2002’s Kill the Moonlight was likely the band’s most experimental record although this album gives it a run for its money, while still staying fairly accessible. Horns (“You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb”), flamenco guitar (“My Little Japanese Cigarette Case”), and a three-piece brass section in the awesome lead single “The Underdog” all accentuate the band’s unique take on pop music. The up-front use of groovy basslines and often-used echo recall dub music (see the LCD Soundsystem-“All My Friends”-ish repeating piano noted “The Ghost of You Lingers”) while being grounded by Daniel whose voice reminds me of Stereophonics’ Kelly Jones, except not as nasally. I can see people drawing parallels of the band’s development to Wilco’s musical approach, although without country… and not close to as popular… or as good. But there are parallels!
Hailing from Athens, Georgia, this reconfigured post-rock band has tightened up their rhythm section to provide a more immediate album. It opens with an intermittent noisy Neu! background guitar behind plucked delay pedaled guitar reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall (before it becomes a shitty pseudo-disco song. Animals: yes. The Wall: no), setting Inventions’ theme of a constant build-up. The interplay of instruments bucks the trend of meandering deliberate guitar Explosions in the Sky have beaten into the ground in what I like to think of as the Friday Night Lights Effect. They forgo the genre’s characteristic comedowns, instead concentrating on instrumental ascension. Taking the faster-paced writing of Seattle’s Kinski, stripping out foreground Sonic Youth guitar distortion, and adding their own signatures like the percussion at the end of “Synchronicity IV” leave a clean rock sound that is distinctively Maserati.
Stepping back from love ballads and choirs of Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus, Nick Cave and three of his Bad Seeds take a break by creating bare-bones noisy blues rock in the vein of a demented David Lynch flick. Exploring the underbelly of modern man’s psyche, he highlights ignorant refinement (“Go Tell the Women”) and also spends a whole (hilarious) song attempting to convince a dame to ride his bologna pony (“No Pussy Blues”). Somehow he manages to pull off the middle-aged man waxing sex philosophically. He’s poetic as always, even when wailing about getting some tail; and the 40 minute runtime invigorates raw soul into pop culture.
My distaste for Radiohead Fanboyism has surpassed Tool and has almost reached BoSox Nation Massholes. As life-changing as some obsessives have claimed this band to be, they are just that – a band. Hail to the Thief was half decent, half yawn and it looks like they’ve realized it’s now time to stop noodling around and focus on songwriting. Lead single “Bodysnatchers” may regain fans lost post-OK Computer since it has a fast pace and the end of the track has something resembling a simple guitar solo. Like Pink Floyd, they’ve been able to balance experimentation with commercial success, like that means anything.
An End Has a Start
As an exception to copycat fashion, this British band managed to out-Interpol American counterpart Interpol in 2007. The monotone singing approach brings up obvious comparisons to Joy Division’s Ian Curtis although singer Tom Smith reaches a wider vocal range. As a maturation from their Mercury Prize-nominated debut The Back Room, they streamlined their hooks, using the U2-sized guitars for more effect, but without the hamfisted ego. The serious melancholy lyrics have a bit more empathy than found on The Back Room’s derivative approach, while like Bloc Party, the emoting may make one cringe. They mix upbeat straight-ahead 4/4 drums of “Bones”, “The Racing Rats”, “A Thousand Pieces” with mostly beatless vocal-focused “The Weight of the World”, “Push Your Head Towards the Air”, and “Well Word Hand”. I personally most enjoy the middle ground songs “Spiders” and the Japanese/US bonus closer “Open Up”.
The first note of the album let’s you know Oakland’s art metal masters are back and brutal as ever. Whereas their last two albums were more melodic, they have pushed those ideas into the background, returning to the louder metal leanings from Through Silver in Blood and Times of Grace from the late nineties. For the past decade, I’ve heard the post-metal group du jour use Neurosis as a jumping off point, which Isis openly admits to. Acts like Mastodon and Big Business wouldn’t be around in their current form if it weren’t for the sounds of Neurosis. With their ninth album, they express absolute menace with no posturing in sight. Their sound is somewhat like Sabbath-ish tribal metal and Pink Floyd atmospheres mixed with the anger of hardcore to form meditative dirges that punish your eardrum but somehow manage to stay very musical. The trashy segments also show a strong attention to sound design via synthesizers and tasteful samples. Original ideas like the panning feedback surrounding the riff/drum assault in the “Water is Not Enough” outro make Neurosis a cut above metal acts out there today.
Yes, there are comparisons to Death in Vegas’ The Contino Sessions but they didn’t have Mark Lanegan from Queens of the Stone Age and the criminally overlooked Screaming Trees (who weren’t “grunge”; 1996’s Dust is amazing). Teaming up with the British production duo, he takes on a funereal tone of Tom Waits gone gospel. Opening with “Revival”, a single containing dominant organ and female backup singers, the sombre mood is set for the next 45 minutes. Next up are two DJ Shadow-like productions in “Ghosts of You and Me” and “Paper Money”, along with two instrumentals, “Ask the Dust” and the Bill Hicks-titled but spaghetti western soundtrack-like “Arizona Bay”. Integrated seamlessly into the tracklisting are two covers in Neil Young’s “Through My Sails” and a slowed-down take on The Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations”, closing out with the pretty voxless original “End Title Theme”. Bridging trip-hop, soundtracks, gospel, folk, psychadelica (see: “Jesus of Nothing”), and noisy guitar rock is no mean feat but it’s all taken care of here.
These Scots are characterized by a lyrical earnestness that will make most people raise a brow. The band’s heart isn’t just on a sleeve; it’s pulsing on their open palms but covered with a sugary coating of melancholy. Look beyond, for their music is fucking sweet ass. Past Aereogramme releases were of the crowed noise-guitar rock variety, but Heart employs more major chords and overpowering melodies to create a clearer mix that still has plenty of density. Also, that singing voice is… cute. The album has echoing ethereal vocals, piano-led songwriting, and motherfucking violin solos. Are you acquiring it yet? This whole review may sound facetious but it’s sincere. I love it all and I’m not embarrassed to say so. Unfortunately, they have since broken up but at least Aereogramme ended on a high note. Music pun!
Def Jux head’s debut Fantastic Damage contained some juvenile wordsmithing as a result from the growing pains of going solo, but this album improves by taking on an even more stern post-apocalyptic tone. Opening with a stark Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me quote about Laura Palmer “falling faster and faster”, we open in mid-spiral. “Up All Night (Stop Cryin’)” contains my favourite lyric of this year: “I see you all regardless/I know what lies are like/I may have been born yesterday, sir/But I stayed up all night”. Other clever quips like, “my triple-A card has one too many initials”, highlight his lyricist abilities that touch upon a social awareness through humourous angles that expose the absurdity of it all. El-P is an incredible talent with versatility that he already displayed on the jazz album High Water made with pianist Matthew Shipp; this album is no exception. His production stands well on its own, even without vocals, which was earlier proven by Cannibal Oxtrumentals, the instrumental release of The Cold Vein by label-mate Cannibal Ox, which El-P had produced. By making improvements to his own rap delivery and fine-tuning the album’s central themes, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead was created to be the best hip-hop album of 2008.
Hey look, it’s a middle-aged Englishman shaking his broom at the kids on his lawn! The new album from the nü-prog act, Fear of a Blank Planet is an obvious nod to Public Enemy’s seminal race-conscious release, as he explores today’s disconnected nature of the connected, pill-popping generation. Porcupine Tree main-man Steven Wilson has been influenced by production duties on Opeth’s Blackwater Park, Deliverance, and Damnation as his albums are blending more metal influences into the synth/psychedelic mix. A few familiar guests appear in King Crimson’s Robert Fripp and Rush’s Alex Lifeson to provide their signature guitar-work, while Wilson himself displays his dense studio mastery. The album is peaked by “Anesthetize”, an almost eighteen minute opus in the spirit of Deadwing’s “Arriving Somewhere But Not Here”. The Lifeson solo and double-bass drum bursts make PT a lot more in your face than their usual Pink Floyd/Radiohead songwriting. The six tracks cut in at 50 minutes, which is an appropriate length for a 70s-style conceptual album. The release comes alongside the companion four song Nil Recurring EP, which contains songs deemed to not completely fit in with the theme, but they stand well on their own. A few riffs and lyrics are lifted from the album to connect these original songs to the masterwork.
San Diego’s duo (with friends) are back with another slice of indie pop. You’ll find the expected harmonizing via multi-tracked vocals and intertwining plucked guitar lines over drum machines. Aside from the fast-moving opener, “From Nothing to Nowhere”, the tempo is toned down when compared to 2004’s Summer in Abaddon. This album adds more live drums and intricate piano/guitar melodies fill every song that are also delicate, excepted by the last half of “Walters” which has a distorted guitar more resembling Pinback member Rob Crow’s side-project Goblin Cock. Yes, that is really the name of it. Please don’t Google the album cover. Returning back to the subject at hand, Pinback is still churning out the most rewarding pop music around. Sublime, even.
Pelican’s Australasia and The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw were focused on dueling electric guitars (not banjos) with the repetitive rhythm section pushed back in the mix as a kind of post-metal and stoner rock amalgamation. Pelican claims this was a conscious decision, but the change in process is evident on City of Echoes. Perhaps inspired by fellow Chi-townites Russian Circles to increase complexity of their drumming, the songs are now more a traditional instrumental rock band where each members is on equal footing. Drones, doom guitar, and shredding are now highlighted by percussion-work that drives the track rather than observing from the background. In the opener “Bliss in Concrete” we hear a double-bass drum while the fills aren’t predictable at all. Gone are those 10+ minute epics, replaced by tempos that ebb-and-flow through each track that take no longer than seven minutes. Intertwining Sabbath riffs play off each other with folk adventures thrown in (“Winds With Hands”), the standard acoustic number found on their albums. The choice to write more compact songs is a refreshing take for Pelican.
Two years ago I whined about Trent’s over-aged whining on Ah-With-Ah Teeth-Ah. Those complaints of juvenile lyrics are curbed on Year Zero, where he’s focusing angst outward through the perspective of fictional characters. Of course, if you’re searching for life’s meaning in song lyrics, you’re looking for love in all the wrong places. Luckily, the music too is an improvement. While I enjoyed Dave Grohl’s contributions, I prefer the electronic drums present on this release. The hip-hop programming found throughout the album may have been influenced by the work Trent did for El-P along with producing Saul William’s The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! Pre-release, he claimed the record sounded like Public Enemy and you can hear The Bomb Squad throughout, with synthesized industrial noises cutting through every track, including extended vocal-less sections.
There’s all that talk about the marketing strategy used to back the album, which is supposed to be part of the album, not advertising, but whatever. All I care about is the music. The themes covered are at the societal level, using a fictional future to make statements of the present. For all the God-fearing dystopian police state expressed via the lyrics, there are bits like “Capital G” which are a thinly-veiled dig on G.W. and his administration, exploring the indignation of the privileged complete with a pompous vocal delivery to match. With a possible part two in this fictional world planned for the future, I think sober Trent’s expanded viewpoint is for the better artistically, so hopefully it leads him down more productive roads not involving personal anguish. For the remix album, check out the two stripped-down versions by New Order’s Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert.
Bucking the trend of those expressing a Joy Division-like vibe, Ohio-originated/Brooklyn-based The National aren’t characterized by primitive musicianship to go along with their dour lyrics. The powerful drumming in this record is some of the best found in rock for its nuance and variety, not complexity. “Mistaken For Strangers” drum production gives Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” a run for its loud money to go along with the woe-is-us lines such as, “You wouldn’t want an angel watching/Surprise, surprise/They wouldn’t want to watch”. At home he’s a tourist, yeah? Singer Matt Berninger has a deep baritone that can compete with Michael Gira of Swans/The Angels of Light. “Squalor Victoria” has “Sunday Bloody Sunday” rolling snares and strings over Berninger’s stream of consciousness middle-class melancholy that will likely be the only song to ever use the phrase “middlebrow fuck-up”. The apologetic and almost defeatist Boxer is even more bleak than its 2005 well-praised predecessor Alligator, but it is also more fleshed out with piano, trombone, flute, and orchestra. You can still find sweetness and hope under that cold, dark soul.
Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters
Whereas most Scottish bands make an attempt to hide their accent in order to reach larger markets, The Twilight Sad’s singer James Graham seems to consciously emphasize his Glasgowian brogue. It’s one of the many charms expressed by one of the best bands to debut lately. Combining shoegaze and post-rock into an epic and noisy form of melodic heartbreaking music, their intricate arrangements are drenched in distorted guitars and… an accordion. Their vibe is absolutely melancholic, with quiet folk excerpts on adolescent past exploding into cacophonies of screaming wails. These youthful, cathartic passages redefine the anthem. How’s that for hyperbole?
Out of the gate, the Queens earn marks for a Silence of the Lambs reference in the first track and it’s all about making the grade, ain’t it? The lines “It’s truly a lie/I’m counterfeit myself” from “I’m Designer” steers our course toward the posturing and the rat race of fame that I can only hope a crack in the earth’s crust will swallow whole someday. While leader Josh Homme’s clever lyrical quips brought me to attention, it was really the music that resonated. Disorienting guitar effects on “Turnin’ on the Screw”, the sexual swagger of “Sick, Sick, Sick”, “Battery Acid’s” buzzsaw guitar, and the non-album title track with Trent Reznor guesting on background vocals are all strong suits when compared to their past four albums. I thought Lullabies to Paralyze was a bit on the dull side for the album’s duration as the band was realizing its identity post-Nick Oliveri, but with this album they’re back into full form.
While there has been plenty of band turmoil, Dillinger have still managed to keep their work cohesive with 1999’s influential Calculating Infinity. Continuing the string of math metal with tempos change at breakneck speeds, they are now expanding their palette to the chagrin of some. The “Black Bubblegum” falsetto singing is a continuation of the chorus from Miss Machine’s “Unretrofied” and their Justin Timberlake cover on the iTunes-only Plagiarism EP. “When Acting as a Wave” is the perfect marriage of metal and glitch. While it’s typical for a DEP review to compare them to Mike Patton, I simply have difficulty listening to “Milk Lizard” and not hear Mr. Bungle with the horn hits and piano coda. They manage to stay true to their intense core but move in directions that keep anything from getting stale.
Welcome to the Night Sky
With their third album, Halifax’s Wintersleep finally decided to name one of their releases. Jolly good show. They also brought in Scottish producer Tony Doogan (Mogwai, Belle & Sebastian) to record their exponentially improved songwriting. “Weighty Ghost” is the obligatory hand-clapping sing-along with a few more anthems, “Oblivion” and “Archaeologists”, thrown into a mix. The lyrics seem to be a series of disconnected thoughts on the unknown and inexpressible. I think the only weak part in the whole duration is the slow intro to “Murderer”, however that works much better live without the delayed, compressed drum effect. Otherwise, the drumming does stand out (he also plays with Holy Fuck) and the build-ups in closing tracks “Laser Beams” and “Miasmal Smoke & The Yellow Bellied Freaks” are some of the most evocative pieces of music made last year. Existential questioning never sounded so joyous.
2007 was the year that I become a Low convert. I had only listened to 2002’s Trust in passing a couple times, not realizing the previous year’s Things We Lost in the Fire on Kranky was absolutely a masterpiece. While watching a documentary on Scott Walker, it was mentioned his focus on the silence between sounds highlighted his musical brilliance and Low follows much of the same philosophy. Trust‘s follow-up The Great Destroyer was interesting enough as they went in a bit of an accessible direction from their usual sparse compositions, however Drums and Guns is a whole new take on Low. Slowly strummed guitar and a bare-bones drum kit take a backseat to electronic samples that stay put in the corners of the aural space. By that, I mean this is one of the most extreme stereo productions I’ve ever come across. Voices, clicks, and tones are pushed to the left or right channel and are never pulled. This is Low’s Kid A, but with heartfelt male/female duets and free of all that alienating paranoia. For something as simple as putting tracks in one channel, this album is really effective. The highlight is the rerecording of “Murderer”, originally released as a vinyl-only EP five years ago.
Gone are song titles like “Thanks for the Killer Game of Crisco® Twister” or “Hey! Is That a Ninja Up There?”; in are “Burying Luck” and “When We Escape”. To quote Zombie Heath Ledger, “why so serious?” To claim that Seattle’s Minus the Bear have lost their sense of humour is pretty silly, since their music has always had a weighty tone. Take “Get Me Naked 2: Electric Boogaloo” from 2002’s exceptional Highly Refined Pirates where singer Jake Snider narrates, “You said, ‘My life’s like a bad movie,’/And I said, ‘It’s true of all us.’/You said, you said, ‘I’ve got to wake up so fucking early,’/And I said, ‘Maybe the director’s turned on us'”.
For Planet of Ice, the band has gone for a colder sound as the namesake indicates, but it also manages to marry progressive and math rock with a dance-oriented approach. It’s a logical progression from Menos el Oso released two years prior, where they’ve made the keyboards of new member Alex Rose more pronounced, while backing down the guitar-tapping of previous albums to focus on riffing and even solo shredding. All the songs are unique in themselves, with glitch-rock “Knights”, up-tempo dance number “Throwin’ Shapes”, and dueling extended King Crimson-ish guitar interplay from “Dr. L’Ling” (which is maybe a Drawn Together reference?). The latter contains a repeated refrain, “I was afraid of becoming a casual business man on matters of the heart” which resonates pretty strongly with the album title. The group’s youthful abandon, instrumental kineticism, and intelligent frat-boys lyrics (ha!) have developed to a point where I find Minus the Bear at their peak.
A full release every two years seems a daunting task for a band that expresses so many creative ideas on each album, but Oceansize have managed again. There were some interweb murmurs that their sophomore, Everyone Into Position, was too soft and mainstream because a couple of its tracks appeared on The O.C. and a few television adverts. Well shit, some people have to eat. Besides, that material was balanced alone by the juggernaut speed up/down song “A Homage to a Shame”. On Frames, Oceansize left Beggars Banquet for their own label and expanded their palette a bit with string arrangements and more focused percussion-work. A negative-space logo (a red version of the same from 2005’s Music For Nurses EP) express the bands need to focus on the areas many others ignore.
The album itself opens with an eight-plus minute “Commemorative 9/11 T-shirt”, starting with three and a half minute instrumental containing subtle changes in the drumming with every repeat, covered with slowly building piano-like guitar tones and glitchy background electronics. “Unfamiliar” is the lead single that hits at six and a half minutes, however it was first released edited down to four minutes without any instrumental bridge. Can the music-going public get an attention span already? “Trail of Fire” is definitely the highlight of this release, with the band’s three-guitar attack reaching musical climaxes that went far beyond my imagination of what I saw as musically possible. Its ethereal voiced breakdown leads into “Savant”, which gets its Sigur Rós on (without the falsetto) while recalling “Long Forgotten” from their debut Effloresce. “Sleeping Dogs and Dead Lions” is probably their most aggressive song since “One Out of None” off Music For Nurses, with its Meshuggah-like math metal passages, screaming vocals, and post-processed vocal fuckery. The bonus closer “Voorhees” sounds cut together from a series of jams, which is likely why it’s just a bonus.
Throughout the album, you can clearly catch a host of influences, from Pink Floyd to Swervedriver to Jane’s Addiction, the latter of which they owe their namesake to. A blend of prog rock, post-rock, math-metal, post-grunge, post-hardcore, shoegaze, and whatever other forms of diverse rock you can think of are all present, but the final product is still solid and coherent. The band ended the year by releasing an online-only cover of instrumental “Walking in the Air” and I’m waiting with baited breath for Oceansize Pt. 4 in 2009.
Best songs, in no particular order:
- Cog – “What If”
- Joel Plaskett Emergency – “Snowed In/Cruisin'”
- Feist – “1, 2, 3, 4”
- Clutch – “Electric Worry”
- Low – “Murderer”
- Grinderman – “No Pussy Blues”
- The Angels of Light – “Joseph’s Song”
- U.N.K.L.E. – “Restless” (Feat. Josh Homme)
- Oceansize – “Trail of Fire”
- Spoon – “The Underdog”
- Minus the Bear – “Dr. L’Ling”
- Battles – “Atlas”
- Wintersleep – “Miasmal Smoke & The Yellow Bellied Freaks”
- yourcodenameis:milo – “Understand”
- Wire – “23 Years Too Late”
- Nick Cave and Warren Ellis – “Song For Bob”
- El-P – “Up All Night (Stop Cryin)”
- Biffy Clyro – “Saturday Superhouse”
- Nine Inch Nails – “Zero-Sum”