Thursday, August 21, 2008

Richmond is a Hole

richmond, virginia
Richmond, Virginia and its surrounding areas have over the past twenty years been a great source of aggressive mostly hardcore based music. Groups like Gwar, Municipal Waste, and Undertow have all left their own mark on the scene. Perhaps the most universally acclaimed group from the area though is emo based pg.99 who personified an extremely aggressive and chaotic sound of hardcore that can even now be seldom mimicked. pg.99 and their sister project City of Caterpillar are two of the most important late '90s hardcore groups in terms of influence so of course when their specific members are release something new it causes some form of anticipation. Pygmy Lush's 'Mount Hope' and Verse En Coma's 'Rialto' are both records that encapsulate what their former bands were about in ideals, but in terms of sound these two records are far removed from their humble beginnings. Pygmy Lush has removed the heavier side of their sound and created a completely acoustic record. Verse En Coma on the other hand has crafted a record that seems like a lighter Malady.

On the topic of Malady one must realize that the group was essentially the successors to City of Caterpillar. When Malady’s self titled came out there were definitely a lot of people disappointed with CoC’s sound not being kept in full. While Malady's self titled debut release does embrace the dynamics that were present in City of Caterpillar there is also a pronounced rock influence on the record. 'Yeah' the second track on the record starts off with an introductory guitar part that would not seem out of place on a Third Eye Blind album. If you're looking for sonic comparisons Malady is a tamer more controlled Gospel. If Gospel was Yes than Malady would be Zeppelin. The group can play their instruments, but they certainly aren't doing anything remarkable on the record in technical terms. That isn't the point with Malady though as the band has harnessed their influences of post rock and shoegaze using subtle tricks like layering their vocals to give stronger accents to the shifting nature of their songs. Where City of Caterpillar would extend a song for four extra moments to build to that final crescendo Malady inserts a repeating riff or a double vocal attack that quietly and more abruptly ends the developing guitars. Malady's attitude and song construction seems based in mid '90s hardcore, but their actual sound only flirts with the post-hardcore of Unwound and Fugazi instead the band is more set sounding like a really lo-fi Hot Snakes. The guitarists are playing as two separate people, but come together as one with their layered melodies. Drummer Johnny Ward does not play busy instead allowing the album to groove with the help of exceptional bassist Kevin Longendyke and finally there is vocalist Chris Taylor.

malady's self titled debut.
Chris Taylor has an extensive resume. pg.99, Pygmy Lush, Mannequin all feature his vocal meeting point between extremely aggressive screams and rather gruff singing. In Malady his vocal performance is crucial to the band's success. His vocals not representing the visceral nature of pg.99 here instead coming off much like Adam Drooling of Gospel in their background nature. Taylor is low in the mix, but his voice suits it. His spoken word build up in 'The World is a Tomb' helps the song reach new levels when the beat finally breaks. His repetition of the numbers '56, 17, 27, and 12' makes 'Bad Life' a strong contender for the best track on the record and this is all without mentioning the vivid detail of the lyrics he is actually yelling. Taylor clearly has a way of coming off like Tom Waits and in his lyrics you can see the imagery of Waits seen through the lens of Richmond and surrounding Virginia. Malady's self titled is a record with stories that echo drop outs, burn outs, and those left behind. Taylor's bridge in 'Bad Life' clearly representing the purpose behind his words,

'but from womb to grave
and everything in between

it gets real fucking mean,

and you wonder why i drink?

i wonder why we're not all drunks
sunk in our dumps where nothing changes.'

malady – ‘bad life’

Malady's debut record is a sharp commentary on the nature of towns like Richmond. The type of record that leaves the listener only hoping that the emotion the band is pouring into playing is what helps them deal with the issues on the record. In a long line of extremely fragmented views of today through the guise of post-hardcore Malady stands. Echoing the sentiments of 'The Underdark' and 'The Moon is a Dead World' Malady reflects the cold reality of our pain and desolation, but in doing that helps us examine ourselves. Certainly a record worthy of being the successor of City of Caterpillar and more importantly establishing the members of Malady as people to watch not only because of their past, but because of what their future might entail.

city of caterpillar
Verse En Coma represents Malady and City of Caterpillar's future. Featuring 3/4ths of the original City of Caterpillar line up as well as 3/5ths of Malady, 'Rialto' was a record most have been looking forward to for a very long time. In early 2006 with the release of the track 'Young Ones' (which has now been renamed as 'In a Factory) it was obvious that Verse En Coma was clearly tonally in line with Malady. What Verse En Coma does differently though is remove the post-hardcore sounds that are present in Malady and instead embraces the more alternative and grungy side of that band. Saying that Richmond and its surrounding areas are essentially playing grunge filtered post-rock is certainly not going to win them any new admirers, but I'm sure the bands could really care less. Verse En Coma is a lyrical reminiscent journey that is in sharp contrast to Malady's themes. Malady represented the desolation of the rural nature of areas like Richmond where Verse En Coma embraces that nature and happily plays in fond memories of growing up in those areas. 'In a Factory' perfectly accents this telling the story of two lovers who find love at a small workplace with the band seemingly celebrating their rebellious blue collar nature. Malady's other half went on to join the group Pygmy Lush who certainly sonically represent Neil Young and Bob Dylan much more than Verse En Coma, but the lyrical themes of Verse En Coma are so strongly reminiscent that the group seems to be clear fans of the heart on sleeve styles of Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.

verse en coma's 'rialto'
In terms of Verse En Coma sonically, think Malady yet much softer. The strong shoegaze influence that Malady brought to the City of Caterpillar sound is present with Verse En Coma, but the places where the band should break heavy are replaced by even prettier sections like the conclusion of opener 'Through Ice Patches and Pine Trees'. 'Tiny Speakers' has a beautiful group vocal section that adds an even more intense layer to its conclusion. A key part that makes the sound of Verse En Coma a successful change is Ryan Parrish whose drum performance on 'Rialto' is absolutely amazing. The plodding post-punk of 'Disappearing Glaciers’ is cut extremely well with Parrish essentially playing fills over the entirety of the verse. His heavier more dynamic playing on 'In a Factory' makes that track such a successful anthem. Without the return of Parrish to this trio of players its doubtful Verse En Coma's new sound would sound as good as it does. On other important sound adjustments the guitar playing here is much more airy than Malady. Malady's debut had a strong devotion to riffs where as Verse En Coma sees the band instead playing hardcore tainted post-rock instead of the other way around. What is most surprising is that by switching to less hardcore oriented music that band has become even more unique with their only comparison in my mind being 2008's critical darlings Have a Nice Life. I guess the sound that Verse En Coma and Have a Nice Life both share comes from both bands having members that were previous involved with post-hardcore projects and are now attempting to do something that is more alternative and punk based. Whatever is the case 'Rialto' is a fine example of how to make an alternative rock record.

Pygmy Lush's 'Bitter River' was an interesting release in 2007. The most polarizing part of the record was how strange the material was. Where Chris Taylor would sometimes fully embrace his Tom Waits influence there were other times when the music of the group would sound even heavier than pg.99. Also, somehow on the record the group had somehow showed off how much they enjoy Elliott Smith and Birchville Cat Motel. Luckily 'Mount Hope' isn't that scatter brained. The group does delve into rockabilly and drones a few times, but overall this record seems to establish the softer folky sound that Pygmy Lush is going for. The sound is somewhere between the aforementioned Elliott Smith and Neil Young with the group taking strong melodic points from Smith and coming of as Young with their incorporation of lush electric guitar touches. Tracks like 'Frozen Man' and 'Tumor' clearly evoke a dedication to early Iron & Wine and other folk darlings, but Pygmy Lush manages to make 'Mount Hope' sound not like a hardcore band playing folk rather just a solid somewhat different folk record.

pygmy lush's 'mount hope'
'Mount Hope's' most successful track is opener 'Asphalt'. A calmly orchestrated acoustic guitar track with a nice snare backing that is accented by Chris Taylor's deeply effected vocals. The song basically features what sounds like two looped acoustic guitars for its entirety that almost echo Ben Chansy's finger picking style. Where 'Bitter River' had extremely mournful acoustic tracks, 'Asphalt' is bright sounding. Lyrically it still represents the darkness that has begun to become associated with the group, yet it isn't as ominous as 'Bitter River'. Tracks like 'Send Bombs' seemed to represent a disconnected sadness where 'Asphalt' is simply reminiscing about lost,

'i'm sleeping in a basement;
it's cold and undusted.
the pictures are hanging

all my walls like a guillotine.

i know you know there is nowhere.
laying down here trying to think of nothing, i know you know there is nowhere to go.'
pymgy lush - 'asphalt'

A strength of 'Mount Hope' is although its feeling is essentially the same through its entirety the way the band makes you feel that way is not always the same. 'Red Room Blues' is a mammoth of a track with its length being just over eight minutes. Beneath mumbles of 'the bottles collecting old dust like trophies.' and other such personal images Pygmy Lush slowly builds soft blissful drones that eventually overtake the entire track. It is a beautiful technique that Six Organs of Admittance somewhat explored, but Pygmy Lush is much more simple and blissful in their delivery of acoustics counter pointed with noise. 'Red Room Blues' is immediately followed by the Tom Waits devoted 'Mount Hope' and Pygmy Lush's more eccentric nature comes out. The rockabilly territory that 'Mount Hope' represents is also revisited later on the album with the track 'Butch's Dream'.

‘Mount Hope’ sees Pygmy Lush at their most peaceful. Gone are the outbursts of screams and palm muted power chords. As the band has essentially been touring as a loud and soft entity, one assumes their next record will be entirely loud. While, I am excited it is kind of disappointing to think that the group will not revisit the beautiful sounds they did in making ‘Mount Hope’. Perhaps that adds to the intimate impact of ‘Mount Hope’ as it does feel like something that could’ve just been cast into any of the member’s closets. If one thing can be said about ‘Mount Hope’ it is certainly the most sincere record made by the members involved and that is saying something considering the alumni.

Malady - Malady (2004)

Verse En Coma - Rialto (2008)
pygmy lush link removed; check out for ways to purchase the record as well as hear 'Asphalt'

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Flying Lotus - Los Angeles

For those who are familiar with Flying Lotus’ specific style of electronica, 'Los Angeles' can be marked simply as Steve Ellison's Warp record. Ellison has slowly been moving himself among the L.A. hip hop scene attempting to craft something that sounds like the meeting point of Aphex Twin and Madlib. Daedalus and Gaslamp Killer can also be seen as clear relations to FlyLo as they should considering all three artists are common performers in the L.A. music scene. '1983' represented a more clearer view of Ellison's take on instrumental hip-hop, 'Reset' was marked by the decision to move Flying Lotus into a more beat heavy existence, and with 'Los Angeles' we begin to see the artist reveling in the perceived intelligence of his label peers like Prefuse 73 and Autechre.

flying lotus

Opener 'Brainfeeder' shows clearly that this is going to be a different type of Flying Lotus record. Absolutely no percussion is used through the songs entire minute and a half length which seems daring for a producer who is known for his superbly crafted rhythms. The track is highlighted by the swirl of dynamic synths that help the second track 'Breath.Something/Stellar Star' slowly and perfectly shift in as a follow up. Noticeable about the first two tracks also is how deeply FlyLo has seemed to delve into his atmosphere. He is pressing for a more psychedelic feel and 'Breath' demonstrates this with synths that sound like wandering Theremins. 'Melt!' mixes chants with a very tribal drum feel and encompasses the influence it seems Bollywood has had on Ellison and 'Golden Diva' leaves an unremarkable impression of Boards of Canada. As the record reaches the midpoint it starts reaching for more rhythm based pieces. 'Riot' is a heavy bass aided track that uses steel drums and hand claps to create a massive low end. The song slowly evolves until the bass bridges into a seemingly random pattern as the drums around it come to a steadier beat. The track then leaves the more upbeat rhythm and concludes with a drifting synth barrage. 'GNG BNG' comes off as mix between the pioneering sounds of early New York DJs and Beat Konducta's recent forays. 'Parisian Goldfish' finishes off the trio of dance heavy tracks as FlyLo's most club based composition yet. As a whole the variety of sounds found on the record are what 'Los Angeles' success stems from with tracks as relaxing as 'Sexslaveship' before what seems like improvised vocals on 'Testament'. . 'Los Angeles' finishes off with a variety of vocal performances included a meet up with one of Ellison's early collaborators. ‘Los Angeles’ ends on a positive note with the simply beautiful 'Auntie's Lock/Infinitum' which is made even more luscious with a vocal performance from Laura Darlington. The track drifts the otherwise cluttered sonic palate into a serene and simple finish and I could not see the record ending any other way.
flying lotus' 'los angeles'
Flying Lotus has once again proved that he is an artist that can consistently reinvent himself and make his new sound just as effective as it was before. While I wouldn't say this record succeeds in providing the same level of consistent quality I think '1983' did, it is pretty hard to criticize 'Los Angeles' as anything other than a great record. Ellison's developments as always have entertained me enough that I'm willing to remain excited for his next release. Until then ‘Los Angeles’ remains as one of the best examples of “instrumental hip-hop” in 2008.

Flying Lotus - 'Los Angeles' (2008)

Red Sparowes - Aphorisms

Red Sparowes has always come off as one of the more literate post rock bands. While their record concepts have ached of forced thoughtfulness the music the group produces has never felt the least bit cluttered. Most post rock groups simply attempt to bend the minor scale as far as it will go while Red Sparowes take a much more tonal approach to their sound. At times this works brilliantly creating beautiful soundscapes with unanticipated twists. Other times the band is left sounding extremely unmoving; example being their first LP which while interesting suffered due to its seemingly useless noise interludes. Luckily "Aphroisms" suffers none of the group’s flaws from their debut instead mimicking the more developed side of their second LP. As post rock bands have become a dime a dozen it is always great to hear a band be as good as Red Sparowes at their own little niche of the genre. Important to Red Sparowes is the sophistication of their songs not the textural beauty and this is why they come off as a more intelligent version of groups like Explosions in the Sky and Russian Circles.
red sparowes' 'aphorisms'

"Aphorisms" is an important record for Red Sparowes because of the loss of previous guitarist Josh Graham. Graham is known for his textural tone as well as his involvement in Neurosis and Battle of Mice. In my opinion he is one of the more successful post metal guitarists due to his ability to craft dynamically heavy yet melodic displays. This helped Red Sparowes in the past as the metal edge was beefed up in part because of Graham. On "Aphorisms" we can feel the change of sound yet it doesn't come off as a bad one. Red Sparowes have just grown a little lighter as well as a little more rhythm based. This change may have nothing to do with the departure of Graham but whatever the reason "Aphorisms" is a great EP showcasing Red Sparowes evolving sound. Drummer David Clifford provides a dynamically interesting performance that helps blend the soft and loud changes effortlessly. Guitarists Bryant Meyer and Andy Arahood create gorgeous melodies that echo traces of math rock complexities. “Error Has Turned Animals to Men, and to Each the Fold Repeats” is a perfect example with its hallowing guitar laden conclusion being both cathartic and compositionally developed. In all honesty this EP probably represents the group at their most efficient. The band has honed in the lengths of their songs and put a more prominent effort in being a little more emotionally and it pays off in heaps.

red sparowes performing 'a message of avarice rained down upon us and carried us away into false dreams of endless riches'

Fans of Red Sparowes that have yet to hear this record may be feeling a little anxious do to how radical I've kind of implied it sounds. To be honest this simply isn't as vastly different from their other material as I imply. The lengthy song titles are here with the opener being label as "We Left the Apes to Rot, But Find the Fang Grows Within" and the basic structure of the songs are the same as before. Said opener is a trip between a mathy introduction that forms its way into one of the band's most gorgeous sections through a transition of white noise. "Aphorisms" comes off as a record where the band is using the same pieces as always just sort of mixing up how those pieces are arranged. This philosophy reveals itself to be both the records strength and flaw. In terms of the Red Sparowes discography "Aphorisms" should probably be labeled as the most cohesive piece, but in terms of the entire genre of post rock the group is simply not doing anything original here. The band is simply a very good example of modern post rock and if you are approaching the record with anything but that in mind be prepared for a disappointment.

Red Sparowes - Aphorisms (2008)