Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Fang Island - Major


If there's one thing the reviewers of MRD agree upon, it's that Fang Island are certainly one of those all-smiles acts. Regardless of where rating and quality of content come into play, the fact that this particular Brooklyn-based trio could produce music of such an optimistic nature on debut, was well worthy of the merits it received - emphasized by its placement on numerous critics' best-of lists in 2010. Two years on, and Fang Island return with their follow-up 'Major'. To judge albums by their covers would undoubtedly undermine what multi-layered treasures may be hidden beneath the flattening surface of its visuals. But considering how much so the concept of general feel-good silliness speaks portions on both the artwork as well as the music for said album, the feeling of intertwining connectivity can't be helped. Sure, the artwork and art style has changed for album #2, but this does not mean it bares, at the very least, some relatable significance with how the band's sound is omitted. And here, the shine of metallic monochrome sternness in its appearance speaks volumes about, most importantly, the band's shift in direction from their debut.

'Kindergarten' opens the album with a spread of swung electrics, the accompanying bumble of piano keys emphasizing the cooling emptiness to which this track leaves in its wake. While the tone is still positively bright and inflating in its space, it's a surprising change in sound, and it's felt to immense effect straight away on this album with a track that isn't necessarily as progressive as it is unearthing - revealing to a further extent something far more presented and greeted, later on. What most will notice, and devoted fans more-so, is Jason Bartell's shift into more high-hung pop-centred vocals and execution of lyrics than was presented on their debut. 'Sisterly' presents Fang Island's more rock-orientated deliverance of pop material. And while the momentum shares the same consistency with previous work, it's Bartell's vocals that drag this track from out of the establishment of the band's energizing guitar riffs and shining use of effects in accompaniment.

Math rock, by definition, is a sound characterized by its complex and unconventional rhythms and signature progressions. Often this has led the band - on their debut - in producing some well-respected bursts, rather than full songs (per the general sense) of positivity through their music. 'Make Me' is Fang Island's first attempt at the opposite; here, a near-six minute riveting of struck guitar riffs and bursts of Bartell's young and often run-of-the-mill lyrics: 'You're making me work for it/For every single thing'. The exchange of riffs and notation on strings thereafter provides a bold and rich placement of sounds, yet it's nothing completely out of the ordinary, or even something that goes beyond the boundary of atypical pop rock song-writing. Likewise, 'Asunder' carries the same build-up of reiterating lyrics and eventual outlaying of electric guitars that sprawl across the track almost daringly. 'Hey, was there ever a thunder...ringing loud in your life?' Hartell carries across the beating of percussion, 'Hey, now I'm starting to wonder, did the thunder arrive?'. While this manner of expression in line with the music may work best for shorter composites of guitar-and-drum music, here the limiting of its deliverance in the former half of the track leaves the rest feeling far more emptier and present for the sake of it. It's hard to recall what exactly goes on in the middle part - which is usually considered the essence of any track - when the vocals are split so wide apart. In result, it leaves the guitar work feeling too desperate in its salvage of what is actually taking place.

When the band go instrumental however, the exchange of riff and notation works undeniably better. And it's not because it drops the risk/reward difficulty of lyrics, but because it presents the idea of guitar playing in a way that we recognize the band doing well at. 'Dooney Rock' is an example of this mannerism, a rapid clashing of electric guitars giving us both a swing of notation, and at the same time, thrusting forward a crash and tumble of chord playing that only emphasizes the tradition this genre of rock music has so often managed to execute superbly. It's not that lyrics, in general, are what's holding them back. I wouldn't even consider it a mistake or even weakness on this record, but where vocals come into play, the music often loses its appeal of being straight-out direct and engaging. It becomes, in a sense, tarnished. But only because the lyrics themselves don't express the same level and context of energy that the music directly puts forward. 'Chompers' while being the shortest track on the album demonstrates Fang's excellent knack for sonic and cosmic guitar exploration. Again, the guitars feel meshed, yet contrasting at exactly the same point, and the percussion work is equally appealing - its direct stop-start passion providing the additional energy.

'Victorinian', Major's closing five-minute track, returns the auspicious giddiness of open-door open-World sound from previous. Like with the opener, it's pianos that provide the quickening momentum. And while Bartell's voice doesn't come across as wanting to be recognized as the front for the music - pianos and shifts of chords clearly higher up on the rung of layers - the track still carries this feel-good innocence that continues to beat out the clogging of keys that trail in a wallow of notation. The buzz and fuzz of guitars do enter the foray later on, but the inclusion is nothing impacting or directed, merely additional to what is still a solo of piano chords and Bartell's secretive expression of voice.

What works well for other more commercially-viable bands of today - so far as vocals and its position in particular avenues of music - may not work as well for other regions of rock where rhythm and pacing play a crucial role on the sound side. Fang Island have attempted - in major parts of this record - to introduce lyrics in a more pop-fronted pleasing manner. But as noted, to identify the tag of math rock would be to emphasize the importance on a particular pacing or progression of included guitars and drums. 'Major' may not be the type of album where the question asked is how the next track is paced - and more-so how it differs from the previous - but rather, it's a record where most will ask themselves how vocals, and even instrumentation, play their required role. Fang Island have already made a name for themselves through their instrumentation. As far as vocals and the concepts surrounding their lyrics? It's, at the very least, a good starting point.
~Jordan

7.4

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