Sunday, 20 January 2013

Guards - In Guards We Trust


If you're like me, and only cater to reading up on artist's bio out of humble interest and the need for further background on a particular artist, what you'll find running into numerous paragraphs on US three-piece Guards' profile is something of a misguided sense of fascination. While artist bios - especially those of newcomers - can be as legitimate and close to unbiased fact as any Wikipedia article, it's still interesting to discover that Guards' step into the spotlight came about through a mad-dash race between record labels and some word-of-mouth via vocalist Richie Follin's sister, Madeline, one-half of indie duo Cults. And while their self-tlted EP surfaced two years ago, on the face of things, it's understandable to assume that their official debut LP, 'In Guards We Trust' - which here, reads like some religiously passionate oath to lead and still be led - holds some kind of lofty weight to it, whether that be anticipation or perhaps something more business-minded or hopeful of success. Regardless of what colours or shades of finance the background to this record is painted in, it's important that, like all albums, this record be analyzed in its most crucial and most credible area of all, its material.

There's something of a dreamy aesthetic to the album opener Nightmare. Despite such a paradoxical perspective because of its title, the overall drifting and progression of the music certainly brings about some eery and elevated tones in its instrumentation. Percussion here is very heavy in its beat, keyboards sail in the enormity of the music's space, Follin himself caught between the vertical chasm of sound. Vocals here tend to sway between clarity and outright delved obscurity, but it doesn't detract from the music's overall rhythm which here, presents itself as very lofty but still equally measurable between the beat of drums and its latter guitar swoons that glaze over above everything else. Giving Out has more emphasis on bass, but there's still some importance given to how guitar work creates more of a dynamic about the geology of the music's shape. It's more rougher and inclined for energetic deliverance than the previous tracks. The chorus-accompanied wails of harmony certainly emphasize that need for bolder expression, and indeed a sense of decreasing opportunity and a building tension because of it, 'Your clock is running out' Follin leads in repeated cries. Drum work is probably the least changed of all the track's instrumentation and while the melody of the music does conjure some sense of ambition and enjoyment, the percussion does, for the most part, weaken its overall effectiveness.

I can definitely see homages to the likes of Arcade Fire in a track like Ready To Go - and not because it matches two out of three words of a similarly-titled track - in how vocals of both regions tend to match each others and fit together like pieces to a puzzle. Vocals do tend to be more investigative and alluding to the track's somewhat minimal lyrical concept, but it does create more of a celebratory humanity to a track that despite presenting some lush toning of guitars and percussion, does often feel a little like it's there simply to fill a conspicuously obvious void. Vocals do become increasingly the focal point and perhaps centre of Guards' universe when it comes to how these tracks are composed. Silver Lining works to the band's dreamy pop textures and finds itself lifting its main lyrical centre-piece up to spacious heights - its quick shifts of bass and diving sweeps of guitar becoming increasingly more positioned as if to suit vocals rather than the other way around. Sadly there's very little development, because of this, in parts and the music's only real sense of colourful exposition lies in its chorus sections when vocals truly do spring to life. Even when guitars are left to deliver something of a sweeping passage of notes, it feels only a minor addition to a track that bears very little sense of variation.

And of course that's one of the main problems with records that don't often sway too far from the familiar palette of instruments or perhaps, more-so in Guard's case, decide on centering vocals and simply finding the right tones or chords or even dynamics to best suit it. While this isn't necessarily a major problem or hindrance to what is an optimistic-sounding range of tracks, I do question whether the band have any sort of interest, or even hint of a decision (to put it in something of a casual manner) into mixing things up a little. Early tracks while do seemingly give us a set range of ideas and means of presenting a song, tend to be the standard for which Guards' sounds stick to, as if it's less a bar to be bested and more simply an end-point for which to cease any other means of development. While I do like the focus and forefront of percussion on the track Not Supposed To, there is that sense that the vocal harmonies and the relationship between other instruments is something we've already come across and heard plenty of by many other artists of a similar field. Even more visible is the fact that the vocals' own placement and positioning tends to feel ever more rehashed and confined to the same layer in production - always slightly conjoined to the distant sweep of the guitars, and always slightly less clear or audible.

A track like I Know It's You, however, does excite me because the immediate thundering of guitars and their rampant tempo straight into the track's beginning does leave you feeling off-guard. It's a pleasant shift in presentation and it pays off given how it seems to fit well with how Follin himself feels slightly more agitated, as if the atmosphere about the track is even more energetic or perhaps, suspecting of complete collapse. I don't blame Guards for setting up songs like Coming True to be so initially secluded and shy in speaking up - monotonous strums of guitar strings giving vocals to lay down the mark - only to explode in a stream of electric riffs, lyrical emphasis and crashing cymbals, but an opening such as this feels so predictable and without any other variance in build, the supposed pay-off loses a lot of its excitement and enjoyability. It certainly has a lot of charisma about it, but beyond that, there's something of a hollowness to the music's own sense of emotion.

It's pleasing then to have Your Man follow immediately afterwards, because it offers some form of consolidate improvement at the first time of asking. Instead, the track begins fairly secluded and obscurely kept to itself, and tends to progress slowly but surely until the very end. The creepy-crawly guitar notes and how they tie well into the looping of cymbals, creates something of an interesting anxiousness for the hushed vocals to sit neatly between. But unlike previous tracks, both the instrumentation and lyrics are given their own space to breathe, before they begin gelling together and formulating an overall rock composite. Above all though, I'm ever the more attracted to the group's playful focus on tone and on timbre too of how the guitars especially come through, guitar plucks of both the low-end and high-end pitches building on the track's initial building of tension that eventually reveals itself in something of a nightly suburban isolation. Likewise, I find the setting of Can't Repair to be one of a fairly comforted, secluded sort - hazy bass lines and sumptuous drum beats having more of an engaging rhythm for the listener to get caught up in. With the final track 1 & 1, though the band definitely tend to suggest this piece as something of a calming low-burning conclusion to the record - the pacing is steady and allows the billowing of bass to come through - I remain fairly deflated, or rather unappeased by this flickered deliverance of vocals which remain fairly underwhelming given how fulfilling the music itself aims to be. There are moments where harmony and its interlinking conjures some interesting tone, but given how centralized the vocals remain, it rather drags the overall piece down with it - the track's fairly anti-climatic fade out summing up how stale and forgetful the track really is.
 
This then, is where my worries are highlighted. Fellow reviewer Eddie has noted his current distaste for male/female dualism in vocals, and while I'm personally more open and willing to give this choice in lyrical deliverance a bigger chance to impress - at least for the moment - Guards are one of (sadly many in today's climate) these acts that fail to meet the required mark. There are occasional flashes and sparks of variance that does lift the confidence and suggest more of a flourished creativity. But as noted, 'In Guards We Trust' is an album that ultimately feels safe, plays safe and eventually decides on sticking to that such safe mark in order to deliver its content. I don't deny Guards have a nifty and pleasant tone in their dreamy indie pop palette, but given how this is all you're going to likely get - and sadly, hear in the same progression and structure of their songs - the album becomes increasingly more like a chore, than it does an enjoyment. Is it a challenge the band can conquer for future releases? I would certainly like to think so. Will they? I'd prefer not to answer that.
~Jordan

5.1

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