Friday, 3 May 2013

Jordan's Album Round-up: April

Solar Bears - Supermigration

US electronic duo Solar Bears return with their sophomore release Supermigration, following on from their colourfully valent debut She Was Coloured In, in 2010. And much like what the pair lay down three years previous, their follow-up is packed with very bright and glistening synthesizer hooks - influences clearly taken from all walks of electronic life; all the way back to the 80's, through the analog machine-dominant 90's and straight up to the foggy, experimental present day. And alongside it, Solar Bears' song-writing continues in partaking through several differing avenues; music ranging from the coarse and upbeat to the laid back and soothing in parts. In Stasis, the brief alluding opener, Solar Bears attempt to brief the listener on the album's need and intrigue for depth, albeit with a minimal but withdrawn-affected piano piece, laced with a few laundering wanes of drone and minutely-pitched synths.

But with Cosmic Runner, the album makes a complete one-eighty and approaches the objective with directness and little-to-no hesitance. The synthesized guitar arpeggios lead the way through a destitute of drum hats and softening synth layers that jostle their way from the bottom up, slowly but surely. The music may not offer up any climatic unveiling or indulgent amount of sound or sonic collage as the music may suggest, but it does at the very least provide a very swanky, very fulfilling opener so as to entice the listener to continue on. Alpha People shows the duo's 80's stylizing in its bright, almost new-age-esque synth tones. Guest vocalist Sarah P makes good use of the cosmic spaciousness of the piece, her voice fitting neatly between the steady progression of beats in the lower niesh, while still conveying an idea of exploration and intrigue through the upper tiers of the more sonic and space-flung textures likewise.

For those of you who prefer the melodic range of downtempo music - a la Air - you'll recognize the way Solar Bears work with lofty key chords and guitar strums in a more relaxed but extravagant fashion on the track Love Is All. Unfortunately this is where the album's major fault comes into view. Especially with The Girl That Played With Light, the duo begin to feel less like individual artists, and more just fans of Moon Safari who've listened to it far too many times. There's still that lofty, relaxed atmosphere about the music - more-so as the sounds begin to get more brighter and luminous against the swatch of analog synths painting the track in very rich, sepia colours. However, as is the case with these circumstances, the formulaic-like structure to these songs doesn't necessarily help or even set these tracks apart from what I'm used to seeing. As you make your way through the second part of the record, there's a kind of tutorial-like gesture to how these sounds are orchestrated - ultimately sounding a lot more like Air knock-off's trying desperately to sound the same. There are some fresh, vibrant offerings of electronics; the synth arpeggios in Komplex giving the listener that 70's futuristic gaze forward. So too the mostly-synthesized piece does well at capturing the kind of forward-thinking hopeful attitude that the drum rhythms and vocal choirs appear to suggest.

But more and more I feel like the more interesting parts of the album come when Solar Bears go for the majority-synthesized direction, where the tension and atmosphere conjured, give me a more captivating feel about them. Our Future Is Underground is a welcome improvement in the instrumental department of the record - vocals provided by none-other than frequent Air collaborator Beth Hirsh - and the overly-progressive building-up tension in the track certainly fits the duo's method-of-working best. However, when you move onto follower A Sky Darkly - and later onto the six-minute Happiness Is A Warm Spacestation - you're almost inclined to forget the previous tracks ever happened, because of how immensely engaging the electronics here are. In some respect, it's kind of a let-down how passable the instrumental tracks are. And while I do enjoy the shift from past futurism to present bliss throughout, I can't help but feel Solar Bears' indecisiveness over the two opposing sounds does leave the album with a kind of identity crisis. Had the duo found a way to mesh the two together or, what would probably be the ideal solution, decide on one field altogether, the album might have held a better coherency and transition within itself. Instead, while the ideas might be present, there's still some work needed in sequencing these tracks from one decided placement, to the next.

6.2


The Appleseed Cast - Illumination Ritual

One of the more well-respected bands of American indie rock, having evolved into what is aptly-named the second-wave sound of post-rock, The Appleseed Cast return with their ninth full-length album - their first in four years. And while Illumination Ritual comes off the back of a long journey of experimenting and changes to the band's sounds - influences from emo, punk rock and alternative mixing into Appleseed's sound - this album by no means barricades them from continuing that strive towards new sounds. It does however continue the four-piece's post-rock tendencies and shows they remain one of the livelier, watchful acts in the current post-rock 'scene' at present.

Adriatic To Black Sea is a welcome opener to an album that doesn't strive to be epic or grand in its delivery. Instead, we're greeted by a gestural lead of guitar strings, smoothened bass lines and noisy cymbal thuds. The track structurally doesn't lead itself to any desired destination, or even hint as to some form of progression. Rather the introductory offerings here are of humble reminder, as if the band are merely self-asserting their place and making sure that's directed right at us - guitars soon increasing in character, as well as intensity. Great Lake District by contrast ventures out from the safety and security of previous. The guitars are more melodic and daring and thanks to the structural shift from the all-as-one partake to the soloing-out of guitars, the band certify a hunger for depth and texture to their music. Vocalist Christopher Crisci may be shunted off-centre by the guitars whether intentional or not - so too on the lower-key assertion of the track Cathedral Rings - but it doesn't deter from what is a pleasant and upbeat maturity leading the listener on.

It's clear that the music is taking precedence over vocals, but I do question in brief moments the production choices given to Crisci's placement when lyrics are at their more pinnacle and detailed moments. But that fortunately doesn't take away from the textural detail of the music; 30 Degrees 3am taking to the instruments with more precision and attention than previous. Guitars feel slightly more hustled-in and discreet, yet there's nothing lost by the toning and texture of guitars by how driven the percussion is to match them. Barrier Islands (Do We Remain) finds us journeying once more, almost by mechanical means, and the pacing to the track meets nicely with Crisci's frontal but more-distanced placement. Moreso his lyrical tone emphasizes the withdrawn empathy his voice expresses, and the slightly fuzzy guitars act so as to exemplify that trail of distance clearly present. And while I like the higher-paced intensity to North Star Ordination, the thing that lets it down is the dustily, scrambled production and treatment of sound that unfortunately takes away from the song's scope of venture and momentum.

Likewise, I feel Clearing Life could have been a phenomenal listen had the instrumentation convey more coherence and posses as much space to breathe as the vocals had. But the overall detail and means to illustrate, summed up neatly on the title track, show The Appleseed Cast remain free from the confines of one particular sub-genre, and well-suited to the idea of projection and drive. Illumination Ritual may not be the most well-executed of their discography, but it is perhaps one of the most engaging and accessible listens so far this year for post-rock fans. Had it not been for the small mishaps in production, and slightly claustrophobic juxtaposing at times, this would have been a definite high-scorer. But removing one's self from scores and drawbacks, this is without question a fulfilling listen for those striving for rock music with texture, with confidence, and above all, with emotion at its heart.

7.7


DJ Koze - Amygdala

German producer Steffan Kozalla has been living in the Hamburg for some time as both a DJ and a remixer. Now, under the alias DJ Koze, Kozalla unveils his full-length debut for Pampa Records - a still-fresh label whose release sees their tally climb to nine so far for the Berlin-based company. Clocking in at over seventy minutes over thirteen tracks, and featuring more than a handful of collaborators, Kozalla's approach to electronic-stroke-dance music is by no means a casual off-shoot. Rather, as you'll come to learn, the Munich-based producer shows as much attention and focus to rhythm and groove as he does to the experiences and euphoria that comes hand-in-hand with many a summer evening club. Indeed, one of the key ingredients to this record is setting. And when Kozalla uses this as a catalyst for the sounds filling them, the music is outright engaging in its use of atmosphere and emotive visualization.

Track ID Anyone? featuring Canadian electro enthusiast Caribou on vocals, starts with a dizzying foray of conversing voices and rich techno rhythms that aren't necessarily clear and progressive, but certainly strive for some kind of end goal. And during the music's swaying billow of blooming textures and percussion, Caribou's foretelling lyrics add a memoir-like dimension to a track perfectly weightless and free from the inner sanctums of beat-driven electronics. Royal Asscher Cut, Koze's first attempt at longer-lengthened composition sees the atmosphere and vagueness hinted at previous begin to materialize before us - organ and key chords providing a sense of mystery to a drum beat upfront and content in its position. But it's the surreal horn samples and vocal treatments nestling into the mix that come to identify this music as equally expansive as it is bafflingly suspenseful in that there's no guessing where it's heading next.

And it's that unpredictability and ambiguity to where we're heading musically that Kozalla uses so well here. Where Magical Boy's progression is a lot less unfathomable, it still presents the listener with a destitute of intriguing sounds: yawning vocals, sub-bass percussion beats, brass squalls and later, Matthew Dear's vocals twisting and ironing out in equal passes near the end. Homesick has a definite dub and garage vibe to its usage of vocals and sonic atmosphere, but it's the forefront of drums and string samples that identify the piece as Kozalla's winding-down moment. While not as texturally rich or even as vast in substance, there's still this priority of scene-setting and drawing atmosphere into it that gives the track, at least, some manner of exploratory backbone. Surprising as it is, Kozalla's best tracks end up being the lengthier and testing efforts. La Duquesa, for example, does rely slightly too much on the track's stable repetition of drum beats, but it's the other layers showing presence - the atmospheric shifts beneath; the cinematic-like usage of strings above - that make the near-ten-minute journey one of intrigue and appeal.

But without question, the unrepentant out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new extreme that Marilyn Whirlwind provides is by far the best track offered. From the off, Kozalla's low-frequency, razor synths not only direct, with impedance, the tension of the piece, but atop the stormy march of clattered percussion - and a later inclusion of keyboards and sliding guitars - the electronics dictate a stern cause for rhythm and emotive tension. Thus, they carry the listener across a trivalent (but addicting and poised) passage of hard-hitting tones and gravelly synth textures alike. From then on, Kozalla's sprint for the finish is met with a sprawl of beat-driven electronica; from the youthful, blissful hues of Matthew Dear-collab My Plans to the downtempo mumblings of the title track, through to NooOoo's closing utterances that are perhaps just a tad on the mellow side for any substantial musical exploration. But overall, DJ Koze's journey to the centre of contemporary electronics is as much a fascinating one as it is a surreal one. Laced with shots of colour, lashings of texture and collaborations that come across pleasantly succeeding in delivering both Koze's and the collaborator's personalities equally well, Amygdala could be one of the finer electronic albums of 2013. If not that, then certainly one of the most adventurous f'sure.

8.2



Paramore - Paramore
 
Following from on from the slight drawback that fellow countrymen Yeah Yeah Yeahs dished up last month, Paramore deliver unto us with force, their self-titled release for 2013, the forth in the trio's discography. For a sound characterized as extroverted and up-close-and-personal - making itself out to be an emotive barage into rock with a hint of electro pop and even some shoegaze elements mixed in - the promise for energy and conviction certainly gives me the much-needed optimism as we move closer and closer into the year's summer sheen. On the surface, the duality of male-female artistry and unison that each gender brings to the mix, definitely sparks an interest - furthered by vocalist Hayley Williams' comments that this is an album intended as some kind of musical re-branding (and a personal reassurance likewise) after two of the band's members departed shortly before the album's recording.

Fast In My Car holds little back in the band's reintroduction; drumbeats emanating sharp and unfiltered textures alongside rough electric guitar chords and piercing synthesizer relay. As a band denoted for leaning into pop hooks as much as they're driven through rock aesthetics, it's not surprising the lyrics are rather diluted and unavoidably grating, 'We're driving fast in my car/We've got our riot gear on/But we just want to have fun.' But the energy and muster of the music does at least stop the track from falling too far into derogatory pop rock meddling. So it would have been preferable if follow Now had evolved from this rather than placing too much emphasis on Williams' apparent importance as a story-driven character in this charade. 'Don't try to take this from me,' she repeats through, which does little to add any real conviction or personality to a track slightly less appetizing on the ear given how little divergence there's offered by the band.

Tone-wise, Williams' voice holds an incredible amount of control with the extremity of the guitars and audacious percussion. Unfortunately, the lyrics being expressed are not only dissatisfying, they're outright off-putting to the point they become predictable. Whether it be Grow Up's shock-revelation that 'some of us have to grow up some times' or Daydreaming's rise-and-fall similarities to sleeping, waking up, staying awake, sleep again. Eventually, despite the efforts the other members put into adding rich and dense tension into their instrumentation, the lack of variety and ill-placed positioning of both guitars and drums makes the overall track as a whole offer no real change from the norm. Ain't It Fun could be the closest Paramore offer so as to variety in that the groove of the piece actually generates a head-bob from me, while Last Hope's acoustic setting gives the trio opportunity to develop themselves in a different, and more emotionally rich atmosphere of sound.

But the one thing I can't find myself getting over is the justification (if there is any) as to the album's length. Seventeen tracks and sixty minutes of what is, for most parts, the same structures and same engineering of rock sounds, does leave me wondering why the need for so much material, was required. Like Opposites before it, Paramore can't be faulted for showing a height of ideas. Unfortunately, this doesn't excuse them for simply filling [our] time up with music that offers little differentiation from what's come before it. Whether it's the over-and-done-with passiveness of Still Into You (which doesn't require an age to figure what it's lyrical themes are about) to the emptiness of noise-saturated Proof, or even the riddlingly mess of obscurity that Be Alone is. What opportunities to impress us forever sink beneath the shadows of the loud and the almighty that end up lesser in individual identity, and relegate themselves to little more than productive exercises in the audacity of pop rock gratification. For every acoustic string and thoughtful process over a drum beat, there are ten-fold that of sounds that in the end lose objection, and become little more than abstractions of some tired-old attempt to excite, but [casually] appeal to the masses more-so.
 
4.8
 
 
Mitzi - Truly Alive
 
Surely one of the best and most surmised of a photographer's scrapbook is the beloved bubble. Not because it's one of those miraculous formations of shape and colour that hardly hold such long life expectancies. But rather, it's uncanny as to how its inevitable end-of-life onomatopoeia shares itself with one of, if not the, most accessible and tangent genres of music. Pop! Mitzi, the Australian-based quartet, born from the collapse of previous bands, may end up, as a result, with one of the most ironically-fitting visages to their creation via the cover to 2013 debut, Truly Alive. As the title suggests, while all bands share some mounting pressure of sustainability and progress, the idea of collapse-turned-creation presents with it an opportunity to marvel in your own existence, through colour and emotion in equal measure. Truly Alive is indeed that, and the band's intriguing mix of minimal electronics, electro pop and disco alludes to the characteristics of overshadowed inevitability, while at the same time relishing the enjoyment at present.
 
Who Will Love You Now is a warm opener to a record fill with cooling disco rhythms and glazed electronic palettes. The beats are deep but remain vigilant in appearance, while the textured electronics and trumpeting of horns and keys keep the song at a steady but gracious momentum. Can't Change Her however shows the band as the danceable head-nodding natives they so rightly deserve to be honored as. Piano keys enter the stage, jostling in-between the funk-laced groove of bass and 4/4 drum beats content in the backdrop. Like It Was' clouded build-up and slightly withheld hush, drives me once more to draw on the likes of Friendly Fires and Cut Copy in how the band manage to fuse the archetype of dance and pop into one rich but texturally captivating piece. And the futurstic bubbling of synths later on only add to the security of content and peace the music projects in its lavish foray of electronics during the latter half.

Hot Chip are another act I'm inclined to reference too as we get to All I Heard, Mitzi's funk-esque grooves and swing of guitars matching perfectly. And while it's probably the least electronic of the album's tracks, Mitzi's disco-like autonomy of the rhythm and vocalist Dominiqe Bird's commandeering above comes across really well. Modern Life's fulfilling sheen of optimism and positivity likewise impresses with how well-mannered and controlled the group manage to balance both the ambient discovery of keyboards with the forwarding momentum of percussion and vocal layering. By contrast - and not in a bad way - This Is Right For You sees the four-piece delving into less upfront sonic atmospheres; a mordantly looping piano lingering in the corner as a crisp beat sets the less-than-gleeful tone for the piece. My only critic however is that there's so much of a drastic shift emotionally from this deluge of anxiety and conservativeness, to On My Mind's retrieving of the former colour and gloried atmosphere, it catches the listener off-guard.

Fortunately however, the album's arrangement and slight indecisiveness for position come as little more than minute nit-picking. Especially when we reach the closing sections, the fittingly-named The End, does the band fully immerse both themselves and their listeners in their outfit's foundation for rich electronic sounds and vocal harmonization. Conjuring an unearthly, almost cosmic shift into the nether-region of electronic space, the musical journey is one of encapsulation as much as it's a centrifuge on our senses. Beats carry us across, while the track's pulsating synth hooks and bobbing bass guitars bring an unfathomable sense of liberation. And beyond it, all the while, a choral rise-and-fall of voices fade in and out, adding even more welcome intimacy to the realization that...yep, we're somewhere, just not Earth. Ending with a brief, eye-widening clearing of synthesizer relay, it's the perfect send-off to an album that so effortlessly fuses the momentum of contemporary disco and electropop, with the daring far-reaches of futurist electronics and synthesizer hooks. While the daring and more vast, cosmic sounds are in the minority here - thus why I believe this should have been explored more - it's a valiant argument for declaring even musical aesthetics such as as pop and disco, are too unbounded by their earthly origins.

7.8

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