Category Archives: Review

#26: Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe

(Glassnote, 2013)

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(Image from soundstagedirect.com)

I came upon Chvrches via another of my channels for discovering new music: Jian Ghomeshi’s Q on CBC Radio (other discoveries from there include two of my now favourite bands: Austra and Elbow). It’s through there that I gain exposure to most of the new Canadian bands I listen to and has me paying close attention to the candidates in the running for the prestigious Polaris Music Prize that Canada awards to its top album of every year. Chvrches, however, being the hottest thing to come out of Glasgow since Franz Ferdinand, is sadly not eligible for that award.

What is demonstrated on The Bones of What You Believe is the modern power trio working at its finest. Yes, admittedly, the whole trio sound has been replaced by machines – by and large, synths fill in for both guitar and bass (though the guitar makes a cameo appearance in a couple of tracks, it knows its place on this album) and drum machines take over the tireless job on all but two of the tracks – but this still rocks! The songs very much resemble arena rock anthems, but reduced in scale and put in a cube. Every one of Lauren Mayberry’s melodies are instantly memorable and singable – reaching, but not straining and very affecting. The synth riffs that back many of the big choruses here – were they a tad slower and played on guitar – easily fulfill that emotional, fist-pumping, energetic feeling that a good ol’ riff oughtta give you. The backbeat pounds incessantly to the beat of your foot stomping on the ground and the big tom splashes on “Science/Visions” get you psyched for the impending chorus. Every element is already there to energize you and get your head to bangin’.

But there’s no need to change a thing. New forms of music will always take their cues from the old, and this is no different – all the pieces are there, they are just in a different place (I know synth pop is hardly old, but its status of rock-usurper is still coming into being). In place of edginess, there is relentless peppiness (though the synth sounds of “Under the Tide” will have you convinced the synths themselves are trying to stage a bloody coup). The palette of vocal instrumentation is expanded as the vocals weave in, out and between the synth lines (the bouncing loop of vocals that opens the album on “The Mother We Share”, or the punctuated sighs and shouts in the background of “Lies”) – there’s no lack of emotion or gut feeling. Unlike the wave of synth popularity, there is no sense that the synths are being used to replace another, ‘real’ instrument – we’ve come to terms with the synth’s identity as itself, and Chvrches have embraced that attitude with aplomb.

This album is a fantastic chronicle of synthpop’s rise to power and an excellent collection of songs to just get you pumped -the overall energy is fantastic and the melodies hit all the heights you want them to without sounding forced or belaboured. Produced with just the right balance of slickness and space so that you get caught up without getting overwhelmed, The Bones of What You Believe is another fully-formed debut LP that both makes a great musical statement and promise for the future.

9/10

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#25: Lorde – Pure Heroine

(Universal, 2013)

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(Image from recordstore.co.uk)

It’s very rare that I listen to an album blind (deaf?) anymore. I will usually sample a track or so before committing to purchase – don’t want to a spoil a majority of the experience. Even if I’ve yet to even hear a track on the album, the reputation of the particular band/album will have gotten to my ears in one way or another, making me feel justified. So when an album appears in front of my eyes with an austere cover (seen above) that registers zero information in my brain, my eyebrows will begin to arch even as that sneaking suspicion passes through the back of my brain: “what if it’s crap?” I tried to use all the clues available: prominently available on its own rack, on sale, so there’s probably quite a marketing push behind it. Had a sticker advertising “Tennis Court” and “Royals” as being on it, meaning it must be getting some kind of airplay. Could be good, could just be another pop album. I let the idea of ecstasy at getting a completely foreign album to me die and quickly look the album up on Wikipedia on my phone. Praise! Bought.

It’s not that my tastes are necessarily dictated by critics on the internet – though it’s hard to argue that that is how my ears are pointed to a lot of recent releases – but there is often overlap, and is nice to be able to participate in what quickly becomes codified as cultural cache. I have seldom been steered wrong by a general critical consensus.* Rather than confining my listening, that practice has gotten me into listening to more music than I would not have normally listened to than anything else and opened up my mind to more and more from disparate genres.

Lorde is 16-year-old New Zealander Ella Yelich-O’Connor attempting to carve herself a piece of the ample pop pie. She has a fantastic voice, and her melodies are all solid tunes (and often earworms, especially in the case of lead single “Royals”). The main thing that caught my attention going through the album, though, is something which a lot pop these days seems to lack but Pure Heroine seems to have in spades: space. There is room from every song to breathe here – no huge waves of synthesizer and incensed four-on-the-floor beats. Her voice is free to wheedle as it will (layered with her own harmonies), with only a couple of instrumental accessories – a strong array of electronic beats and some synthesizer (mostly filling in the bass and a few chords). There is nothing to distract the ear from the melody here – just a bare but sturdy framework to hold it up.

The content of the lyrics on the album do not belie Yelich-O’Connor’s youth, but the distance and hindsight with which they are written do: “I’m kinda over gettin’ told to throw my hands up in the air” she sings on “Team,” commenting as a consumer of the same musical arena in which she’s dropped this album, and pushing her pop peers aside at the same time. Nothing she sings about seems to be beyond the scope of what she’s experienced in her life so far, but it’s striking the amount of disillusionment she has having set in already at sixteen – “I cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies” she croons in “Royals”, hitting right to the heart of and laying by the wayside the marketing/culture feedback loop impressed upon teen girls. Later in “Royals”, she uses the language of the songs and culture she’s satirizing to list off various accolades and possessions worth bragging about that she says everyone’s all about just to reject them afterwards.

At ten songs and 37 minutes, Pure Heroine is perfect album length – not a huge investment of time, but enough to get an idea of Lorde’s songwriting style and to already get excited about whatever her next project is. This is a masterfully formed debut album one only wonders how her music will develop if this is what she’s capable of now.

9/10

*This is why a majority of my entries are positive reviews – I review every album I listen to in full during the year, but the albums are usually vetted beforehand before I listen to the whole thing. The ones I pick are ones I feel I am likely to enjoy.

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#24: Raine Maida – We All Get Lighter

(Kingnoise Records, 2013)

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(Image from confrontmagazine.com)

It’s been a long road. Our Lady Peace was one of my favourite bands in high school, and my fondness for their first four albums has never really diminished. It was after Spiritual Machines that the change started (new guitarist, new producer, no falsetto!?), and Healthy in Paranoid Times when I parted company with the band. I would listen to the occasional single and then turn back around, disappointed. Their most recent, Curve, caught my ear and kept me there. It wasn’t a matter of ‘returning’ to an earlier period in the band’s life as was promised quite a few times. Can’t step in the same river twice and all that. It was more as if both they and I were more comfortable with the band that they had become. It only does so good to stamp your foot and say ‘where’s the falsetto?’ and ‘where are the sweet riffs?’ because you’re not going to find them. The band has ten plus years of time put in since then, and they have all, obviously, matured. And, in a way, it got me ready for this album.

I bypassed Maida’s first solo album, The Hunter’s Lullaby, as I was still not ready to accept the fact that the band I loved had changed; hearing their lead singer doing singer-songwriter material was NOT going to help with that. Having enjoyed the approach on Curve, however, and hearing the lead single from the album (the brass-tinger folk of “Montreal”), I decided to make the leap.

The instrumentation is the first thing that struck me, as the first track on the album (the provocatively titled “How to Kill A Man”) begins with a sharp violin tremolo and female backup singers beautifully harmonizing on the chorus; the aforementioned “Montreal” has a jaunty horn line adorning the hook; both “Rising Tide” and “Numbers” employ drum machines, which I never imagined I’d hear paired with Maida’s voice. It’s fun to hear all different kinds of instruments being drawn on to fill out and suit each track (the anarchic, jazzy trumpet on “Rising Tide” is not something I expected to hear! It almost sounds like a brass line from Radiohead’s “The National Anthem) – it makes each song stand out more. This is especially true after being used to mostly hearing him front a guitar-bass-drum trio for so long. The album sounds quite lush as a result. It’s sparse when it needs to be, but the range of frequencies is filled out quite nicely as each track progresses.

Maida has managed to find a second somewhat unique voice after dropping his down post-Spiritual Machines. His assured baritone carries the melodies he’s written quite nicely, though it feels as if its timbre is lending the proceedings a more melancholic air – even the joyous-sounding “Montreal” feels bittersweet because of it. The best example on the album is probably the appropriately sombre “How to Kill A Man.” The melody is ponderous, as I have found they have been on the last couple of OLP releases, but not in the least bit boring (he commits a brief brush with his old falsetto during the verses) – the multiple Maida vocal tracks move smoothly with the backing vocals and manage to hit just the right peaks to create a haunting effect on “bury your heart with this guilt and regret/it’s the surest way there is to kill a man.”

At only eight tracks and 32 minutes, this is one of the shortest modern albums I’ve seen, not that I begrudge Raine Maida for being selective with his track choices – I’d rather have a fantastic short album than a decent longer one. And this one falls somewhere in between. Each track stands on its own quite easily, though the two singles (“Montreal” and “SOS”) are apparent, being the only ones that have notable hooks. The orchestral arrangements are a fantastic compliment to Maida’s voice, and I hope there are more of them in the future. My one complaint would perhaps be that the arrangements are at certain points more interesting than the melodies themselves! Nevertheless, a quite good collection of songs worth hearing, especially if you’re in a calm, introspective mood.

7.5/10

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#23: Muse – The 2nd Law

(Capitol, 2012)

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(Image from amazon.com)

My history with grandiosity junkies Muse goes back to their third and, arguably, breakout album, 2003’s Absolution. From the spectacle of the Storm Thorgerson cover to the needle-like riffs, overwhelming basslines and incredible falsetto, it was something completely fresh to me at the time – a more extreme, bigger sort of rock music, but not in the way that metal was. I was shocked to learn that the din came from only three people. I was on board.

The follow-up, Black Holes and Revelations scaled back a little on the guitar attack, but turned up the grandeur eminently. Songs like “Map of the Problematique” and “Knights of Cydonia” had an immense gravity without necessarily having headbanging riffs to go along with them. It was this that would become Muse’s stock in trade, which took me a little while to get into when I realized what was happening. For the most part, I took a pass on The Resistance, but I have come back into the fold on The 2nd Law.

They have perfected the art of bombast to a tee, which is typified best on the lead track “Supremacy” and on the lead single and London Olympic theme, “Survival”. The former has its main riff realized by what sounds like a massive orchestra (strings and horns) on one side, and Bellamy’s guitar on the other, descending slowly but with force every step of the way, not to mention a legion of martial drumming to carry the verses along. The icing on the cake, is a now trademark vocal leap by Bellamy when he finally sings “suuuuuuuuupremacy!” near the top of his impressive range. “Survival” feels like a self-knowing wink at their own tendencies at this point, starting off with a plinky piano and fingersnaps, but rocketing up to a giant chorus with a huge choir backing his shouts of “I’m gonna win!!” (Dominic Howard and Chris Wolstenholme providing an excellent steady rhythm section bedrock all the while).

It seems as if they’ve risen to the position of this generation’s Queen – they have a number of fantastic anthems in their pocket now, and are one of the best group arena rockers of the age (their visual show is also astounding and adds an extra dimension to the experience – even the songs you don’t like become events you can’t help enjoying). Each member is becoming more involved (bassist Chris Wolstenholme takes a turn both at the pen and the mic on “Save Me”, a slower paced paean and “Liquid State”, a solid, more straight-ahead rocker). And, except for their parlay in “United States of Eurasia” (I know, I said I pretty much passed on The Resistance, but I still heard it once or twice), they’ve very much done it on their own terms – there is no sense of them being a nostalgia act. And on The 2nd Law, they’ve seen fit to try and expand their palette.

“Panic Station” is where they dive into funk territory (Queen’s Hot Space, anyone?), conjuring Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” quite readily (even employing a clavichord and horn line in verse breaks that sounds very close), and providing a perfect dance beat that straddles the line well with their rock sound (whereas their earlier “Supermassive Black Hole” dove headlong into dance, quite unapologetically).

The first of the two title tracks sees Muse make the inevitable dabble with dubstep – the genre relies on the gut feeling and gigantic sound that Muse make such an intrinsic part of their music anyhow, it was only a matter of time. It begins, of course, with a mass of violins dashing out a panicky, frenetic line, and adds in a choir and quick sound clips come in and out. It works perfectly as the drops hit as hard as possible with a dash of guitar histrionics overtop to remind you who you’re listening to. Curiously other track also titled “The 2nd Law”, is a slower piano piece, which builds up some synthesized riffs and sounds similar to Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells”, giving off the same spooky vibe, made even more ominous by the clips of news programs speaking of overwhelming disaster and crisis on top of each other. At the live show, this piece was played with a fantastic visual element that lends itself to what could be an incredible narrative, which fits perfectly with the line of breathless paranoia which runs through just about all of the band’s albums.

Despite the quite successful bombast, my favourite moment on the album comes on the second track and single – “Madness” – which is one of the band’s quieter moments, with a fantastic melody, and great rhythm-establishing clip of Bellamy singing “m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-mad-mad-mad”. Through its straight verse-chorus format, each run-though adds something extra – more harmonies, heavier beat – crescendoing with a chorus of Bellamys towards the end and the melody taking off. No falsetto or gigantic, crunching riffs. Not to mention the best solo I’ve ever heard from the band, with a fantastic tone and fantasic melody in its own right over the fairly serene backing.

This is the album of an assured band finally at the top of the heap. Not afraid to experiment, never afraid to go too over the top and consistently building on previous successes. For having originally made their name as a live band, their studio techniques are impressive. This is a nice swatch of what the band is capable of now having attained a status as current rock royalty.

8/10

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#22: Locrian – Return to Annihilation

(Relapse, 2013)

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(Image from relapse.com)

My mental journey from hearing about to sitting down and listening to this album was a tumultuous one, and one that starts me thinking about both the rampant, unchecked categorization of today’s music, and the passing of that categorization as commodity among fans of any particular genre.

Discovering the existence of the album came, as it often does, from browsing my favourite music review sites to see a) which bands/albums had cool names/artwork and b) were highly rated. Locrian hit me immediately as being a shorthand for “complex musical writing” as it is the last and weirdest of the modes and Return to Annihilation, while seeming a little on the blatantly dark side, combined with the whitewashed, foggy, desolate looking cover of an empty parking lot, which suggested an abandoned world. I was in.

I sampled myself a track, and found it fit the exact mood I had expected based on seeing the album – scratching, growling, drawling stretches of noise and feedback (but not irritating or ear-stabbing), punctuated with drums; meandering, melancholy guitar and various short loops. The instruments would flit in and out, leaving the message of noise strongly with me, which perfectly matched the atmosphere created by the cover – an atmosphere I wanted to experience in full. Definitely a priority purchase.

The album being lesser-known by most brick-and-mortar music store standards, I waited until I had the opportunity to go to the big HMV in Toronto.  casually looked through Pop/Rock, laughing and knowingly shaking my head at not finding it there. Scratching my brain, I next tried Electronic, thinking maybe I didn’t catch the all electronic elements that could have been there. No dice. I was just about to resign myself  to the fact that this store might not even have it, checking Punk out of desperation. Nothin’. I flipped open my phone and decided to look up the band on Wikipedia, hoping it would provide a clue as to where I should look. It did. Past the other categorizations, the words Black Metal lasered themselves into my brain as I numbly trundled over to the Metal section and swiftly found the album.

Black metal, are you KIDDING ME!? Double bass drums going a thousand miles per hour? A dude with death mask make-up screaming unintelligibly!? Black metal is, unfortunately, nowhere near my bag. My face fell. A blurb on the CD used the words again and I found myself wondering if this was going to be worth it. What if the track I heard was a one-off? Looking again at the title of the album in that light made me nervous. I steeled my resolve, however, and trusted my ears over my brain.

And I was right to do so.

From that noise, that instrumental yawp, the whole album is created. Some turn into sweeping, grand performances piece by piece (“Return to Annihilation”), and some begin with quiet picking and descend into a maddening din (“Two Moons”). The album very much sounds, both literally and figuratively like “Obsolete Elegies”, the title of the final, 15-minute-long track. These are songs pieced together in the underground, trying to be heard above the roar of the machines keeping everything in place. Low, scraping, drawn bows across basses and fuzzed out synths provide the crawling sense of doom which pervades the album, and the few vocals that do occur ARE screamed metal vocals, but the context has been completely changed. They are buried under layers of noise, and sound quite distant – a last gasp of raw humanity trying to survive.

This is a very assured album – not trying to prove anything, just presenting it. Nothing is overblown, nor is anything typical. Beyond just being ‘noisy’, it rewards close listening, as the songs never find themselves in the same place for very long – they move, they build and they collapse again. Glad to see that a) my fears were for naught and b) categorization only works in so far as people can hear a thing they find familiar from somewhere else, as a shorthand – it does not boxpress the music itself.

9/10

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#21: Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Mosquito

(Interscope Records, 2013)

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(Image from wikipedia.org)

I’ve got to keep my eye (or, rather, ear) on Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The last I checked in with them was, admittedly, 2006’s Show Your Bones, where they had simmered the wildfire that was their debut album (2003’s Fever To Tell) down to a more precise blaze, eschewing the wilder parts of their sound for focused riffs and stronger melodies. They still, however, kept their guitar-drums-vocals punk instrumentation intact. A mere seven years later, I stumble onto Mosquito and find codas jammed with choral vocals (“Sacrilege”), a simmering slow-burner set to the beat of the clack of a subway train (“Subway”) and electronic beats all the while? You can’t go home again.

That’s not to say the urgency of the early albums is lost – the title track, under layers of guitars and, of all things, bass moves along at quite a clip, with Karen O as the master of ceremonies, as always. Gone are the shrieks and the orgasmics of the band’s early days, but certainly not her energy dynamics – she’ll still place a whisper where you expect bombast or twist a phrase up into her nasal sneer when she sees fit. But as the sound of the band introduces more and more instruments and techniques, and overlap further and further with some of the other electronic/synth acts of the day (Metric in particular comes to mind), her vocals as a focal point become increasingly important to hang onto. “Slave” opens with a loop of what sounds like horns honking, followed by a smooth, kinetic bassline and drum machine smacks going off every which way (the instrumentation of the band turned inside-out), but it serves to underpin the vocals just as deftly.

That’s not to say that Nick Zinner can’t come up with a good riff or three any longer. On “These Paths”, an incessant, ghostly synth line sets the tone and haunts the rest of the song as the other elements slowly build, causing a hiccup in the percussion in the beginning every time it occurs (to which the beats eventually become immune). The line is not the pinhole path that would take you through the song in the band’s early days on a jagged riff, but a noted presence nonetheless, around which the whole feel and energy of the song emanates – the race to the end has been cancelled and the participants all sit in a circle trying to come to terms with their feelings.

It would seem that Yeah Yeah Yeahs have, as one does with age, become more thoughtful in their approach, and gone from freewheeling 2-minute raucous rides to a more atmospheric feeling –  not that there’s anything wrong with that. Each distant echo, strange beat and synth patch plants their stake further in the ground; their sound infinitely more personalized than a straight drum beat and power chords with the occasional riff. They’ve moved, in the interim during which I wasn’t listening, from a small excursion into punk for me and plunked themselves down again amid the formidable indie electronic/synth acts of today that I find on my rotation quite regularly. This a great document of a band moving and progressing with the times while keeping the flavour that got them noticed in the first place.

8/10

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#20: New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light – Colin Stetson

(Constellation, 2013)

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(Image from inyourspeakers.com)

Nothing beats the roar of an instrument giving a complete solo performance. No lattice to string notes between, no safety nets to pad the sound – the noise just curls and undulates out in space. At least it would if Colin Stetson said it was okay. Though there are a few extended drone-like passages, Stetson uses flurries of clustered notes in order to build his houses of horror and redemption. Not to mention the incessant clack of the keys and occasional deep-throated scream which has no tongue to articulate it.

Now on the third album in what, thus far, is a trilogy entitled New History Warfare, Colin Stetson takes his bass and other assorted saxophones up once again to construct entire soundscapes with. The effect is mesmerizing. Wave after wave of flitting, honking, scronking notes texture each piece, while the mic’ed up keys give it rhythm and Stetson’s throat-screams lend the occasional ragged melody. Despite the astonishing diversity of sound at no point does it feel like an attempt to simulate the pieces of an actual band – it’s still one man emoting feverishly in every direction he can muster. To see more light.

To counterpoint Laurie Anderson’s narrative appearance on the previous volume, recent collaborative darling Justin Vernon of Bon Iver (on whose doubly eponymous album Stetson appeared on in 2011) lends his high haunting vocals to the proceedings this time, with ghostly wails on “High Above A Grey Green Sea” and a very surprising turn into deathmetal growls on the album’s visceral apex, the stunning, aggressive “Brute”. On “Who the Waves Are Roaring For (Hunted II)”, Stetson briefly considers taking the back seat as Vernon attempts to stretch coherent melodies over top of the jagged architecture, taking each phrase as a new melodic hill to climb. On “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?”, that arrangement is set more firmly, as Vernon’s multitracked vocals take precedence and Stetson’s wailing reigns in ever so slightly to allow some harmony to accompany Vernon’s lead. This is the only moment on the album that feels restrained, and provides sharp contrast to the unbound quality of the rest of the tracks.

Between the latter two tracks comes the finest demonstration of the album’s boundless nature, the title track, “To See More Light”. At 15 minutes, by far the longest track on the album and the longest in Stetson’s oeuvre, he has the time to set out for the goal stated in the track title. Lines build and build throughout, the energy never ceasing, never tiring, always grasping with no view towards cessation. This is where Stetson, no pun intended, shines. With a wider scope set around all of the manifestations of his wild muse, the picture comes into sharper focus and each mad tangent finds its own place within the sonic narrative.

Absolutely unlike anything else I’ve heard (save for Stetson’s previous outings), To See More Light expands what was built upon earlier in the trilogy and gives some new angles and fantastic payoffs, all rooted in the single instrument put in front of his face.

9/10

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