Read my latest published story and take a look around the magazine, there’s bound to be some other stories you’re gonna like. Plus, that art.
Read my latest published story and take a look around the magazine, there’s bound to be some other stories you’re gonna like. Plus, that art.
The review board is closed temporarily (probably until January, unless Views From The 6 actually drops, and then who knows) and I’m currently catching up on my list of 2015 releases, as well as formulating my favourite songs and albums of the year.
In the meantime, feel free to buy my book! You can find it here, and again at the bottom of this post. If you’re into horror, post-apocalypse, the city of Toronto, or if you’ve ever thought that The Leftovers had an interesting concept but you wanted something a bit more visceral, you should feel free to buy a copy and tell your friends.
In a recent Vice interview, Meg Remy – long-time noisemaker and the brains behind U.S. Girls – mentioned that the two biggest influences for Half Free were John Cassavetes and Bruce Springsteen. The sense of getting into the heads of characters, then, is an obvious starting point for the album, but it’s really Bruce Springsteen that seems to take on the lion’s share of influence here. It starts with the cover photo: Remy in black and white, staring into the camera with seemingly the exact same expression that the Boss has on the cover of The River. It continues on through the songs, which are all portraits of women in a variety of nightmarish scenarios; the nightmares take on a more visceral bent due to the fact that these are ordinary women in ordinary worlds and the problems that they find themselves mired in are all too depressingly plausible. “Sororal Feelings” examines a woman in a crumbling marriage who discovers that her husband has slept with her three sisters; “Damn That Valley” wraps a vicious examination of the failures of the U.S. War on Terror in the grief-stricken wail of a woman whose solider husband won’t be coming home. “Window Shades” follows up a snide skit on being “another woman with no self-esteem” with a woman who’s finally able to confront her no-account cheating boyfriend. The seven-minute closer “Woman’s Work” is a hazy, cluttered Italo Disco masterpiece that rages against the religion of beauty and growls that a woman’s work is never finished. Half Free is a deeply feminist record, an account of finding inner strength despite the odds stacked against women from all walks of life
This is music, though, so we need to look at the musical aesthetic of the album. This is where Half Free starts to lose me a little. “Sororal Feelings” is flawless, a perfect opener with a deceitful chorus that is probably never going to leave my brain. “Damn That Valley” finds catharsis in a monster reggae beat, and Remy finds the right vocal lilt to ride it perfectly. That said, it feels as though there’s too much piled on to the track – a problem that could be said of “New Age Thriller”, “Sed Knife”, and “Red Comes In Many Shades” as well. This is where Remy’s background comes in; she spent her pre-Toronto years recording shitgaze and noise pop for tiny noise labels, burying her classic radio chops in waves of distortion, instrumentation, and tape noise. Those days are still evident in many places throughout Half Free, and while I enjoy noise and clutter, there are parts of the album that I feel would have benefited from a cleaner mix, or at the very least a couple fewer voices (the hard-as-nails rock of “Sed Knife” is a great example of this).
Still, aesthetic quibbles aside, Half Free is an astonishing record that speaks to both the galvanizing effect that having a greatly increased budget can have on a creative and passionate artist, and to the keen eye 4AD has for picking those creative and passionate artists. If Meg Remy wasn’t on your radar before, put her on it – there are bigger things to come.
One of the things you pick up on when you’re married to someone with a Master’s in Political Theory is what the post- signifier is; that is, what the “post” in post-colonialism, or post-modernism, or – more relevant to this review – post-punk means. To keep things simple, it’s an act of space-clearing, a way to make room to deconstruct the implied “pre” portion and to analyze what makes it tick, so that you can put it back together in more meaningful and insightful ways.
Post-punk, then, was a deconstruction of the original first wave of punk rock, the fabled “three chords and an attitude” that came roaring out of Britain during the brutal recession of the late 1970s. A lot more went into punk rock than just three chords, of course; most of those bands were into reggae, ska, dub, country, jazz, and nearly any other form of music that wasn’t boring-as-hell California rock. A band like the Clash, or the Slits, had a lot more going on under the surface than their more popular tracks might have you believe. Post-punk took those blended ingredients, separated them, and then re-blended them into new shapes. Gang of Four took the strident political screeds of the Clash and made them dance; Pere Ubu mutated dub and ska until they were nearly unrecognizable; Swell Maps chopped the general idea of music up into something that still sounded like music, but only if you stood far enough away.
The general popularity of what we’ve come to know as “post-punk” has risen and fallen over the years, and when it’s time came around again in the early 2000s it seemed as though everyone was finding that essence rare. Unlike their forebears, though, the bands that caught the attention of the post-9/11 college kids weren’t all that interested in breaking down their influences to examine and rework them. Interpol didn’t do much to Joy Division beyond adding big basslines lifted right out of the poppier Cure albums. !!! replaced the soul of Gang of Four with disco, which is like switching out butter for margarine and pretending it’s radically different. Yeah Yeah Yeahs were an obvious dead ringer for Siouxsie Sioux. The Strokes wanted to be Television, who weren’t technically post-punk but may as well have been. The only band who really seemed to want to break apart the conventions and get right down into the very essence of revolutionary sound itself was liars, and they got ripped apart for it (They Were Wrong So We Drowned is still one of the best albums of the 2000s, dammit, and I stand by that).
So when I say that Girl Band reminds me of liars, it’s because Girl Band is also willing to take the bands that influenced them, break them down to their atomic components, and rearrange them in a fashion that is, god forbid, actually refreshing. Take “Fucking Butter” as an example: the riff that kicks it off is weirdly familiar, like I’ve heard it on a Sleigh Bells song, but what comes after pounds out that riff so that it becomes increasingly unhinged. Three minutes in and more textures get added – high-gain guitar scrapings mainly – and then it becomes piled on to the point that it feels as though it’s about to crush you. Then it resets, and we’re left with a simple clicking drum beat and wildly shouted Gang of Four-esque vocals – and that’s just the half-way point. A lot of these songs are like that. They take the Gang vocals, the Swell Maps vision of song cut-and-paste, the Pere Ubu attack-noise, but they don’t just slavishly imitate these pieces. They rearrange them instead, using them in ways that their ancestors would never have attempted. “Paul” feels like it might have come out of Big Black’s Songs About Fucking, but rather than overwhelm the listener with feedback and noise like Albini did, they use those textures to build a sonic narrative from ragged beginning to gloriously blown-out ending. You can catch all of the pillars of Eighties post-punk here and there throughout, but it’s like noticing a beak in a slurry of factory processed chicken; by the time you notice it, the line has moved on and you’re left wondering if it was real or if you just thought it was.
Like Viet Cong, Girl Band have brought new life to the spectre that has been haunting punk rock since the early 1980s. Viet Cong, however, were content to make a suit out of the skin-scraps of their influences, while Girl Band performed messy chainsaw surgery, followed by reconstructive surgery that would have made the doctor from The Human Centipede proud. Call it post-post-punk – clearing a space from the space that was originally cleared – or just call it noise. Either way, it’s highly compelling stuff.
Former Czars frontman John Grant has made a name for himself on his past two albums – Queen Of Denmark yes, but especially Pale Green Ghosts – with weird, synth-heavy albums that sound like what would happen if you took your regular singer-songwriter type and told them to just go with their instincts. On first blush it’s not the sort of stuff that would garner any sort of mainstream attention – the first song, the title track, makes explicit reference several times to his HIV positive status, wishes that he’d just gotten his arm caught in a thresher instead, like his uncle, and realizes that there are children that have cancer, so all bets at garnering sympathy are off. It works on every level though, and so Grant has gotten nothing but rave reviews and awards from publications since day 1.
One thing that takes it over the edge of good to great is the fact that, despite being nearly an hour in length, it doesn’t feel like it’s an hour – half that, if anything. Grant has the uncommon skill to stuff his ideas and quirks into a highly efficient package, and it serves him especially well on Grey Tickles, Black Pressure. It’s for the best, really. The album’s title is an amalgamation of an Icelandic phrase and a Turkish phrase that together say that middle age is a nightmare; it’s an obvious statement for Grant once you read over his lyrics. These are cutting, bitter songs that manage to become palatable through sheer humour and charm; any more of them than there are and it might have become overwhelming. It manages to get in and out in just enough time to feel fresh and sourly invigorating. It may not have all of the electro-pop thrills of Pale Green Ghosts, but it’s got a schizoid internal charm all its own, and it sets Grant apart as a contemporary songwriter of mention.
Okay, here’s the thing Bradford…
Oh Jesus, this is difficult. It’s difficult because Microcastle and Halcyon Digest are two pillars of indie rock. It’s difficult because the haze of Microcastle got me through any number of days at work. It’s difficult because even though you decided to strike out in a more straight-forward, garage-rock (and the Dead, let’s not forget)-influenced direction on Monomania I still thought it was one of the best records released in 2013. Now, though, this album…
Okay, let me start off by saying something blunt. I hate Real Estate. Hate them. I feel like they’re the Coldplay to Deerhunter’s Radiohead. By this, I mean that they take everything good about Deerhunter and water it down for casual listeners to embrace and feel good about. It’s a mess of cutesy arpeggios, clean production, and vocals that substitute reverb for fog and depth. It’s Rote Indie Rock, much as Coldplay became the insufferable face of Rote Alternative Rock.
There’s too many places on Fading Frontier that sound like Real Estate. Too many moments where the haze seems to have been surgically scrubbed clean in some over-stuffed pricey studio. You invited some guests to provide music on this album, which would normally be a nice change of pace. However, in inviting members of Stereolab and Broadcast, you’ve ensured that this album, besides “All The Same” and “Snakeskin”, is powered mainly by drum machines and synths. You have, in Moses Archuleta, one of the finest drummers of the indie rock era, and yet you choose to go the route of bands that, god love them, are not Deerhunter. Instead of songs full of weird noises that are powered by hooks that you’ve made your name on, they’re mushy, meandering tracks that meld together and prove to be utterly forgettable. Out of nine songs, the two I’ve mentioned above are the only ones worth mentioning ten minutes after the end of the album. The fifteen minutes between “Breaker” and “Leather And Wood” are easily the worst fifteen minutes in either the Deerhunter or Atlas Sound discographies.
Look, I get it. You had a car accident and it gave you a new perspective on things, or some such mythos-making. It really just sounds like you decided that you wanted to abandon why people fell in love with you in the first place in favour of maybe making it onto terrestrial radio, as though that’s something people still want to do in 2015. Of course, Monomania just barely missed hitting the Top 40 and it was much better than Fading Frontier – it was noisy, it was passionate, there was some real rock n roll sentiment framing the songs. Fading Frontier has none of that. You abandoned the leather jackets and pyschotropics for…sterile synths and slick mainstream acceptance? I’m sure it works for some people, Bradford, but it sure as hell doesn’t work for you.
The purists are going to hate this.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Black metal is a form of metal originating in Norway in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It de-emphasized the knotted, complex riffing of the then-popular death metal bands in favour of a more simplified type of movement. The early stuff – De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, In The Nightside Eclipse, Under A Funeral Moon, Carpathian Wolves, etc. – built monuments to the bitter Scandinavian winter out of tremolo-soaked guitar, relentless blastbeats, ultra lo-fi production, and vocals that alternated between the screech of a demon and the howl of the wind over a churning field of snow. There is a disturbing documentary called Until The Light Takes Us that chronicles those early days – the madness, the jealousy, the flirtation with fascism, and the vicious streak of pagan-nationalist church burning. For further information, see it.
The aesthetic trappings around the scene were cheesy-Satanist at best and outright Nazi at worst; it failed to catch on much in America beyond finding a home in certain curious circles. Half a decade later, though, Americans began to create their own mutation on Norwegian black metal. Bands like Wolves In The Throne Room, Weakling, and Nachtmystium absorbed the lessons inherent in the sound and left out the immature, arson-obsessed, murdery parts (and, largely, the corpsepaint). Wolves In The Throne Room, as an example, replaced the violent, viking-inspired paganism of the Norwegian bands with a more “back-to-nature”, Cascadian-inspired paganism.
Deafheaven isn’t a black metal band, though.
Per se. Deafheaven isn’t a black metal band per se. Back in the earlier part of this decade, there were a couple of bands that adopted the aesthetics of black metal and amalgamated them into a larger musical philosophy: Liturgy and Deafheaven. Both bands amalgamated the blastbeats, simplified guitar lines, and howling vocals of black metal, but they took them in different directions. Liturgy frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix spun out a complicated philosophy he called “Transcendental Black Metal” and used the aesthetic as support for his academic work. Deafheaven skipped out on the philosophy and blended the black metal influences with the widescreen gaze of post-rock to discuss class issues, loneliness, and longing. Both were heaped with critical praise, and both were disparaged by black metal purists who derided the bands as not being “true kvlt” enough (many with their tongues in their cheeks, but a large number without). What both did, however, was not “rip off” black metal for gain, but recognized the vanishing point between black metal and shoegaze. Both styles blur the proceedings to the point where the entire song seems to shift for melodic movement, rather than any particular instrument. Everything blends into one defining line, and that line becomes the entire artistic moment.
Both bands have released the all-important followup album in 2015. Liturgy’s The Ark Work came first, and it arrived in a fury of confused reception and crumbled expectations. The Ark Work featured MIDI preset keyboards, hip hop influences, and a general lack of care for what people loved about Aesthetica, their breakthrough album. Reviews were extremely mixed; while I normally am a champion of noisy, difficult albums, The Ark Work felt more like Hunt-Hendrix intentionally trolling his audience rather than forging out a bold artistic statement.
New Bermuda, however, succeeds massively where The Ark Work failed. The album builds upon Sunbather and adds more shade and colour to the mix. On top of the existing mixture of black metal, shoegaze, and post-rock, they add in piano passages, guitar breakdowns straight out of the playbook of The World Is A Beautiful Place And I No Longer Want To Die, Slayer-esque death chugging, and in a couple of places guitar solos that sound as though they could have been lifted whole and breathing out of latter day Metallica albums. It expands out of where they came from to embrace a fuller noise-metal experience; rather than stick to their niche, Deafheaven goes more cinematic in the pursuit of their muse.
Much like Sunbather, New Bermuda examines some fairly heavy ideas that manage to be relatable for the great broad middle of the listening audience. The opening track “Brought To The Water” deals with growing up out of your early 20s and falling into the hypnotizing routines of adulthood. “Where has my passion gone,” he asks, “Has it been carried off by some / Lonely driver in a line of fluorescent light?” Shortly after he acknowledges that “A multiverse of fuchsia / and violet surrenders to blackness now / My world closes it’s eyes to / sex and laughter.” “Luna” looks at the suburban L.A. wonderland imagined in Sunbather‘s “Dream House” and examines how it turned from dream to nightmare; “I’ve boarded myself inside, I’ve refused to exit / There is no ocean for me / there is no glamour / Only the mirage of water ascending from the asphalt / I gaze at it from the oven of my home.” “Baby Blue” and “Come Back” seem to discuss the nature of notoriety and the endless hard cycle of critical acclaim and popular cynicism and it is here that the real intent of the album becomes clear. George Clarke – the main songwriter for Deafheaven – has realized that being in a popular band is a lot like being stuck in the depressing adult cycle of work; the dreams he sought for himself turned out to be even more trapping than the relative poverty he’s left behind. There is no end in sight for this (“I imagined the overcome and fell to my knees / Before the endless truth of instability and futility” he howls on “Come Back”) and so, on the final track, “Gifts For The Earth”, he throws himself into the “waves of the icy seas” which stand in direct cooling contrast to the shimmering mirages and oppressive ovens he writes of back on “Luna”. It’s at once startling, depressing, freeing, and absolutely understandable.
“This isn’t black metal!” the purists will cry, gnashing their teeth and wailing, and that’s sort of the point. Deafheaven has moved themselves completely beyond that pigeonhole trap of being a “black metal band” and has embraced all of the styles that blur and bludgeon and tug movement gracefully through the entire instrumental wall. It isn’t black metal, it isn’t shoegaze, it isn’t post-rock or post-metal. It’s Deafheaven, circa 2015, and it’s a triumph of both heavy music and noise.
Anyone who’s been watching Kurt Vile explore the experience of a man and his guitar for a while now can be forgiven for thinking, upon a listening of “Pretty Pimpin'”, “Oh, he’s found a beat, good for him.” Vile’s stock-in-trade has been hazy dissipation for some time now, through his solo debut Smoke Ring For My Halo and into his excessively sprawling, hazy-to-the-point-of-incoherence sophomore follow up Wakin On A Pretty Daze. On b’lieve i’m goin down… Vile snaps back into focus, like coming out of a particularly deep stoned reverie.
This isn’t to say that he’s lost the meandering quality. A number of songs on here – the ones that stretch out towards the seven minute mark, mainly – are strongly reminiscent of his work on the last album, where you start losing the plot around the four minute mark and you never really recover it. “That’s Life Tho (almost hate to say)” and “Lost My Head There” are the worst offenders of this sort, but they’re balanced off by the melodic success of tracks like “I’m An Outlaw”, “Dust Bunnies”, and “Bad Omens”. The album works on that careful balance the entire way, teetering between focused, song-oriented work and the hazy, lengthy jams he’s particularly known for. The song-oriented tracks are a nice break from the jams, which don’t run quite as overlong as they did on Wakin On A Pretty Daze, but come close.
Ultimately Kurt Vile is at his best when he’s mining out a Crazy Horse-esque pattern with languid, stoned vocals, and that’s precisely what’s on offer here. It can get a bit exhausting at times but there’s always something to draw you back in, especially if you wear your hair long and keep a baggie of herbal medicine in your bedside table.
Scotland’s CHVRCHES blew up the scene in 2013 with a debut album, The Bones Of What You Believe, that was the best synth pop album since Violator. It’s hard to follow up that kind of a meteoric album; you would need a synth pop masterpiece, or, more likely, a pop masterpeice. Every Open Eye is not that album, but then again what could be?
It is a really well-crafted album, though. The three opening tracks – “Never Ending Circles”, “Leave A Trace”, and the sublime “Keep You On My Side” – are CHVRCHES firing on all pistons, songs that take the groundwork laid on the debut and building more complex, darker structures from them. Then it falls off, with only “Clearest Blue” and “Playing Dead” really standing apart from the more mundane pieces that surround them. Even those mundane pieces, however, are great examples of good pop music, and Lauren Mayberry presents herself as the perfect pop frontwoman, taking charge in the choruses but letting the synth and drum work speak for itself when appropriate.
Every Open Eye suffers from having such a barn-burner as The Bones Of What You Believe as its predecessor. If this were CHVRCHES’ debut, it would seem freer, more expansive; it would be a solid rocket and a reason to expect greater things. Since we’ve already seen those greater things, this album becomes a placeholder of sorts; we know they’re capable of greater things, so now we have this sophomore album to tide us over until they (presumably) blow all of our minds with their instant classic third album.
Solo albums are usually pretty suspect. For every Ozzy Osbourne there’s a whole host of guys like Slash, Paul Banks, Scott Weiland, and Mick Jagger – people who have no business separating themselves from their bands. They’re typically the result of too much ego to be contained even by a world-shaking band, and a need to stake their own claim discrete from where they became famous. This effect is even worse when it’s the bassist from a famous band. The reason behind this is that the bassist, in your typical rock ‘n’ roll format, is the most boring person there is. No one cares about the bassist.
Chris Baio is the bassist for upper-crust Ivy League dorm band Vampire Weekend. After three albums of riffing on Paul Simon like he was the Second Coming of Jesus, the band seems to have come to a period of individual exploration. That is to say, singer Ezra Koenig is doing some stuff in collaboration with others, and now bassist Chris Baio is staking out a solo album, The Names. Just the idea of the bassist from Vampire Weekend making a solo album is typically enough to make me cringe.
He pulls it off really, really well, however. These are not the sort of rote Vampire-lite songs that you might expect to tinkle oh-so-preciously from your speakers. These are songs anchored to hard, throbbing bass, more influenced by epic house anthems than they are by Upper West Side Soweto. Lead single “Sister of Pearl” is actually the outlier here; most of these tracks resemble the opener, “Brainwash yyrr Face”, with light, graceful vocals playing around the maypole of that monolithic rumble at the bottom. “I Was Born In A Marathon” is the best track here; it runs through a tidal bridge that shows a masterful hand with fusing house tropes into a more general pop form.
Chris Baio bucks a trend here; he may not be Ozzy Osbourne but gets the job done in a rare fashion, and it’s one solo album that’s actually worth listening to.