Magnus Bugge - Iteration
Too often, electronic music is perceived as being cold, unemotional and entirely cerebral. It is perceived more like an afternoon on the Mario Kart controller or building a custom MineCraft universe than legitimate "art." While, yes, there is a certain amount of design and engineering at work with the incredible, laser-like precision available to the digital producer, this modernism is in service of the art, same as an era. Instead of working with grandiloquent symphonies, however, bedroom producers are bending, shifting and sculpting bare sine waves into moving, endless technological paeans to eternity, entropy, decay and all manner of other thermodynamic laws of the universe that might have been difficult to express with wooden acoustic instruments.
To put it simply, this music isn't unemotional. It's just describing a different sector of emotions, more in tune with the weird and wonderful world we're living in. Iteration is the most recent LP from Norwegian producer Magnus Bugge, full of glowing, ambient synth textures that sound like the sun setting over a mountain range, or perhaps a cityscape of polished glass.
It's tempting to label this as "pop ambient" in line with the popular series from Kompakt records, as there are definitely melodies, harmonies and song structure to hang the gorgeous, elongated synth textures over. This is no aural wallpaper in the Eno-esque sense of "ambient music." Rather, this is the human side of ambient, or a human being attempting to come to grips with the larger-than-life forces spinning around their ears.
Amazingly, Iteration was put together in a small apartment in Oslo, which was then polished to perfection up the road in Lars Sparby's studio. You'd think this was captured in Abbey Road, so lush is the ambiance, but that's the joy of electronic music. Even space is mutable - and nothing is as it seems.
From the liner notes, "Iteration is about movement despite standing still. Being stuck, but slowly getting to that other place. Changing, without anyone noticing. Turning into a ruin of your former you, shedding your skin, and becoming the next iteration of yourself." A grand conceit, which serves as a nice bonus, or an interesting story, rather than being a necessary hook to hang this album on. This music stands on its own. Taken in this context, however, there IS a feeling of dissolution and decay.
Things start off relatively concrete with "Decay" and "Deep Time," although still being extremely subtle, mellow, dreamy and distant. The sound waves start to break apart, weathering around the edges, starting about the midway point with "Iteration" and "Skyglow," although the swooning pace continues, relatively undisturbed.
The feeling I was left with - my own private narrative, if you will - is of an individual, either staring out the window, or else moving through a modernist environment, perhaps on foot, perhaps via another mode of transportation. The only thing that's certain is that any person in the world seems to bend and melt and blur in the peripheries of their vision.
It sounds highly antisocial, almost bleak and despondent, but there is a positivity to this kind of urban dwelling, as well. Sometimes being outside of things helps you to see them the most clearly. Sometimes, watching life spiral and drift around your eyes and ears makes you feel MORE connected, more empathetic; just in a slightly distant and detached way.
It's the thing that people forget about urban living. Yes, we're supposedly all detached, running with blinders on through the rat mazes of our lives, but this neglects to factor in the random conversations, the inspiring art, the moments of serendipity and almost cosmic awe that are sometimes possible.
Iteration is a stone-cold pop ambient classic, in line with Eno's Ambient series that gave electronic ambient music its name, along with the dreamy decay of William Basinski's The Disintegration Loops and the warm emotiveness of Fennesz's Venice. As a lifelong worshipper of these elongated strains of electronic ambiance, this is the highest possible recommendation I could give. Don't be surprised if other works of poetic electronic music are compared to Iteration in ten years time.
Don't sleep on this!
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Deep Cologne - Heavy Blood
Rodger Lloyd, performing under the name Deep Cologne describes his debut solo album as sounding like “Spoon and Little Dragon had a baby who wrote a rock opera in 1985.” While you can find traces of both of those artists throughout Heavy Blood, the rock opera aspect is where that assessment really carries water—the album plays out like a patchwork quilt of voices and acts, starting in one place and ending entirely in another, lovingly and cohesively stitched together with an expansive ‘80s thread.
The distinct evocation of ‘80s sounds makes Heavy Blood a hard album to nail down. On one hand, the album sounds a lot like Twin Shadow—but Twin Shadow is similarly steeped in ‘80s reverence, so it's tough to make the distinction between whether the two bands are simply drawing off of the same source material or if Deep Cologne is itself derivative of the ‘80s resurgence of the past half-decade.
There's also a strong chill wave vibe, at least in the first part of the album. While the opener, “Flawless,” starts with ambient noise and a stuttering drum/bass intro that could have been pulled from “Pale Shelter” era Tears for Fears, it quickly fills the room up with a dense, lush synth-organ part and slightly fuzzed out, semi-falsetto vocals sitting a little further back in the mix (similar to Washed Out or M83). The song keeps adding layers and little parts, here and there, so that by the outro-bridge, it's a beautiful and alluring culmination of everything that's come before—and you don't really want it to end.
The second track “Suitcase (ft. Fey Moth)” rightly catapults off of the laid back urgency of the first song, bringing the energy level up and proving to be one of the albums most single-ready tracks. There's a Eurythmics-esque lead riff, frantic and theatric backing “oooohhh's” echoing many a Of Montreal song, while the track as whole has the kind of cool and modern pulse that make Big Data songs so suitable for car commercials.
The album goes in a couple of other directions from there. The track “One Note Song,” carries a simplistic sort of layered decadence akin to Poolside, while the minimally channeled vocal tracks sounds almost like the Stokes. The title track sounds more like late ‘80s U2 than I've heard anybody be bold enough to embrace in some time—but with almost a Handsome Furs flare.
By the end of the album, the Spoon element flushes itself out a little but more clearly. The vocals are much more confidently front and center than the early tracks. The closer “Sugar” finishes things up on a strong note. Again there's a dominant key-part that fills the speakers, top-to-bottom—almost akin to Girls Can Tell, era Spoon, although the overall feel of the track would almost make it sound more at home on their more recent They Want My Soul. Regardless of where it fits into another artist's catalogue, the song really feels like a culmination of those that came before it.
Heavy Blood was self-recorded by Lloyd in his own Seattle studio, Pop Logic Studios. Production value is exceptionally high—every song has little flourishes and background elements that are so well mixed in that you will really appreciate them with a nice pair of headphones and pay attention. The album represents Lloyd's first solo project following the dissolution of his previous band Sweet Secrets.
I can easily recommend this Heavy Blood to fans of modern takes on the ‘80s, chill wave or any of the bands mentioned in this review.
Sans Frills - The City Life
With last year's critically-lauded Divers, freak folk chanteuse Joanna Newsom investigated the many, many diverse historical layers of New York City, even going so far as to do a kind of time-traveling, pop-cultural autobiographical meanderings, somewhere between Gangs Of New York and Run Lola Run.
This is not entirely a new conceit. Pop musicians have been mining history through the lens of catchy pop songs since at least the ‘60s from Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle to Sufjan Stevens’ excellent, but derailed, state series, Illinoise and Greetings From Michigan.
The final result ends up in a grey zone between musical theater and pop/rock n’ roll. And as with any crossbreeding, you run the risk of inheriting the species' weaknesses, as well as its strengths. Unfortunately, musical theater's genome is particularly rife with infirmity - the sonic equivalent of a slack-jawed, watery-eyed Greyhound.
The City Life from Brooklyn's Sans Frills is a pop concept record, exploring the many aspects of New York City living from subways to bike rides to corrupt police, largely built around singer Nick Freeman's reedy vocals and economical guitar playing, which occasionally bursts into ornate gorgeousness.
Freeman cites the often-overlooked Beck albums Midnight Vultures and Mutations as some of the biggest influences on The City Life, which he describes as "the most eclectic and underplayed albums of their time." Personally, I'm a fan of those records, but part of the lukewarm reception is magpie-like hodgepodge is a hard look to pull off. It's like emptying the entire contents of your spice rack into a dish. Yes, it could end up as gourmet cuisine, but it can also end up as grey slop.
Freeman's eclecticism isn't all bad, as it means there are moments I truly enjoyed - the brooding, emotive synth and guitar of "Morning Jam," the field recordings and walking bass line of "Subway Vendor," but too much of The City Life is built around Freeman's slice-of-life diatribes. For some odd reason, Freeman seems entirely hung up on bikes, and I almost can't count how many time he says the word "bicycle" on this record. Considering the jaunty, sing-song, sing-a-long quality of many of these songs, like "Bicycle (Part 1)," which seems to inherently bring to mind the Queen single "Bicycle." I know a lot of people like that song and the style, but this is one instance where I don't feel like overcoming my reviewer's bias. I've always found that song and that style, incredibly irksome, repetitious, banal and unnecessary.
The City Life ends up like listening to "Bicycle" on repeat for an hour, occasionally breaking the monotony with a Randy Newman-style stream-of-consciousness style, that isn't much of a reprieve.
Basically, to be blunt, I like a lot of the music a lot, which features fine performances and above average recording fidelity, but I don't care much for the vocals or lyrics. It wears on the ears too quickly, like eating an entire meal of key lime dishes.
For those that like some concept with their pop or who enjoy some Bertolt Brecht-like song cycles, they will likely tap their toes and sing along with the catchy choruses.
The Radio Hour - Radio Power
What is Radio Power?
Radio is a strange thing - part water-witching, deriving signals from the ether; part clairaudience - hearing distant sounds, clear as day; part random encounter, inviting a stranger into your living room to hear their stories and listen to their songs.
For the longest time, radio was one of the only ways to discover new, unknown artists - expertly curated by pro DJs (whose favor may or may not have been curried with a line of coke and a stack of cash). In the 21st century, however, radio runs the risk of obsolescence with nearly every album ever made being available at the click of a button.
The downside of this mass availability is the danger of solely running through the rat maze of your own obsessions. The lamentations over people staring at their screens while in public is so-often-repeated, at this point, as to not be worth mentioning - and it's not necessarily a bad thing - but you might miss some moving story of a troubled refugee, sitting right next to you, or miss out on glorious, life-changing music while you're too busy listening to Taylor Swift on repeat.
A pre-programmed life limits the opportunity for wonder, for revelation, while hardening our walls to the life spinning around us. That's part of why it's fun to be a reviewer - you're guaranteed to hear sounds from all over creation, widening your scope & vision.
Radio Power from Chicago's The Radio Hour, is a reminder to let down your guard and really listen. The Radio Hour is predominantly the work of singer/guitarist Tim Hort, whose elegant, electric garage anthems are fleshed out with a supporting cast of backing musicians.
The Radio Hour deserves major props for not being afraid to blend the bitter and the sweet, which always makes for the best pop music, in my opinion. In the artist's own words, "But the material is both nihilistic and foreboding, weaving together stark storylines ranging from abandonment to BDSM. Hort's extremely personal material brings its own brand to the term "loneliness" while unapologetically using pop hooks to keep your attention riveted on the melancholic lyrics."
The subject matter may be bleak and ominous, but it doesn't sound it. This is no grim black metal, instead sounding more like an ethereal garage rock, full of twanging, reverbed guitar, nicely buttressed with some simple but great-sounding bass lines. Everything is mixed to perfection, as smooth as silk but energizing as White Lightning, which makes multiple listens a pleasure and a delight. With each subsequent spin, the album grows on you more and more, like a fine patina sheen on a copper garden statue.
I don't know what it's like, but when I lived in Chicago, I found breaking into the local music scene to be difficult. The Radio Hour is definitely drawing on Radio Power, in that regard, introducing their maudlin meanderings to a wider global audience.
The Radio Hour invites us to lower our defenses and LISTEN, to wander aimlessly, and rediscover wonder.
My Galvanized Friend by Topher Holland is a guitar album masquerading as your more standard, ‘90s inspired, singer-songwriter fare. Sure, it has well articulated, multi-syllabic rhyming verses, slower piano ballads and high energy feel good pop tracks—but, amidst the variety showcased, there's also some funky guitar licks, some straightforward ‘70s rock-inspired slow burners and a pretty fair amount of virtuosic, seemingly-improvisational noodling strewn about.
All right, so I might be playing up the guitar aspect a little bit. At its heart, this album is loving homage to the ‘90s, namely the ilk of Ben Folds, the Barenaked Ladies, the Counting Crows and maybe even a little Incubus. Topher Holland dabbles a bit in a couple of directions from an almost waltz-y, almost honky-tonky romp on “Whiskey Soaked Ghost” to an instrumental, lead guitar driven song in the vein of Hendrix's “Little Wing.”
There are a few straightforward cuts on the album. “Terminal Velocity” opens the record in a classic ‘90s fashion, with channeled vocals and guitar before the low end rolls in, the vocals come to the fore and the whole thing opens up in just the way you'd expect guitar-pop to. “The Letter” is the quintessential sad bastard track with the piano and vocals song finding Holland at his most Ben Folds. There's even some genuine ‘90s funk/R&B on the cut “At The Bank Again” more jangly guitar and accenting horns than the Jamiroquai that might come to mind, but a pretty fun track none-the-less. Finally, sad-sweet song “Cadaver” also sees Ben Folds evoked, but this time against a wonderfully bittersweet descending chord progression and accompanied by superb lap steel part that simply makes the track.
Recorded primarily at Holland's home studio over the course of a couple of years, My Galvanized Friend is the work of a musician who's clearly got it down to a science—he's been doing it for over 25 years, since he was a kid. Holland is strongly rooted in his influences, which is hardly a bad thing, as it gives him steady footing to write and perform from. Despite reaching in a few different directions—and recording over the course of years—the whole enterprise is surprising cohesive.
My Galvanized Friend is an agreeable album full of balanced harmonies, strong musicianship and solid instrumentation; its greatest strength is also its largest potential liability which is its heavy-handed reach into the ‘90s. If you dig a handful of guitar-pop from that era, this is totally going to be your bag. If you stick your nose up at the un-ironic mention of Barenaked Ladies, this might not be your cup of tea.
Reflectivore - Reflectivore
The two core members of Reflectivore, Rusch and Cragin have a good amount of contribution on their recent self-titled album Reflectivore. Three drummers, a couple bass players and more helped make this exceptional album come to fruition.
This album is emotionally resonant, full of different tones and textures and is a pleasure to listen to from beginning to end. There are elements of shoegaze, post-rock and experimental all over this album. The band Sigur Ros came to mind a couple of times and I think that is because of the scope of some of the songs. It often feels huge and ethereal as if the music is made by beings that aren’t mortal and reside in a different plane of existence. The most grounded thing about the music is the lead vocals.
The album opens with “Ticonderoga” which starts with piano and drums but it’s the looming guitar feedback in the background that gives it an otherworldly feel. As the progresses it feels subdued and I say that in a good way. This is a song that had potential to go grand but the band in a pro move saves some of that stuff for later. “Ticonderoga” stays firmly on the ground with inventive guitar and piano riff while having the added bonus of creative lyrics. He sings, “do they wanna set my hands on fire do they wanna know my other names sun on water stone on stone and all my possessions in the lake.”
“Flight 7 77” is a seven-minute song which certainly takes away from the post-rock genre aesthetic while deviating from some of the tropes you tend to hear. l enjoyed the angel-esque vocal harmonies around the two-minute mark. The song sounds as if it floating into the ether.
“Red Looking Glass” is where the band is beginning to sound like they are harnessing the energy of the universe and taking off. Around the three-minute mark is where the magic starts to happen. The guitar sounds like it is a hemorrhaging comet burning up in space while the reverb laced vocals harmonies instill a sense of wonder.
“Organ Grinder” is the most heavy song on the album, almost going into metal territory. They almost went too metal for my liking compared to the rest of the songs but they managed to keep it ethereal and experimental. The closer “Black Holy” has numerous vocal styles. Towards the end the vocalist sounded like an alternate version of Zack de la Rocha.
Reflectivore isn’t without some flaws but they are minor compared to what the duo has accomplished. There is a lot of good stuff happening here. Highly Recommended.
Spocket - Spocket
It always seemed strange to me that you could go to school for music, or painting, or hell even writing. I always just figured that the majority of artists and musicians that were worth their salt just sort of were self-taught or mentored by some great master and then went off alone in the world to suffer for their art until some rich benefactor found them or they were picked up by a label and became successful.
Though I suppose what is teaching but a constant reiteration of saying, “make yours look like mine.” I think for most people in a certain sense, and I’m talking about the arts here, not math and science, a teacher can serve to show you what you’re doing wrong in a sense and perhaps how to fix it, but for the most part in my estimation and what I took from my observations during my years in higher learning is that for the most part teachers are going to nurture the bright students and let the others sort of flounder about until they realize for themselves that it’s time to change their major.
Chicago jazz, funk-fusion outfit Spocket is seven mostly school-trained jazz musicians and it’s pretty easy to tell right from the start of their self-titled debut EP Spocket. Within the first minute or so of “Foxin” with its mellow repetitious grooves built around keys and guitar and then layered up with brass, one understands that things will still be within the lines here; there won’t be any wildly outrageous solo a la Lisa Simpson in the opening credits of The Simpsons. If it were not for the tape delay “Purple Camo” would seem as though it were simply an extension of “Foxin” though it does play up the keys more and tones down the horns slightly in parts, there is really not much else to distinguish the track.
However on “D.I.Y” the band turns up the funk and the rock with the guitar searing through with heavy metal intensity in some spots, and the keys and horns taking on more of a Live-Evil era Miles Davis tone though after a while they slip back into formation to close out “D.I.Y” on a rather down note. Next on “Hop Topper” the band run the gamut of sounding like a grocery store jazz band covering Steely Dan.
When the average person, not well versed in how plot and narrative works, reads a book or watches a film, they often miss the story beneath the story, the symbolism and metaphor, the subtle nuances, which exist for reason. Myself never having been a music student and knowing little about theory I am certain I have missed many of the subtleties of these compositions. However Spocket sounds at most times that it was made for a letter grade rather than a wide range of listeners. In this way lovers of neat and tidy jazz and funk will adore it, but for rebels who are looking for something a bit more experimental you’re not going to find it here.
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"Living the dream/just like I'm in fashion," sings Grant Stevens on the moody, ruminative "Living The Dream."
Berlin's Nervous Germans are finally living their dreams, following a 32-year hiatus.
Reunion/comeback albums are curious things. One must wonder how much of the attraction is pure nostalgia, or a by-product of our hyper-saturated digital world. With 99.9% of new media being made immediately upon release, or sometimes earlier, we're left with a yen for the unknown, the mysterious, the under-represented. Look at the thriving re-issue culture we're living in for proof of this.
The other, more exciting and optimistic side, is that a lot of bands (or art and media in general) could've been bigger, better and more popular if they'd had a wider audience or better gear and access to quality recording equipment. A lot of the bands we now worship, even up to mega-popular acts like The Jesus And Mary Chain and The Pixies, were still underground, alternative phenomena in their first run.
Many great bands from the '70s and '80s are being given a new lease on life, thanks to the hungry hearts and minds of younger listeners, looking for unknown roots and influences of their favorite musicians, or just scouring for something obscure and interesting. One of the most striking live music moments I've experienced was during Rocket From The Tomb's brief-lived (and utterly awesome) reformation in the early 2000s. On the song "Ain't It Fun" bald-headed guitarist Cheetah Chrome sings the line "Ain't it fun/when you know you're going to die young." When that line was written in the late '70s, it was a nihilistic anthem from a bunch of self-destructive proto-punks. They obviously didn't die young, as they're still singing those words 40 years later. Instead of a "don't give a fuck" fingers in the air, instead it came across as a Memento Mori for all the fallen soldiers; a reminiscence on the pain and fury of addictive lifestyles; and simply assessing ALL of the water under the bridge.
It was a passing and life-changing moment.
You get a similar feeling, listening to From Prussia With Love. Half of the material was written in the early '80s for an early, influential recording session for John Peel, with the other half being contemporary. There's a feeling of gratitude, mixed with a bit of bitter cynicism, and, of course, a lifelong love of rock n’ roll that never ages.
From Prussia With Love will appeal to fans of darker-edged, moody rock n’ roll, a la The Chameleons, The Church, or mid-era The Cure. Psychedelic flourishes abound, mostly in the gloopy, chorus-y guitars, which were particularly popular during that era. I don't hear as many bands, these days, mining that psychedelic post-punk seam, so it's a welcome addition for that alone. There's also a bit more of a relaxed feel in the delivery that people in their 20s often aren't capable of, giving the record a mellow feel, even while being driving and energetic.
The more you listen, the more you realize you're dealing with a seriously talented group of musicians. The guitars are expertly arranged; featuring more intricate, melodic chord changes than your average Pop record, augmenting the complex, layered emotions.
All in all, the excellent songwriting and production invites you to lean in and listen further. When you do, Nervous Germans tell you their story - a story of decades of frustration and success and, ultimately, a lifelong love of music.
Good on the Nervous Germans for not giving it up, for giving it another chance. People will listen, now, if they're wise.
Great stuff, that gets better with every listen!
Ben Somerville - The Greenstone EP
An intentionally blurry painting of a rolling grassland and cloudy skies set up The Greenstone EP to be a truly expansive record and hints at country and Americana roots. Nineteen-year-old Ben Somerville, active in music for much of his life, does not disappoint such expectations, and by including unique elements from indie rock and pop styles, he creates an unforgettable debut album.
“Manna” begins with hushed acoustic guitar and builds throughout the song to a climactic ending with crashing cymbals and unfettered vocals. Somerville explores his vocal range within the melodies of the tune, jumping effortlessly to falsetto when he sees fit. The instrumentation in this track is noticeably dynamic, even so that the light taps of the drums when they first come in forcefully grab the listener’s attention in a surprisingly good way.
The next track “Counterprofeit” features alternative rock influences and a melodious electric guitar leads the way through several different musical terrains as the song wanders from minor chording to major chording and back again with occasional vocal harmonies and instrumental builds that add much to the song’s appeal. In “Taxintermission” Somerville fiddles around on his mandolin for a solid two minutes, giving the listener a brief respite from the more complex songs.
A thumping stand-up bass and upbeat piano are both employed in “Concavescent” giving the stoic song a jazzy bounce that contrasts well with the mostly dejected lyrics and overall gloominess of the tune. The piano continues its jaunt into the spotlight in “Tripwired” a beautiful ballad with reverb-laced vocals and a gradual increase in volume and complexity until the very end of the song.
The album comes to a close with “Endothermic” as droning organ notes float across the up-tempo drums, optimistic vocals and muted guitars. The last track is reflective yet forward-looking, and as Somerville lays down lightning-paced guitar riffs, the listener is left with no doubt as to whether he will continue his music career. Surely, more great music will be heard before long from this talented artist!
the good minus - the good minus
The Good Minus is a fun little foray in a few different directions from a self-proclaimed super group The Good Minus out of Melbourne, Australia. Clocking in at under ten minutes, it showcases a trio of talented musicians/vocalists, almost providing proofs of concept for three different directions that they can go in.
The first track, “Step Off Lightly” opens with a round (harmony) that casts a near Fleet Foxes vibe, before cutting to ‘90s pop-guitar strumming pattern and eventually some Johnny Greenwood/Radiohead-esque lead guitar parts. The great vocal harmonies are the standout aspect of a song that keeps quickly jumping from part to part, never staying anywhere long enough to wear out a welcome.
“Will Catch Us Up” takes a bit—just a bit—of a darker tone with a slightly sinister guitar riff and drum part full of tom-rolls/rim-shots. That said, once the lush harmonies enter, the song really opens and builds a sense of urgency as it hurls towards a very catchy chorus.
The third and final song is a quick instrumental tracks that rocks out a little bit more than the previous two, even dabbling towards, might I say, a bit metal of a direction. Either way, it's a solid song with nice pacing and a chance for each of the instruments to show off a bit, although the decision to hold off on the vocals, one of the band's strongest elements, is a bit of a bummer.
The Good Minus was recorded in one day at Tendertrap Studios in Melbourne, and mastered at Mastersound Studios. For all of its live improvisational stylings, the recording is super clean and polished.
The Good Minus proves to be apt musicians in whatever direction they choose here, so hopefully the experimentation and dabbling takes shape in a more honed sound when they get around to recording a full length.
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