8/19/2017

Single Review: Routine Death - "Demo Tracks"

Routine Death - Demo Tracks
(2017 Self-Released)

What makes Austin, Texas such a hotbed for Gothic sounds? With average temperatures sitting snugly in the mid-90s all summer, the Lone Star State doesn't seem like the ideal place to dress exclusively in shades of black. To my knowledge, -- which is admittedly limited to Google searches -- Austin's not architecturally dominated by grotesque or Bauhaus aesthetics. Even on a historical level, I associate the city more with the mid-00s post-rock produced by Explosions in the Sky, This Will Destroy You, and Balmorhea than anything remotely similar to what Factory Records produced in its heyday.

Maybe it's just a coincidence that many of my favorite Goth releases of the past few years have emerged from Austin's local scene. Two darkwave-y bands that have fared quite well on my year-end top 10 lists call the city home. Captive, whose Black Leather Glove LP wheezes with pneumonic synths and clattering snares, have been quiet as of late, but still regularly find rotation in my iTunes library on the strength of cuts like "The Fool" and "Endless Lust". Sacred Bones signees Institute are more prolific, effortlessly churning out classic post-punk records that feel equally indebted to Minutemen and Joy Division. If shoegaze duo Routine Death drop some studio material as strong as the two demo cuts currently hosted on their homepage, they might very well earn a spot among my favorite Texan gloom-slingers. 

A-side "The Impossibility of Paying Our Debts" spins like an early Captured Tracks single, winding a looped guitar riff -- soggy with reverb -- around trashed percussion. Lisa Zozaya's vocals ring out as if they were shouted into the depths of the sort of absurdly spacious sewer tunnel only seen in video games and cartoons. They're tinny residue molding on steel walls; clinging to the blank space between chords. Every tone in the track feels more implied than perceived. Maybe you've peeped them through a veil, or eavesdropped with a cupped ear pressed against the door. 



Flip-side "Star Alliance" is -- as its title suggests -- even more spaced-out than its predecessor. Fried melodies pop and sizzle like bacon grease against droning chords, sounding something like the Velvet Underground blasted on a Beats pill by a discourteous passenger on the bus. Zozaya stretches syllables across several bars, sending wriggling noodles of human emotion out into the cosmos. The song never really works its way into a discernable groove, but doesn't need to: "Star Alliance" is a space unto its self, its boundaries and levels of gravity shifting like tides. Don't try to find your footing. It isn't there.

Looking for a perfect solar eclipse-viewing soundtrack? Prepare for this Monday by streaming and downloading the single here.

8/13/2017

Review: Sweat Enzo - "Full Grown Cats"

Sweat Enzo - Full Grown Cats
(2017 Self-Released)

Sharing a hometown with seminal proto-grunge outfit Dinosaur Jr., Amherst, Massachusetts' Sweat Enzo taps into their native city's aural wellspring, tucking twangy chord progressions into a sheet of tape-hiss so warbly you'd swear Sweat Enzo time-traveled to 1985 to record in Lou Barlow's basement. Full Grown Cats is the trio's 12th official release and their most streamlined pop effort since 2015's Talking Rock. For first-time listeners, it's the best intro to Sweat Enzo's sound you'll find on their Bandcamp page.

Intro cut "Deer In the Headlights" gallops along to the limp of its rhythm guitar before transitioning into a country-fried solo that hearkens back to Dinosaur's pre-Jr. discography. Frontman Elliot Hartmann drags his raspy vocals through plots of distortion like a tiller takes to soil, upturning residual fuzz in his wake. "Living in the Moment" sits on deck, ready to raise the tempo and trade in its predecessor's dissonance for jangle-pop warmth. Here, Sweat Enzo tap into the jittery folk-rock groove splattered across the surface of Meat Puppets' Too High to Die, sprinkling their own splashes of mumbled harmony and funk organ into the brew. It's by far Full Grown Cats' catchiest tune -- one that I can't help but skip to when bumping the record.

"Alright, Casey" is a look at Sweat Enzo at their most instrumentally solid. George Gerhardt and Gage Lyons lay down a peppy stadium-rock rhythm to make room for Hartmann's parabolic swoops of guitar. There's a glimmer of J Mascis' groaned chorus on Dinosaur Jr.'s "Start Choppin'" that peeks through the track's muddy mix, but Sweat Enzo's chops and knack for songcraft shine just as brightly.

Though it lacks a single as immediate as past hits like "Questions" and "Leavin'", Full Grown Cats is Sweat Enzo's most consistent release to date. If you're seeking more of the sunbleached tones wielded by Barlow, Galaxie 500, and Guided By Voices, look no further.

8/08/2017

Review: Unable to Fully Embrace This Happiness - "The Morning Sun + The End of the World"

Unable to Fully Embrace This Happiness - The Morning Sun...
(2017 Self-Released)

Though the full title of UTFETH's first official album can't be contained by the horizontal confines of this blog post, the Austrian powerviolence trio seems to have no trouble squeezing 14 tracks' worth of scorched imagism/existentialism into an 18-minute timeframe. The Morning Sun rises from a series of split-releases and compilation tapes, spackling over any breathing room or vain experimentation with fast-drying static. Every square inch of aural space that exists within UTFETH's trusted dictaphone recorder is clogged with noise. The listener stands at the other side of a steel wall, peeking through a porthole as the band's gelatinous aggression presses against the glass, writhing as if undergoing a chemical change -- sometimes the mass adopts the vague lumpiness of a chugging blast beat or is tinted the pale green of a sickly clean guitar riff, but it always maintains its thick, uniformly ferocious texture. Think of bread dough so yeasty that it rises uncontrollably, threatening to burst out of the oven.

Thematically, the record is much less unified. Tounge-in-cheek song titles intentionally clash with their more somber lyrical counterparts: autobiographical vignettes syllabically frugal enough to have been clipped from John Porcellino's King Cat Comics, Hopper-esque snapshots of UTFETH's native Klagenfurt, and the occasional imagined premise for a sci-fi novel. The band is at their best when they freeze striking-yet-simple images in time. Case in point -- the stuttering cacophony of "I Quit My Job So I Could Play More RPGs" tempered by a surprisingly tender verse. "Forming a crucifix while riding my bike / without using my hands". You'd never be able to parse that together just by listening, though. It's the impenetrable sound of the record that sends you scrambling for a lyrics sheet, luring you into intimacy with the listening experience. 

"The Happy End Overshadows the Forthcoming Drama" is the most ambitious offering here, knitting two sheets of black metal chord-mashing together with sampled audio from Twin Peaks' second season, a funeral procession of fingerpicked arpeggios, and drum machine handclaps that are so out of place that they're somehow welcome among the brutality. The cloud of sound formed here is so opaque that I can't help but be reminded of Jules Feiffer's drawing of the Awful Dynne -- a demon from The Phantom Tollbooth that feeds on dissonant sounds. Ironically, the song's about silence, narrated by a hermit. "The only interactions are while grocery shopping", they screech. "Speechless forever.

The Awful Dynne

"Thank You Very Much For Gathering Today" is The Morning Sun's strongest instrumental showing, stripping away some scuzz to reveal its chord progression (which kinda sounds like something The Cure would've cooked up in the early 80s) before ripping into its hardcore beatdown. Closer "Just When I Thought I Was Done Being the Mediator" is a close second best, flirting with post-rock melodrama atop sparse splashes of percussion. Even the pair of sub-30 second songs hit hard enough to satisfy. Only "The Journalist" fails to really sock me in the gut, but even so, its lyrics are pretty evocative, weighing the possibility of a livestreamed suicide before presumably choosing not to. ("Fourteen pages by the end of the week / You never know what this server will spawn)

I've written about UTFETH in the past, and continue to listen for good reason. Smashing their impressive chops into a harsh lo-fi filter, they're as subtle as a brick wall and just about as heavy as one too. 

8/04/2017

Review: Great Grandpa - "Plastic Cough"

Great Grandpa - Plastic Cough
(2017 Dbl Dbl Whammy)

Great Grandpa's poppier than the sum of its parts, and all the more striking for it. According to their press kit, the quintet is the product of a "mututal love of noise and math rock", but the instrumentation of their inaugural LP, Plastic Cough, shows more fondness for the former. Hailing from Seattle, the band is often likened to the sound their home city's bygone grunge scene -- their towering fuzzscapes, however, shed the dissonance of Sub Pop's early 90s output for anthemic surges of determination. More indebted to Broken Social Scene than Nirvana, Great Grandpa whisk dollops of optimism into their bummed-out snarl. "In due time, I'm tryin' my best", offers Alex Menne atop a sizzling chorus, perhaps to make amends for the twangy desolation that prefaced it: "Got caught up in loose ends / All my friends are almost dead".

At its best, Plastic Cough goes for broke, tossing every hook, riff, and vocal acrobatic it can muster at a rumbling wall of distortion. Opener "Teen Challenge" is a case study in this kind of noise-rock maximalism. Revving its sonic engine on some Weezer-esque dissonance, the track's muted power chords gather enough energy to launch into a menacing chorus, allowing enough space in its static for Menne's yawp-y delivery to jut through. Imagine Crying's Elaiza Santos with a case of the hiccups that somehow manages to keep her on key. Subtract the band's chiptune melodies for an extra layer of bass that envelops everything in its path. Tack on a guttural guitar solo for gnarled emphasis. Whether or not you care to invite it in, "Teen Challenge" bores its way into your memory like trepanation. It commands attention.

The band's forays into higher tempos are also quite successful. "NO" earns its capital letter, splattering clashing colors of harmonic paint across a canvas of snares. The intro to closer "28 J's L8R" waxes midwestern emo before melting into a slogging gob of bubblegum sludge metal. "28 J's" is by far Plastic Cough's most impressive feat, fiddling with rhythm, dynamics, and spaced-out improvisation -- all the while lyrically indulging itself in corny humor and B-movie horror theatrics. Most of the record hits hard enough to re-visit many times, but it's this coda that I can't stop spinning. Here's to more a wildly experimental (yet still fun) Great Grandpa in the future.

Plastic Cough doesn't always hit the nail exactly on the head. The brief "Grounded" marches to an off-kilter beat that should pay off, but doesn't quite do it for me. "Pardon My Speech" winds itself through so many melodic contortions, you'll need a map to navigate them. Despite these rough patches, though, the album is often a blast to listen to -- occasionally, (especially on tracks 1 and 10), it flirts with classic status.

7/31/2017

Compilation Submissions Open!


The impending autumn and the upcoming school year have put me in the mood to curate a new Half-Gifts compilation album. In the spirit of the season, I've decided to open up submissions for a fan-sourced effort that revolves around change and growth. If you'd like to record a song that fits this theme or already have material ready to submit, send an email to jude.noel3@gmail.com with the subject line "Compilation Submission". Tracks are due August 21 -- all genres and skill levels are welcome.

For inspiration, stream Half-Gifts' Christmas 2016 Compilation below:

 

7/24/2017

Review: Waterfall Eyes - "Fighting Losing Battles"

Waterfall Eyes - Fighting Losing Battles
(2017 Self-Released)

There are more than enough snippets of twinkly slowcore haunting Bandcamp and Soundcloud to keep me satisfied -- so many, in fact, that I tend to forget they're there. On the internet, purely atmospheric music's as ubiquitous as air itself. You can breeze through it and even breathe it in without noticing it, focusing on the grittier, more tactile works that live within the atmosphere. Take the Agjijer record I reviewed last week, for example: it borrows occasional cues from Explosions in the Sky and Eluvium on its final cut, stewing in its own reverb juices, but opts to season the pot with math-y accents and a fuzz-faded crescendo. The band realized their need to stand out in a crowd, and went to great lengths to do so. As much as Agjijer's demo was an ambient effort, it was also an emo record, a black metal release, and a jazz-punk endeavor. It's an atmosphere to hack on -- to remind you how important it is to inhale and analyze.

Innovation's cool, but refinement's just as commendable. That's the route taken by Canada's Waterfall Eyes on their sophomore record, Fighting Losing Battles. It's a breath of the fresh stuff, boasting a sparse ambience as lucid and pristine as that of a Robin Guthrie solo effort. Nothing fancy -- just loop-pedal post-rock done better than anybody I've heard since Acid Aura. Guitarist Nathan Chan drips plucked notes like water droplets down a car window. You watch them run laps down the glass pane, colliding and congealing into blobby harmonies on the descent. Melted threads of feedback and slide guitar stretch lengthwise, fading into the distance like roadside cornfields and farms. Tracks are as transient as the farmlands you drive by, passing through and making sonic small talk for about a minute apiece. They're meant to be enjoyed in the moment, evaporating before they can worm comfortably into your cortex.

"Eastern Cities", a collaboration with fellow Canadian solo act Aftertide, lingers the longest, winding its riffs about a rusted maypole that blooms beneath stormy clouds of distortion. The glistening "Gwen" peeks out from behind the overcast veil, buttering its guitar twang with a quivery drone. Each tune spills over into the next, flavoring its successor with residual echo. The tracklist isn't so much a distinction between individual songs as it is a sundial, marking the record's arc from one end of the sky to the other. Fighting Losing Battles is constantly in a slow state of flux, casting sunbeams and shadows on the listener slowly enough to evolve undetected. Even as the album concludes with the jarring release of tech-y energy that is "Ok...", FLB revels in its subtlety. It's best consumed in a meditative state, piped through earbuds but relegated to the subconscious.

7/19/2017

Review: Agjijer - "demo"

Agjijer - demo
(2017 Self-Released)

Math-Rock's a fun genre tag to toss around in a music review -- it's a cute classification that lends itself perfectly to numerical metaphor. Unfortunately, it's also a pretty imprecise way to describe music. Think about it this way: when I use the term "Math-Rock" without any given context, what springs to mind? Frenetic instrumental fret-mashing? Distorted screamo recorded in someone's basement? Bittersweet weaves of American Football-inspired noodling? Most musical mathematicians fall into one of three of these sonic categories. In the case of Tokyo's Agjijer, though, the band's untitled demo tape falls into each of them, spanning their timbral and compositional breadth over the course of seven short minutes.

Opener "henteko" channels the jittery jazz-punk of fIREHOSE, volleying dissonant chords off a wall of digital hi-hats like a tennis player practicing their returns. Bass chases the rhythm guitar as it zig-zags its way through impressive contortions before unfurling into a spacey psych-rock solo. The track shows off the band's technical proficiency while getting the brainy weirdness out of the way early -- it's a good choice for an opening track, and the demo's most replayable offering. 

Track 2 cranks up the speed and the volume, transitioning a screeching peal of sci-fi synthesizer into a burst of black-metallic thrash. At 66 seconds, "kowabali" is tough to process on an initial listen. Textures supercollide against driving percussion, masking the record's only vocals (barely-decipherable yowls) beneath a shade of overcast clouds. The audio cuts out mid-verse. It's a flash-flood, a torrential downpour that quickly dries up in the summer heat. Intense, but gone before you know it.

"somemore" is Agjijer's most traditional track, but also its prettiest. It's a mid-tempo groove in the vein of TTNG, lavishing gently strummed open chords on its chilled-out arrangement, then leaping headfirst into an Explosions in the Sky crescendo. It's a solid, serviceable counterpoint to its predecessors that makes for a decent conclusion.

Though not entirely cohesive, Agjijer's demo is a showcase of the band's versatility and knack for setting distinct moods. With the potential on display here, the Tokyo math-rock outfit could very well have the ability to drop an innovative, genre-bending LP in the future. I'm looking forward to seeing what's in store.

7/15/2017

Single Review: Chivo Carnada - "Choxxo/Koyote"

Chivo Carnada - Choxxo/Koyote
(2017 Self-Released)

It takes bold, iconic cover art for a project to stand out in an 8-by-5 column of Bandcamp releases. Among the spacey purples and blues that orbit the streaming platform's 'ambient' section, Chivo Carnada's sophomore single does just that. It's a small flash of earth the color of baked clay, disrupting the gloom of the cosmos: an Unidentified Terrestrial Object. Sketches of South American flora and fauna inhabit the sandy square, which seems to imagine what NASA's Pioneer Plaque might have looked like if it were doodled on by a New Yorker cartoonist. 

Like L Bosco, who I reviewed about a month ago, Chivo Carnada is a solo project based in Guadalajara with little social media presence. C.C.'s nom de plume Google-Translates to Goat Bait, a name well-suited to describing his gritty, organic folk meditations. Swaggering acoustic chords lay out an arid terrain on "Choxxo", the A-side of his new digital 7" record, painting a flat landscape for slide guitarist Pedro Snake to sprout prickly pears and succulents that lazily harmonize in the sand. Imagine a more sluggish, twangier version of early Beach Fossils, or their similarly-christened contemporaries Dirty Beaches. The comparison extends to Carnada's lyrics too: poetic and cozily mundane. From what I can gather, "Choxxo" is about taking a late-night trip to the convenience store and deciding what to wear based on the weather. Is it too cold for shorts? Maybe, but C.C. doesn't mind. 

B-side "Koyote" is a cover of a mid-90s cut by Babasonicos -- an Argentinian psych-rock quintet. C.C.'s version of the song is compositionally faithful to its source material, but more baroque on the timbral end of things. Sinister guitar riffs are tempered by chiming plinks of piano that seem like sonic bystanders: tonal pedestrians just passing through. 

Though primarily a folk release, Choxxo/Koyote is ambient in its approach to instrumentation. C.C.'s arrangements lope towards the horizon, unobstructed by a flat landscape. The record is a short journey into the distant beyond, reveling in its desolate vastness -- ideal listening for long walks or poolside sunbathing.

7/10/2017

Review: Johnny Utah - "Small Dogs"

Johnny Utah - Small Dogs
(2017 Bangkok Blend)

 "Okay, why do little kids always draw the sun with a smiley face?" asks Johnny Utah, halting the folk-pop lilt of "deli platter". "We don't know where it stands, emotionally"

The Philadelphian singer-songwriter's an inquisitive guy with an eye for detail. The five tunes that make up his debut EP, Small Dogs, are carefully and intricately pressed into a Communion-wafer-thin canvas of sound, then inked with wheezes of acoustic guitar that seep sloppily into their host. Like Sentridoh and Julia Brown before him, Utah uses the fragile frame of his lo-fi soundscapes to create punchy contrasts. The aforementioned "deli platter," for example, toys with its levels of volume and saturation. flooding its initially parched heave of acoustic chords with a cool gulp of bass. Properly watered, the song's soil is fertile enough to cultivate steady thwacks of percussion and buzzing, three-part vocal harmonies. Occasionally, Utah presses pause on the cut altogether, interjecting with bits of director's commentary before hurtling back into regularly scheduled programming. Though one might expect a hiccup like that to disrupt the rhythm of a track, these interruptions are timed precisely enough to enhance the groove in progress, like a roller coaster's well-placed bend, yanking its passengers awake. 

The following track, "angst", is another textural feast. As percussive chords throb out a 4-on-the-floor beat, Utah belts out mumbly bars of Alex G-inspired melody like signal flares fired through the canopy of a thick forest -- barely made out, but understood on a fundamental level. Drum fills are fashioned out of an overturned bucket, tickling the inner ear while hearkening back to The Velvet Underground's "Heroin". This is as poppy as Utah's songcraft gets, riding sweeping chords like waves that gradually increase in size. 

"rhino mountain" closes Small Dogs with its most satisfying effort. A spoken word piece dissolves into pluckings of acoustic guitar before coming to a boil. A simple drum machine rhythm bubbles at the surface, dragging Utah's groaned lyrics through murky tape hiss. Twangy riffs tie knots around the arrangements to hold them in place, only to let things unravel into a climactic eruption of noise. Fade to black.

Johnny Utah's debut effort is best when it's at its weirdest. He's an eccentric with a calculated method to his madness, giving each experiment or jarring timbral shift its own purpose that adds to the album as a whole. Already a solid effort in its own right, Small Dogs gives me hope for even more lo-fi whimsy in the future.

7/05/2017

Review: cat in the case. - "SUMMER"

cat in the case. - SUMMER
(2017 Self-Released)

Winter is to Christmas as summer is to shoegaze: the essence of the season refined into a surge of pure, youthful idealism. While Christmas, situated at the year's end, signifies a period of nostalgic reflection for most, shoegaze snaps forward as if the winter holiday season were a stretched-back rubber band. It's a time for taking road trips, baking beneath UV rays, and grilling massive quantities of protein -- a time to expend energy with reckless abandon. The debut EP by Taiwanese quintet cat in the case, appropriately titled SUMMER, portrays the annual rubber band at the peak of its sailing arc: the dregs of July. 

The band's appreciation for dream pop and the dog days is so sincere, it borders on the surreal, taking the form of ice-pop trees sprouting from gradient beaches and carbonated chord progressions that bubble on the ocean's surface, clinging to gummy inner tubes. "Hey Summer," sings cat in the case's uncredited vocalist on the record's title track, as if to gently tap nature on its shoulder. "Your teeth are shining. And guess what I say? I love you." Gritty thrusts of lead guitar are exclamation points at the end of this beach-pop adoration. The tune resembles a Seapony cut mixed and mastered by Slowdive -- a crust of delicate twinkle that hides a trench of reverb beneath. 

Sandwiched in the middle of the 3-track EP is "Bog Down", a dance with dissonance that pairs a rather menacing verse with a yelp-y chorus that climbs up its rope of tremelo-picked melody. Closer "Something New" slows SUMMER's tempo, looking to the mid-00s output of Airiel for its sonic cues. The track's guitars hover like humidity -- echoing vocals drip sweat on their surface. The song is a swirling drill bit, boring a hole into the summer sky. In its place, cat in the case hang their undiluted sense of wonder, throbbing like a red, polygonal sun.

6/30/2017

Single Review: Starship Emo - "(side a)"

Starship Emo - "(side a)"
(2017 Self-Released)

Cincinnati's a humble city, littered with the quirks and charms of any good metropolitan era, yet too insecure about its own draws to tout them. It's where the Reds -- the country's first-ever professional baseball team -- have called home since 1846, rooting themselves so firmly into local culture that Opening Day is considered an unofficial city holiday. It's where "ghost signs" -- advertisements from the 30s and 40s painted onto brick architecture that have faded into spectral obscurity -- haunt urban decay like attractive birthmarks. It's where natives swear by noodles, hot-dog chili, and shredded cheddar cheese, all layered together in the same bowl.  It's where -- for whatever reason -- most folks care more about where you went to high school than what you did afterward. 

Cincinnati, Ohio is an emo city. It's the emo city. It's wrapped up in its own, personal nostalgia, one that seems impenetrable to outsiders -- the sort of history one can take pride in, but can't extol without having to explain why they put chili on noodles or what they find so compelling about a ball club that hasn't won a world series in 27 years. The truth isn't self-evident, and neither is Midwestern emo. It's complex, introspective, and pretty, once you've entered the proper state of mind.

Starship Emo's grimy lo-fi soundscapes peel from brick like withering paint. They're their hometown's distilled spirit, wired through an old Casio and pummeled with 808 kicks. The duo's latest single, "(side a)", is a hip-hop cut as fresh and unassuming as the morning's cool haze of condensation and avian chatter. Keyboard chords stretch out their creaking limbs across the muffled thump of low-pass filtered percussion -- each snare hits with the force of a thrown pillow. This is music to hit snooze to, cool and inviting as laundered bedsheets beneath the AC unit. 

Jacob Miller's distorted vocals top the beat like fondant, likely powdered with a tasteful pinch of autotune. The gloomy blend of mumbled melodies and crackling production borrows cues from both Teen Suicide's "haunt me" and Ski Mask the Slump God's "Gone", trimming each down to its most whispery elements. What remains is a hieroglyphic impression of sound -- not a ghost sign, but a ghost song. "Don't hate me", pleads Miller, more out of habit than in a fit of passion. Those words stretch out across the factory's weathered siding, once splayed in vibrant orange, now wilted. The phrase spans the windshield of your car just long enough to register, marinating in your head. By the end of your commute, they too will fade into the memory of a tune worth replaying -- a landscape snapshot of the city skyline. 

6/24/2017

Review: Jannen Hengentuotteet - "Huonoa Duuria"

Jannen Hengentuotteet - Huonoa Duuria
(2017 Hulina)

A good portion of my current music intake comes in short bursts. When online streaming platforms like Soundcloud and Apple Music are your main resources for finding and consuming music, it's easy to treat individual songs like tiny serving-sized boxes of cereal lined on the grocery store's shelf: you expect them to court your palate with eye-catching cover art and promises of flavors primed to hijack your levels of serotonin and dopamine. While sound can't carry the sugar or artificial sweeteners that a miniature box of Golden Grahams can, it can draw potential listeners in with abbreviated track lengths and repetitive structures. When plucking tunes from their albums and shuffling them into playlists is the norm, there isn't always room for subtlety or patience -- acts all over the creative spectrum like Alex G, Playboi Carti, and Quarterbacks are all excellent examples of artists that create bold, brief and memorable tunes that explore unique textures while keeping things concise. 

I don't think that's a bad thing, though. I like the ability to hop from one idea to another at a moment's notice. Stirring several genres into a single listening session helps keep my ears fresh, and often lets me make unexpected connections and comparisons as a reviewer. Just like convenience food, easy access to music is comfy and readily available, but, in the end, it's still best to incorporate more wholesome options into your diet too, as I've learned over the past week. 

I finally earned my driver's license on Tuesday, and have been taking the opportunity to re-visit some old cassettes with the help of my station wagon's deck, letting full albums play as I drive to work. There's something freeing about spending fifteen minutes isolated in a two-ton exoskeleton with only the company of a good record. It's making me appreciate lengthy pieces of music again: post-rock jams, cohesive concept works, compilations, and just about anything that challenges my attention span. 

Jannen Hengentuotteet's new 38-minute single, Huonoa Duuria ("Bad Major Key" in Finnish), is a release perfect for long drives, and I'm tempted to make my own cassette version of it if the project's label doesn't plan to do so. Pasted together with a fluttering hi-hat rhythm, the tune traverses its dense weaves of guitaristry as effortlessly as cars seem to glide across the interstate while percussive breaks in the road's yellow dividing line punctuate the drive. 

The record makes its Krautrock influences known from the start. Twangy, drawn-out chords are draped over an off-kilter beat before a few staccato riffs knit them in place. The guitar is joined by translucent keyboards, lavished on the arrangement with little restraint. Here, it resembles a chopped and clumsily re-assembled version of Mac Demarco's "Chamber of Reflection", saturated with watery tones. Maybe we're not driving at all, but actually waterskiing on a crest of reverb.

As Huonoa Duuria works its way into a more danceable groove, the keys lend their echoing jackets of residue to the guitars, which begin to sound as jazzy as they do shoegazey. This is, in my opinion, the composition's strongest movement, pulling the key elements of Hengentuottet's sound together while never holding to firmly to form. Though much of the record is likely improvised, Huonoa Duuria never feels like the work of a "jam band". It's a bit closer to the post-rock of Mogwai and Explosions in the Sky, minus the grandiosity. 

That's what makes the record so listenable: despite its lofty ambition, Huonoa remains pleasant, focused, and humble throughout, even as it devolves into a folk-rock dronescape and then eventually into an amorphous blob of dissonant strings. It isn't until the last few minutes of the piece that Hengentuotteet reaches its climax, slowly coating its tense piano rolls with horns, synths, and theremin squeals. Though it takes a full 37 minutes for Huonoa Duuria to blossom into something vast and hard-hitting, it's the process of getting there that makes it worth the price of admission. Next time you're on a road trip, leave this playing on the aux cord -- this is a record best played in the background, lulling you into complacence before gripping you with a dramatic tonal shift. 

6/19/2017

Single Review: Sleepwalk - "Shine // Vertigo Zoom"

Sleepwalk - Shine // Vertigo Zoom
(2017 Emma's House)

Sleepwalk's label may be named after a particularly influential single by The Field Mice, but their new virtual 7" single released by Mexico-based Emma's House Records bears only a slight resemblance to their rodent forebears. Listening to the Chicagoan quartet's latest work is like experiencing "Emma's House" on an IMAX screen, headrest titled back with a greasy bag of popcorn at the ready.

A-side "Shine" opens humbly, pitting a filtered rhythm guitar against a needle-sharp thread of feedback that primes the listener for the amplification to come. The stray screech of fuzz becomes more unstable as it travels, tumbling and vibrating like a firework set to burst before ushering in a fat bassline, stadium-rock percussion, and proto-grunge riffage bendy enough to have been used on Yuck's debut record.

"Shine" is the sort of track -- like Swervedriver's "Duel" or Ride's "Vapor Trail" -- that shares shoegaze's love for spacious, dreamy chord progressions and driving rhythms, but sheds some of its distortion to hatch into a punchier, more hummable sound. Sleepwalk's towering melodies can stand on their own without copious amounts of reverb to prop them up. It isn't until a flange effect throttles the band's guitars two-thirds of the way into "Shine" that the pedalboard's role becomes noticeable, but the textural transition still melts seamlessly into Ryan Davis' repeated plea to "say no" to dwelling on the past. Sleepwalk borrows sonic cues from the nineties, but they return them in better condition than they were left: well-mastered and streamlined to pop structure.

B-side "Vertigo Zoom" is more of a slow climb than its predecessor. An infectious lead riff hopscotches across tom drums and kicks, leaving room for Davis to whisper atop gurgles of bass. It's like a juiced-up version of DIIV's "Oshin": here, Sleepwalk builds up confectionery harmonies, and melts them down around the meat of a whirling chorus. While "Shine" is powered by twinkly aggression, "Vertigo Zoom" runs on psychedelic energy. Together, the two sides nearly span shoegaze's boundaries and then some. Shine // Vertigo Zoom is a record that explores its full potential while still staying tethered to its roots. 

6/13/2017

Review: Playlab - "lastleg"

Playlab - lastleg
(2017 Self-Released)

No matter what search engine is at your disposal, the keyword "Playlab" will fetch a predictably trendy lineup of digital-age concepts. Your query might gather a non-profit program meant to teach youngsters to code, or perhaps it'll lead you to the parodically-sparse homepage of a trendy New York creative firm that has -- among other things -- released a collection of photos cleverly titled Friendzone that captures football players in greyscale embrace. There's also a Bangkok-based mobile app developer with this same name, cranking out cutely-designed, pay-to-play Candy Crush clones. 

These three examples are just the tip of the cybernetic iceberg. "Playlab" is the sort of vague, jargony phrase that sits comfortably among the grandiose lingo of other uniformly sleek tech startups. It's practically begging to be plastered in Helvetica font on a small office in a gentrified cranny of the city, sharing the block with a craft brewery, or maybe a bicycle repair store. 

It's an aesthetic prophesied by Jeff Koons' 2001 exhibition EasyFun Ethereal, (note esp. the quirky portmanteau of a title), lampooned by PC Music, and deconstructed by the Cincinnati drum-and-bass outfit whose name I've spent the last couple paragraphs discussing. Playlab's lastleg LP exists on the raw, gutter-punk outskirts of the 'corporate techno-minimalist' ethos pioneered by Apple and appropriated by countless imitators. The record's synth textures are as squeaky as latex and often rounded at the edges for safety -- the sounds used here are IDM's equivalent to toy pianos and plinks of xylophone. Rattled off at inhuman speeds, these primary-colored tones scramble to form pointillist harmonies diluted only by their squelchy canvas of trashed snared and gabber kicks. 

Much of lastleg plays like an SNES game scored by Aaron Dilloway. At the album's best, Playlab whisks its arrangements with free-jazz rhythms: cuts like "Mouse Love" and "midipet ver0 jam 2" do this best, violently sending stray flecks of instrumentation splattering onto the kitchen countertop with little regard for tidiness. Despite its sugary components, the music seeks to make a ferocious mess of itself, producing peals of grating noise that emerge from their simulated dust cloud. Playlab's arrangements may do battle, but their combat is limited to cartoon violence. Fun is always at the forefront.

lastleg's latter half contains a few attempts at traditional songcraft. Pop single "I Put it All Online" is a dissonant new-wave groove indebted to both Ariel Pink and David Lynch, pairing text-to-speech software with flailing 808s and throaty keyboards that threaten to implode between each iteration of the titular chorus. "Can You Hear Me?" employs a variety of artificial voices to body its constantly-evolving beat, which slyly transitions from happy hardcore to footwork to trap.

This isn't the kind of release meant for listeners to return to for comfort's sake. It's more or less the tree you're not to overlook the forest of Playlab's discography for. Like Guided by Voices, CHXPO or Lil B, the project's overwhelming stream of output is just as big a draw as the content itself. With around 100 tracks dropped over the past 30 days, the best way to enjoy Playlab is to dive in headfirst, sifting through the roughage to uncover nuggets of improvised brilliance. 

6/08/2017

Double Feature: Foliage - "Silence" // Beach Fossils - "Somersault"

Foliage - "Dare"
(2017 Spirit Goth)

If it weren't for their Bandcamp bio, it'd be easy to assume that Foliage frontman Manuel Joseph Walker lived somewhere in London or Manchester, circa 1980. Spiking Another Sunny Day's jangle-pop gloom with the tense punk shuffle of The Clash's "Lost in the Supermarket", the San Bernadino-based solo act's latest single, "Dare" synthesizes the best sounds to emerge from Britain during the decade-long Thatcher-era. Walker has stripped away much of the reverb that saturated his 2015 debut record, Truths, filling in the empty space with distressed kick drums and meatier bass. Backed by melodica and an uncredited vocalist, he feels as indebted to My So Called Life's soundtrack as he does to Wild Nothing -- there's something vaguely folky that possesses the sustained "oooohs" snaking through the new track, adding flesh to the more skeletal compositions of their earlier work.

Beach Fossils - Somersault
(2017 Bayonet)

The discography of Brooklyn's Beach Fossils (who, until recently, I assumed had disbanded) has taken a similar turn for the tidier. Their fourth LP, Somersault, is the band's first release in as many years, representing an exodus from their former cakes of movie-theater buttered beach pop. It's lighter fare, consisting of their usual layered, staccato riffs -- only here, they're lightly salted with hints of smooth jazz and 70s soft rock, intensifying their flavor instead of drowning it. Somersault is a tasteful outing, proving that for better or for worse, Beach Fossils have aged alongside the fans who've closely followed their 8-year adolescence.

"Tangerine" is an early sign of evolution. Featuring a wispy verse sung by Slowdive's Rachel Goswell, the band's guitars take an unexpected backseat to Jack Doyle Smith's loping basslines and the occasional splatter of strings. Where Beach Fossils once resembled the early hardcore hustle of Descendents -- their walls of trebly fuzz shoved along by blast-beats -- they could now be mistaken for the Byrds, glistening with Paisley-patterned psychedelia. "Closer Everywhere" nearly eschews six-stringed instruments altogether, opting instead for harpsichord and melty threads of baroque orchestration. As much as I'm loath to make a comparison to The Beatles, I'd be lying if I said the track doesn't evoke the backmasked intro to "I Am the Walrus", tightly winding screwball harmonies about a barely-there rhythm section. 

"Rise" guides Somersault into totally unfamiliar territory, cloaking a spoken word verse by cloud-rapper Cities Aviv in washes of Rhodes piano and saxophone. Out of context it sounds like a jarring sonic swerve, yet sandwiched between the Real Estate riffage of "May 1st" and "Sugar", a downtempo shoegaze tune, it makes for a seamless transition that's one of the record's most replayable moments. 

Despite a couple tracks that fall short of Beach Fossils' usual standard, like the anemic "Down the Line" (which is redeemed by the verse "I really hate your poetry", delivered with frontman Payseur's uniformly breezy disinterest), the band has returned with a record original enough to shake off their countless Bandcamp imitators while staying true to their effortless pop ethos. The aptly-titled "That's All for Now" caps things off with Somersault's best offering. It's a compositional nod to the trio's self-titled debut, polishing its daydreamed vocals and sun-bleached melodies. A few concluding licks of country-crossover slide guitar hold the door for listeners, as if to promise more surprise experimentation in the future. 

For a band that's been silent for four years, Beach Fossils sound fresher than ever.