(2017 5 GATE TEMPLE)

Sealed with the canine ouroboros pictured above, YOUNG DRUID's debut compact disc offers arcane techno cloaked in an ascetic aesthetic: the British producer and frequent Dean Blunt accomplice stocks his eponymous LP with a dozen tunes topped with synthesized brass and digital gnosticism. It's a snug fit for the listener's ears in comparison to the cryptic network of .zip files released under DRUID's other aliases (John T. Gast, Tribe of Colin, etc.), marked by their coarse, lo-fi vacancy. Here, layers of silicone sediment are compressed into compact hallways of sound, imitating the sort of vaguely archaic jams that soundtracked the CD-ROM titles I'd thumb through and occasionally purchase on childhood trips to Target. These games, like Civilization IV and Age of Empires, each sought to invoke an air of ancient mysticism without nodding to any specific culture or time period. Their hyperreal settings were implied by earth-toned landscapes, brooding color schemes, and software-generated "world music" that channeled Enya as much as it did the smooth-jazz synth pop of Yellowjackets. 

YOUNG DRUID's catalog of musical anthropology seems to have been recorded in one or both of these virtual worlds. "UV" in particular reveals the sense of incongruity that makes the record so interesting, splattering muzak saxophone against a militant wall of marching drums and pan flutes. It's the sort of background music that might spill into a shopping mall's vomitorium, adorned with Doric columns and heroic wall reliefs. "Blue" utilizes a more futurist arrangement of instrumentation to conjure its primordial mood, groaning drones sweating down vegetative bass as the steady rhythm of robotic congas suggests nearing danger. It is unclear whether these sounds seep from the landscape itself or are being piped in by a documentarian's team of editors. 

Spinning this CD simulates the sensation of being clicked on. Of being the pawn in a PC user's turn-based RPG. Of travelling to multiple time periods at once. Young Druid is your laser-etched DeLorean. 


Review: Slowly Please - "Chalk Farm"

Slowly Please - Chalk Farm
(2017 Self-Released)

It's hard to be as dedicated to sedation as Nicolas Derbaudrenghien. From his glacially sized and paced post-rock arrangements to the yawning gusts of feedback that occupy them, each instrumental inhabitant of the Belgian shoegazer's output dutifully submits to the will of his solo project's name -"Slowly Please". His debut album, Chalk Farm, is a radical exercise in patience, kneading sluggish guitar riffs into their surrounding dronescapes for absurd lengths of time that somehow pass as quickly as pop tunes. With earbuds wedged into your canals, the record is a time-machine that only travels forward, transporting its passenger a solid hour into the future before they even realize they've left. 

Intro track "Tattoo" slowly burns as if mounted on a rotisserie, its drums muffled like a gloved hand's punch. A film of sustained keyboard first forms on the tune's surface, followed by the sort of gradual guitar bloom employed by older Scottish acts like The Twilight Sad, Mogwai, or even Cocteau Twins. Derbaudrenghien's vocals make a couple clutch cameo appearances across these initial 12 minutes of stagnant sludge, coming up for air long enough for the listener to take a breath and dive back into the distorted depths.

"Keep Straight on this Road" pulls more fuzz into its orbit, lassoing shrill peals of static with a galloping bass lick. Slowly Please resembles a version of Slowdive less constrained by traditional song-structures here, causing hefty chords to collide like tectonic plates. Thanks to the massive temporal space they have to work with, the ideas within this album have room to grow mountainous and dangerously saddled with kinetic energy.

Though not the best offering on the record, Chalk Farm's titular song stands at an impressive half-hour, heaving its earthen guitar slides into a quarry eroded by spaced-out snare hits. Field-recorded textures burrow their way into the piece, creating the atmosphere of an artificially-lit office filled with cubicles and fake ferns - it is woozy; trance-inducing even. It's the narcotic trance of the last hour of a work shift, creeping its way into nothing.


Review: Count to Altek - "Sestina"

Count to Altek - Sestina
(2017 Self-Released)

Something's brewing. 

In the percolator with your ritual Folgers. In the creek bed, stirring up the caked moss. In the knotted shadows of the forest thicket. Bird calls cut through the cracked window like phone notifications in your pocket. As you butter the sacramental toast in remembrance of warm winter sleeps beneath layered blankets, you let the coffee cool a bit for the first time in months. Spring rises from the divoted lawn as a mist, and the forest creatures that live just beyond its borders know this. Somewhere in the woods, The last cool drafts of the year groan through matted branches, bleak and damp as the scurrying of small mammals forms a vast polyrhythm against the foliage. Nature spits out its spoken-word poetry in swiveling stanzas. These riffs rotate like phrases tacked on the ends of a sestina's formulaic construction: each repetition is a re-contextualization. No two reverb-laden tones are exactly alike in nature's liturgy.

Recorded deep in the woodlands of Northeastern Ohio, Count to Altek's latest EP effort is a notable departure from the project's back catalog of avant-black-metal. Though still quite spooky, Sestina trades monastic drones for introspective jazz riffs that recall the early work of A Grave with No Name. Opening tune "Adeline" drapes its limp piano chords atop the half-hearted clatter of a splash cymbal: an offering culled from the band's scarce crop of enthusiasm. It wriggles lifelessly like the arm you've accidentally slept on, attempting to gingerly shake out its pinpricks. Keening glossolalia bubbles at the surface of this stagnant puddle of sound, never getting the chance to come up for air. 

Though barely held together by any sort of beat or repetition, "Adeline" is able to envelop the listener in its bold nothingness. It is as incidental as a scattering of fallen leaves or knotty tree-roots. The music spreads itself to where it needs to be.

Sandwiched in the middle of Sestina, "Ripples of Gemstone" flirts with structure, leaning its glistening keyboard improv against a simple 4/4 beat. There's a surface sense of magical whimsy evident here - the sort of sun-refracted warble that accompanied Mr. Rodgers' imaginary trolley excursions to the Land of Make-Believe. Booming pulses of kick drum frighten Count to Altek's arrangements into being: this is the voice of springtime genesis.

Sestina's final track, "Animal Statue", is climatically creepy, borrowing its minimal-jazz cues from Bohren and der Club of Gore. The interplay between instruments is at its most dissonant and clustered here, emitting a sinister residual ambience that crawls across the surface of the listener's skin like a slug. The track's drums gradually grow louder as they begin to devolve into an arrhythmic jumble of snare hits. The piano fades to black. Night falls on the forest. 

Though untamed and free-form, Count to Altek's new record isn't too challenging or imposing to listen to casually. In fact, it seems more suited to passivity than it does deconstruction. Sestina is the ideal soundtrack to the creative process: an amorphous rush of mystic inspiration, injected straight into the brain.


Review: Valerie Kao - "Home"

Valerie Kao - Home
(2017 Self-Released)

My friend John's recent re-discovery of Beach Fossils and a particularly Spector-ian haul at the Northside Record Fair have left me nostalgic for the opaque fuzz-punk of early 2010s acts like Crocodiles, Dum Dum Girls, and Blank Dogs. Like most successful artistic communities, the turn of the 21st century's garage-rock rock revival sprouted forth from an accessible, easy-to-replicate sound: reverb-soaked power chords, primitive lead guitar melodies and ghostly vocals cloaked in instrumental residue. Projects were distinguished by subtle aesthetic differences rather than their songcraft. For fledgling indie bands in the era dominated by Burger Records and Captured Tracks, cover artwork fonts and small tweaks to the settings of effects pedals asserted their significance over lyrical content. Think Bandcamp's vaporwave scene or the glut of melodic trap-rap flooding your Soundcloud feed. Simplicity and homogeneity breed mass participation.

That's why it's so refreshing to see California's Valerie Kao emulating the scene's sound post-buzz. Her debut LP, Home, which chronologically documents her progress learning to play guitar, culls the Polaroid-filtered drone of Vivian Girls and injects it with more contemporary production techniques. Thunderous bass riffs charge their way through thick layers of haze like icebreaker ships, leaving jagged trails to be filled with the trickle of echoing vocals. Kao's cluttered pairings of woolen textures produce a surprisingly wide array of sounds, from the traditionally surfy "Home" and "Coming Clean" to the more hypnagogic thrusts of "Rusted" and "Patience". The tunes that fall under the latter category are Home's strongest offerings. "2102" shot-puts its hefty shoegaze chords with an intentional limp, stumbling over its own snares while "Rusted" turns dissonant corkscrews around kick drums with the same sinister energy that powered My Bloody Valentine's Isn't Anything.

Though, at times, Home is rough around the edges - sprinkled with odd mixes and claustrophobic guitar arrangements - Valerie Kao's new offering hurdles its obstacles with sheer ambition. Always striving to outdo itself, the record is not just a testament to learning a new skill. It is a push to challenge one's self creatively: to always move forward while looking to tried-and-true aesthetics for inspiration.


Movie Review: "Your Name"

Your Name
(2016 Toho, Funimation)

(Written simultaneously in a Google Doc file with Mackenzie Manley

JN: Reveling in rustic charm, Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name is an earnest work of magical realism that’s tempting to compare to Studio Ghibli’s subtler works like Whisper of the Heart. On the surface, such a comparison seems inevitable. From its marriage of bygone myth and modern development to the twee roundness of each character’s facial features, the 2016 anime film is dripping in Miyazaki-isms.

Perhaps, though, it’s the aesthetic similarities to past Ghibli works that conversely set Your Name furthest apart from the studio that produced Spirited Away, which last year dropped to second place behind Shinkai’s new film in the list of all-time highest grossing anime features. While Ghibli controversially made the leap to cel-shaded 3D animation on their first foray into television, Ronja the Robber’s Daughter, in 2014, Your Name feels like a re-affirmation of 2D tradition despite the fact that it was animated by the younger Comix Wave Films.

At its thematic heart, Your Name’s beats snugly between youthful ambition and tradition. Spanning adolescence and adulthood; countryside and city; mysticism and secularism; it’s a coming-of-age film for the post-industrial world as much as it is for the teenage duo it stars.

MM: The appeal of movies that encapsulate the world of teenagers exists in their ability to mold wonderment to cynicism and swirling hormones to existential drama. Your Name perfectly captures adolescence blended to art that is both magical and, at times, hyper-realistic.  

It’s a film of loss and gain--an exploration of a feeling that’s arguably a cornerstone of the human experience: the nagging feeling that something is missing from oneself, just out of reach of discovery.

Taki is a teen boy who attends high school in Tokyo. Mitsuha is a teen girl who lives and attends school in a quaint town in the mountains, layered in tradition and mysticism. Arguably the center focus of the film, she becomes a representation of the intersection between traditionalism and modernism.

They switch bodies two or three times a week at random, without any real explanation as to why it’s happening. It just is. To keep track of one another they keep notes in their counterpart’s phone, their lives bleeding together into one.

“Who are you?” The duo asks over and over. Despite the premise of body-switching not being anything new, the film doesn’t lack ingenuity. Shinkai uses this worn concept and wields it to expose juxtapositioning parts.

JN: As Your Name’s narrative progresses, it becomes evident that a sense of where one belongs is integral to finding out who they are.

Though the schools that Taki and Mitsuha attend serve as the central hub of their respective stories, the two develop their collective sense of self as they venture outside the classroom.
Many high-school anime use secondary education as a microcosm for the world from which their characters rarely escape. The “do-nothing” after-school club has become a trope, solidified by popular series like K-On, Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai, and Inou Battle - though these shows may lead their casts on brief excursions to fast-food chains, amusement parks, etc., there is always a persistent gravitational pull back to lockers and wooden desks. Much of the anime churned out today stems from a Stockholm syndrome-like relationship with education: it is perpetually trapped in 9th grade and marked by cozy slackerism.

Though to a certain degree, these elements are present in Your Name, (particularly the coziness), the film is marked by its sense of scope. Taki and Mitsuha experience much of their personal growth while out exploring the world. As the pair navigate their symbiosis, the former works as a waiter, building the confidence he needs to speak to the co-worker he has a crush on. The latter gains a newfound respect for the archaic traditions and rituals of her hometown.

It isn’t long before each character’s journey leads them to remote, beautifully animated locations, and ultimately to a spiritual understanding of their counterpart.

MM: I feel like I’m always searching for something, someone.” They say, faces upturned.

The duo’s thought is one that reverberates throughout civilization, no matter where or when or who you are. It’s this search, stroked in hazy idealism and melancholy, that is exemplified with poignancy. It’s honest and self-aware without feeling cliched or trying too hard. We wake and go to sleep with the characters; we watch as they scramble within themselves and each other.

Despite never meeting one another, they become centers of support for each other. As the film goes on, the characters don’t seem so desperate. They pick up parts of one another and in this action, develop as a unit

Perhaps the greatest strength in this film, and the reason it has gained acclaim, is not only its undeniable beauty, but its ability to mold something outlandish and apply it to reality.

The scenes are splayed out with precise details--and just like the subjects of the film--the art is a crossroad between two realms. Each scene is built upon the other, characters walking down busy city streets or pedaling up steep hillsides. It is intricately wound, small details woven into the fabric.

In their searching, we begin to believe in them--two jostled and confused teenagers exploring what it means to be a person, and what it means to love and live.


Review: Foxtails - III

Foxtails - III
(2017 Emocat)

A warm downpour slicks the interstate. Beads of condensation trickle down the windshield as bus tires slice through reflective pools, making each attempt at braking a little too slippery for comfort. Stray precipitation wriggles through the always-cracked window across the aisle, buffeting your forearm as your grip the seat in front of you more tightly. Confined to this vessel, you ride at the mercy of the driver and the rainfall. Something about the rumble of the floor underfoot, radiant with the bus' warmth, lets you relax and steep in the helplessness.

Foxtails' untitled third LP is entrenched in this feeling of counterfeit safety. Stitching their verses together with Slint-esque riffs, the Connecticut skramz trio thread a patchwork of wiry math-rock melodies and sludge-laden crescendoes. Each optimistic twinkle is contrasted by an ominous growl - each sung dream-pop lyric tows a screeched chorus to match. 

Dealing a confused shuffle of woozy introspection and unfiltered catharsis, Foxtails struggle to choose between their inner inclinations toward The Innocence Mission and Flowers Taped To Pens. "The Chicken From Outer Space" marries the two sounds seamlessly: its opening salvo of tangly jazz phrasings stumble over drum fills, falling headfirst into a placid shoegaze stew. A minute-and-a-half into the tune, though, the band lets of go of their safety restraints. Michael Larocca's percussion crumbles to a faint shuffle as Jon Benham's guitar coats itself in the remaining crumbs. Megan Cadena-Fernandez intensifies her vocal delivery, morphing her slight intonation into a piercing scream. III is packed with these biting hooks: brief emotional outbursts meant to expunge self-doubt.

Closing cut "Every Window in Alcatraz Has a View of San Francisco" closes the record with its most polished composition. Building up speed as it progresses, the track gathers in its orbit strands of clouded guitaristry that twist and bend like stretched gum. Cadena-Fernandez and Benham trade screams over antsy bleats of distortion that slowly pressurize until the album's finale, a vomited explosion of abstract emotion - pure, vitriolic ambience. 

III is a fast-track to emotional release: a boom-and-bust cycle of energy that's as potentially nauseating as it is thrilling. Make sure you're primed for mountainous drops, sharp turns, and stomach-churning loops before boarding.