Sunday, June 20, 2010
Bands like System of a Down and Green Day have always had trouble balancing protest, satire, and seriousness, often becoming a mockery of themselves in the process. And one can hardly blame them, as it's supremely difficult to create art that delivers a serious message while retaining a measure of tongue-in-cheek to assure the listener that its creators aren't taking themselves TOO seriously. United Nations, led by Thursday vocalist Geoff Rickly, accomplishes that nebulous goal better than any other protest band I have heard.
The sound of United Nations has been referred to jokingly by the band as "emo power violence pop punk". And if by that the band means that they're also protesting genres, they do so with a vengeance. Multiple guitars pound out huge chord progressions and Rickly dictates call and response vocals with vicious screaming, presumably from Converge vocalist Ben Koller, although the band has kept its line-up secret, only appearing in public in a set of Ronald Reagan masks. This roaring cornucopia of sounds is best culminated in "The Shape of Punk That Never Came", which opens with a chaotic mess of those iconic guitars, furious drums, and the twin vocalists screaming/yelling lyrics that reflect and parody The Refused. The song's powerful and somehow majestic climax bleeds off into a pleasantly melodic outro, with Geoff Rickly using his Thursday voice to croon the song to a finish. It's a wonderfully ugly, exhileratingly beautiful example of everything the band is great at, from their sense of self-assurance, their overstated element of tongue-in-cheek, and the feeling that although they're not taking themselves seriously, they're deadly serious about the subject matter, in this case the downfall of music.
More than anything, United Nations' 25-minute album is just downright entertaining. It's more head-bangable in its catchiest moments even than a similarly accessible post-hardcore band like Underoath, and because of its short run time, it's literally screaming to be listened to over and over again. Most importantly, United Nations have balanced parody and protest in a fun, listenable, and relatively mainstream fashion, while at the same time being brash, edgy, and highly influenced. The only downside is that this punk supergroup seems unlikely to make any more material in the future; if that's true, then this will remain one of the most furiously addicting one-off projects of all time.
Listen: The Shape of Punk That Never Came
Monday, June 14, 2010
On Soundtrack To a Vacant Life, Benn Jordan used his voice on three of its last.fm-destroying 31 tracks. And when he did sing, it was soft, timid, and insecure, perfectly capturing the heartache and nostalgia captured by that album. On Arboreal, Jordan's voice is present on five or six tracks, and on a few it comes triumphantly to the forefront to rob the guitar and piano of their melodic leadership and bring the song to a focal point.
I say this because, like on Soundtrack, Benn Jordan's voice is once again a function for the album as a whole: loud, abrupt, and sometimes abrasive, but never less than fantastic. Arboreal opens with the enchanting "Undiscovered Colors", but leaps into a full five tracks of loud, melodic electronica that doesn't let up until "Dread, Etched in Snow", a signature Flashbulb piano track. And from there, The Flashbulb continues with the same uncanny consistency and emotional power featured on Jordan's previous work, albeit with a darker, more drawn-out edge.
If nothing else, Arboreal is a summary of Benn Jordan's entire back catalogue. The idm influences return proudly to the forefront on much of the album, and spacey ambient passages from Pale Blue Dot make their appearances. On "Dreaming Renewal", Benn Jordan joins Bon Iver in proving that autotune can become an artistic instrument rather than a crutch. On the aptly titled "The Great Pumpkin Tapes", a jazzy guitar track meets gentle piano and wouldn't sound out of place in the cartoon for which it is named. And on the landmark "Skeletons", clocking in at over six minutes, Jordan focuses all the creative energy scattered haphazardly over 31 tracks of his previous album into one piece, with a vocal build-up, the loudest moment on the album, and a tear-jerking piano outro.
The bipolar artist behind The Flashbulb is the same one on Arboreal that most of us met in Soundtrack To A Vacant Life. The emotional punch is still there, striking the listener with jaw-dropping melodies at every turn and making unexpected musical detours through multiple sounds. But Arboreal is a maturation of that same sound, a natural development and a culmination of influences into what feels like one giant setpiece. It may not be as landmark, but it certainly is no less fantastic.
Hear It: Dragging Afloat
Monday, June 7, 2010
Ever since I sort of grew out of Death Cab for Cutie, indie has been a difficult genre for me. To me, it's often difficult to hear what the "indie" tag adds to genres such as indie pop and indie rock, other than a snobbish sense of self-importance. Indie bands that live up to the hype proliferated by their coffee-drinking fanbases are few and far between.
Enter The Antlers. Essentially a one man project, the story behind "Hospice" bears a certain resemblance to Bon Iver's "For Emma Forever Ago", in which Peter Silberman coops himself up in his New York apartment for a year to write it. "Hospice" in itself is a different story altogether, one of the painful loss of a loved one to bone cancer as the narrator watches and cares for her.
So while the story behind "Hospice", and the story related by it, are enough to grab an indie skeptic's attention, it's the immediate aura of wintery loneliness, strange optimism, and aching heartbreak that defines this gem of an album. The ambient "Prologue" bleeds into the simmering "Kettering" where we are met by Silberman's soulful croon, perhaps the most intriguing part of The Antlers' music. Muted pianos and delicate electronics combine with his heartfelt verses to do exactly what an album with this kind of harrowing story should do-They pull the listener into the mood of the album and never let go.
"Hospice" also has the kind of consistency that separates average albums from genre landmarks like "Transatlanticism" and "For Emma". The strange bounciness of "Bear" works perfectly next to the despair of "Atrophy". "Two" features a simple lyrical device that makes it astoundingly catchy as it meanders through several clever paradigm shifts musically. And the breathtaking "Wake" utilizes Silberman's voice to its fullest effect, with a full choir of dubbed-over harmonies overtaking the music to create a satisfying climax to his heartfelt tale.
The Antlers have created a near-perfect work of art with "Hospice", and yet somehow it's completely devoid of the kind of grandeur that seems to occupy contemporaries such as The Decemberists and Manchester Orchestra. And that 's what sets it apart. The honesty and bare-faced simplicity of the music makes it all the more affecting. And what an affecting musical adventure it is.
Essentially the opening track, this gives you a good idea of what to expect from the rest of the album. Silberman's voice is present in all it's crooning beauty, and the music reluctantly climaxes after the halfway point to fully realize the trademark mood of the rest of the album.
Also, you can stream the entire album for free here (quick, easy, free, and totally worth it sign-up required).