Friday, February 25, 2011

Radiohead - The King of Limbs

Radiohead is a band that needs no introduction. That brings us to The King of Limbs.

This is, in effect, the way the newest Radiohead offering was presented to the world. With no bells or whistles, the band announced via their website on February 14 that they would be digitally releasing a new album in just five days. On February 18 (a day before the album was slated to be available for download), the band posted their video for the leading single; then, with nonchalant indifference, they notified the world that they could download the album a day early, “if [they] so wish[ed].” All of a sudden, the newest album by one of the most widely respected and influential bands in the world was just… there. It was simply out. No big show, no months of anticipation while fans religiously followed a studio blog, no album release parties, just… Release. Radiohead fans were understandably excited at the announcement, and just as excited to be granted access to the new album a whole day before they had expected; but I’m willing to bet that most of them didn’t get anything near what they were expecting. And that’s the point.

Sonically, The King of Limbs plays out like a trip through a dense forest - a forest in which dark passages turn sharply into bright, expansive clearings, or descend into empty solemnity; where slivers of ethereal sunlight break through the thick and, at times, cacophonic canopy with providential design. From the moment that the album opens with Bloom, the listener encounters the raw, percussive expressivity that has become so characteristic of the group’s sound. Moving forward, one finds themselves navigating the precision and elemental realities of the terrain in Morning Mr. Magpie and Little by Little before being slightly disarmed at the disorienting inhumanity of Feral. Regaining their bearings, the listener then finds themselves drawn into the lush melodies and harmonies of the landscape, as Yorke’s otherworldly croon in Lotus Flower implores them to listen to their heart. Somber, effulgent rivers rush to a clear lake in Codex, as Thom melancholically urges us to “jump off the edge,” lamenting that “the water’s cold… and innocent.” The soft, acoustic earthiness of Give up the Ghost draws us back into the sunlight, and we end the voyage feeling somewhat unresolved, as Thom repeatedly entreats at the end of Separator to be woken up.

Despite all of the atmosphere, however, and the excellent (yet low-key) musicianship that has come to be expected of Radiohead, The King of Limbs still ends up feeling like an EP rather than a full album. It has a running time of just 37 minutes, indicates no real evolution of the group, and seems to have little holding it together beyond an arboreal theme and the fact that it has all been recorded by a band who knows exactly what they’re doing. Many have noted the similarities in sound to other Radiohead albums, but most seem concerned with identifying one album that it is most akin to. Certainly, the cold, abstraction of Kid A is present on tracks such as Bloom and Feral; the unmastered intimacy of Amnesiac hinted at in Codex. The rhythmic precision of Hail to the Thief asserts itself in Morning Mr. Magpie and Little by Little, and the tentative, orchestral joy of In Rainbows asserts itself during Give Up the Ghost and Separator. Yet while others have seemed insistent on identifying The King of Limbs with just one of the band’s former triumphs, I maintain that it is more of a succinct crystallization of all the elements which have made Radiohead what they are today; a cohesive summation of what the band has been and has become. These are more than just sounds which a band has cycled through – they are facets of the band itself, spreading out like limbs from the organic whole that is Radiohead. And there is novelty to be found on the album, as well. I can’t help but ask myself as I listen to Lotus Flower if it isn’t Radiohead’s interpretation of smooth R&B, while Codex exudes a pathos potentially unmatched by anything in the band’s prior works, comparable to Videotape or How to Disappear Completely.

So what have Radiohead done? The King of Limbs feels, in almost all ways, like an exercise in minimalism, from the way it was released to its composition. It feels like an EP; it is musically simple; it represents no grand step forward in sound or artistic direction… Due to these factors, along with the fact that the final track is entitled Separator, near the end of which Thom sings, “if you think this is over, then you’re wrong,” many have speculated that there is more music to come; another half of the album, perhaps. That this simply cannot be all that Radiohead has to offer after four years. I do not believe there is any more coming. In releasing it the way they did, Radiohead stripped away almost as much pretension as possible about what the album would sound like, what it might be about, and all other manner of posturing. It is simply a collection of songs that showcase a band who has proven to be relentlessly creative and ingenuitive. It is enjoyable, and it has its glorious moments. In fact, if someone asked me what Radiohead sounded like, I would hand them The King of Limbs, because it would be the most direct, explanatory answer. Is it possible that there is more to come? Sure, why not? Radiohead can do whatever they want, and I wouldn’t put it past them to change everything we think we know about an album. But I’m not counting on it. I’m content to sit back and listen to this piece of their soul that Radiohead has given me.

Listen to and watch the video for Lotus Flower, then buy the album here:

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Mesa Verde-The Old Road

The fusion of screamo and post-rock has created some truly depressing albums. City of Caterpillar's self-titled and Circle Takes the Square's violent masterpiece As the Roots Undo come to mind, especially. But none of them quite act as the literal soundscape for hopelessness and despair as Mesa Verde's album The Old Road. And what neither of the aforementioned albums manage to capture which The Old Road does perfectly is the unmistakable beauty that can be found in a proclamation of such sadness.

While post-rock/screamo has become formulaic within the genre over the last decade, Mesa Verde make the combination work to the best possible effect. The opener "A Deep Sleep Without Dreams" is a pure instrumental piece which jumps back and forth from a sort of metallic shoegaze to the fast octave riffing of hardcore. "For the Tree that Fell" then launches into a more typical modern hardcore sound, with chaotic guitars combined with frantic vocals. The album truly launches its sound, however, when the song lurches to a halt and quavering vocals sing a few strained lines over clean, reverb-soaked guitars. It's a stunning moment of self-realization for the band, and unveils the true beauty of The Old Road's sound- a gloomy yet gorgeous blend of chaos and softness that sucks you into its prevailing mood of despair.

Each of the songs on The Old Road have that kind of pivotal moment that makes each of them special, whether it's the reprising guitar line on "When the Canary Dies" or the soaring, triumphant guitar climax of "Return to Victories" which makes its appearance after a long interlude of clean guitars and softly chanted vocals. The real centerpiece of the album, however, is the 13-minute closer, "Post-youth". While it starts fairly typically, constructing a complex structure of fast riffs and violent screams, at exactly the halfway point it completely collapses upon itself and a lone guitar line emerges from the noise, playing a dominating, gloomy melody while the vocalist chants "one day my dreams will meet my fears..". This continues for a time, with various guitar parts being added on top of the existing one, and with the tempo increasing until the song explodes in a moment of catharsis as beautiful as it is tear-jerkingly sad. It's one of the most powerful expressions of human depression of the last decade, and by itself makes the album absolutely essential to hear.

The Old Road is one of the last truly classic albums of a fading genre, a monument to everything that made screamo great and a nod to the sounds that began to influence it later in its life, like shoegaze and post-rock. Above all, The Old Road is a wonderful, concise piece of music that seems to pass much more quickly than its 35-minute running time. If you had any doubts about the quality of modern hardcore, let The Old Road be their burial place, and the gateway into a fantastic, under-appreciated genre.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Parades-Foreign Tapes

Parades are the quintessential "new band" to check out from 2010. Not only do they present a fresh yet coherent sound which helps them stand out from the masses of fledgling bands, they do so in a way that I cannot imagine anyone who enjoys music having a problem with theirs. Parades' debut is instantly lovable, in the very best way.

The elements that make Foreign Tapes so good are not in themselves a highlight. The subtle horns in "Hunters" don't stand out enough to define the song beyond the gorgeous melodies and gentle piano chords. Likewise, reverb-laden guitars in "Marigold" and "Past Lives" don't make one think "Oh, that's kind of post-rock-y", even though the influences from that genre are obvious. The real core of Foreign Tapes is the seamless flow of the album from song to song, from dreamy pop numbers to more ambitious indie rock songs to somber instrumentals.

That's not to say the technical details on Foreign Tapes aren't fantastic. The vocals are a defining factor, a male-female trade-off which is as angelic as it is dynamic. The production is also impeccably good, with the loud drums giving the album a decidedly upbeat feel, even on the slower tracks. The instrumentation is incredibly tactful and layered, leading one to believe that this debut album was born from no small amount of blood, sweat, and tears.

The whole of Foreign Tapes is really much greater than the sum of its parts, though. The album ebbs and flows in a masterful fashion, displaying the restraint and songwriting prowess of a band far beyond its debut album. The mood of Foreign Tapes is perfect, creating a sort of dreamscape that is sometimes melancholy, sometimes uplifting, but never overbearing in either extreme. Parades have absolutely nailed it on their first try, and have established themselves in one fell swoop as one of the giants of the indie genre. A must-listen.

Listen and buy:

Friday, January 28, 2011

Shearwater-The Golden Archipelago

Outside of the metal world, it's difficult to find music that attempts to capture the beauty and mystery that is nature. Especially from a pop perspective, it seems that the closest some artists get is a half-hearted string ballad or cheesy nature sound effects. Jonathan Mieburg from Okkervil River acclaim aims to remedy that with his personal project Shearwater.

Permeating the Golden Archipelago is an atmosphere of mystique, though not in a dark and somber way you'd expect from a concept revolving around nature. Instead, Shearwater gives the listener a sense of wonder with their music, continually altering the ebb and flow of the album from quiet piano-based ballads with subtle instrumentation to driven pop numbers featuring bombastic drumming and odd guitar work. Throughout it all, Mieburg and his band of eclectic instrumentalists keep the transitions from becoming awkward, instead inspiring a sense of anticipation about where the music will turn next.

On paper, this mishmash of sounds may sound awkward and overwrought, but the Golden Archipelago has absolutely perfect pacing. At the end of each song, most of which just over three minutes in length, the quiet instruments have layered just enough and the structure has developed only just barely past the point to where one is left wishing Shearwater would repeat that beautiful arpeggiation just one more time, or that Mieburg would croon his subtle hook once more, but that's always when the song ends and the next adventure begins. This sense of tact and precise direction gives the impression that Shearwater have been at this for a very long time and know exactly what they're doing, a far cry from most indie bands today.

It's really that sense of balance that defines The Golden Archipelago. It's soft without becoming too dull, catchy without becoming trite, simple without forsaking its unique sense of creativity, and immediate without neglecting to add little details that pop out after repeated listens. Aside from all the technical details, Shearwater displays an impeccable skill to imbue their music with an undefined x-factor, a feeling of likability that makes the listener think "this is just really good." The Golden Archipelago is a wonderful, textured, rich, and all too short album, and Shearwater have shown that they're one of the genre's best acts, regardless of whether Pitchfork notices them or not.

Song: Hidden Lakes

This song exudes a Peter Gabriel-esque feeling, and showcases the mysterious, almost haunting nature of the album. The chord progression is gorgeous, and the addition of cello and bells as the song builds is subtle and fitting.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Ocean-Precambrian

Over the last year or so, I've grown to prefer shorter albums over the sprawling, ambitious epics I used to favor.  Even though The Alchemy Index is my favorite work by Thrice, I choose to listen to Artist in the Ambulance or Vheissu more often simply because I don't have time for an hour and a half of elemental brilliance. More examples abound, but I think you get the picture. So when an extremely long album gets more than a few listens a year from me, it has to have made an impression.

Precambrian by the Ocean (formerly known as The Ocean Collective) is two discs long and nearly an hour and a half in length. Yet in the last year I have owned it, the album hasn't bored me once, and it continues to provide me with that thrill of discovering something new in a well-listened piece of music even after repeated listens.

Precambrian's concept alone is enough to enthrall listeners interested in intellectual music. The music is based loosely on the theoretical ages assigned to precambrian Earth by scientists, beginning with the violent Hadean age when a planetoid is theorized to have slammed into the Earth and formed the moon from the resulting rubble cloud. This is captured perfectly well by the music, an odd but extremely natural blend of sludge, post-metal, hardcore, and an indescribable flavor unique to the band. As continents rip apart and volcanic upheavals shake the globe, drop-A guitars and jagged, metallic riffs orchestrate the events. The vocals range from deathy, hardcore-tinged growls to high pitched shrieks to smooth, almost jazzy cleans. And amongst it all, little instrumental highlights pop up in the form of an occasional piano melody or string quartet, such as in the closing track Cryogenian, or the instrumental Statherian.

To say that Precambrian's music is technical would be an understatement. The band operates nearly indefinitely within odd time signatures and somehow makes every single rhythm completely unpredictable. Classical scales are used freely, and song structures are very methodically chaotic. Music of this level of technicality threatens to become immensely difficult to stomach, but Precambrian manages to make their two discs extremely entertaining. Rather than glazing over at the ever-changing sounds, the listener is sucked into the atmosphere of foreboding doom of Rhycasian, lulled into beautiful bell and chime verses, and then jolted awake by one of the most crushingly heavy interludes I have ever heard.

Despite its prehistoric concept, Precambrian's lyrics use them as metaphors for current day issues such as environmentalism and philosophy. Even though lyrics are of secondary importance to me, it's still awe-inspiring how deeply one could delve into the themes and parallelisms of the concepts behind the songs. And this really illustrates Precambrian's appeal quite well: it is an album for people who like to search every corner of their music for details, who love to understand complex themes, both musically and lyrically, and who enjoy endless replay value. Of all the supposed "metal masterpieces" lauded by metalheads everywhere, this is one of the most deserving and underappreciated examples I have heard.

Hadean: The opening track on the first disc, this violent little song shows the more straightforward but still highly technical side of Precambrian. Try to follow the rhythms in that opening riff. Just when you think you have it down, something changes to make it interesting to listen to. The abrasive shrieks of "You must pay your dues!" are a definite highlight.

Ectasian: Representing the more ambitious and progressive second disc, Ectasian is a study in song structure. The enigmatic opening of strings and piano leads into a crushing yet simple B-section that almost descends into banality... until the song erupts into a technical frenzy just past the four-minute mark. The clean vocals and odd time signature of the interlude strongly evoke Tool references, and the main riff is one of the more intense moments on the album. A true masterpiece of songwriting.