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.