Friday, October 15, 2010

Altar Eagle - Mechanical Gardens

Altar Eagle
Mechanical Gardens
(2010, Type)
RIYL = Broadcast, Peaking Lights, A Place To Bury Strangers

It’s amazing, sometimes, to see the breadth of influence a single band can have on everything that follows in its wake. My Bloody Valentine is undoubtedly among the most ubiquitous when it comes to their musical influence. It seems that any record with hazy, distorted, ethereal guitar noises demands an MBV name check, like the band is collecting royalties from its offspring. Still, others probably account for the perpetual MBV referencing as point of critical laziness. Whatever it may be, the band’s influence looms heavy and, as you’ve already guessed I’m sure, Altar Eagle’s Mechanical Gardens has no way of escaping this point of comparison. Fortunately, among the stale imitators, those who choose to wear the MBV tag like a dead carcass, as a marketing bullet point, there are those who use My Bloody Valentine as a jumping-off point, who manage, despite their nearly identical allegiance in terms of aesthetic values, to create a worthwhile space for themselves in a post-MBV world. As it turns out, when it is done correctly, the music My Bloody Valentine pioneered over twenty years ago is still as wonderfully vibrant and blissfully addictive as it’s ever been. On Mechanical Gardens, married duo Brad Rose (of The North Sea) & Eden Hemming-Rose have created an absorbing pool of noise-speckled pop built on drum machines, squabbling electronics and Kevin-Shield-esque guitar worship. Add to that the dreamy vocals of Eden (not to mention those contributed by Brad) and you have the complete package. It may not be the most original music to grace my ears this year, but that doesn’t mean it’s not one of the most enjoyable. A seriously top-notch album.


White Denim - Last Day of Summer

White Denim
Last Day of Summer
(2010, self released)
RIYL = Local Natives, Blitzen Trapper, Dungen

Summer really kind of snuck out the back door this year. All of the sudden it’s frisky cold around here, perfect sweater weather. I don’t even remember the last “official” day of summer. Fortunately, White Denim do remember. Though, this album, Last Day of Summer, which the band upped as a free download on their website, seems to have almost slipped out the back door with the summer season it so wonderfully represents. White Denim have always had a way of slapping a smile across my face, but never have I been so conscious of it as I am on Last Day of Summer. The album represents the band in a much more relaxed, controlled state. The angular rock has been sanded down a bit and injected with a full helping of nostalgia. There is just a classic feel going on here that I can’t shake. Still, as classic and nostalgic a sound as White Denim have pulled off here, it is still patently White Denim: truckloads of energy propelled by seamless melodies and a robust rhythm section. Last Day of Summer is one of those albums that you can play anywhere at any time and be fully satisfied. The album is generous both in its availability and its hooks – it’s a win-win!


Download Last Day of Summer here
Oldie-but-goodie here:

White Denim - "I Start To Run" from Downtown Music on Vimeo.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Stian Westerhus - Pitch Black Star Spangled

Stian Westerhus
Pitch Black Star Spangled
(2010, Rune Grammofon)
RIYL = Peter Kolovos, Derek Bailey, Bill Orcutt

The album title, the cover art, these should be warning signs that this is not going to be your standard solo guitar outing. Don’t look for any John Fahey references here. In fact, forget expectations for anything acoustic all together. The axe-work Westerhus is interested in has little to do with melody, standard guitar tuning or traditional ideas concerning beauty in music. To concede that this is a dark affair is simple enough, but also a bit misleading. Westerhus is, with certainty, sludging waste-high through thick troughs of blackness, yet to pigeonhole Pitch Black Star Spangled, or limit it, as a doom-based work is to miss the deep crevices, tangled caverns and shafts of soul that, contorted as they may be, color Westerhus’ work in a much broader range of hues than is available on the black end of a simple grey scale. Earlier this year, my eyes were opened by the absolutely astonishing solo guitar release, New Bodies, by Peter Kolovos. His album, released late in 2009, was a revelation to me in terms of what can be exercised from six metal strings and an amp. In that same spirit of instrument torture and wide-eyed experimentation, a spirit rooted in Derek Bailey’s groundbreaking guitar work, Stian Westerhus has pushed the boundaries of my imagination further than I expected possible when it comes to the guitar. What makes Pitch Black Star Spangled so amazing (and worthy of its amazing title), even in the wake of such ominous, imaginative guitarists like Bailey and Kolovos, is how versatile he is on this album. The way Westerhus pans from a minimalist, glinting grit to a form of maximalist, free-noise abandon is marvelous. And never tiring. Well, for those accustom to adventurous sounds, that is. I imagine that, in the mind of the general public, Westerhus’ guitar work could be used as form of questionably humane torture for interrogating terrorists. And I also imagine that, among the readership of this blog, that description right there is enough to sell this album. You won’t be disappointed.


Friday, October 1, 2010

Joseph McNulty - Trail Running

Joseph McNulty
Trail Running
(2010, Roll Over Rover)
RIYL = Sean McCann, Johann Johannsson, Aaron Martin

There is a pretty common misconception out there, I think, that ambient or drone-based music operates best in the background, or worse, is meant for the background. Nothing could be further from the truth. It may be counterintuitive, but it remains true that slow-moving, repetitive, often meditative tones require much closer attention from a listener than does pop music, rock n’ roll, hip-hop – just about any other genre. I think that the misunderstanding comes, perhaps – at least partially – from the presence of ambient music found, often quite successfully, in film as a literal background to the visual images taking place on the screen. However, while a film score may be technically understood as something taking place in the background, secondary to the visual stimulus, it actually constitutes a heightened state of listening, one guided meticulously by the images, and whether it is recognized consciously or not, the moment constitutes an acute mental attention to and connection with the music. The opposite is true if one plays music, literally, as a backdrop to another activity. In this space, ambient or drone-based music falls completely flat and can be more irritating than anything else. In fact, the only “activity” that I can think of that would be ideal for drone based music, is the act of going to sleep. Which brings me to Joseph McNulty’s Trail Running cassette, released on Sean McCann’s illustrious Roll Over Rover label. It took me some time to really sink into this release, a cerebral experience, that only really became poignant once I took the time to listen to it on its own terms – without distractions. McNulty’s compositions here are milky-gorgeous, cinematic, glowing and somewhat sleepy. On top of all the elegance, a mixture of electronic and classical tones with little bits of guitar here and there, Trail Running contains small snippets of recordings culled from various sources, most notably a variety of amateur high school sports reporting, but also cuts from famous speeches and other places, each offering a surreal juxtaposition to the serene flow enchanting the air below it. It’s quite a wonderful release, and limited too. Only 100 copies. So head over to Roll Over Rover records and snag one because these tapes never last long. A wonderful wonderful Tape.


Trail Running at Roll Over Rover