We’ll Pick Up The Pieces Next Time

by Angle (2005, Self-Released)

It may have taken me awhile, but I finally got around to reviewing Angle’s deprecatingly titled Silence Is Better Than Nothing late last year.  And I’m sorry it took me so long, as it was quite a nice little gem, taking the same sort of hushed, damaged lo-fi pop approach that has served Hood so well and adding in some lovely electronic elements of its own.  For their followup to Silence…, the trans-Channel duo of Andrew Richards and Sylvain Closier have chosen to look even further inward and release an even more hushed and muted collection of songs.

We’ll Pick Up The Pieces Next Time features a very similar mixture of elements as Silence…, but everything is starker and sparser.  The beats and rhythms that often propelled much of Silence… have grown rather shy and withdrawn, if they’re even there to begin with.  However, their absence doesn’t really damage the duo’s music at all.  If anything, it serves only to draw the listener even further in.

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Bleeding Light

by Aarktica (2005, Darla Records)

A few days ago, I was working on my computer around two in the morning.  Suddenly, I realized that I could hear a faint yet noticeable hum in the background.  I never figured out where it came from, whether it was the power lines outside our house, some electronic equipment in my roommate’s bedroom that hadn’t been turned off, my computer, or something else.  At first, it seemed fairly innocuous and I just ignored it.  However, it continued to undulate and pulse in the background, and rather than become annoying, it slowly became ominous and harrowing.

Next thing I knew, I was half-convinced that some alien craft was hovering just above the trees on our boulevard, lurking and watching me.  Admittedly, I was fairly sleep-deprived by then, but when the sound eventually faded away, I felt a noticeable sense of relief.

Such is the power of drones.

This is something that Jon DeRosa has realized, and has been harnessing and manipulating for years now.  Bleeding Light, his fourth full-length under the Aarktica moniker, continues his exploration.  Ostensibly, the album is about the feelings of alienation and loneliness conjured up by large urban spaces (specifically New York).  And as my aforementioned experience reminded me, drones are perfectly suited for this sort of thing.  They can easily conjure up intense feelings of anxiety and nervousness, their subtly wavering sonics easily playing with your subconscious mind, awakening thoughts and impressions that you’re unsure as to whether they’re real or not.

Now, I suppose a slight disclaimer is in place.  Those expecting a full-on return to the massive, glacial soundscapes of Aarktica’s first album, No Solace In Sleep, might be somewhat disappointed.  And I’ll admit that I sometimes fall into that category.  Since his debut, DeRosa has worked hard to integrate his guitar drones and atmospherics into a more song-oriented structure, with varying degrees of success.  When it succeeds, the results are superb, and when it doesn’t, it really doesn’t.

Bleeding Light is strongest when DeRosa sits back and lets his sounds do what they do best—drawing the listener in, surrounding them, and affecting them.  “Depression Modern” opens the album with the sounds of bells tolling in slow motion, immediately casting the disc in a funereal glow, as low-level static, gasping horns, and DeRosa’s dry vocals drift between the tones.

“Night Fell, Broke Itself” and “A Shadow Knife (Draws The Bleeding Light)” are two of the more successful instrumental tracks on the album, the latter bordering a little too closely on Hood’s territory (think The Cycle Of Days And Seasons rather than Cold House) but easily standing up to the best that Leeds’ finest has had to offer.

However, Aarktica’s Achilles’ Heel continues to be DeRosa’s voice.  Its dry, laconic timbre is much better suited for Pale Horse And Rider, DeRosa’s darkly tongue-in-cheek country-western project.  But it often juts out a bit too much from Aarktic’s music on tracks such as “OJ Gude” and “A Wash A Sea Goodbye It’s Me” (which eschews the drone aesthetic altogether).  When his voice is slightly affected, such as with the ghostly moans and whispers that drift through “Twilight Insects”’ ocean-like depths, the result is much more effective, emphasizing the music’s harrowing aspects.

Although the album is built around the structures of Indian raga music, those distinctive sounds only really become noticeable on the album’s closer, the “epic” title track.  Over the lulling, hypnotic strains of the tambura, tempered only slightly by sparse piano notes and distant percussion, DeRosa intones “Everyone of us is lost in our own way”.  And the fact that his voice sounds as if it’s constantly on the verge of being swallowed up by the tambura’s drones while singing those lyrics serves only to underscore the album’s themes of isolation and lostness.

Before The Dawn Heals Us

by M83 (2005, Gooom)

I’ve made it no secret that my impressions of M83’s previous album, Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts, have been lukewarm at best.  People have fallen all over themselves to sing the album’s praises (Pitchfork, I’m looking in your general direction), piling accolade after accolade onto the band’s towering arrays of guitars and analog synths.  Granted, the disc sounds impressive—at first.  However, after repeated listens, it begins to sound a little too hollow and obvious.  It’s as if the duo does everything within their power to convince people that their music is “big” and “epic”, an attempt that often feels cold, distant, and predictable to me.

Which is why it’s nice to hear the band (now reduced to just Anthony Gonzalez) opt for a warmer, more organic sound on Before The Dawn Heals Us.  The parts that were strongest on Dead Cities… were often those where the duo relaxed a little bit and let the listener peek behind the curtain, so to speak.  When they let down their guard and stopped trying to bombard the listener with wave after metallic wave of sound.

Unfortunately, Before The Dawn Heals Us is flawed in other ways.  While the more organic approach certainly has its advantages, it also means that the album often lacks much of a focus, resulting in a disc that is just as spotty and uneven as its predecessor… just differently.

“Moonchild” and “Don’t Save Us From The Flames” pick up right where Dead Cities… left off, with the same sort of bombast that one finds in tracks like “Unrecorded” and “Run Into Flowers”—albeit in a slightly more refined form.  On “Moonchild”, after a somewhat precious vocal intro courtesy of Kate Moran (“Keep on singing little boy, and raise your arms to the big black sky. Raise your arms the highest you can, so the whole universe will glow.”), castrati vocals and metallic guitars do their best to punch a hole in the stratosphere.  “Don’t Save Us From The Flames” is the album’s most intense track, its rapid-fire drumming and breakneck guitars tearing along like a Swervedriver track with its brakelines cut.

After the opening one-two punch, the album calms down and reveals its strongest suite of tracks.  “In The Cold I’m Standing” is a fairly basic track with oceanic swells of distorted guitar and sad synthlines.  Despite its fairly familiar nature, it has the same sort of enveloping effect as Sigur Rós.

“Farewell/Goodbye” is easily the album’s strongest track, as well as the strongest track yet produced by the band simply because it’s so, well, un-M83ish.  Rather, it sounds more akin to their fellow countrymen in Air. The warm, bubbling analog synthwork, wist-inducing melodies, vocoderized croon, and overly romantic-yet-oh so perfect lyrics (“I’ll write my love on more than a thousand weeping willows”) might be a bit too far on the soft-rock end of the spectrum for some, but I love it.  It’s a nice change of pace, and it’s here that M83’s more organic approach becomes most apparent.

“I Guess I’m Floating” continues this direction, with sparse guitars plucked over soft synth swells and the sounds of children at play.  As the title might imply, it’s a rather mellow track, and one that could easily last well beyond it’s short runtime without becoming too saccharine.  Meanwhile, “Teen Angst” meanders back towards more bombastic territory, with pummelling synth drums rising from up beneath building synths to explode in a short, nova-like burst of dreamy vocals.

Unfortunately, the album’s final third or so begins to sputter, meandering around with several dubious, even groanworthy tracks.  “Safe” begins the slow descent, an extremely mawkish piano ballad that finally disappears into the sounds of kids exclaiming while they watch fireworks explode overhead.  It’s the perfect sentiment for M83, who try so hard to infect their music with a sense of wonder and magic, and yet never quite seem to do so.

Actually, now that I think about it, the track itself might not be so bad except that it’s precedes “Car Chase Terror!”, a track so bad that it manages to drag down much of the surrounding album.  The song doesn’t work on paper—M83 provides the soundtrack while Kate Moran recites Z-grade slasher movie dialog, pretending to be a mother and daughter who console eachother as they drive away from a pursuing murderer—and it sounds even worse when you actually hear it.  And Gonzalez lets loose with his inner shredder on “A Guitar And A Heart”, whipping out some hard rocking guitar riffs that sound like equal parts Van Halen and Daft Punk (think “Digital Love”) and just banging away at the same progression for minutes on end.

The album ends on a somewhat more spectacular note, with “Lower Your Eyelids To Die With The Sun”, which, with its angelic choirs, fairy-like vocal pips, silvery layers, and booming tympanis, actually manages to live up to the pomp and circumstance that it surrounds itself with.

Is Before The Dawn Heals Us a bad album?  No, but it is definitely a flawed one.  I’m still don’t understand the hype and acclaim that surrounds M83, but Before The Dawn Heals Us contains several moments in which I can almost perceive a time when I might.  However, the rest of the album proves that they’ve still got a ways to go.

Life Begins Again

by The Jimmy Chamberlin Complex (2005, Sanctuary Records)

Is it alright for me confess that I was never much of a Smashing Pumpkins fan?  I mean, I knew a couple of their songs, and even borrowed Siamese Dream from a friend in high school (but I never listened to the whole thing).  I realize that Billy Corgan and Co. were the big alternative band of the mid/late ‘90s, the one that gave you instant cred the moment you mentioned you owned Gish, but I think I was too wrapped up in the early stages of my goth phase to really notice.

As a result, I was initially cautious when it came to approaching this album.  For starters, I’d have no historical context in which to place it.  I wouldn’t be able to wax nostalgic about my Pumpkins fixation, and how Chamberlin’s album took me back to the good old days.  Nor would I be able to lament how much he’d faded away since his past gig’s demise, how much this disc represented a last, desperate effort by the man.

And so, God forbid, I guess I just have to take the album on its own terms.  I will admit that I was a little worried that this might well represent the efforts of a man past his prime trying to cash in on some modern rock fad or phase.  And, being the cynic that I am, the statements by Chamberlin concerning “cosmic vibrations” and whatnot also threw up a red flag or two.

Thankfully, Chamberlin doesn’t just try to cash in on popular trends, but rather, seems fully interested in writing real songs that contain actual artistic merit on their own.  The album begins on a stellar note with the Tortoise-y “Streetcrawler”, which coasts along on Chamberlin’s intricate drumming, shifting guitar chords, Billy Mohler’s distant falsetto, and most noticeably Adam Benjamin’s deft Fender Rhodes.  As the song progresses, it eventually morphs into a lumbering jam session, the low-end rising up like a tar pit while the guitar thrashes about in its midst.

Although the album contains a number of noteworthy contributors, such as Catherine Wheel’s Rob Dickinson (who lends his voice on two tracks) and Billy Corgan (who sings on “Loki Cat”), the Complex is at its best when it’s sticks to just the four of them jamming about.

“P.S.A” drifts along on clouds of Mohler’s wispy guitar, as Bejamin’s Rhodes pulses in the background like distant satellites.  “Cranes Of Prey” is a rather schizophrenic song, moving from spacey Rhodes signals to wiry guitars that venture a bit too close to “nu metal” territory before falling back into more lush, laidback sonics.  “Owed To Darryl” is another jam that seems to fall in the same vibe as Tortoise and their ilk, full of undulating basslines, more of Chamberlin’s dextrous drumming, and a wonderful Rhodes solo by Benjamin that squawks and gurgles like an chorus of dial-up modems.

Lyrically, Chamberlin claims the album is about spiritual freedom, specifically freedom through music.  That may be so, but a quick perusal of the lyrics also reveals a certain fascination with the darker side of life, and of trying to reconcile the two.  On the title track, Rob Dickinson sings “With every breath you take life begins again/And every time you whisper death starts to descend”, and on “Loki Cat” (one of the album’s most pensive and enveloping moments), Corgan muses “Who are we to complain when God takes things away/Is it enough to confess some sadness?”

As the album progresses, Chamberlin’s outlook does seem to lighten on tracks such as “Love Is Real” and “Newerwaves”.  “Newerwaves”, with its surging guitars and insistent percussion, is a clarion call, matched by lyrics such as “When despair takes your hand all you do is worry…/Soon a place called yesterday will be gone forever and a new love of today will come and you will fly”.  Admittedly, on paper that seems a bit cheesy, but the Complex’ music lends it the necessary heft.

And finally, the album ends with Bill Medley (of Righteous Brothers fame) singing “Close your eyes/Sleep tight tonight and dream/My dear rest your head/The sun will rise and I’ll be here.”  However, as if to temper such optimism, the album ends with a short reprise of “Loki Cat” which leaves behind a somewhat pensive note.

Life Begins Again isn’t simply yet another album by some washed up has-been desperately trying to cash in on former fame and glory—not by a longshot.  I can’t speak for former Pumpkins fans, or even former Zwan fans, but I found the disc to be a very solid debut from a group that clearly knows their strengths and plays to them consistently from beginning to end.

On Vacation

by The Robot Ate Me (2005, 5 Rue Christine)

The Robot Ate Me’s debut album, They Ate Themselves, was a quirky and dark release that found the band getting compared to everyone from Radiohead to Neutral Milk Hotel, despite not really sounding like either. Their off-kilter sound was inventive and colorful, taking little influences from all over but turning it into something completely different, and at their best they managed to craft some really beautiful indie pop songs.
 
But the album was not without its weak spots.  In fact, there were many. With close to twenty songs, it was a rather lengthy release, and it could have been trimmed down for a much stronger release. The lyrics were rather bizarre and slightly pretentious, with just about every song being about cannibalism or death, and hearing such grim lyrics got a bit irritating after awhile. Lastly, the cold, frail, and detached vocals of singer Ryland Bouchard, and at times he was talking more than singing.
 
Despite its shortcomings, though, the band had an interesting enough sound that I was looking forward to hearing what they had up their sleeves next. Thankfully, the band has managed to overcome most of the weaknesses they showed. On this, their second release, they are crafting much stronger and more daring songs, and have substituted pretension with charm and humor.
 
The first disc opens with “The Genocide Ball,” and it is truly representative of how they have progressed musically while having retained the dark lyrics. A nice little romp of a song, “The Genocide Ball” sounds just like that: with the lo-fi recording of a brass band and the hiss and crackle of a recorder, you get the feeling that you’re attending some glitzy party in the ‘20s or ‘40s. Depending on how you look at it, it’s either wacky and fun or spooky and bizarre.  That kind of World War II swing dance style shows up again on most of the tracks of the first disc. “The Republican Army” sways back and forth with organ, saxophone, and more lo-fi crackles, while a clanging and screeching beat threatens to overtake the song.
 
Whereas their first album was rampant with themes of genocide and cannibalism, this album’s first disc is all about World War II and, well, more genocide. Nowhere is this more prevalent than on “Oh No! Oh My! (1994)”, the album’s weirdest and silliest moment, where Bouchard sings “All the human Africans are statistics, doesn’t matter if they die,” to a cheery and dainty little Vaudevillian melody. The catchy “Crispy Christian Teatime” is just as fun, sounding like a ‘50s commercial with its tooting horns and playful vibraphones. On their first album, lyrics like “And sometimes we play crispy Christian teatime with Barbies, tea, and toast” would just come across as irritating, but here they manage to sound charming, and it shows that the band doesn’t take itself too seriously.
 
The first disc closes out with the album-titled “On Vacation,” which is a slow dirge with far-off organ, weeping strings, and the sound of fighter planes and a rumbling engine. The song itself may drag a bit, but it’s a good example of just how sonically dense the band has managed to make their sound, and the production is masterful.
 
The second disc is the stronger and more conventional of the two. It’s also much more upbeat.  Rather than being full of gloomy songs beamed in from the second world war, it’s sunshiney and immensely catchy.
 
The opener, “On Vacation” (strangely, they use the title twice for two completely different songs), is arguably the best song the band has ever done. Bouchard’s cheerful lyrics about going on a vacation are carried along by fuzzy bass and steady drum beat, building up to a chorus so catchy that it’s impossible not to sing along. The third track, “Apricot Tea,” is also one of the group’s finest moments, and certainly one of their prettiest. Mixing warm keyboards and organ, gentle acoustic guitar, and an effervescent choir, it’s just as sweet as its title implies.
 
If the band earned comparisons to Radiohead and Neutral Milk Hotel on their first outing, they sound more like The Flaming Lips than anything else on their second. “Watermelon Sugar” and “The Tourist”, with their colorful palette of sounds, Bouchard’s Wayne Coyne-ish vocals, and, in the case of the latter, a light-as-air choir, sound like they’re straight out of The Soft Bulletin.  But to cast the band off as mere imitators would hardly do them justice when the songs are so good, and The Robot Ate Me do enough with their sound to make it sounding like a complete ripoff.
 
Although overall the band is writing much stronger and catchier songs, there are times where the release reaches that sort of directionless, arty-for-the-sake-of-being-arty sound. The Mt. Eerie-esque “Jesus And Hitler”, while interesting musically, never really goes anywhere, and its lyrics, which detail Jesus and Hitler making out in the back of the car, are offensive if anything. “You Don’t Fill Me Up the Same” never really gains shape, as any drum beat it begins to develop quickly goes away after a few seconds.
 
One of the most notable changes about the band is the vocals of Ryland Bouchard. He has gained much more confidence, and whereas on the last release his voice got on my nerves once in a while, I wouldn’t mind hearing more of it on this one.
 
What’s slightly puzzling about the release is why it was released on two discs, when each disc, at twenty minutes, is no longer than an EP. Condensing the two and taking out the weaker tracks might have made a stronger release overall, but considering the fact the two discs are so musically different, separating them is the most logical choice.
 
On Vacation shows the band progressing much more musically, writing stronger and catchier songs and keeping all the good parts of their last release while getting rid of most of the bad ones. Whether or not it’s worth your $18 (most of the money, I’m guessing, goes towards the elaborate and lovely packaging) is up to you, and I would suggest downloading two or three songs off their website to get a feel of their sound. For my money, though, this collection of inventive and brilliant avant pop songs is well worth it, and I only wish it was longer.

Written by Richie DeMaria.