File Under ?’s Best of 2012: Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Alleluia! Don’t Bend! Ascend!

Constellation Records

 

Alleluia! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s first studio recording in a decade, is a powerful wallop of gale force proportions. It seemed only appropriate, then, that we kept it in frequent rotation during our recent weathering of “Frankenstorm” Sandy. Doubtless, some reached for musical “comfort food” of a different sort.

 

A couple of the tracks on Alleluia! Don’t Bend! Ascend! are familiar to fans as mainstays of the band’s live shows; the rest of the material is new. The old tag for the type of music that GY!BE make is “post-rock.” The old saw about the shape of pieces written in this genre: “They start out quiet and get progressively louder – one long crescendo.” While there are a number of pieces in their catalog that could be described as having rough contours that resemble this description, it was reductive a decade ago and is even more inapt today.  Godspeed still prefers long form pieces, but there are plenty of details that depart from the script of “inexorability” and instead provide contrasts and detours. In short, they are as musically engaging as ever. But why are they back now?

 

With an affinity for leftist political positions, GY!BE seems to have returned to the field at a curious, yet opportune time. Departing in the midst of Bush the younger’s “reign” and absenting themselves during Obama’s tepid first term, one might guess that the band refrained from recording and, until 2011, touring, as a gesture akin to throwing up one’s hands at the absurdity of it all. Again, that’s a reductive oversimplification; the group’s members have been busy with various other projects and one needn’t make a one to one correlation between their music and political activism.

 

That said, their return this fall, at the height of election season, is a reminder that many constituencies are not being well represented, either in Godspeed’s home country Canada or in the US, by the current political parties in power. While certainly no fans of conservatism, one imagines that this time out the band might be venting their spleen at those too divided or timid to push for real change. The yawps of fury and fortissimo bursts of sonic sheets evident on Alleluia! could be reckoned as a musical call to action for those disaffected on the left.

 

Never ones to make overtures in explicit terms in their lyrics, there is still something cathartic about hearing Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s abstract yet crystal clear musical essays in the wake of storms, the continued neglect of climate change’s impact, persistent wars, debt negotiations, and big money’s unfettered ascendance in the political arena. By demonstrating musical integrity in the face of a changing industry landscape, GY!BE reminds those who dared last time around to set their sights on “hope” that hope without hard work, follow through, and even a measure of stubbornness won’t get them closer to achieving their goals. Is it any wonder why Alleluia’s grim-faced stoicism and musical intensity seems particularly apt in late 2012, even after the specter of a Romney presidency has been banished? Welcome back.

 

 

Alexander Tucker: Third Mouth (CD Review)

Alexander Tucker

Third Mouth

Thrill Jockey

Alexander Tucker’s career began rustically and experimentally, with reference points ranging everywhere from folk inspired alternate tunings for acoustic guitar to doom metal drones. For a while during the aughts, it seemed as if his output was inexorably drifting further and further away from the immediacy of conventional song format in favor of more extended and out there meditations. Over the past couple years, as evidenced in his 2011 release Dorwytch (Thrill Jockey), Tucker has been seeking a rapprochement between aspects of popular song and the psych-drone cum prog-folk aesthetic he’s cultivated.  He takes this approach on Third Mouth, his latest recording for Thrill Jockey, as well.

A particular way in has been an expansion of his use of vocal harmonies, including overdubbed vocals and the participation of vocalists Frances Morgan and Daniel O’Sullivan (the latter also plays a variety of instruments on the recording). And there are even two cuts that clock in at three minutes with memorable choruses. No one will mistake them for straightforward pop; the layered arrangements still hold true to Tucker’s penchant for sumptuous timbral complications. That said, there’s a beauty in the simplicity of their melodic construction, which proves to be a unifying thread and straightforward thrust in the midst of various textural peregrinations, however lovely sounding these may be.

Those devotees of Tucker’s earlier work who may be fearful that this modification of his approach inherently means an adieu to freeform experimentation needn’t worry. Third Mouth also contains several longish compositions, and “Amon Hen,” an aphoristic piece of Waits/Partch inspired experimentation, too. “Glass Axe” has a pastoral cast while “Rh” indulges a more psych-drone ambience. And while both of these can also be said to be led by the vocals, in the former taking on the presence of a bona fide hook while in the latter being framed as an almost chant like refrain, the instrumental touches – glorious chords in alternate tunings, spacey reverberation, long held drones, and flashes of dissonance nicking each piece with slight distressing around the edges – remind one of the totality of Tucker’s sonic journey.

Battles sans Braxton (CD Review)

Battles
Gloss Drop
Warp Records

After appearing on their previous LP, Mirrored, Tyondai Braxton has left Battles to pursue solo projects (including several indie classical commissions). And while Braxton’s contributions were a significant component of Mirrored, the band does just fine without him on Gloss Drop.

They’ve retained their signature mathy rhythms and frenetically whimsical jump cut forms. In addition, Battles aren’t shy about delving into two styles whose heyday was in the 1970s: prog and fusion. But both of these (in my opinion, unjustly) maligned signatures are given a post-millennial reboot by the band; infused with aspects of glitch and house electronica.

What’s more, Gloss Drop includes several stirring guest vocal contributions. Matias Aguayo adds a vibrant presence to the up tempo, kaleidoscopically scored, and Latin pop tinged single “Ice Cream.” In a break from her regular gig with Blonde Redhead, Kazu Makino’s powerful pipes are pressed into service on the mid-tempo syncopated techno pop cut “Sweetie and Shag.” Yamantaka Eye (from the Boredoms) is heard amidst fervid ostinatos of pitched percussion and neo-prog guitar solos in layers of reverberant, incantatory singing.

On Gloss Drop, Battles have made a diversely attired yet adeptly constructed album that’s as fascinating as it is singular.

Grails: “Deep Politics,” Heavy on the Strings (Review)

Grails
Deep Politics
Temporary Residence Ltd.

A common (mis)perception in pop music is that the inclusion of a string section inherently softens the edges of a band’s sound. On their past couple of LPs, Portland instrumental rock group Grails has confounded this notion, keeping propulsive rhythms in the mix of their already eclectic palette while deftly incorporating copious amounts of strings. One of the bands founding members was a violinist, so the presence of solo strings in Grails’ music is not new to longtime listeners, but composer-performer Tim Harris’ layers his stringed-instrument performances on Deep Politics in such a way as to give the impression that a larger cohort is playing. And through the magic of mixing, the strings are able to hold their own against percussion, vociferous guitar outbursts, and copious analog synth textures (including some lovely vintage Mellotron parts).

In addition to unabashedly reveling in these walls of sound, the band also channels European film music, particularly the work of Ennio Morricone, providing a new and unexpected twist. It’s not every day one hears heavily thrumming riffs such as those on “Future Primitive” and “All the Colors of the Dark” pitted on the same album against the exotic lyricism and tasty keyboard work found on “Daughters of Bilitis” or the post-psych rock jamming of “Almost Grew my Hair” (quite a knowing reference!).

In lesser hands, such disparate strands might seem too extravagantly far flung to cohere. But under the potently creative attentions of Grails, this eclecticism creates a marvelously well-rounded and imaginative sound world and spurs some of their most interesting work to date.

PVT crafts secular synth rock magic

PVT’s new LP Church with No Magic has just been released on Warp. Haven’t heard the whole record as yet, but I’m digging its first single, “The Quick Mile.” The song combines glitchy percussion with layers of swirling synths and soaring anthemic vocals; a winning concoction.

You can stream or download it via their Soundcloud; player embedded below.

PVT – The Quick Mile by Sneakattackmedia

Beacons of Ancestorship

Tortoise

Beacons of Ancestorship

Thrill Jockey Download Thrill 210

 

Circa twenty years since its founding, Tortoise releases its sixth full length recording, Beacons of Ancestorship. The band’s first LP of new material since 2004′s It’s All Around You, Beacons also follows The Brave and the Bold, an eclectic collaboration with William Oldham on a multifaceted selection of pop covers, and 2006′s lovingly curated career-spanning boxed set A Lazarus Taxon. The members of the band have also been busy touring together and separately inhabiting a plethora of side projects and other musical outfits. Thus, while the five-year wait is understandable, one’s glad to see this project come to fruition. Beacons of Ancestorship is a rare beast for a mature effort. Strongly identifiable as Tortoise’s, it shows the group mindful of its legacy while simultaneously pushing at their musical boundaries.

In and of itself, this is remarkable; Tortoise’s polystylistic approach to music-making has, from its inception, encompassed a wide variety of amalgams and juxtapositions. But from the album-opener, we are reminded that the postmodern, post-rock, jazz-meets-minimalism catchalls that the press has long employed to try and pin down the band have always fallen woefully short of fully descriptive. After an undulating drum ‘n bass duet intro, with a killer riff introduced in the bottom octave, “High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In” unfolds section after section as fragmentary episodes; a mélange of IDM club signatures, minimalist reiterations, polymetric rhythmic assemblages, and liberal doses of motoric, edgy synth loops, proggy string pads, and rock guitar riffs alike. The one constant amidst the kaleidoscopic changes: the evolving beat structure is still visceral enough to keep your head bobbing throughout. The coda wears its Reich on its sleeve, with phase-like shifts modulating insistent arpeggios into an incandescent shimmer.

“Gigantes” also weaves its way through an impressive assortment of polystylistic material; similarly, rhythmic underpinning allows for a host of distantly related sections to coalesce. Less successful in this regard is “Yinxianghechengqi,” where the use of juxtaposition blunts some of the more powerful buildups of the piece. Still, its thunderous walls of sound demonstrate an affinity for avant exploration that can take the group on thrilling musical excursions. “deChelly” is a all-too-brief example of delicate soundscaping.

The impressively fluid and virtuosic “Prepare Your Coffin” and “Penumbra” are somewhat reminiscent of the outstanding fusion of jazz and progressive rock found on David Sancious’s albums in the Seventies. Riffs played in guitar and bass, doubled in octaves, ornately metered yet constantly propulsive drumming, intriguing chord progressions and extended keyboard voicings, and soaring guitar solos placed up top. Both fusion and prog have been much-maligned over the years – post-rock’s continuation of their confluence has been as well – and the zesty yet airy arrangements of “Coffin” and “Penumbra” suggest that the detractors of these genres have, at best, painted with too broad a brush.

“Northern Something” is one of the cuts that pushes against the aforementioned boundaries of Tortoise’s language. Edgy, reiterated riffs and a militaristic drum refrain create a bellicose (perhaps current events-inspired?) ambience. “Monument Six One Thousand”   adds Middle Eastern-inflected rhythms into the equation, pitting their undulating flexibility against brash quarter notes articulated as piquant rhythm guitar downstrokes. “Minors,” stands in stark contrast to these two. A carefully shaped, elegantly rendered piece, its funky rhythmic underpinning sidles up to lyrically deployed solos, affecting harmonies, and the album’s most winning melodies.

An excellent installment, well worth the wait, Beacons of Ancestorship is easily the best material Tortoise has released since 1998′s TNT.

Newberry_090422_0375.jpg

Mark Nelson's latest CD

pan american.jpg

Pan American

White Bird Release

Kranky CD 128

 

A dozen years in, Mark Nelson’s Pan American project is still with the same label (Kranky) and still creating fascinating ambient soundscapes. But one shouldn’t mistake continuity for stagnation!

Indeed, there’s a combination of novelty and comfortable familiarity to be heard on the LP. Joined by bassists Jim Meyering and William Lowman and percussionist Steven Hess, Nelson pursues a more collaborative sound scheme than on some of his more soloistic recent recordings.  Hess’s co-authorship of two of the cuts, as well as his tasteful vibraphone playing and drumming, lends an organic quality to “For Aiming at the Stars” and “Dr. Robert Goddard in a Letter to H.G. Wells, 1932.”

At the same time, there are echoes of Labradford, Nelson’s other outfit, to be found amidst the reverberant soundscapes here. “There Can Be No Thought of Finishing” and “Literally and Figuratively” feature deliciously sepulchral (and ever so well-recorded) bass drones; akin to bass-lines found on some of Labradford’s most winning work (E Luxo So, Fixed: :Content). Indeed, Meyering’s strummed chords provide a beautiful counterpart to Nelson’s treble-register harmonic pads.

“Is a Problem to Occupy Generations” demonstrates a capacity to be simultaneously ambient and experimental; its questing melodies are awash in reverb, arching towards an endpoint never quite to be reached. Conversely, the folk-like pentatonic phrases that inhabit “There is Always the Thrill of Just Beginning” seem to give the lie to much ambient-inspired “World” music, by eschewing its easily palatable background designs in favor of a more enigmatic – and far more interesting – hypnotic blurring.

Pan American remains a hardy, worthwhile endeavor; White Bird Release features some of Nelson’s most beautiful music to date.

Mono + Orchestra

Mono

Hymn to the Immortal Wind

Temporary Residence CD TRR 148

 

To celebrate their tenth anniversary, Japanese post-rock collective Mono recorded their first collaboration with symphony orchestra: Hymn to the Immortal Wind. Given the band’s penchant for evincing classical signatures, this addition of acoustic instruments seems a natural step in their musical development.

What’s more, the band does a fine job of incorporating the orchestra without de-fanging their music’s rock-imbued heft. Thus, “Ashes in the Snow,” the album’s opener, builds from a gentle introduction, which sets up a repeated harmonic progression on which the whole dozen-minute piece will be based, to a thrilling wall of soaring guitars and strings with propulsive bass drums underneath. While limiting such a large canvass to a four measure chaconne could easily get tiresome, the constantly shifting instrumentation and frequent dynamic gradations keep “Ashes” a fascinating, slowly evolving tableau.

“Burial at Sea” spotlights an affecting neo-baroque classical nylon-string guitar-bass duo which gives away to a sweeping full-band prog-rock anthem. “Follow the Map” combines piano, acoustic guitars, and the occasional bluesy slide against chamber strings in a fetching extended passage; this is followed by a climactic orchestral tutti. Both compositions go much further than many prog/orch collaborations to effectively use the orchestra’s strengths with a keen awareness of balance and timbre.

“Silent Fight, Sleeping Dawn” features a beautifully mournful tune in the lower strings, set against delicate minor-key piano arpeggiations; the piece is somewhat reminiscent of Michael Nyman or Gavin Bryars in its minimalist aesthetic. “Pure as Snow” is similarly conceived, juxtaposing lush high strings against percussion in a portentous funeral march. Once again, the band organizes things around a phrase-long harmonic ground; and while the presentation is haunting, one occasionally wishes for more rhythmic variety. This concern is somewhat ameliorated on “The Battle to Heaven,” which incorporates drum kit more prominently.

“Everlasting Light” closes the recording with a stirring celestial vision; sustained guitar melodies are haloed by violins; then buoyed to a thrilling finale by a wall of glorious E-major. Hymn to the Immortal Wind is resoundingly successful.

Mono