Review: Whale Fall (The Madrean, 2014)

whalefall-smokeWhale Fall’s first post-rock/instrumental rock release, the eponymous Whale Fall (2011), was thoughtful, even-paced. The trumpet, deftly wielded by J-Matt Greenberg, provided an accent, not a primary voice. The album was lovely, listenable, ranging from semi-ambient to orchestral.

From the moment the horns kick in on “The Dawn Thief,” with their mariachi harmonies and mournful vibrato, it’s clear that The Madrean is different. In a good way. The horns on this album (in addition to Greenberg, guest artist Joseph Santa Maria on sax) narrate the hero’s voice in a series of acoustic movies, by turns terrified, yearning, determined, destroyed, triumphant.

Sure, you can listen to this beautiful album in the background. But The Madrean comprises sweeping adventures that reward close listening. The Madrean region, from which the album takes its name, is an area of similar vegetation that covers parts of the American southwest and of northwestern Mexico. Legends of both the old and new West are wrapped into the music.

Each piece on this album traverses a small story; each builds, faces challenge, and survives or falls against a changing and unrelenting landscape. Nods to musical predecessors are in evidence, conscious or unconscious: the ghost of “Norwegian Wood” in the intro to the intense “Tahquitz,” a ribbon of Pink Floyd winding throughout, echoes here and there of Emerson, Lake and Palmer and other prog-rock grandfathers. The Madrean sits comfortably alongside modern post-rock fellows such as The Red Sparowes. But the unique tales presented here, and the structuring of individual tracks, set Whale Fall apart. Tracks move from slender to dense and back to spare; dynamics and pace change; there is shape, progress, intention.

There are many highlights on this album, among them the interplay of cello and horns on “I Shall Sail No More (No More Shall I Sail),” which drops down at ~5:25 to a sprinkling of ethereal bells and an ominous percussive shuffle. Resonant percussion and elegant guitar and keyboard motifs provide a constant sense of flowing movement to “On River, On Route;” heavenly horn harmonies splash in at the 3-minute mark to enrapture. On “El Pistolero,” a hoofbeat provides the backdrop while the music swells, releases, swells to thunder again, then drops to an extended coda with soulful strings. The explosion of horns at 2:45 in “Overpass LA” blows the mind and wakens the heart.

whalefall-band

The Madrean is exquisitely conceived and executed. Regulars Ali Vazin and Dave Pomeranz finesse plotlines on guitar; Greenberg and Santa Maria break hearts on horn, while Greenberg on keyboards runs the gamut from retro synth to nuanced piano lines. Erik Tokle provides a vibrant undercurrent of bass, critical not only to motion but to the build on tracks like “El Pistolero,” and guest artist Artyom Manukyan shines on heart-rending cello arrangements. Percussionist Aaron Farinelli is far from a one-trick pony, his skill supplying every form of transport from horseback to waterway to automobile to (did we imagine it?) railroad. These strong musicians balance each other well, with no weak links. With their sophomore effort, Whale Fall have proven themselves a major player in the post-rock field. We look forward to the new trails they will blaze.

Unappreciated Scholars Review Grade: A

The Madrean is available on iTunes and Bandcamp; portions can be streamed on their website or on SoundCloud. Follow Whale Fall on Twitter at https://twitter.com/WhaleFall. Visit the official website at http://whalefall.com/.

Review: Tourniquet – Onward to Freedom

Ted Kirkpatrick, Tourniquet drummer and songwriter has here fashioned a concept album of sorts but with a twist. Being a passionate animal rights activist, Ted has constructed a record based purely around the abuses animals face on a daily basis. This ranges from animal testing on chemical products to dog fighting. But what Ted has also done is made this a truly collaborative record and has brought in some heavy hitters to beef up the songs.

When putting together an album of this type,  the one thing that always scares me as the listener is that it’s going to be a bit too heavy handed, bordering on cheesy. To be honest, that does happen in places, but for the most part, it’s a kick arse , old school metal record.

The choice of singers proves to be an inspired move. There’s something here for everyone, regardless of your feeling towards metal vocal styles. Michael Sweet’s (Stryper) performance on the chorus of first track proper “Onward To Freedom” is fantastic, not least during the fist in the air chorus. I only had to listen to that song once before knowing the chorus off by heart. Conversely, Mattie Montgomery (From Today) gives “The Slave Ring” a thoroughly modern feel, and his voice perfectly suits the subject matter of the song. The line “master I serve you as my body is destroyed” really hit me, and it’s all in the delivery.

It was a surprise to hear Ed Asner providing a spoken word piece on “The Noble Case for Mercy”, but it breaks up the album nicely. “If I Had To Do The Killing” is another standout here, with a killer drum intro (hey, we’ve got to stick together).

It’s just a shame that towards the end of the album it starts to become slightly unglued. Two of the five tracks are instrumental interludes for a start, and then we get to “Stereotaxic Atrocities” which features Tourniquet’s own Luke Easter on vocal duties and Marty Friedman on guitar. Not only that, but was previously released on the band’s album “Psycho Surgery). Bizarrely, not only does Easter’s delivery detracts from the song, the song itself stands out a mile, and not in a good way. It didn’t feel right in this collection and it was only when researching this review that I now understand why. “Drowning in Air” tries it’s hardest to steer the ship but it’s good work is undone by “Cage 23″ which sounds like it belongs on a completely different album to this. It’s a basic four chord rock song with some seriously clunky lyrics. Gabbie Rae and Ashley Argota do their best, but the lyrics read like a grade school kid writing about a trip to a dog pound.

So “Onward to Freedom” is four fifths of a great album, which is a lot more than can be said for a lot of bands. If you’re into metal old or new, there’s something here for everyone, which reminded me of the Roadrunner anniversary album that came out a few years back. To give Ted Kirkpatrick his due, it’s a refreshing change to hear metal songs with an actual theme rather than a bunch of macho posturing.

– Hevy Kevy

Unappreciated Scholars Review Grade: B

“Onward to Freedom” by Tourniquet was released on 11th November 2014. To stream/buy the record, click here.

Review: Bike for Three! (So Much Forever, 2014)

BFT_FINALLPCOVERIf their first album made fire with the smoldering “Lazarus Phenomenon,” So Much Forever explores the elements of air and earth. Joëlle Phuong Minh Lê’s music is sweeping and lofty, multi-textured and soaring; Richard Terfry’s lyrics traverse space and distance. Music and words reach skyward, but Terfry’s flow is anchored, steady, heavy, keeping the music grounded, just within reach of the listener’s heart. Lê’s production is for the most part thoughtful and remarkably clean, allowing the dozens of instrumental and vocal layers to find their own space and yet to speak harmoniously.

The story of Bike for Three! is already the stuff of legend: she’s in Belgium, he’s in Canada. Terfry already had a following as indie rap artist Buck 65; Lê was making a name for herself with electronic work as Greetings from Tuskan. They’ve never met. And together they make music that is intricate, profound, never revealed immediately but expanding and unfolding on repeat listens.

If the music is rich, its messages are also finely concentrated. The initial throb of “Successful with Heavy Losses” conveys the entire concept of the song’s title in that single hook. It goes on, of course, building a multilayered tapestry in Lê’s classic fashion. The repeated vocal — “Suffice to say / there is a heavy price to pay” — comes across as extraneous, but Terfry successfully employs his voice as a textured percussion in the piece as well.

“Sublimation,” possibly the album’s loveliest track, is sticky-sexy with dubstep buzz and Lê’s French vocals, but a steady piano hook pulls the song through an inside-out musical transformation that feels a bit like being sucked through an SF-movie warp drive, and Terfry’s lyrics here are immense, life-central, validating: “I’m exactly like a phenomenon, and so are you.”

The jarring “Wolf Sister” gets in your face; low-fi and dubstep elements combine with the most conventional rap flow Terfry creates on this album. The mix here favors the vocal track, and Lê’s production choices initially feel less well conceived than on other pieces. These factors ultimately weaken the song, but the repeated phrase “Don’t let go,” along with Lê’s clear vocals, redeem the track.

The journeys here are complex, interrupted, extensive. The music on “Stay Close Until We Reach the End” has an almost cinematic feel — a spy movie, for sure, with tight cuts following a motorcycle down narrow cobbled alleys. Meanwhile Terfry lays down a sharply rhythmic flow that’s chopped off menacingly at the close of the track. “The Dream” mixes sexual breathing with the dream itself, “a boy and a girl destroying the world: you and me,” as it segues first into a private party, then a journey through planetary skies. Listening to a single song we travel through continents of change, experience a novel’s worth of adventure.

“This is the end again. This is where we change our faces,” “Conflation” warns, in arguably the album’s most brutal and poetic turn. “We’re so close and further apart than ever. We’re blind owls in elevator shafts…The truth is ugly, and simplicity is overrated.” There’s no attempt to mask painful reality here. “We love the way we hate ourselves. We love from a safe distance,” Terfry sings —he could be singing about himself, about the human race, about the creative partnership that is Bike For Three!: “My love will level this city.”

Unappreciated Scholars Review Grade: A

So Much Forever is available on iTunes and Circle Into Square; some tracks are available via Bandcamp and Soundcloud. Follow Bike for Three! on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bikeforthree.

Metal Review Round Up: Carnation, Mass Punishment, Mortal Factor, Nameless One

Circle pit = round up. Geddit?

 

Carnation: “Cemetery of the Insane”

Belgian death metallers Carntation’s debut EP ticks all the DM boxes, but isn’t anything that lingers long in the memory. Musically, the band are as good as can be expected for a debut release, and are sure to build on what’s on show here, but with songs like “Exploding Cadavers”, gorey lyrics in metal in 2015 just seems incredibly passe.

Unappreciated Scholars Review Grade: C

Mass Punishment: “Proving Grounds, Volume I”

This full length release from Mass Punishment features lyrical content that from any other band would sound cheesy as hell, but given the fact that founding member Chris Spartan has first hand experienced the horrors of combat, it comes across as the real deal. New York based hardcore/thrash is the order of the day here, and in vocalist Erick Laurino, the band have a voice that perfectly projects the abrasive nature of the songs on show. First song proper “300 Miles to Baghdad” kicks things off in assured style, and the record is a solid beatdown, but the album’s centrepiece “Ground Pounder” shows that they’re more than capable of being a one trick beatdown machine. Released on July 4th last year, this one is definitely worth your time if you’re of the hardcore persuasion.

Unappreciated Scholars Review Grade: B+

Mortal Factor: “No Lessons Need Learning”.

Swiss three piece Mortal Factor wear their influences on their sleeves with pride with this full length record released on 31st of October last year. From the thrash/groove riffs of 90’s titans like Pantera to the Max Cavalera style vocals this is the sound of a band who are comfortable in their sound and abilities, even if originality is somewhat sacrificed. It’s an enjoyable time passer of an album, but unfortunately not one that bears repeat visits to the well.

Unappreciated Scholars Review Grade: C

Nameless One: “Thousand Memories and Nameless Sword”

Given the fact that two of my favourite records of the last year have come from the Far East, I was psyched when I saw this band’s bio. I wasn’t disappointed, thankfully. Nameless One specialise in driving, melodic power metal. This band only knows two speeds; fast, and not quite as fast. The technical aspects of the playing is through the roof from all members. The only minor crib I have is the vocals. Japanese is such a fantastic language and the cadence of it suits metal so well, as fans of Maximum the Hormone can attest. Some vocals in their native tongue would have suited the songs well, as bands such as Rammstein have shown that if the music is strong enough the language barrier will be torn down. A fun little EP that promises great things going forward.

Unappreciated Scholars Review Grade: B+

Quick Hits 12.15.14: Year End Lists

The question of whether to have separate best-of lists for major label releases and independent releases was recently explored on Twitter (by @TwilightFauna – give him a follow). I have pretty strong feelings about this and 140 characters just isn’t enough, so here you go.

There is a great disservice in separating major label releases from independent releases in best-of lists. The reasoning behind this is that it gives inherent bias to one side or the other – some people will immediately discredit the independent list just because it’s independent, and likewise for the major label list.

The point of my personal lists is to give readers a guideline on some albums that are great and warrant some attention. In my eyes, separating the lists tells independent acts that they cannot hang with the big guys. That’s absolutely not true. You’ll see in my future Best of 2014 post that I have a lot of independently released music sitting alongside some major label releases. My top album of the year is likely to be an independent release, but not because it’s independent – because it’s a freaking great album.

I don’t agree with the notion of separate lists, but what’s your take? Join in the conversation on Twitter (@UnScholars) or send me some email (theshrevest@unappreciatedscholars.com).

Review: Goya/Wounded Giant – Split Release EP.

A split release can be a tricky proposition. Sometimes the bands on show can compliment each other, and while it’s no doubt a semi-collaborative effort, there’s surely an element  of competition between the bands. What usually happens though is one band shines and the other is left wanting. Unfortunately this is the case here, and Goya are the runners up.

Goya’s contribution is “No Place in the Sky”, which is a brave choice. Clocking in at 14 minutes, it’s an ambitious length of a song for any band, but there isn’t near enough going on here to justify the songs duration. Built around a hulking Sabbath inspired riff, it’s plods along at a snails pace and is somewhat of a letdown. It’s a slow burner that moves far to slowly to maintain much interest. There’s a decent solo part in the final third, but aside from that it’s an uninspiring effort.

Wounded Giant on the other hand offer two tracks, that show all the sides of their game. “The Room of the Torch” has a classic metal sound to kick it off before settling into it’s mid tempo groove, but the song speeds up near the middle which is the kick in the ass this record needed. “Dystheist” starts off with a huge breakdown section that features some tight double kick work and a scream along chorus of “All hail nothing, all hail no one” which I really enjoyed.

So of the two bands on display, I’d have a tendency to see whatever Wounded Giant have to offer. No offense to Goya, but if this song is what they chose that they felt might best represent them, it was a bit of a misfire.

– Hevy Kevy

Unappreciated Scholars Review Grade: C

For more information on this split EP, see here.

Review: Edge of Haze – Illumine

Finnish melodic metallers Edge of Haze dropped this record last August, and while it’s an enjoyable listen it suffers from some of the same issues that I had with the Skyharbor record I reviewed recently.

The major upside to this record is that these guys are incredibly young and have created songs that belie their age. To get the downsides out of the way, this kind of metal can feel somewhat cold and disconnected especially in song length and lyrical content. A lot of the tracks sit in the mid tempo range and can fall into “meandering” territory. And lastly, they band are a bit too over reliant on the Disturbed style double kick/guitar stacatto which can be a tad repetitive.

But enough on the shortcomings, lets talk about what the band do well. Vocally, there’s a real dark 80’s vibe here in both the vocal effects that are used and the choice of the vocal melodies employed. This coupled with the tight playing and electronic elements, not to mention the polished production, gives the record a huge feel to it, and it’s plausible to imagine these songs being played at a massive outdoor festival.  The use of growled vocals is infrequent enough to have real effect when it is used, rather than outstay it’s welcome. Of the songs, “Unlearn” was probably my pick of the litter as it’s a faster track that stand out a mile from the rest of the slower songs on display.

Edge of Haze have the youth and the talent to create something monstrous down the road. As a foundation block, this is a good start, but they needs to be less reliant on the nu-metal trappings on show here and find their own unique voice. They’re half way there as it is, which makes the a band to watch for the future.

– Hevy Kevy

Unappreciated Scholars Review Grade: C+

“Illumine” by Edge of Haze can be purchased, and select tracks streamed, here.

Editor’s Note: I felt differently about this release than Kevin; however, I do have a slight bias. I’d have given it a B+/A-, and I hope to have a counter-review soon.

Review: Thunderworks – Thoughts and Thunder

I kinda feel bad about what’s coming. This is a record that is the product of one man, Michael J Amari, who has spent time recording this record over a five year period, and I respect the hell out of him for this. But when I receive something to review, I’m going to be honest. It’s never personal, it’s always about the music.  Here goes.

Michael’s brand of thrash/death metal is unfortunately nothing special. He’s certainly a talented musician that could have many years success ahead of him, but it’s a case where he needs to build a band around him. While it’s admirable to go your own way, it comes across big time on this record that Michael is a guitar player first and foremost. The guitar parts are great, but the bass parts are rudimentary and the drum programming is a mess. The drum parts on show here don’t always fit the music on top of it, and there are some strange choices for fills, and a basic of drumming is to hit a kick drum with a cymbal (I’m sorry. I’m a drummer). Vocally, Michael has brought in a guest for the album in the shape of Brandon Leigh who does a decent job, but like the rest of the record, it’s nothing that hasn’t been done before.

If this were a demo, these qualities could be somewhat overlooked, but if you’re charging $10 American, all your ducks should be in a row from the start. All credit to Michael for the effort that’s gone into this, but while he states in his bio that he couldn’t “find suitable band members to help him record”, it could be the very thing that he needs to help improve his next release.

– Hevy Kevy

Unappreciated Scholars Review Grade: D

“Thoughts and Thunder” by Thunderworks is out now. For information on the band and how to purchase, click here.

Review: Will the Thrill – Sorry to Disappoint Ya

No joke, when I saw the name of the artist and album I thought, “mustn’t have gotten any new metal this week, so it’s a bit of rap to change things up”. This is mainly because of a classic “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” scene where Will bestows himself with this nickname, and he and Carlton dance to Sugarhill Gang’s “Apache (Jump On It).

But I digress. Will the Thrill is the quest of one man to bring back the fun element of metal which dominated the 80’s before grunge kicked it right in the spandex covered arse. What Will presents is a bunch of songs that would fit in well in that decade, but in 2014 it all sounds a bit passe.

There’s a few reasons for this. Firstly, Steel Panther have the market cornered in 80’s throwback hair metal. I don’t know where this record falls in the spectrum of serious vs comedy. The aforementioned Steel Panther are a parody, but bands like The Darkness and Airbourne did the throwback thing with tongue firmly in cheek.  Will the Thrill  presents itself rather seriously in terms of the music and the press release attached. A bit too serious for this genre.

In said press release, Will name drops a ton of influences, but they’re all infinitely better bands. Trouble is, while the musicianship is solid, the vocals are seriously lacking for the style that Will is going for. Hair metal needs a massive voice to really sell it, but it’s just not here.

The lack of originality is the final nail in the coffin of this release. I’m all for tipping your hat to your influences, but lifting stuff wholesale does nobody any favours. Talented musicians and solid production here is wasted on a style of music that’s been dead for twenty five years.

– Hevy Kevy

Unappreciated Scholars Review Grade: D

“Sorry to Disappoint Ya” by Will the Thrill can be purchased here.

Haujobb Announce New Album, Crowdfunding Campaign

German electronic music veterans Haujobb announced last week that they are releasing a new album, titled Blendwerk, in Spring 2015. Details are minimal at this time, but Haujobb are always reliable for an interesting listen. Blendwerk sounds like a perfect album title for the ever evolving act.

Additionally, Haujobb will be a part of the “Alliance of Sound” tour which also features Skinny Puppy, Youth Code, and Front Line Assembly (who are replacing the previously announced VNV Nation). Haujobb have encountered an issue with travel and are providing preorders of Blendwerk and a live album to fund alternate travel to North America for the mega tour. The campaign has already been successfully funded, but every bit helps for traveling musicians. Check out the campaign here.