ALBUM REVIEW: CHRISTOFFER FRANZEN – WIDE AWAKE

Christoffer Franzen Lights Motion Wide Awake
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I’ve always thought the act of sleeping to be somewhat of a strange occurrence.  While essential to one’s health and wellbeing it still strikes an awkward chord in me, especially in the company of new acquaintances.  Having toured and spent numerous nights positioning myself on a stranger’s floor, I’ve never quite become comfortable with the bizarre concept of turning one’s self off for a few hours.  I think I’ve sort of just accepted the process as strange and have never really taken the time to think about why.  We all do it.  Most of us wish we could do more of it.

And then there are people who don’t sleep.  I’ve really only been acquainted with one insomniac in my life and I can’t even begin to comprehend the amount of frustration they must experience.  As weird as I find sleeping to be, I’m very grateful that it comes easy for me.  However, with two young kids, I’ve had more than my fair share of sleepless nights.  I love my girls to death but these nights have been an incredible challenge for my sanity and never once have I felt the creative itch at the tired hours of 3 AM.  However, Christoffer Franzen (most notably of Lights & Motion) has been able to channel his sleepless nights in the most remarkable way.

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Franzen is no newcomer to the art of writing incredibly moving music.  His initial endeavor, Lights & Motion, quickly spread across the globe and captured the attention of Deep Elm Records.  Situated within the genre of cinematic post-rock, Franzen’s music is perfectly suited for TV and film.  He has great writing discipline that allows the music to breathe and grow but not become too drawn out and tired.  Self-taught on every instrument, Franzen orchestrates his music by himself locked away in a small Swedish studio during the early hours of a sleepless night.

Having garnered remarkable success in getting his music placed on major Hollywood film trailers (Concussion, Transcendence, Lone Survivor, to name a few), high profile ad campaigns and Super Bowl commercials, Franzen is a proven musician and, more importantly, a brilliant composer.  With three Lights & Motion albums under his belt, he is set to release his third composer release titled Wide Awake on March 18th, 2016.  Following in the footsteps of Music For Film & Television, Volumes 1 and 2Wide Awake is a twelve song exploration in brevity and mastery.  Unlike Franzen’s work with Lights & Motion, his composer releases are made up of short, straight to the point, orchestrations specifically built for licensing.  And while these pieces may leave the listener yearning for a few more minutes of musical bliss, they still work wonderfully as a whole.

Franzen took a different approach to writing Wide Awake as compared to Music For Film & Television, Volumes 1 and 2.  As the album title hints, he wrote these songs during the day.  This change in writing approach created a beautiful musical result that still remained true to his writing ability but revealed a more inspiring, uplifting side to his talent.  I have a deep appreciation for writer’s who allow their surroundings to drive their work and find Christoffer Franzen’s willingness to use his insomnia to musically articulate himself both rewarding and inspiring.

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While Wide Awake was written during the day, it still maintains a dreamy vibe that positions itself nicely next to Franzen’s previous work.  Understanding his background as a composer and his battle with insomnia, immediately moves me to look at each piece on Wide Awake as a short dream.  I’m not an avid dreamer, but when I do dream I find them to be short and fluid, moving in and out of semi-connected storylines.  The brief nature of all of Franzen’s compositions work wonderfully as a soundtrack to a dreamscape that moves from one idea to the next, sometimes working together and other times playing with sporadicity.  I’d like to think that while each of us are sleeping, Christoffer Franzen is hard at work writing the perfect soundtrack to our dreams.

C.J. Blessum

 

This review is about Franzen’s cinematic work. Click here for a review of Franzen’s other project, Lights & Motion.

ALBUM REVIEW: COMPASS & KNIFE – THE SETTING OF THE OLD SUN

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Like any other genre, post-rock encompasses a vast array of spin offs and variations.  From the math centric to the ambient, the challenge for those of us with a need to categorize falls in the realm of discovering the correct word to depict both what we hear and how it makes us feel.  I’ve never necessarily been a fan of sticking genres labels to bands since the process seems to be fairly relative from person to person.  One listener’s post-rock is another person’s indie.  However, without descriptors an album review renders itself pointless.  Fortunately for me, Seattle’s Compass & Knife is incredibly proficient at getting right to the point.

Compass & Knife’s newest release, The Setting of the Old Sun, is skillfully written, masterfully performed, and down right good.  The quartet of polished musicians take little time to introduce themselves musically and for those looking for a straight forward, what you hear is what you get record, The Setting of the Old Sun is perfect.  From short ambient intros and bridges to uptempo, in your face choruses, the guys of Compass & Knife deliver a fantastic array of musicianship that is easily digested yet intriguing enough for more than one listen.

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The eight song, almost entirely instrumental album was released on November 17th, 2015, and in a short amount of time was able to garner enough respect to receive some album of the year recognition.  These accolades are absolutely deserved and appropriately administered as it’s blatantly obvious real thought and care went into the production of this record.  What makes this even more impressive is the fact they self-produced and self-recorded this album.

Some listeners might not take the time to explore the production notes of this album, but as someone who produces and records his own band, I can attest to the challenges and frustrations this process presents and am always curious to see who was behind the board.  When self-producing and self-recording, not only will your band be on trial for it’s writing aptness, but your ability to capture your band’s sound and present it as a finished product will also face relentless scrutiny.  While this approach is extremely fulfilling it can also be painstaking.  I don’t know how many times I’ve mixed my own music until my ears could no longer discern one guitar from the next.  When revisiting the final product months later, I’ve found myself wishing the snare was a decibel louder or that I’d cleaned up some mids in the guitars.  Thankfully, bassist Austin Patterson and guitarist Jordan Brokaw did a fantastic job producing and recording The Setting of the Old Sun and should be sleeping very well at night.

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The Broken Bow Sessions – Click Here to Watch

While each song is worthy of attention, the album’s finale, “Drowned in Desire”, clearly surpasses it’s predecessors.  Compass & Knife saved the best for last and exceeded my expectations by putting together an incredibly well thought out, well executed music video to showcase both their musical prowess and their conceptual capacity.  As we enter into an era where anyone can shoot a music video on their iPhone, it’s absolutely motivating to see a band put together an impressive visual to accompany their music.

Instrumentally based music is inherently open ended and it’s usually up to the listener to piece together their own storyline since no lyrical content exists to steer the narrative.  While “Drowned in Desire” can still be interpreted as the listener chooses, the music video adds a deeper dimension to the song that made me appreciate and enjoy the song even more.  And, once again, the fact that they filmed and edited the video themselves will forever keep Compass & Knife at the forefront of my list of remarkable, noteworthy DIY bands.

For anyone looking for a great album to put on the stereo while working, or for a soundtrack to accompany a road trip, I highly recommend Compass & Knife’s The Setting of the Old Sun.

C.J. Blessum

ALBUM REVIEW: RED HANDS BLACK FEET – WE MUST FALL FOREVER IF WE SURVIVE

Red Hands Black Feet We Must Fall Forever if We Survive
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RED HANDS BLACK FEET - WE MUST FALL FOREVER IF WE SURVIVE band promo pic

Post-rock quartet Red Hands Black Feet from Boise, ID

Is it about the journey or the destination?  If I had to count on my fingers how many times I have had this age old debate I would need another set of hands.  Whether between bandmates while stranded with an overheated van in the middle of Washington or with friends at a casual get together, this argument always tends to find it’s way back into the discussion.  I’ve personally decided that it’s relative.  And yes, my conclusion is technically a destination that required a journey through thought which once again begs the question, which was more important?

Thankfully, Boise’s Red Hands Black Feet has written and released a new album that is all about the journey.  We Must Fall Forever If We Survive is the band’s second release and while the album is entirely instrumental, the underlying concept based around a space traveler’s struggle to stay adrift or return home adds a dimension that requires exploration.  Like well constructed chapter titles, each song title provides a starting point for listeners to delve into their own imagination and explore Red Hands Black Feet’s musical journey.

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I Leave You And The Earth Behind” kicks of the record and moves from quiet, well thought out ambience into heavily fuzzed out, rolling ambience that masterfully prepares you for the rest of the album.  After coming to understand the concept behind this album, one can’t help but begin to explore their own imagination as soft and subtle guitar work drifts passed you.  The song continues to build very patiently before launching into an all out overdriven blitz that resolves the song beautifully.

If I Let The Void In…” rolls in quickly with up tempo toms and aggressive guitars that eventually drop off into a bass driven, clean guitar groove.  Steady, systematic drumming carries this song until the tempo begins to wane and break into a more experimental section.  “If I Let The Void In…” has a very contemplative, questioning vibe that fits it’s title very well.

Red Hands Black Feet quickly answer their own question with the third song on their album, “…It Will Set Me Free“.  Beginning with repetitive clean guitars supported by swells and cymbal rolls, the answer is revealed as a very solemn realization.  Maintaining patience and precision, Red Hands Black Feet show their song writing strength as they ebb and flow through emotionally driven pushes and pulls.

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It Is Lonely In The Universe” is the longest track on the album and is therefore offered the time and space to explore.  Once again staying true to their song titles, Red Hands Black Feet beautifully craft a soundtrack to aid your imagination in pondering the vastness of space.  Dynamics are explored to their fullest from gentle clean sections to soaring heavy resolutions before the song finally ends with the heart-like beat of the kick drum.

Red Hands Black Feet conclude their sophomore album with “Here We Make Our Stand“.  Entering with driven guitars and heavy, half-time drumming, the song screams defiance and strength.  Like most of the tracks on this album, the finale moves in and out of tonal spaces to add great dynamics to the overall recording.  The expertise and obvious care that was put into writing this album should be evident to even the casual listener.

Red Hands Black Feet have been working through their musical journey for a handful of years now and have truly put together a fantastic album in We Must Fall Forever If We Survive.  I have a deep appreciation for bands who choose to tell a story with their craft, both through their music and the way in which they stitch their songs together to form a congruent and thoughtful album.  Sometimes music is a great way to turn off, but there are other times where turning your imagination on and exploring the musical journey can be utterly fulfilling.

C.J. Blessum

LIVE REVIEW: THE MENZINGERS AND MEWITHOUTYOU AT NEUMOS, SEATTLE

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The Menzingers (Scranton, PA, USA)
mewithoutYou (Philadelphia, PA, USA)
Pianos Become The Teeth (Baltimore, MD, USA)
Restorations (Philadelphia, PA, USA)

Neumos, Seattle, WA, USA
Saturday November 14th, 2015

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It had been a very long time since my last live show experience.  I’ve been to plenty of local shows over the past few years but I’m not even sure I can recall the last time I attended a live show where the sound check happened before the doors opened, people were actually at the venue on time, and the first band actually took the stage precisely at the time stated on the flier.  I’m sure very few paid attention to these details.  But for me, being reminded how professional bands operate at professionally run venues, like Neumos, was a breath of fresh air.  Obviously, I need to get out more.

Typically, the reason you attend a show and subsequently write a live review is to highlight the headliner, or in this case, the headliners.  And while The Menzingers and mewithoutYou put on a great show, I didn’t necessarily find anything too remarkable about their sets.  Honestly, this was my first experience with The Menzingers so, to be fair, I can’t really say much about them as I know very little about them (shame on me, I know).  As I like to say, “they were fine”, meaning they did their thing and people enjoyed it and I appreciated what they did.  Enough said.

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mewithoutYou has always been one of my favorite bands.  They are fantastic at writing catchy music that is capable of hitting the heart strings of whatever emotion you’re in the mood to meddle with.  Ever since [A->B] Life came out in 2002 I’ve been quite comfortable keeping their music in my arsenal.  Frontman Aaron Weiss has a unique lyrical style that absolutely works for me.  While others may struggle digesting his lyrics, I am continually impressed with anyone that can work “pumpernickel bread” into their writing.

Restorations opened the night and did a great job setting the vibe for the evening.  I hadn’t really heard much from these guys prior to the show but they are definitely headed in the right direction.  Their stage presence was enjoyable to watch and kept a newbie, like me, entranced for their full set.  Like Restorations, mewithoutYou and The Menzingers held the attention of the venue for the entirety of their sets and I would definitely see them again.

This brings me to Pianos Become The Teeth.  While I had every intention of writing this review on mewithoutYou, it was Pianos Become The Teeth that absolutely stole the show for me.  And it was absolutely for reasons I did not expect.

Pianos Become The Teeth live @ The Underworld, London

Like most bands I come to discover, Pianos Become The Teeth have been around for a while.  They formed in 2006 and have honed their sound over the past nine years moving from an aggressive, post-hardcore band to masters of gloomy, emotionally packed, post-rock.  For those of you who have yet to indulge in their newest record, Keep You, I highly recommend you do so.  If you need an enticing comparison, this album is very reminiscent of Oceana’s Clean Head from 2010.

While the other three bands put on visually stimulating performances, Pianos Become The Teeth struck me in a different way.  I was lucky enough to get to the venue early enough to grab one of the few spots on the balcony that gave me a great view of both the band and the crowd.  Pianos Become The Teeth were steady, energetic at times, but the way they moved the crowd was absolutely stunning.  The movement I witnessed was not physical by any means.  In fact, the crowd was absolutely motionless, aside from a bit of head-banging here and there.  Being fairly in tune with my mushy side, the emotional grip that pushed and pulled throughout the crowd was mesmerizing.

I think I spent most of my time watching one specific kid in the crowd.  By appearance alone, he was completely out of place.  If I would have seen him walking on the street prior to the show there was no way I would have thought he and I were headed to the same destination.  But this kid knew absolutely every word to absolutely every song Pianos Become The Teeth played.

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Pianos Become The Teeth from the balcony @ Neumos

For those who are familiar with frontman Kyle Durfey’s lyrics, you know they are very sad and tend to center around the loss of his father in 2010.  Like many lyricists, Durfey’s lyrics are dark and contemplative.  But unlike some, Durfey is surrounded by an exceptional band that is able to add deep dimension to his words.  The coupling of his lyrics with the desolate tones of his band’s music is nearly heartbreaking.  To me, it’s the cohesion of these two elements that make my eyes well up with tears and send chills down my arms.  I’m sure we all experience these phenomenons in our own way, but experiencing Pianos Become The Teeth live was the pinnacle of emotional overflow for me.

The kid three rows back, belting Durfey’s lyrics will forever be seared into my musical memories.  It was a profoundly powerful moment for me.  It left me wondering how this out of place kid related to Durfey’s lyrics.  What was it that moved him by this band.  Being witness to the connection between the writer and the listener added a totally new experience for me.  Usually you only get to see the back of everyone’s head at a show, but my balcony vantage point let me see things in a new light.  It was truly an honor for me to be in the same place at the same time with five guys in a band, the kid in the third row, a few friends, and a room full of strangers.

C.J. Blessum

 

 

Album Review: SLVDR/MOMA SPLIT 7″

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The strength of a musical community runs only as deep as the dedication people have to support the music contained within it.  And no, I’m not talking about how many people go to your local show or how many likes you have on Facebook, I’m talking about the group of musicians and creative individuals who define your music scene.  The interconnectivity between bands and healthy competition that results in pushing each other’s limits is what makes a music scene great.  I think we all understand that something happened to live music when the internet killed the same video star that killed the radio star.  A lot of things have changed and perhaps made it harder to build a thriving local music scene in this day in age.  It’s really easy to complain about this and yearn for the “good old days”, but I think we also all realize that while technology may be removing some physical human interaction, the benefits or digital human interactions can lead to some great musical coalescence.

I’ve always wanted to start a small, independent record label.  And whenever I’ve felt inspired to do so I am quickly yanked back to reality by the consequences.  Small labels are all hard work with little to no monetary pay off.  We’ve all heard of crimes of passion, well, small record labels are definitely labors of passion.  It may even require some level of insanity to start your own small label.  But these labels are the ones who make life easier for those of us interested in finding new, underground music.  And when a few small labels join forces from separate areas of the world to bring bands together from opposite ends of the world, we get a remarkable split featuring Rio de Janeiro’s SLVDR and Japan’s MOMA.  The logistical feat in bringing these bands together is both commendable and a fantastic testament to the importance of connectivity and interaction in the musical world of the lesser known.

Released by Ohio labels Tightwolf Records and Delayed Gratification Records along with Norway’s Kakusan Records, this three song split is definitely worth listening to more than once.  We’ve all heard the old adage that music is the universal language.  If any actual language barrier exists its is quickly demolished by the musical work of SLVDR and MOMA.  Dubbed “post-math” by some, this roughly thirteen minute split moves very quickly.  I’m a fan of instrumental, post-rock music, but I tend to lean more towards the cinematic, drawn out styles as opposed to the quick-moving, math-centered instrumentals.  Because the word “math” is in the genre titled, I just assumed I would have to think too much, but both SLVDR and Moma do an impeccable job of luring you in and letting you lose yourself in the music.

Each record label has a unique vinyl color for the SLVDR/MOMA Spit 7

Each record label involved has their own unique vinyl color for the SLVDR/MOMA Split 7″

SLVDR kicks the record off with their song ‘Mike 80 and I was immediately impacted by the drumming prowess.  Being the foundation of essentially every musical endeavor, if the drums lack in discipline the result is a horrible recording.  I’ve engineered several recording sessions with a less than competent drummer, and you can immediately tell that the ship is set to sink when the drummer is unable to squeeze a fill in or is trying too hard to do as much as he can.  SLVDR does a lot in very small time frame, but they pull it off beautifully.  Being fairly new to this off shoot of the “post” movement there are several sections of drumming that I just haven’t heard before.  I’m not weathered or versed enough to call it innovative but it is absolutely impressive and is definitely the selling point for me and one of the reasons I decided to review this split.

Like the drums, the guitar bass work is exceptional.  The use of modulating effects is calculated and not over done and beautifully lends itself to filling out SLVDR’s sound which can be difficult to obtain as a three-piece.  I’m a sucker for hooks and the guitar work grabs me for the first time when the band goes heavier at about the 1:30 mark.  Overdriven and straight forward, the simplicity of this section stuck in the midst of ever changing and evolving lines is fantastic songwriting.  These guys are totally capable of filling up a full length with complex time and key changes but taking moments to simplify and grab the ear of the less math inclined enthusiast, like myself, is laudable.  Following a crescendo of gritty guitar and heavy drumming, SLVDR ends with a chaotic math infused outro that ends abruptly, giving way to the piano driven excellence of MOMA.

Japan’s MOMA catches you from the beginning with relaxing piano lines that carry and define their song writing.  Beneath the beauty of the piano lies a solid rhythm section that incorporates numerous time changes and complexities within the music without overpowering or taking away from the gracefulness of the piano.  Initially, I didn’t even notice how frequently MOMA was moving from one time signature to another.  They are truly masters of exploring every opportunity to add or remove a beat here and there while still maintaining an easy to digest sound.

Through the first song entitled “32 Ave“, the guitar work takes more of a backseat to the piano and only adds in a few nicely worked flourishes here and there.  This is not something that is easy to do for many guitar players.  Understanding simplicity and seeing the song as a whole is to some a natural gift, but to others it takes years of practice.  Allowing the piano to dominate the melody in “32 Ave” gives the song a gentle, easy-listening quality that works very well for me.

MOMA was able to fit a second song onto this split called “SUN.  This song allows the listener to hear the playing ability of both the guitar and the bass while still getting a pleasing dose of fantastic piano melodies.  The ability to carefully place a bunch of notes into a small space is a profound skill I’m not sure I will ever understand.  However, like SLVDR, MOMA does this very well and nothing seems too full or overdone.

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While album reviews tend to focus solely on the band or bands involved, I feel it is important to acknowledge the work by the labels involved in putting this split together.  I applaud the effort in bringing two bands from different corners of the world together.  The internet has made this task fairly straight forward but the idea to pursue this split and the trust these labels have earned is remarkable.  For SLVDR and MOMA to toss these labels a song or two and trust that they will nourish and maintain the integrity of their art says an awful lot about these small labels from Ohio and Oslo.

Take a minute or two out of your day and go check out both the music on this split and the great packaging decisions between the three labels.

C.J. Blessum