Album Review: Slowrun – Passage

Slowrun
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I want to say the year was 2003.

It was an unusually hot October morning hovering around 2AM.  Stepping out onto my back porch to have a smoke, I peered up into the sky.  At first I wasn’t quite sure at what I was looking.  I can admit to you now that I was actually a little nervous.  It looked completely alien.  Unnatural.  Running down the driveway to get a better view, I was both filled with elation and trepidation.

I stood in the middle of the street and shot my eyes skyward once again.  Before me were beautifully swirling patterns floating listlessly in the dark.  Bright reds and purples suspended impossibly, undulating like airborne waves on an alien planet.  I would learn days later that the sun had experienced a large coronal mass ejection, throwing it’s plasma towards Earth.  I had witnessed an aurora borealis.  And it changed me utterly.

Finnish post-rock band Slowrun knows a thing or two about auroras.  Roiling swells of so many colors, rippling like whitecaps soft enough to sail upon.  The area of Lapland can actually get immigrants moving to the area in search of the mystical Northern Lights.  To live in an expanse so blessed to be able to experience something so magical can make one envious.  In 2003 when I accidentally spied my own borealis (and only due to a once in a lifetime solar storm) it changed my entire perspective on life and the universe.  It shook something loose within me.  I couldn’t shake the experience.  I still can’t.

I bring this up because there are moments in all of our lives where something gets rattled loose; the veil is lifted from our eyes and we begin to see things more clearly.  Sometimes it is one big momentous experience.  Others it’s a series of small earthquakes over time.  Many times it’s a minor, mundane change in our headspace.  Still others it’s a tumultuous life changing event.  This happened to me in 2003.

It happened again in 2007.

I always enjoy hearing how people got introduced to the post-rock genre.  I’m probably considered a later comer.  I first became aware of the genre that would ultimately own almost ever fiber of my being purely on accident.  A lot like how I witnessed the aurora borealis.  I was watching the movie Friday Night Lights.  I didn’t know who or what the background music was, but suddenly the story and dialogue were no longer important.  I didn’t care.  All I knew is that whatever or whoever was playing in the background, it moved something inside of me.  I again felt something rattle loose.  I wanted more.  Again, I couldn’t shudder the feeling.  It was full of hope and moroseness.  Vindication and purpose.  I would soon devour everything the genre had to offer and, 10 years later, I haven’t slowed down.

Slowrun’s 2-song EP “Passage” gives me the feeling of 2007 all over again.  I almost instantly feel nostalgic and start to yearn for slower, easier days.  I’m not the same person I was in 2007 and bands like Slowrun have a lot to do with that.  They are able to capture the genre in a time when it was crawling through my veins and terraforming my soul.  Slowrun doesn’t play overzealous chord progressions chock-full of filler.  And they certainly aren’t in any hurry to get anywhere.  They let their songs build in slow motion upon the reluctant breakers of an aurora.  They build so impossibly slow into a ground swell that once the song breaks you feel swept up as into a storm.  The heavier portions are well measured and few and far between, but never cliche.

Slowrun

A lot of fans of the genre have grown restless with the quiet-loud-quiet recipe of post-rock.  I’ve stated in another review that I can understand their sentiment, but I can also admit that there’s plenty of room in the genus for bands that don’t necessarily feel the need to rewrite the book on instrumental rock.  There’s something sentimental about Slowrun’s writing that I find a bit infectious.  They aren’t going to score any points for pushing the limits of post-rock, but they don’t necessarily need to.  The band has a clear and composed approach to song writing.  Not every band needs to bring a thousand samples and a degree in noise shaping to the table in order to create a beautifully written tune. Slowrun is analytical in their approach.  They’ve come to convey an idea and they refuse to muddy the waters.  This is what I loved about post-rock when I first got in to the scene.  Sure, sometimes it was a bit formulaic, but it was comfortable and safe.

Slowrun has another record entitled “Resonance” released in December of 2015 (listen to the track Introspection).  It, too, is well worth a pick up and deserving of a review.  With “Resonance” the band really shows off its chops.  “Passage” is just that.  A portal into a new chapter for the band.  You can hear a sense of maturity growing in this latest 2-song release.  It’s tranquil but troubled.  It’s clear-sighted and contemplative.  “Passage” is why I fell in love with post-rock in the first place a decade ago.  If you need reminding of what it was about this genre that rattled something loose within you, starting a fire in your belly, you should (re)start with “Passage”.


Slowrun links:

Album Review: Vorn – The Winter Session

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Vorn is a twisted genius.

The man is brilliant. One of the more able musicians I know. Listen to his works and you’ll find him spanning hip-hop, rock, pop, blues, disco … uh … polka… Look, he’s diverse, OK?

He’s also sick in the head. He sings about drowning puppies and delays on the railways caused by suicides. My favourite two Vorn songs are about buying condoms and weed. But his music is good enough that people tolerate his content to the point that no-one has called the authorities yet.

Vorn

Never one to miss a chance for ironic humour, for the video Vorn has the entire band dressed in camo, meaning that you can’t actually see them.

For the latest album, The Winter Session, Vorn has taken a different direction. He and his band recorded and filmed the entire album in a continuous take, like a self-indulgent prog-rock band. Recording 50 minutes of music without break provides challenges. It necessitates good flow. There isn’t the same opportunity to re-tune or rest.

This can be seen as a downside because the music isn’t as varied as we have come to expect from previous Vorn records. At the same time, it makes the album cohesive. We still get a small cross-section of the music spectrum – the hip-hop track towards the end stands out – it just all feels same-y.

The Winter Session has a strong electronica vibe, relying heavily on synths, keyboards and effects like looping pedals. The inclusion of violin provides an interesting baroque-meets-new-wave feel.

In many ways The Winter Session contains elements expected from your typical Vorn record – witty, self-aware lyrics that see-saw between braggadocious and self-loathing; harmonised chanting; catchy choruses; crisp drums with strong focus on alternating sticking on the hi-hats; the signature violin; Vorn’s falsetto; sheer weirdness… But long instrumental interludes bridging songs and the over-saturation of sci-fi sounds add new flavour to the Vorn arsenal. I especially like the tabla beat on the midi keyboard that complement the drums at one point.

Because he is so odd and quirky, Vorn is doomed to both critical praise and public indifference. Thankfully in recent years some of NZ acts who dare to be different have garnered success (Kimbra and Lorde), but it’s still a tall-poppy market. Singing with a Kiwi accent is borderline heresy, so Vorn may as well burn himself at the stake.

But at the end of the day, this is the main thing you need to take away from watching The Winter Session: Vorn has a fender squier strapped to his front for the duration of the recording, but spends the whole time playing keyboards instead of riffing on his guitar.

Who would have expected something so pretentious from a dude from Taranaki sporting a mullet?


Vorn links:

https://vornnz.bandcamp.com/

http://www.youtube.com/vornography

http://www.powertoolrecords.co.nz/

Joseph James <3 Vorn and has drummed with him on a few occasions separate from Vorn’s main project.

Album Review: Julien Baker – Turn Out The Lights

Julien Baker Turn Out The Lights
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Julien Baker’s voice is a show stopper.

I remember the first time I heard it. I was listening through a compilation – a fundraiser for the victims of the Orlando shootings last year. There was a few punk and emo bands I liked that had caught my interest, plus a handful of artists that I hadn’t heard of. Baker’s contribution came on and I stopped what I was doing.

Who. Is. That?!

It was the part in “Rejoice” where Baker really starts belting it out: “I think there’s a God and he hears either waaaa-aaaa-aaa-aaaay”. What a voice!

A quick Google search led me to Bandcamp, and within minutes after I’d downloaded Baker’s album, Sprained Ankle. It became my go-to for times that I wanted to listen to something quiet and relaxing – that wind-down album for just before bed.

It quickly became apparent that I wasn’t the only one who had stumbled upon Baker. I began spotting her name more and more frequently – a Noisey article here, an interview there. Friends shared her Audiotree session on nerdy Facebook music groups. All who heard her voice fell in love [save for Arctic Drones writer Foofer, who remains staunchly opposed to her “Tumblr girl emo music”].

Now I’m not usually one to listen to lyrics. Post-rock – a generally vocal-less genre – dominates my listening habits. And my favourite band, Biffy Clyro, sing nonsense. But Baker’s music is so stark that I can’t help but pick up on what she’s singing.

She covers some heavy content. Identifying as both gay and Christian, she finds herself in a conundrum. Is she loved? Is she condemned to hell? Many of her songs explore the theme of acceptance.

The lyric that caught me off guard:

“If I could do what I want, I’d become an electrician
I’d crawl inside my ears and I’d rearrange the wires in my brain”

And then, just to up the ante, the following song starts with this verse:

“I used to never wear a seatbelt ’cause I said I didn’t care what happened
And I didn’t see the point in trying to save myself from an accident”

… woah. That’s heavy.

That sucks. To feel that you are a mistake, that you shouldn’t be who you are. Although the music is relatable. Who hasn’t felt self-doubt at some point of their life?

I find her struggle compelling, and hope that she can come to terms with who she is in a way that stops hurting. Sadly, as much as I sympathise with her, I feel that the emotion she injects into her music is what sets it apart in the first place. By channeling her pain she can summon something within that truly stands out when she releases it.

Sad Tumblr girl emo music indeed. But Baker’s articulate honesty resonates. And the music supports it perfectly. Sombre piano twinkling and tender guitar picking. Violin enhances the music at times, but on the whole its a case of simple arrangements to support the key attraction: Baker’s voice.

Baker has an incredible voice. Raw and emotive, she simply shines. Some tracks use vocal layering to great effect, with Baker both softly cooing, and belting out harmonies in the background. Just listen to the chorus on the title track. There’s nothing quite like hearing a good singer let loose like that. Goosebump material for sure. As nice as the fragile singing sounds, it feels so satisfying to hear her defiant screams against rejection.

Whatever your reason, give this powerful, intimate and cathartic masterpiece a listen.


Julien Baker links:

Buy/stream Turn Out The Lightshttp://mat-r.co/TurnOutTheLights

Website: http://julienbaker.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/julienrbaker

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/julienrbaker/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/julienrbaker/

 

Joseph James

ALBUM REVIEW: I AM SONIC RAIN – HIDDEN

I Am Sonic Rain - Hidden cover
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I have to admit that I’m a bit of a romantic.  Especially when it comes to this particular genre of music.  I can’t help but envision all these majestic landscapes as they pass through my mind’s eye like one of those Classic ViewMaster toys you had as a kid.  I can listen to a song and instantly be overcome with a slide reel show of the Moors in England or the mountains of Montana, all in their sepia tone glory.  This is only brought up because I’ve always wondered how much a band’s surroundings come into play when writing music.  Surely, if you’re surrounded on all sides by a sprawling nothingness and a grey sky that seems to go on in perpetuity, that would have to have some bearing in an artistic sense.

I AM SONIC RAIN hails from Treviso, Italy which sits about 40 minutes directly north of Venice.  I understand you didn’t come here for a geography lesson, but Treviso’s proximity to Venice is important.  If a mountain, a forest or a moor compels one’s artistic creativity then surely being within a stones throw from one of the birthplaces of the Renaissance would.  But it’s not all gambesons and surcoats.  Treviso (and Italy in general) has had a tumultuous history.  The rise and fall of Rome.  The Machiavellian era where assassins plied their trade.  The evils of a devastating World War.  Italy’s history reads much like any other country’s history.  The major difference here is that no matter how dark the days got Italy is the birthplace of some of the most inspired and beautiful paintings, sculptures, philosophy and literature the world has ever known.  It may sound hyperbolic, but I AM SONIC RAIN’S Hidden continues this trend with confident, laconic and inspired songwriting.

According to the band Hidden began production not soon after their last release “Between Whales & Feverish Lights”.  This is album that has been 7 years in the making.  There is a meticulousness and precision that immediately becomes evident upon starting the first track.  This is a well produced album where every note and musical phrase has it’s place in the world.  I tend to worry about albums that feel as if they’ve been produced into the ground, but I AM SONIC RAIN is still able to make everything sound raw and intimate.  The track Bastille really stands out for me on Hidden.  This is a stellar track and the only one that features lyrics.  Bastille is almost Jenniferever-like in style.  It’s melodic, dark and almost has an uneasy air about it.

Hidden is all about control.  I AM SONIC RAIN has an almost surgical precision approach to every bar on the page.  They are a highly disciplined band in regards to musicianship.  The more I listened to this new album the more I fell in love with it.  There are layers on layers on layers here and it will most likely take multiple listens for I AM SONIC RAIN’s genius to shine through.  Hidden absolutely rewards patience and attention to detail.  As a listener you almost feel as if you’re part of the process as there are several “Oh I get it” moments on the album.

I Am Sonic Rain. Image: Alessandro Carlozzo

I Am Sonic Rain. Image: Alessandro Carlozzo

Treviso’s own isn’t a band that throws some cords in a few amps and just starts writing.  They’re mad scientists in a lab creating order out of chaos with volatile ingredients that could start a dangerous chemical reaction at any moment.  There’s so much on this album to listen to and enjoy if you just take the time to really delve into their sound.  On the track “Bengala” alone you’ll hear beautifully layered guitars, an almost 70’s detective show horn section and pirouetting xylophones.  I AM SONIC RAIN even showcases a Suzuki Omnichord.  An instrument, I must admit, I had to look up but am now fully convinced is the raddest instrument to ever grace an album (seriously, Google this thing).

I AM SONIC RAIN isn’t formulaic by any means.  They are a band that employs perfectly a “controlled chaos” modus operandi.  Even in sections where they put the drop on a song and let it unfold (as on the track “Loulan”) you never quite feel like you’re out of your element.  This is both boon and bane.  There will be some who think the album feels sterile (like any good surgical instrument), but Hidden is deeply rewarding.  It is one of those albums you’re going to come back to and think “Hm, I don’t remember hearing a glockenspiel before”.

Hidden is aptly named.  The listener acts as an archaeologist on the hunt for an ancient civilization.  At first glance all you see are the hot, golden sands of an endless desert.  Lifeless trees the only landmark to break the horizon.  Once you are able to set up camp and begin to dig, you start to reveal the foundations of an ancient temple buried for millennia.  A temple hidden from the eyes of man for eons.  This new album is that temple and the deeper you dig the more that is revealed to you.

 


Hidden is available through Deep Elm on December 1st. Preorders can be found at this link: http://deepelmdigital.com/album/hidden

I Am Sonic Rain links:

Website: http://www.iamsonicrain.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/iamsonicrainband/

Bandcamp: http://www.deepelm.com/iamsonicrain/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/IamSonicRain

 

Album Review: Gregory Tan – Sky Threader’s Journey

Gregory Tan Sky Threader's Journey cover
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It’s quickly clear that Gregory Tan usually writes soundtrack music when listening to his latest album, The Sky Threader’s Journey. While 2016’s Far and Away was an ambient/post-rock styled release, The Sky Threader’s Journey sounds more like a video game.

As you could expect from the album title, Tan tries to take the listener on a journey with his music. We watch as soldiers prep for a grand battle; take in the grandeur of the bustling courtyard in King Arthur’s Camelot; feel the air rush past as we fly through the sky, riding on giant eagles. Or at least those are some wild interpretations… To quote Tan: “each piece takes the listener on a thematic adventure of sorts.”

“As a composer, it is just my desire and dream to capture emotions and transform them into music,” Tan writes, “but I would also want for this music to serve a purpose that goes way beyond the celebration of an individual’s creativity.”

Gregory Tan Sky Threader's Journey

Electronic tones on this album give it a dated feel, like a polyphonic ringtone, which probably explains why I imagine computer games when I listen to it. Plus the drums feel tight and rigid, making me guess that they are also programmed. This is offset by more traditional instruments. The blend of orchestral instruments like violins juxtapose against the inorganic computerised tones.

Tan is a prolific musician, a composer by profession. I find it intriguing when people who write soundtrack music decide to compile some of their works for release as an album [examples include Brad Couture, Rhian Sheehan, Christoffer Franzen]. Why choose these particular songs? What message are you sharing? Is there a cohesive theme that sets these tracks apart from the many others you’ve written?

Regardless of his reasonings, Tan is clearly proud of his work. It is tight, intricate and detailed – certainly more fleshed out than his last EP. Simultaneously going classical and modern, Tan has created an epic listen.


Gregory Tan links:

Bandcamp: https://gregtanmusic.bandcamp.com/

Website: https://www.gregtanmusic.net/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/gregtanmusic/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/gregtanmusic

Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/gregtanmusic

 

Joseph James

TRACK(S) REVIEW: U137 – ADAM FOREVER/THE GREAT LEAP

U137
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Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, gaiety and life to everything; It is the essence of order and lends to all that is good, just, and beautiful. – Aristotle

There are as many ways to deal with pain or loss as there are stars in the sky. Music was handed down to us through the impossibility of timeless epochs by our ancestors. The importance of music throughout our history on this planet cannot be denied. Pre-history man used it as a means to tell stories, mourn the fallen or in ritualistic rites. Paleolithic humans would blow through bone flutes, clap their hands, bang rocks together, hum, whistle or roar.  Music and rhythm is an indelible part of human evolution. We take it, as we take life, for granted. It is almost unfeasible to imagine our short time on Earth without it.

The post-rock and cinematic instrumental genres are difficult to explain. I’m often asked what it is and usually I’m bereft of any explanation. I can never quite define it. “Why do you insist on listening to music that seems to be so damn sad all the time?” is one question I’m often faced with. The answer is easy: catharsis. There was a study published in Frontiers in Psychology that posits that we tend to listen to sad music because it elicits positive emotions. Aristotle suggests that when we overwhelm ourselves with undesirable emotions the music acts as a tool of purgation. There is a gap between what we perceive as emotive in the song and what is actually felt. That gap is what is so difficult to explain.

Oftentimes, as listeners we rely on the musicians to provide us with ablution through their music. Sometimes we forget that the musicians themselves may be writing to deal with their own pain.

In 2013 Swedish post-rock duo U137 released their debut album Dreamer On The Run. According to record label Deep Elm the album has over 40+ million plays on Spotify alone. Dreamer On The Run was a gem of an album. Fronted by Oscar Gulbrandsen and Adam Tornblad of Moonlit Sailor fame, U137 writes texturally deep and spiritually honest songs that dive right into the heart. It’s the kind of music that plays at the edges of that emotive gap highlighted in the study above. On November 17th U137 will be releasing a two song “single” Adam Forever / The Great Leap. Sadly, the release will be bitter-sweet. U137 and Moonlit Sailor lost drummer Adam Tornblad in May of this year after a long struggle with substance abuse and depression. This is Oscar Gulbrandsen’s catharsis:

“Writing Adam Forever was very difficult but also provided me with some much needed therapy. The feeling and sound in this song is my love for Adam.”

 

U137 by Kristoffer Midborn

left: Adam, right: Oscar, credit Kristoffer Midborn

Adam Forever is Oscar’s farewell tune to a man he’s known for over two decades. This is Oscar’s goodbye song and a way to show his appreciation for a man he obviously dearly loved.

Adam and Oscar began writing music together in their teens and would eventually start ethereal post-rock group Moonlit Sailor in Borås, Sweden. Borås is known to go weeks without sunlight. An important fact to note as you can hear the peaceful tranquility of night dot the landscape of their musical library. In Adam Forever you can hear the hope of a new day in its opening notes. It’s almost a lullaby in reverse. It’s a song that reminds you that no matter how bad things get you have to shake off the dark, greet the morning with a smile and know that you’re 13 billion years in the making. But it is also a song that reminds you that the impossibility of you, you’re entire existence, is short and fleeting. It’s a song that reminds you that you’re loved and have the capacity to love. It’s a song of reclamation and reverie. It’s a song that begs you to celebrate what time you have with the ones you cherish because it all has to eventually stop. It stops but it does not end. Much like U137, Adam’s unfortunate passing isn’t the end, it’s a new beginning.

Adam Forever is the kind of track that’s difficult to un-hear. The synth-like strings swell and crash coupled with a tenebrous piano part that manifests the emotive gap. The guitars create a stable foundation and echo for eternity. Just as things begin to look too bleak the drums pound a crescendo and the song takes on an air of penance. You can’t help but feel completely and utterly redeemed.

You can hear Oscar all over the second track The Great Leap. It opens with a frenetic neo-romantic string section that would make Wagner roll in his grave. Beneath all of this are lush and verdant whole notes that surge listlessly in contrast to the dynamic strings. The song finally drops about halfway through with a guitar part that could make your heart melt. It’s exactly the kind of track you’ve come to love from U137. But there’s something more here. As good as Dreamer On The Run is, you can’t help but feel like U137 is beginning to truly ascend. Another full length will be on its way and The Great Leap, though written two years ago for U137’s second album, gives listeners a lot to get excited about.

I don’t know what happens to us after we die. There are countless pages written on this subject that I better leave to minds greater than mine. I know that we aren’t the tenacious, unbroken and resolute beings we pretend to be. Everything comes to an end, but there are those of us out there that leave an enduring and unforgettable footprint behind before we go. I can’t help but feel that Adam Tornblad is one of those people. Through his life we’re left with music that will ride on waves to the farthest reaches of far space and beyond. Would that we could all profess as much. Adam is gone, but his gift remains. Goddammit, Adam, thank you.


U137 links:

Pre-order – iTuneshttps://itunes.apple.com/us/album/adam-forever-the-great-leap-single/id1291175783

Pre-order – Deep Elm Digital: http://deepelmdigital.com/album/adam-forever-the-great-leap