Saturday, 14 April 2012

...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead - Reviews Roundup

In the last half year or so I've finally got into ...Trail of Dead in a big way, so I thought I'd bash through a quick reviews round-up in case you were wondering where to start.

Madonna: 'Richter Scale Madness' and 'A Perfect Teenhood' epitomise ...Trail of Dead's early material – Sonic Youth with two drumkits and aggressively lo-fi recording that feels as if it's ready to rip at the seams.

Source Tags & Codes: The 'go-to' record for ...Trail of Dead die hards, it's the point at which they began to develop from a slightly unhinged punk act into something more complex and refined. Saying that, 'It Was There That I Saw You' is just as intense as anything written in their early career and riffs on a lot of the stylistic elements that defined their sound – speed, drone notes, extra percussion – while also bringing in more intricate arrangements and superior attention to detail in the use of texture. All this considered, it would be insupportable to claim Source Tags as the best ...Trail of Dead album as many do; equally simplistic is to malign its successors.

Worlds Apart: The logical conclusion of their increasingly orchestral major-label experimentation, this record is often derided as the one where the band 'lost it'; rather, it's better seen as what it is – a major label rock record that has its radio tracks ('The Rest Will Follow', 'Worlds Apart', 'Caterwaul') while also putting front-and-centre difficult percussion-led jam sessions like the brilliant 'Will You Smile Again For Me', Pink Floyd-lite 'All White' and thrashy stop-start rocker 'The Best'. For all this, it's incredibly coherent and consistently brilliant. Take it from me: this is no guilty pleasure, but a legitimately fantastic album, and probably their best.

So Divided: There's a little bit of truth to the idea that the band lost their way on this record; still, for fans of Worlds Apart there's still a consistent, enjoyable album to be found once you scratch at the surface; even so, don't expect any of the same dizzy heights of Worlds Apart.

Century of Self: A true return to form, openers 'Far Pavilions' and 'Isis Unveiled' are two of the best ...Trail of Dead songs, full-stop. 'Bells of Creation' and 'Inland Sea' are at atmospheric foil to the slash-and-burn introduction, while 'Fields of Coal' has a euphoric indie-rock feel similar to 'Worlds Apart'; the vocals and lyrics are spot on and it's consquently one of the more enduring tracks from the record. 'Ascending' briefly recalls early ...Trail of Dead and gives a hint of what was to follow on Tao of the Dead with up-tempo major chords shot through with gang vocals and dual drumkit counter-rhythms. Though much of the later album is taken up with 'Insatiable' parts one and two, there's also anthemic ballad 'Pictures of an Only Child' to enjoy; it's an oddity enough in terms of their general modus operandi to mark it out, but there's something perfect in the line “I'm standing with Eric and Mom beside a Taj Mahal/convinced that I am gonna be a writer and a movie star” that keeps me returning to it. ...Trail of Dead have more confessional and personal tracks, but somehow the effect of the whole is rather greater than its parts in this case.

Tao of the Dead: In my humble opinion, this remarkable two-song concept album is the best ...Trail of Dead album, hands down. It's rocky in an unpretentious, straight-up way, but also brings in a lot of the experimental elements from their previous albums. There may only be a single drum kit on this record, but the rhythm section remains just as prominent, and if anything boasts a little more clarity than before. As an introduction, try 'Pure Radio Cosplay', 'Summer of All Dead Souls', or 'Weight of the Sun' and then lose yourself in this wonderfully fluid set of songs.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Pure Reason Revolution
Hammer and Anvil
Superball Music
Rating: 4.5/5

I don't know why it's taken me so long to pick up the final Pure Reason Revolution album, but after a single listen it's clear that's my loss. You may already be aware of single 'Fight Fire', the most overtly confrontational tune the band have penned, as well as Valour EP and live favourite 'Black Mourning', but aside from that I'm of the impression that this was their least successful and least well-received. Why that should be, I have to admit, escapes me completely.

First off, it's worth dropping in the music geek cred point: this album, unlike PRR's previous work, was co-written with Tom Bellamy (ex-Cooper Temple Clause), and I don't think I'm imagining things when I say that this fact is felt throughout the album. The sounds and textures will be familiar to any fans of electronic offering Amor Vincit Omnia, but the way that the songs are structured as well as some of the chords definitely recall the Coopers, and save for expansive set-piece 'Open Insurrection', the song length feels distinctly restrained compared to previous outings.

Highlights come in the form of the aforementioned 'Open Insurrection', with its huge 'When the Levee Breaks' style drums, 'Patriarch', with its intricate synthesiser textures, and 'Last Man, Last Round' with its grinding samples and spaced-out pianos. 'Valour' delivers the most sweeping PRR chorus since 'In Aurélia' from their first EP, and has a similarly thrilling interplay between Chloe and Jon's vocals.

By the time 'Armistice' has faded, there's no doubt that this album is of equal quality to the rest of PRR's back catalogue, and that moreover it's a further step forward, building on the huge break that Amor Vincit Omnia represented. To fans of the whole Pure Reason back catalogue it's a must-own, but it also serves again to remind of the disconnect between their fan base and their ultimate ambition. For all their professed acceptance of 'progressive' music, it certainly feels like the more closed-minded prog fans that joined the PRR camp left them hung out to dry as soon as they began doing some more genuinely progressive material. Hammer & Anvil is the closest the band come to melding their progressive and electronic tendencies, yet it proved their swansong. Isn't that a little sad?

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Jetplane Landing
Once Like a Spark
Smalltown America Records
Rating: 4/5

Like drop-D? Like early Biffy Clyro? A fan of At the Drive-In, pissed off that they never made a follow-up to Relationship of Command? Well, I've just the thing. Once Like a Spark is looking a little dated now; the band's second release on Small Town America back at the opening of the last decade, it's more of a contemporary piece to the work of the aforementioned bands than some kind of imitation piece, and it's that crucial detail that makes this worthwhile.

Where a lot of the post-hardcore bands putting out records in the early two-thousands seemed to delight in a kind of obstinate, stubborn lo-fi, it's almost refreshing that Jetplane Landing eschew that approach and instead opt for a higher-standard production. The rich guitar tones in opener 'The Violence' and 'Brave Gravity' are a delight to the listener, and for all the moments of scratchy guitar, there's at least as many that boast a huge, full rock sound fit for banging your head along to.

'I Opt Out' is kind of like if Canadian alt-rockers Our Lady Peace discovered Incubus and alternative tunings. Thick and heavy on the choruses and swaggering in the verses it nevertheless distinguishes itself with an unusually modal melody that for some reason recalls OLP's dabbling with Eastern-flavoured chromaticism. 'Calculate the Risk' is straight back to ATD-I territory, while 'Do it... Now!' and 'Writing the Ways Down' are the token ballads.

Ultimately you may have heard it all before, but Jetplane Landing still have plenty to offer if you're a fan of this particular brand of post-hardcore. Listening to the angular attack of tunes like 'There Is No Real Courage Unless There Is Real Danger' and taking them as they were intended, Jetplane Landing are simply a great rock band with no frills attached; enjoy them as such and you won't go wrong.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Thula Borah
Live Secretly

Okay, you'll have to allow me to spoil the end of this one for you – if you like Mogwai, you'll like Thula Borah. What's on offer is atmospheric post-rock of a slightly pensive pace that ebbs and flows with all of the natural metaphors that you can imagine, so I'll spare you the descriptions and do a quick track-by-track instead.

Track one, 'Organic Paranoia' is the most electronic of the EP tracks; akin to a slower tune from 65daysofstatic or Maybeshewill, it's a fittingly gentle introduction to the EP. 'Skye Falling', on the other hand is more of a traditional alt-rock song, with some pleasant washes of post-rock texture amid the Hum-like walls of fuzz.

'Murder' is perhaps 'arbitrarily' post-rock when compared to the EP tracks; though it's still great, you could graphically represent it by drawing a line across a graph, angled at thirty degrees – yes, it's one of those. '(Null Interface)' follows, and endowed with more of a verse-chorus approach to the dynamics, the heavy sections have rather more of an impact than as a 'logical conclusion' to the song.

Closing on 'Violence is Forever', there's once again a gradual build and huge release – but that's to be expected for the final track of a post-rock mini-album. Suitably cinematic in sweep, it nevertheless drives home the fact that if you're not a fan of post-rock you won't like this band; if you are, then welcome aboard. Thula Borah are certainly more talented than the majority of post-rock also rans, but make no mistake: their genre of music is under no dispute.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

 Everyone an Army
A Coastal Dance on the Grave of Romance

I know what you're thinking – that's a pretty long title for an EP. Well, yes it is; it wouldn't take Sherlock Holmes to spot that one, but don't be put off by its hipster implications. To steal a line from Richard Pryor, “they don't play that shit” - instead what's on offer is some '90s-ish alt rock with a shade of modern post-rock and progressive in the mix.

The title track stops and starts, growls and fuzzes like the best tracks of Siamese Dream, but instead of the angsty rage of Billy Corgan the overall vibe is kept somewhere left of the early Muse material. It's dramatic and drips gravitas, but remains anchored to something more earthy; this I suspect is more a function of their vocal range than a conscious decision.

Track two, 'Versailles', continues this theme – again we're faced with Pumpkins-esque guitars, but this time the vocals borrow more from Maynard's work with Perfect Circle; there's a subtle sense of harmonic depth and the way the guitars and vocals interplay is terrific. 'Venous Hum' on the other hand is more akin to Failure's second album Magnified, or perhaps cult US act Exeter. There's the same space-rock affectation as well as driving bass riffs, and the chorus has a suitably baroque charm to it; while not as storming as the previous two tracks, it's a given that there's already an audience that would love this.

Closer 'The Christmas Truce' represents a change in gear; taking a more shoegaze-indebted – and indeed noisier – approach to creating the textures leads to a muted slow-burner of a track, rife with neat melodic ideas and confluences of harmony in unexpected places. After an almost obligatory breakdown there's a great Oceansize-y section that reminds of 'Paper Champion' from the Music for Nurses EP to close.

Perhaps the only criticism that can be levelled at such a strong collection of tracks as this is whether or not the hints of leftfield development in the tracks will lead them in more abstract, experimental directions on later material. At present EAA dip their toe in the waters, but by-and-large seem content to be a well-honed alternative rock band; who knows if this will change in future.