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The Front Bottoms: Back on Top

29 Dec

BackontopBy Travis Carlyle

In their latest release, The Front Bottoms have continued to develop toward more studio precise and audio-engineered sounds – leaving behind some of the noisier, folkier sounds key to their earlier albums.

Back on Top is catchier than any of the band’s prior releases. The story-telling nuances that characterize their sound are still strongly in play, but with the almost total absence (bar a few horns) of their earlier folk influences, the narrative The Front Bottoms composes here comes closer to emo than all of their prior work combined. “Cough It Out” is as close to their old sound as the band gets, but the song also stands out as a highlighter of the emo-esque indie-pop-rock direction their latest release has tended towards.

As with Foals’ latest release, variation seems to be The Front Bottoms’ 2015 casualty. However, where Foals seem to have gotten complacent in a sound they are comfortable making, The Front Bottoms sound more refined, more together and more complete as a band for it.

Variation is definitely still here (just not as much so as previously), as is brilliantly illustrated by the rap verse in “Historic Cemetery” (one of my favourite songs of 2015). “HELP” also has one of the best hooks I’ve heard for a good while and is undoubtedly the best song on the release.

Hardcore fans of the band may be upset by more radio-tuned frequency Back on Top taps into, but I genuinely feel this band has reaffirmed itself as one of my favourites to listen to. If you enjoyed Talon of the Hawk (2014), this addition to their discography will sit well with you for all the same reasons and more.

Foals: What Went Down (…my expectations)

27 Dec

What_went_down_coverBy Travis Carlyle

Don’t expect anything ground-breaking or awe-inspiring from Foals’ latest release: you’ve heard it all before.

The band has charted a path down a road that they have carved out as their sound: a mixture of leather-jacket rock and roll with tracks filled with stadium-like energy (such as the album’s opening title track), and others that are toned down a tad to emanate smoke-filled bar mystique (such as closing track “A Knife In The Ocean”).

The huge, hell-bent tornado-esque songs that appear on debut album Antidotes (2008), are a fractured glimmer of a band Foals seem to not want to be anymore. It doesn’t feel like they’ve grown up, or grown out of this sound – just decided it’s not for them.

Another element of their past that they’ve seemingly tossed aside is their devotion to the ballad. “Spanish Sahara” (Total Life Forever [2010]) will remain one of the best songs humanity has ever had the pleasure of hearing, but Foals now seem unwilling to craft a song of its nature. Gone are the pain-staking buildups and intricate instrumentations of Total Life Forever, replaced now with the more anthemmy, radio-rock focused sound of their second-most recent release, Holy Fire (2013).

While the product you get in What Went Down is definitely more unified, it feels half-arsed in its capacity. Fans of the band know what Foals can craft and create, and it’s a lot more than this.

This is in no way helped by the fact that the two best tracks on the album, which are also the first two tracks on the disc, were the two tracks released as singles by the band… see the problem? Once “Mountain at My Gates” is done playing, I just don’t feel the urge to relisten to any other track on this release, and that’s a real shame for a band that once created such varied and complex work.

There are essentially four or five solid tracks on this album, and the rest just sound like clones of them. On their own, each track is decent, but as a collective, the album feels monotonous. Foals would have done well stripping down this selection to five songs and releasing these as an EP, rather than watering down strong new material with boring filler tracks.

If you want to dig into Foals the cynic in me would recommend listening to Holy Fire instead, as “Give It All” and “Albatross” are as good as this album will get beyond the singles you have undoubtedly already heard.

~

Michelle‘s comments: Trav hits the nail on the head here: Foals are refining their sound and carving out their niche to delicious effect, but this niche is getting frustratingly small. I still think there is some beautiful music on this album, but it’ll take quite a few listens through to differentiate between the tracks, as they all sound dully similar to the casual ear. We know from Foals’ earlier, much more varied albums that they definitely have more hidden up their hip leather sleeves than this.

Death Grips: The Powers That B

17 Dec

The Powers That BBy Travis Carlyle 

Following Death Grips often feels like coming across parody news articles without realising what you are reading. One week it’s “new album coming soon”, next it’s “all live shows cancelled”; the following week it’s “hitting the road with Nine Inch Nails”, then it’s “we’ve disbanded”… you’re basically just confused as to what is real and what is them fucking with you on a level you’re not entirely aware of yet.

So it seemed most of the way through 2014 – a year in which I had convinced myself that Death Grips had faded into the abyss of lost cool bands… and then disc one off of their latest release, The Powers That B (2015) happened. The release forms part of a double-disc album and features Icelandic singer-songwriter, Björk, on all the first disc’s eight tracks.

While I am not overly familiar with Björk’s discography, I have dabbled in three of her nine releases and can safely say you would likely not even know that she was featured on the album’s first disc had you not read the Wikipedia article for Death Grips’ release.

Her voice forms part of a mashed quagmire of typical Death Grips sampling and over-production – as to how much of a hand she played in producing the album itself, I can only speculate. My initial feelings would be quite heavily, though, as experimentation across the eight tracks is high – even for Death Grips (which is saying something as these fellas are practically the Radiohead of Hipster Hop).

That said, it’s a step too far and I don’t feel myself slipping into disc one and the hazy atmosphere its electronic bed and primitive, raw drum line is built on. This is definitely a new direction for Death Grips, one the refinement time brings can easily cure.

Disc two of The Powers That B is stylistically more in tune with the rest of Death Grips’ discography. Experimentation is toned back to The Money Store (2012) levels and feels a lot more rounded as a project. The first songs on the disc feel like a Punk-Rock release, with meta-sampling from as far back as their own debut release (Exmilitary [2011]) and a much stronger emphasis on not over-producing their work. Samples flow from one to the next and are not manically conjoined into a rambunctious mess of overlapping and discordant sounds – which is incidentally all that disc one can truly be remembered as.

“Inanimate Sensations” is one of the best songs I’ve heard in years and “Turned Off” is just… beautiful – if anything, this is the type of song I would have expected Death Grips to create with Björk.

As a product, disc two just fits together in a manner the album’s opening disc seems incapable of attaining. There’s a flow and return to earlier sound structures that is both interesting and calming (in the same way as eating ice-cream you haven’t had since you were eight, and it tasting the same, is reassuring).

It’s hard to treat The Powers That B as a single release as it is clearly just two separate discs thrown together – a disjuncture that isn’t helped by the fact that one half is so much better than the other. While disc one is an experimental phase you don’t need to pay much attention to, disc two is Exmilitary amounts of brilliance (a level I thought the band would never get close to attaining again).

Chrvches: Every Open Eye

6 Dec

By Travis Carlyle

Chvrches_-_Every_Open_EyeScottish Synth-poppers, Chvrches, have released their long-awaited follow-up to debut album, The Bones of What You Believe (2013). Hip teens across the globe now have a second album to cue guests into their house drink-ups and slumber parties with.

Joking aside, the band has garnered wide acclaim within a musical genre that is overloaded with similar-sounding “talent” and thematic concerns as deep as rain puddles on suburban walkways.

While I enjoyed their first release, I couldn’t help but feel that bands like Sleigh Bells have crisper, more adventurous electronics – while singers like Kiesza out-range and out-perform Chvrches’ vocalist, Lauren Mayberry.

But what of their latest release, Every Open Eye? For a start, Chvrches have done the standard second album “we must justify the praise” approach – they’ve gotten more serious and have a more resolute sound. The electronic hooks are definitely stronger, with the wishy-washy, dreamscape instrumentals of their first release nowhere near as prevalent here – they are now replaced with actual instrumental presence instead of an atmospheric background.

“Never Ending Circles”, the album’s starting point, could quite easily have come off of my favourite Sleigh Bells release, Treat. The drops are heavy – almost dubsteppy – with Mayberry’s hollow and haunting harmony hovering over it all. Even lyrically, Chvrches seem to have grown from the toddler booties of their first release and are now sporting brand new brogues.

Here’s to taking what you came for

And here’s to running off the pain

And here’s to just another no man

If you want another

Say you need another

Here’s to never ending circles

And building them on top of me

And here’s to another no man

If you want another

Say you need another

There’s a definite, serious (feminist at that) feel from the outset here, one that carries over strongly into “Leave A Trace”.

One of the hallmarks of Chvrches’ first release was a variety in song structure and pace – something too many pop-something bands of 2015 fail to grasp. “Empty Threat”, for example, almost rings true as a singalong stadium-anthem… that’s one of the last things I expected to hear on this release.

I mentioned earlier that Chvrches have grown up in this release – and I stand by that. The big downside to growing up, though, is that you often become more predictable… and Chvrches sadly do this too.

Entering the last four tracks of the album just feels like they’re playing it all safe, the dynamism that Sleigh Bells and M83 (two bands I would compare most strongly to Chvrches) is nowhere to be found. “Down Side of Me” honestly just sounds like a worse version of “Make Them Gold”, and that’s a real shame for the promise this album shows at its outset.

This remains a solid release with some stunning singles (“Never Ending Circles” and “Make Them Gold” my favourites), just not the special something that The Bones of What You Believe turned out to be.

Battles: La Di Da Di

4 Dec

La Di Da Di album art

By Travis Carlyle

Battles are a band known to me more for the differences between their first (Mirrored: 2007) and second (Gloss Drop: 2011) full-length releases than for any strict musical direction. Following their lead vocalist packing his bags mid-Gloss Drop (a move which meant the album had a number of external contributors) – La Di Da Di is the band’s first top-to-bottom instrumental release.

La Di Da Di begins, grows and ends as an extremely focused and engaging album. While past releases can arguably be bracketed as washy, art-pop-esque creations – Battles’ 2015 collection has a stripped-down focus and seriousness that their previous work did not have the slightest interest in catering to.

A more instrumentally direct and specific product, La Di Da Di works in intricate and deft decisions in all the ways that prior work resembled broad ‘yeah that will do’ brush strokes. Without having to pander to vocal elements, La Di Da Di is able to engage a listener focus with subtle rhythm shifts and an almost filmic development in instrumental progression.

“Summer Simmer” is a six-minute masterpiece with a slow shift from a dominating bassline to a keyboard-centered treble barely noticeable as the song progresses.

Other notable songs on the album include “Dot Com” and “FF Bada” (which is probably my favourite) – again, down to the engaging and intelligent harmonic shifts each has. It seems strange to say, but the cut-down nature of this album has added more to Battles’ work than any vocal-imbued collaboration they have yet produced.