Tag Archives: Indie

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.

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Emperor Yes: An Island Called Earth

12 Dec

“People like to say, always sing about what you know. So we sing about science and history. They also say, put in your vinyl what you love to most. So we put a piece of outer space that collided with earth in the 16th century. Science and history.” Emperor Yes, on their BandCamp page

An Island Called Earth is the first album this year to have me grinning from ear to ear.

An Island Called EarthEmperor Yes combines euphoric, upbeat synth with lyrics relaying interesting scientific and historical facts. It’s a lot like the slick electronic music most indie kids are into these days, but packed with great conversation starters – there’s only so much you can say about heartbreak and existential crisis in the 21st Century, after all.

“Wasps” – made known as the theme song for the QI podcast, No Such Thing as a Fish – is about how honeybees can defend themselves against Japanese giant hornets by swarming the hornet and vibrating together, raising their collective body temperature enough to cook the hornet in a kind of convection oven. “Carl Sagan” tells us how “Carl Sagan calculated [that] the number of probable planets in the universe is ten billion trillion”, and “Paramesse to Tanis” is based on how in 1060 BC, the Egyptian city of Pi-Ramesses – including stone structures like statues – was moved 20km to the North to follow the shifting Nile tributary on which the city depended.

Tramsmitted through Emperor Yes’ music, these pieces of information take on a poignancy you don’t often find in science or history textbooks, though. The bees in “Wasps” sing:

It’s time to get together,
show what we can do
You hold onto me
and I’ll hold onto you

“Carl Sagan” concludes “so even if we’re really not alone, in all practical terms we are”, and the upbeat chorus of “Paramesse to Tanis” proclaims:

If you help me pull this mountain across the burning desert
If you help me, there’s nothing we cannot do.

The uncommon combination of hip electronica with unpretentious history and science geeking, as well as the refreshing inclusion of emotive upliftment in conversations about science, make Emperor Yes delightfully unique.
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An Island Called Earth is not currently available in South Africa via iTunes or Amazon, but you can listen to it on their bandcamp page, or have a go at acquiring one of their space-infused vinyls.

Arctic Monkeys: AM

4 Dec

Doge is impressed alsoArctic Monkeys’ latest album is slicker than slick. Declared by numerous reviewers to be the English indie rock band’s most American-sounding album yet, AM is bolder and heavier than anything we’ve heard from Arctic Monkeys in the past. Loud, solid bass and drum tracks in combination with fuzzy lead guitar and layered vocals make this album a perfect assimilation of traditional American rock, yet somehow fresher; more complicated.

Flowing from the powerful, provocative bassline of lusty hit single Do I Wanna Know?, through the chaotic anxiety of cross-rhythms in R U Mine?; the sighing, swaying, beseeching No. 1 Party Anthem refrain and the wounded, resigned optimism of Mad Sounds, finally concluding with bitter misery in every slow beat of I Wanna be Yours, the album traces the turbulent journey of being perilously infatuated with someone; perhaps someone pulling you along on a delicate thread.

The title is appropriate too: in its acronym of the band name a reference to the irrational, post-midnight hours in which most of these songs are set; a witty adaption of the common act of lazy naming that is the self-titled album.

Coupled with the album are two of the most creative and fitting music videos I’ve come across in indie rock. Do I Wanna Know? is about the aptest representation of synaesthesia I have ever seen, and its disquieting, Freudian morphing of images impressively mirrors Gerald Scarfe’s work in Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

Why’d you only call me when you’re high?, perhaps in a subtle hats-off to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, presents an astute hallucinogenic representation of drunken obsession.

Overall, I think AM  is a brilliant album in that every track, whilst fitting in well with the album, stands on its own as a unique song.The masterful interplay between dense, attentive instrumental layering and raw basics (particularly in tracks like Snap out of it  and Do I Wanna Know?) is a new height for Arctic Monkeys, however I feel this is somewhat tarnished by the abundance of weak endings in this album. It feels like pure laziness that after so craftily weaving together such tight, catchy instrumental, so many of these songs end very roughly and unimaginatively. Whilst there is something to be said for the surprising sudden-stop ending, it gets repetitive when you hear it five or six times in the space of 40 minutes.

Arcade Fire: Reflektor

3 Dec

Nestled within Arcade Fire’s Reflektor are some of the most thought-provoking, emotive and, above all, beautiful metaphors I have come across in music.

The long-awaited follow-up to The Suburbs (2010) is an 82-minute dreamscape on two discs. The tracks are long and, although not quite a concept album, interact with one another; picking up repeated themes from different perspectives to form a roundedness of reflection not often found in shorter – however poetic – indie rock songs. As a result, Reflektor presents not simply as an album but as a long, cyclical conversation. The end tracks of both discs – each a ten-minute ramble of differing instrumental parts, which, although discordant, follow smoothly and nonsensically on from one another – ground the album’s varied subject matter within a timeless, dreamlike atmosphere.

It’s very difficult to pick out favorite songs from such a cohesive flow of music, but I will say that Here comes the Night Time is a poignant critique of the present-day church’s judgment and exclusion of the masses – all framed within upbeat, calypso-style steel drum instrumental – and tracks 2 through 5 of Disc 2 really floored me. Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice) and It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus) form a contrasting duo adding new insight into the Greek mythical characters of Orpheus and Eurydice, and bringing their romantic plight into contemporary relevance.

Following Here comes the Night Time‘s references to an exclusive, musicless kingdom of heaven, Afterlife draws a heartwrenching parallel between life after death and after the rupturing of a romantic bond.

And you say
“Oh, when love is gone
Where does it go?”
And where do we go?
Where do we go?

Is this the afterlife?
It’s just an afterlife with you.

Reflektor will give long-time Arcade Fire fans more of their favorite music to revel in even more deeply and widely, and new listeners some somber mental labyrinths to explore.

Noah and the Whale’s Last Night on Earth

29 Dec

Noah and the Whale‘s Last Night on Earth is a country-inspired album of folky indie-rock narratives brimming with raw-sounding instrumental pieces and retro-style synth work.

Its lyrics are rife with imagery, and although the songs are upbeat in melody, the stories they tell often twist down dark social corridors.

What was particularly striking to me about this album was the music video for “Life is Life”, whose lyrics touch on the common human experience of wanting to abandon one’s own life, in a sense to escape one’s own self. I don’t want to give the game away about how they put this across in terms of imagery, suffice it to say that I was impressed by the video’s initial confusion and sudden twist of clarity at the end.

Noah and the Whale work well with wordplay in their lyrics and offer commentary that is thought-provoking when applied to one’s own context.

Feist: Metals

28 Dec

Broken Social Scene member Feist’s fourth solo album is another one of highly-skilled Indie-Folk-Pop.

Feist has a powerful voice. Whilst she clearly has the capacity to belt every word out at the top of her lungs à la Florence and the Machine, in most of her songs she opts, rather, to sing softly and amplify her vocal recordings, resulting in a notably textured, dynamic and emotive vocal sound.

Feist also plays her dynamics well, oscillating swiftly between bare vocals backed by subtle acoustic guitar and the fuller sound created by prominent vocal harmonies in “The Circle married the Line”, and the final minute and a half of “Undiscovered First” – shouted boisterously over a strong, forceful percussion track – contributes to the entire album as a dynamical outlier, adding more sensitivity by comparison to tracks like “Cicadas and Gulls”.

In addition to emotively-harnessed vocals and skillful work with dynamics, Feist’s music is richly instrumentally-layered. “The Bad in Each Other” – strongly folk-influenced and garbed in wise, true lyrics – exemplifies this, and “Anti Pioneer”, interwoven with Jazz and Blues, displays an ear for tiny but memorable details in the soft, shrouded however poignant piano part that comes into it towards the end.

Feist’s music is excellently finished in terms of its instrumental composition, its dynamics, and of course the rare level of sensitivity in Feist’s vocals.

 

A Fine Fleet of Foxes indeed

14 Dec

Fleet FoxesHelplessness Blues has the folk enthusiast in me cavorting around a metaphysical campfire in an imaginary forest somewhere in amongst my viscera.

This five-year-old band (that is, the band has been officially active for about five years. It is not comprised of five-year-olds. That would be mad.) presents a blend of baroque-inspired indie-folk-rock heavy with string instrumental, intricately-picked acoustic guitar-work, innovative percussion, chordal vocal harmonies and the leading vocals of Robin Pecknold, which, as well as sounding similar to those of Bob Dylan, reflect a subtle but nonetheless obvious Dylan influence in the melodies they depict.

Channeling soulful, relatable lyrics and sterling instrumental work is a mastery of volume and tempo dynamics extremely impressive for a band only releasing their second studio album. Helplessness Blues makes sudden switches from quiet, intimate moments to belted-out, multi-instrumental gallivants which create the feeling of having a private, contemplative moment alone in a room suddenly put into song by the band of enthusiastic musicians who have been hiding in the closet all the while. Whilst this  (repeated) occurence could easily have shocked or disgruntled listeners, Fleet Foxes have managed to blend together their drastic dynamic differences smoothly enough to flow (albeit quickly) rather than jolt, resulting in a musical experience that is exciting much rather than jarring. (“Sim Sala Bim” is a prime example of this amazing dynamic-phenomenon.)

On the other end of the “dynamics” scale, “Blue Spotted Tail” is a beautiful, bewildered ballad featuring only guitar and Pecknold’s vocals all the way through… although it fades straight into the very-much-louder “Grown Ocean”, which is the closest thing to straight rock you’re going to get from Helplessness Blues (good grief, it even has a “1-2-1-2-3-4” drumstick count-in)(Those count-ins are easily one of the most exciting things in generic pop-rock, by the way.) This track, in contrast with “Blue Spotted Tail”, is fast-paced and heavily underlined by a solid bass-pedal beat most of the way through, until it ends with 30 seconds of bare two-part vocal harmony with wind-chimes in the background.

The album’s title derives from a lyric in its title track (“Helplessness Blues”), which questions our society’s notions of careerism and the function of personal individuality within a pyramid structure of corporate servitude.

Helplessness Blues is a perfected collection of raw, real-sounding recordings which are powerful for their artful piecing-together. The album is an absolute triumph to the Baroque-Inspired Indie-Folk-Rock genre.

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Post Scriptum: For anyone religiously reading these posts: yes, I am still two posts behind. I was going to catch up today, but instead continued to feel about as sickened as a hipster in a franchise store. More reviews are going to have to wait until I no longer feel like the rainforest that is my immune system is being nommed by tiny, tiny fuel corporations. Thank-you and good night.