(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, April 16, 2015

What's cool? White Reaper, "Make Me Wanna Die"

Breaking up never sounded so easy

White Reaper's secret super power comes from the the synth-pop keyboards that sneak in during the first break of "Make Me Wanna Die". Up until that moment, it's easy to pigeonhole them as another set of low--fi, power-pop garage rockers from somewhere in the U.K. The punk sneer and throbbing downstroke guitar are anchored by a dead simple beat and pulsing bass -- it all sounds fine, but when the Cars-style synth riff drops, the poppy bounce is completely unexpected. Another surprise is that despite singing with a slight British accent, Tony Esposito and the band are from Louisville, Kentucky. I'm guessing they spent a lot of time listening to the Sex Pistols and the Ramones, but they've found their own unique balance.

"Make Me Wanna Die" is a mixed up little gem, but in a fun way. It's a break up song, celebrating that moment right after the split is out in the open, when all you want to do is walk away and put it behind you. The relentless beat captures that discomfort and restless impatience, but the poppy keys say that they knew it was never going to work out anyway, and we should all just get over it.

White Reapers full length debut, White Reaper Does It Again, is due out in mid-July. That will be a treat.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Recording review - Föllakzoid, III (2015)

Sink into hypnotic rhythms and dark echoes


World music -- that vague catch-all label -- largely falls into two flavors, neither of which reflect too well on the Westerners who coined the term. The bulk of it is “delightfully exotic” or “strange but cool”, showcasing some culture’s musical heritage, but repackaged in easy to digest servings to appeal to the jaded palate. Worse than that are the half breed mutants that hover between appropriation and cargo-cult aspiration, sometimes with rock artists harnessing foreign musicians without understanding their cultural context, other times with those musicians trying with mild success to emulate Western pop. Even so, I’ll confess that I’ve enjoyed my share of all of these, sometimes with a frisson of guilt.

Föllakzoid’s sophomore album, III, neatly sidesteps this minefield by focusing on their creative vision and building rich, long-form trance excursions. The Chilean trio taps into a hypnotic flow that has served numerous traditions from Indian ragas and Sufi dervishes to Krautrock drives and dancehouse electronica. Their music may draw somewhat on South American rhythms, but those influences don’t stick out as much as the motorik percussion, Indian polyrhythms, trance psychedelia, and Goth rock moodiness. Why waste time pedantically analyzing the cultural referents or feeling hiply superior when you can surrender to the swirling syncopation and trippy echoes?

III is a full length album split into four tracks, but the songs seem to share thematic elements even as they change up their production. In particular, the first two tracks, “Electric” and “Earth” have a lot in common: each begins with syncopated beats built from echoed percussion, they build into trancy electronica, and they feature heavily reverbed vocals. But the two songs develop completely different moods. “Electric” latches on to a slinky bass groove that pushes into Ozric Tentacles territory. Electronic washes and a deep, pensive throb create a beautiful tension that complements the crystalline bite of guitar and gives a surreal edge to the faint vocals that sounds like distant PA announcements. The song wraps up with a sci-fi flavored interlude featuring robotic sound effects and shimmering static.

“Earth” rises from this sonic soundscape with a metallic percussion that develops into a deep tribal rhythm. The bass is strong here, too, but now it’s heavy and impassive, reminding me a bit of Joy Division. The effect is much darker than the first track, suggesting shadowy hallways where barely noticeable electronic grinding suggests alien threats lurking just out of sight. Despite that undercurrent of danger, there’s also a thoughtful element as the piece hypnotically wraps in on itself, occasionally running into dead ends and moving on while the echoes hang on a little bit.

The shortest piece, “Feuerzeug”, closes out the album with an intense nine minutes of pensive Krautrock that ambraces the Gothic sounds of Joy Division and Bauhaus. The main theme is thick with tension and has me expecting to hear Ian Curtis break in with the vocals for “Transmission”. Then some heavier flashes of guitar against the steady beat suggest Bauhaus’ “Terror Couple Kill Colonel”. At the same time, Föllakzoid aren’t aping those bands. They make their own statement by playing with the sonic palette to blend in harsher, low-fi tones that contrast against the softening echoes and electronic touches. They fill in a host of disjointed details that drift in and out before the song gradually deconstructs itself.

If III has a weakness, it’s one that many trance-oriented projects share: it’s too easy for a casual listener to dismiss the whole collection as repetitive and miss the nuances between the songs.“Feuerzeug” may stand as the best argument against that criticism, but I think that Föllakzoid could have varied the tempos a little more to create more differentiation. Ultimately, those are minor issues that won’t distract as you sink under the album’s spell. Best of all, it’s not “world music”; it’s just music, perfect for an early Spring bike ride or as a soul-refreshing barrier against workday monotony .

Thursday, April 9, 2015

What's cool? Moodoïd, Heavy Metal Be Bop 2

And now for something completely different...

If Fark.com has taught us anything, it's that the Japanese are the masters of WTF video. Other countries may throw their hats in the ring, but they seldom offer any threat to the reigning kings. Now Parisian Pablo Padovani (AKA Moodoïd) has risen to the challenge with "Heavy Medal Be Bop 2". To be fair, his video lacks the innocent inscrutability that is the hallmark of Japanese TV, but it's such a hot mess that it overcomes that hurdle with ease. It's become a truism that things can be "so bad they're good," but there's never any doubt that the word "good" is always in air quotes. This video is a veritable double rainbow of campy perfection. I flip-flopped from bad to good so many times during this song, that my sense of irony got whiplash.

Imagine if Andy Warhol, Devo, Lady Gaga, and John Waters went off on a drug binge and had a contest to make the most absurd music video ever. Even if you have trouble with that, Padovani not only imagined it, but he took notes, threw their ideas into a blender, and then made the damn thing. Bizarre fashion, twisted sci-fi surrealism, '80s pop video deconstruction -- "Heavy Metal Be Bop 2" has it all and then some.

The tight, uptempo abstract jazz section at the start doesn't just reference his father, saxophonist Jean-Marc Padovani, but it even bolsters the younger Padovani's essential French credibility. That interlude doesn't last long, as he abruptly pulls an about-face to lay down a chill pop-funk groove. The jazz elements come back later to support a stylized sax solo later in the song. That, along with the muddle of the two genres, suggest why he named the piece in tribute to the Brecker Brothers' Heavy Metal Bebop, but despite the juxtaposition of outside jazz and pop, music is fairly tame compared to the imagery he's chosen. Truth be told, I enjoy his guitar work with Melody's Echo Chamber more than "Heavy Metal Be Bop 2", but the video is so entertaining that all is forgiven.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Recording review - Tree Machines, Tree Machines (2015)

Diffident emotion can't quite stick


Humor me for a moment as I take us back to the early ‘90s and revisit alternative darlings Blind Melon. If it weren’t for 1993’s “No Rain” catching fire on MTV, they probably would have sunk without a trace, but that single pushed their eponymous debut album into everyone’s CD collection. I still have it myself and it’s a decent album. Personally, though, it hasn’t turned out to have true staying power. Maybe if lead singer Shannon Hoon hadn’t died of a drug overdose, they might expanded their sound and impact, but his voice -- plaintive and a bit self-absorbed -- is what anchored their songs, and that alone is just not enough to push it into my rotation anymore.

The problem with Tree Machines’ debut EP is that it’s an indie pop version of Blind Melon, without the hyped single to pump it up. It’s easy to draw the comparison because Douglas Wooldridge’s disengaged whine seems to favor Hoon’s distinctive tone, but it’s also due to a similar songwriting style where the songs get wrapped up in themselves and shut out the rest of the world. Like Blind Melon, Tree Machines create some dreamy moments, but their songs don’t really connect, much less stick. Wooldridge imparts some emotion, but it’s delivered in an offhand, diffident way, lacking urgency or immediacy. As a result, these songs don’t make enough of a statement to rise above the already familiar sound.

"At the Wheel" is a perfect example, because it borrows from Blind Melon with a dram of Jane's Addiction thrown in for good measure. Wooldridge turns in one of his stronger emotional performances with lots of overwrought slurring and the arrangement is theatrical with thick reverb and cymbal wash accents. The hazy music and moody lyrics have a lot of potential; if they had accentuated the contrast between calmness and threat, this could have evoked a sense of sleep paralysis or a dream state of being powerless in the face of fate and trauma. The band shoots for this, with the words painting the shadowy part of the picture while the music remains almost idyllic, channeling a blend of The Youngbloods' "Get Together" and "If You Could Read My Mind" by Gordon Lightfoot. But any tension from the dark imagery is undercut as Wooldridge settles with, "It's dark out here / But I feel no fear at all." The swell of noise at the end is the best part, but it comes too late to add any real weight and I’m left wondering what the point was.

The best songs on Tree Machines come late in the playlist. "The Fire" summons more energy and features the most interesting arrangement here with a strong bass line and nice electronic touches in the background. The song also delivers some good dynamic swings, although the vocals blunt the power with dragged out syllables buried in echo. Still, if the whole album had been like this, it would have been something to get excited about. Similarly, "Black and Blue" effectively balances soft and loud sections to make a bigger impact, and it  features more interesting instrumentation.

Even if Tree Machines is a bit of a disappointment, I’m not ready to write the band off yet. Those two peak moments suggest that they do have some more promising directions to explore.