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

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Recording review - The Fierce And The Dead, Spooky Action (2013)

Post-rock vignettes offer complexity and surprises

Pretty pop songs and simple I-IV-V blues rock jams are all too predictable. Flannel and comfort food have their appeal, but sometimes something stronger is called for. Spooky Action celebrates the idea of being challenged without earning the “difficult listening” label. The Fierce And The Dead build their progressive rock instrumentals with an eye for intriguing structures that ignore cookie-cutter shortcuts. Like jazz, their tonal exploration and rhythmic complexity draw on a richer palette of angles and textures. But where jazz usually forces a choice between relaxed harmonic flows and free jazz chaos, guitarist Matt Stevens and his band embrace the whole gamut, sometimes within a single song. A raw cathartic growl might yield to introspection or a sudden sense of purpose, only to thrash again shortly.

Oftentimes, the band’s animal expression is tied to Kevin Feazey’s rough bass tone. On the album’s first single, “Ark”, he leads the charge with a raspy rallying cry. Soon, he’s flanked by a pair of jangled guitars. The bouncy groove is warm and sunny, but the foggy bass keeps a chill in the air. The tune gradually grows more refined, with interlocking arpeggios sliding into place. By this time, Feazey has been seemingly defanged. But the genteel moment is overturned with a sudden punch of distortion and sharp drum beat that releases the bass to briefly stalk between the ringing guitars. His freedom is quickly curtailed though and the melody asserts a thoughtful control. It suggests that events are falling into place, that ambitions are coming to fruition. Even the bottom end finds a supporting role. But like most plans, this one eventually confronts a harsh reality and the percussive crunch returns. After chaos spends itself in a victorious show of force, order returns, but makes a more tentative sortie. The drums and bass cautiously step forward with a triplet riff and the guitars test the waters with simple expansive notes that lightly echo in space. Growing in confidence, the tune builds in volume and complexity, finally rising to a satisfied climax that balances the beauty of singing guitars and the beastly bass. It’s particularly nice that the band avoids self-indulgence by fitting such progressive excursions into a manageable run time. “Ark” tells its story in about four minutes.

The Fierce And The Dead had its roots in Steven’s solo music, which is filled with ethereal guitar loops. When Steve Cleaton joined for the group’s last EP, On VHS (2012), his guitar and keyboard work pushed the band to develop a rougher edge. “Intermission 3” harks back to their beginnings with a loose ambient flow. Softly hazed echoes and a windswept soundscape set the mood. As sounds swell into view and then fade, there’s the disorienting sense that something is pacing at the edge of perception. The eerie tension finally bleeds off like a fading apparition, lulling the listener. But it’s a false sense of release and the dissipating fog is ripped apart with the transition to the title track. Like a cold splash of water or a jarring slap, “Spooky Action” triggers an adrenaline spike. The tight, staccato rhythm and thick wall of guitar snarl offer a distressed King Crimson vamp as the song takes its time setting the hook. In a trademark dynamic shift, the tune brings the fear to a head then drops into a sun-dappled interlude. Cheery pop guitars and percussion chimes offer a carefree rebuttal to the opening anxiety. The song is permeated with a feeling of acceptance as it picks up a stronger sense of direction. Even the sudden fearful shift back to the opening can’t sabotage the mood completely. Taken together, these two songs form a joint view of the supernatural. “Intermission 3” sets up the mystery of the unknown, the start of “Spooky Action” captures a shocking confrontation with the unexpected and underneath it all, the third panel promises more comforting possibilities. Ultimately, the fear remains with the band unwilling to cocoon themselves away from their unsettling encounter.

While Cleaton certainly drives the punch on “Spooky Action”, his influence feels strongest on “I Like It, I’m Into It”. The heavy track opens with a blend of Thrak-era King Crimson and pulsating acid rock. Stuart Marshall’s drumming is exquisite, providing the perfect framework for the 15/8 grind, then exploding into flamboyance for the turn around breaks. This time, the dynamic drop has its own flavor. The last guitar note hangs while the bass thumps its way through a post punk march. When the guitar joins in, it’s ejected the distortion for a crystalline chime. The piece builds with repetition to wind itself into a classic rock jam and psychedelic lead before closing out on a tightly synchronized finish.

The evocative songs on Spooky Action serve up a stream of surprises, but maintain a coherent sonic aesthetic that finds resonance in such diverse artists as El Ten Eleven, XTC, Robert Fripp, and Black Flag. The bite-sized pieces evolve and develop into fully formed vignettes. It’s no wonder that Stevens and the band are making such a splash on the post-rock scene, with a Limelight nomination this year at Prog Magazine. Surrounded by trivial music, the Fierce And The Dead‘s instrumentals are a bracing tonic.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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