Red Orchid – Blood Vessels & Marshmallows (post-rock)
self released, 2011, DD album, 1hr 22s
$5 (CD album $12)
Heavy rock music of various sorts has a long standing relationship with the avant-garde, and the more ‘serious’ end of ‘popular’ music (I may put a lot of ‘things’ in quote marks, but it’s not my ‘fault’ if every term in ‘music’ means something other than its ‘literal’ definition!). Metal’s most fertile ongoing point of intersection is in the place where black metal meets drone, a set of practices many of which exist in the rarified air of ‘modern music’, well away from the popular. There is however a parallel area, a less abstruse zone, where some of the more thoughtful metal practitioners find themselves drifting into post-rock territory. (The term ‘post-metal’ is floating about, but I’ll be giving it a decade or so before I decide what it meant.)
Red Orchid play a brand of post-rock (with a modicum of singing) that includes an obvious, but not defining, influence of the heavy. It’s enough to make them stand out, but in a way that doesn’t disrupt the general accessibility of the genre, with a lot of nice textures and pleasing melodic materials in play. Blood Vessels & Marshmallows is an exemplary album, in that it is serious, creative, even experimental music, yet there is nothing about it that is deliberately exclusive; there is nothing to listen past to get at the meanings of the work, and while this dissembles, rather than erases difficulties, it obviously gives the band’s message a much broader reach.
Artists in other, more ‘arty’ genres have realised that there’s a lot to say with simple harmonies and pleasing textures. The piano line in ‘Drown With Me’ reminds me of EST, not just in its melodic contour, but in its faux-tentative phrasing, which just goes to show how far Red Orchid throw their net. There’s a lot to listen to here, and there’s a lot that just sounds good. I’ll be spending some quality time with this record.
Coeus The Boxing Titan – The Boxing Titan Spawns (industrial rock)
self-released, 2011, DD album, 1hr 20s
I always enjoy hearing rock music that’s progressive, as opposed to ‘progressive rock’, which for bizarre historical reasons means rock music that’s conservative. Coeus The Boxing Titan (what a name!) incorporate a lot of artfully shaped electronic elements into their sound, in a way that can sensibly be described as industrial rock, but without really sounding like any other industrial rock. They also incorporate sounds from elsewhere in the rock pantheon, such as the lovely electric piano tinkles to be heard in ‘This Time’.
In fact, there’s a lot of electric piano on this album, which is one factor in its uniqueness: more important though is its approach to using its various sonic resources, in which distortions are given space to articulate themselves, and sounds are valued for their individual character, rather than all being hammered together into a homogenous stream of industrial rock plasma. There’s a sense of something assembled from components, not vacuum moulded, something that could fall apart if someone was going to the trouble of holding it all together creatively.
That creativity is equally manifest in the writing, with melodies that are pretty straightforward, but not bound by conventionality, as in the echoes of Scottish pipe tunes I could hear in ‘February, This Is For You’. This music has been lovingly crafted, but by hands that know when to stop fiddling, and certainly do not smooth off all the rough edges. It has been crafted to a strong artistic agenda, as well, one that stalks menacingly across its soundscapes like Coeus himself might (if he actually had any part to play in the mythology that spawned him). This is great. I’m officially recommending it.
Pixieguts – I Sand (electronica)
self released, 2011, DD album, 57m 8s
$name your price
Pixieguts is one of those intarwebz connections: a Twitter friend said nice things about a collaborative project of hers, which I followed up (and will soon be reviewing), so I thought I’d check out her own stuff. I Sand is her most recent release. It compiles a number of collaborations, tracks credited to other artists, to whom she lends her vocals. The earlier releases available from her Bandcamp page are similar, but there the music is all ascribed to her, with a (recurring) crew of collaborators credited. It’s not clear if this is merely a shift in emphasis, or a change in her working practices. Either way, single artistic statement or artfully curated compilation, the album is pretty coherent in sound and style, although it is also varied enough to keep the listener on their toes.
There’s some euphoric sounding funky house (‘The Beat Of You’ by Voide), some skittering electro (‘Blink Blink’ by Adrian Carter), a strongly Eurythmics flavoured synth ballad (‘Distant’ by Max Waves), some more glitchy, experimental textures… All are produced to a very high standard, and all are animated by Pixieguts’ smooth, smoky contralto. I’m assuming that the usual arrangement is they produce, she sings, but I could be wrong (and I’m too lazy to ask her).
Although it has an obvious influence on the atmosphere of each track to have the same voice in it, the singer herself has clearly chosen to work with these people, and there are distinct similarities, across their disparate styles. There’s a bright, transparent ambience, almost a Brazilian feel to the tracks, and although in some ways there are major contrasts, it still makes perfect aural sense for these tunes to be presented together. Pixieguts is a truly excellent singer, and the material is great. Give this a listen.
Run For It – No You Ain’t, We Is (pop punk)
Painted Ox Records, 2011, DD album, 31m 49s
Mining the crack between punk’s energy and the heart-on-sleeve melodicism of heartland rock (with particular echoes of Tom Petty), Run For It pursue their goals with admirable single-mindedness. Pop punk has undergone a sonic transformation over the years, from a sparse and angular affair, full of skittish jangling and, well, space, into a pumped up, full range piledriver, formed from guitar sounds so thick and rich they would once have been instantly classified as heavy rock. Ironically enough, No You Ain’t, We Is’s guitar sounds frequently remind me of Never Mind The Bollocks, a record that never really sounded very punk, and the most produced album of the first wave. Everything is layered up, compressed and normalised until the effect becomes almost claustrophobic, and although there are certainly dynamics in the arrangements, the effect for me was of a dessert that’s slightly too sweet to taste properly. Although there is a broad enough dynamic range between quiet bits and loud bits, there’s precious little range within the loud bits, which more or less eliminates any potential for the music to sound raw or ragged.
Having said that, this style of punk stands at a particular historical point where that’s the norm, and Run For It are living in that world. They write songs that strike the exact balance of energy and melancholy, with that essential sense of nostalgia for the recent past, and they perform their material impeccably, from the heartfelt vocals to the highly skilled, and idiomatically precise, instrumental work. If contemporary pop-punk is your bag, you won’t go far wrong with this album, which oozes so much earnest intensity that I would challenge anyone to actually dislike it.