Five albums from August 2016 you may have missed
Throughout a given month, I start digging for new music and making notes. On a good month, I get something that resembles a paragraph together before three weeks have passed. Then I realize I have to assemble about fifteen more before my editor starts emailing me with the caps lock on.
This month was going pretty well and then out of nowhere Frank Ocean came out with his long-awaited follow-up and I, like everyone else, turned my attention towards that. The zeitgeist was being created and streamed exclusively on Apple Music (bastards), so I renewed my subscription and made a mental note to cancel it again before the month rolled over. Now that I’ve realised I have spent $11.99 on the privilege to stream an album that I could’ve just purchased for roughly the same price. I’m feeling slightly taken advantage of by the state of exclusive releases, and nervous that my hipster friends will call me out for not knowing who produced the latter half of the album.
But I’m putting Frank on standby for the moment and am turning my attention back to the albums that also had me excited during August.
Home Wrecking Years
Fans of Broken Social Scene know it can be a long drought between albums. It takes years for the Toronto collective to get together, record their sprawling and beautifully messy version of rock n roll, tour the world, and remind audiences they’re still one of the finest acts around. Fortunately for us, many of the band’s members stay busy in the off-season. Last year, BSS frontman Kevin Drew gave us Darlings, his second solo album, and this year we get Home Wrecking Years, the third solo album from BSS co-founder and bassist Brendan Canning. Canning’s first solo album was called Something for All of Us… and as it turns out that title could’ve been used for his latest effort as it does a pretty good job of confidently hopping through genres and taking the listener along for the ride.
The album’s second track,”Vibration Walls,” is a straightforward rocker that bathes the listener in a warm wall of sound and vocals. It does little more than just let the music breathe and when it’s done by Broken Social Scene affiliates that can be a very pleasant thing. Then there’s the sunny beam of bossa nova in the album’s third track, “Keystone Dealers.” I’m still trying to figure out if the song is about a car salesmen or drugs, or something else entirely, but the music is too beautiful and warm for me to do any serious contemplation as to the central message being sung through the song’s delicate vocals. I know Toronto is about the furthest place from Brazil, but the song does a great job of capturing the melody and tempo that invoke thoughts of a lazy day on a beach in Copacabana or Ipanema – of maybe just on a porch having a beer with your friends during the dog days of summer.
Following on from that “Hey Markia,” “Get Born” storms in like a lost riff from the Grateful Dead. Depending on your feelings towards The Dead, this could either be a positive or a negative thing, but at this point in the album Canning and his backing band has already pulled off a diverse and enjoyable series of songs so in the greater context of the album it fits as yet one more exploratory dive. “Once I Was a Runner” is the sunny yacht rock number, and a song like “Nashville Late Pass” sounds like it belongs on a Broken Social Scene album (in fact, look out for some of these tracks if you see BSS live).
The good news is that Broken Social Scene has announced a new album, and Leslie Feist has even mentioned that she’ll be joining, so it’s hard not to already look ahead with eager anticipation. Until then, Home Wrecking Years is more than just a nice supplement. It’s an album that’s extremely easy to enjoy while we wait for the BSS bombast to come back into our lives.
Here we go. Another deliciously dark album cover, another album title with a roman numeral, this time starting over from numero uno. It’s been four years since we last heard from Crystal Castles, and in their case, the hiatus is more understandable than a lot of other bands. After a split between instrumentalist Ethan Kath and vocalist Alice Glass some wondered if a recovery was even possible. It’s hard to replace such a fiery presence as Glass, even if the project began as Kath’s alone. After all, Kath was the guy in the corner while Glass howled like a badass banshee front and center – sometimes on crutches, other times with broken ribs – her dedication to the cause at the risk of her own health was insanely intense and people loved her for it.
Glass went on to pursue her own direction, the vitriol settled a bit, and now Crystal Castles have returned with a bit of a reboot that’s more successful than most movie franchises. Taking over vocals is new singer named Edith Frances and she brings her own distinct talents to the album. She’s not trying to be Glass, but she’ll definitely hold her own when she has to sing some of the older songs live – that is, if they play many at all. There’s enough on Amnesty (I) to make for a compelling live set on their own.
When the sputtering trap beat and morphed vocals of “Femen” introduce themselves in the opening track, it’s the perfect combination of intrigue and menace that Crystal Castles excel so well at. “Enth” hearkens back to early raver synth structures but Frances’s vocals fly over the top like a hawk that’s just found its quarry. You’d be forgiven if, like me, it made you think ofneon-litt hallways into dark clubs somewhere in a dystopian city.
Songs “Sadist” and “Chloroform” both sound like warped nursery rhymes with Frances singing softly over the minor notes. Her vocal range is able to give every song exactly what it needs to be successful whether she’s singling delicately, loudly, or sampled and looped into oblivion. Final track “Their Kindness is a Charade” is able to capture intensity and tranquility into a single song that summarizes the album quite nicely. Yes, the walls are streaked with thick pulses of synth and decay, but that’s not the only thing the group does well. Even the more tranquil songs still manage to be thrilling in their own way, probably because this is a Crystal Castles album and you never know what’s around the corner.
Amnesty (I) is a much-welcome step forward and something that should have no problems rattling PA systems.
Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein
Stranger Things OST, Vol. 1
Netflix is great at giving people what they want. When Stranger Things came out it became the word-of-mouth bingeworthy hit that the network may or may not have banked on (note to Netflix: Give the Duffer brothers all your money and stop letting Baz Luhrmann write blank checks). A lot of us scarfed down the first season as fast as our bandwidth allowed, and we’ve had a lot of conversations, some of which had to do with the excellent music from Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein. It wasn’t long after the show had become a sensation that Netflix also decided to release the much-beloved soundtrack that had as many people enthralled as the show itself.
Dixon and Stein weren’t traditional score composers by trade. The Austin-based musicians also make music in another group called S U R V I V E, and have a new album coming out in September, which also happens to be when Vol. 2 of the Stranger Things soundtrack will be released, so we’re really going to have to make some hard decisions as to which album from the Dixon & Stein oeuvre we’ll choose to review next month.
Even though some of this music might sound familiar, it still holds new surprises when being listened to on its own. Sure, the opening theme will always conjure images of the show’s awesome intro and that gorgeous shifting Stephen King-esque font, but beyond that you will hear music that you may not have consciously acknowledged while watching the series. Song “Eleven” (named after, well, Eleven) is at times uncertain and other times hopeful. It’s a perfect musical sketch for the troubled character we came to love and cheer for. If you were to listen to this song unaware of its name you might just close your eyes and sink into the atmosphere that the music slowly builds. “The Upside Down” is as mysterious as the dark parallel world that it’s named after. At over five minutes in length the music is able to convey the darkness of the place through bent and skewed notes that did so well at helping to communicate the overall unease the characters felt when entering the place. “Castle Byers” does a good job of hearkening into a John Hughes pastiche at the beginning before leveling out into something one might think they’ve heard from The Neverending Story (compliment).
At 36 tracks there’s a lot to get through here. Song titles range from “She’ll Kill You,” “No Autopsy,” “Joyce and Lonnie Fighting,” and “Hazmat Suits” among others. I’d say that this isn’t for casual fans of the show, but then again, I don’t know any casual fans of Stranger Things, which means if you’ve watched the series the soundtrack definitely deserves a listen.
Electronic music has become an increasingly difficult genre to stand out in, and the latest release from Rival Consoles could invoke something that listeners may not associate with a lot of electronic music: emotion. Rival Consoles is the project of Ryan Lee West, a producer from the UK. Last year he released Howl, a great album that I’m still trying to fully digest, and now, not too long after that, we are treated to a new “mini album” called Night Melody. It’s hard to keep up with this guy. He has a lot he wants to say (or, invoke) and it makes for some exciting moments.
True to its name, Night Melody, seems apt for a movie scene where a metropolis is being filtered through a moving car window at night. West even commented on the composition process: “I found myself, in a silent home, with the days getting dark very early. I’ve never before in my life been affected by the lack of light so much. I just remember it always being night time. I would either make music into the night, go out drinking with friends, or go to parties and dance into the early hours, every day, week after week, month after month, until eventually the days became brighter again.” Sounds pretty awesome as well as an interesting perspective on embracing the darker hours of the day as a positive, rather than a negative experience.
At only six songs the short track list is a bit of a bait and switch. There’s some major density to this music and much like his previous album, requires multiple listens to digest. Opener “Pattern of the North” has several different movements that shape shift and morph into one another, taking the listener through a comprehensive journey of sound in just under six minutes. The beat is very little beyond a steady bass drum but it’s the perfect vessel for propelling the fuzzy synths that sound like they’re being flicked out from a helicopter propeller. Song “Johannesburg” makes the user feel like they’re chasing a horizon line, ever hopeful as tightly-wound synths pluck their way through the atmospherics until it gives way to a crescendo that shares more in common with post-rock instrumentalism than it does with the frameworks of melody a lot of electronic music tends to employ. Often times it’s going for the big build up and when it delivers it’s pretty damn satisfying. Every song offers a unique lesson in how to build, sustain, and release something engaging and searching to bring a human aspect out of what some people might assume to be cold machinery.
Russian Circles has always made music that sounds like more than the sum of their three members. There are power trios, and then there are these guys. They tend to land on the heavier spectrum of instrumental rock. That’s not to say they can’t craft an amazing melody or sense of ambience, but when it comes time to get heavy they do it better than most of their peers. But sometimes the freedoms that come with being an instrumental band also pose some constraints. How does a three-piece – sans vocalist – keep things fresh, especially when it’s their sixth album in ten years? I’m sure for some the answer would be to crank out the same seven-plus minute tracks they’ve been known for in the past. Turns out that this time around, the Chicago trio are keeping their songs shorter and sweeter (as did Explosions in the Sky earlier this year with The Wilderness, which is also great) and when I say “shorter and sweeter” I mean “under seven minutes.”
Things start out light and somewhat cinematic with the first track, “Asa.” Towering atmosphere is created with little more than an introspective guitar melody the song lingers and takes its time before the band take flight. “Vorel,” the next song, is thick and propulsive. Out of the spiraling guitar and driving drum pattern a chugging metal interval hits hard and lets the listener know that the group is forever unafraid to venture into aggressive places.
Following on from that, “Mota” is nothing short of celestial, which is a bit of a welcome respite, but also a display of range the group is capable of. This continues in one of the albums brighter melodies on the middle track, “Africa.” The sky opens up just for a bit, leaving the listener to contemplate which county the tornado just carried them over to. Towards the latter half of the album the song “Overboard” might just be something that could bring Sigur Rós fans to the table. And that’s what’s so great about Russian Circles. One moment you’re being dragged through auditory sludge and the next you’re ascending into orbit. The band doesn’t shift on a dime so much as make you wonder how they got from point A to B, and then to C without you ever noticing in the first place.
Russian Circles are currently on tour in the US until the end of October. If you get the chance, head out and see them. As someone who has been lucky enough to experience one of their live sets I can say that you might just experience a kind of caterwauling transcendence.