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Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Antlers: Burst Apart


1) I Don't Want Love; 2) French Exit; 3) Parentheses; 4) No Windows; 5) Rolled Together; 6) Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out; 7) Tiptoe; 8) Hounds; 9) Corsicana; 10) Putting The Dog To Sleep.

Perhaps the best thing about Hospice, when you think about it once again, was that the album at least made the world sit up and notice the Antlers (or, rather, that part of the world that is still capable of sitting up, let alone noticing anything of real value). After all, how easy is it just to ig­nore a conceptual record about a nurse-patient relationship in a hospice? With tense psycholo­gism like that, centered around life/death/moral/ethics questions, Hospice fit right into the center of modern trends. Had the music been obviously, grotesquely bad, that would have given the re­viewers a good pretext for killing these guys off; but the music is... questionable, and in conjunc­tion with the controversial subject matter, here was a good chance to reap an impressive bunch of five-star clusters falling from the sky.

What this means to me, in the department of «good news», is that this reception gave an equally good chance to Silberman's next album — Burst Apart, as far as I'm concerned, is far superior to Hospice, but it probably would not have generated half as much publicity if it were not preceded by the intense red alert of Hospice's album sleeve. Even despite having better songs divided by fewer ambitions. «You do the math», to quote the Avett Brothers' favourite line of banter.

Perhaps having built up a little cash (and a lot more self-confidence), Silberman now expands the Antlers' instrumentation, adding mandolins, organs, and whatever else he may get his hands on; the skeptical result is that it all still sounds just like his bedroom demos in the end, only louder and bigger. But he also writes better songs. Granted, 'I Don't Want Love' opens the album in a ve­ry Hospiceable mood — another bitter-angelic declaration of broken dreams delivered from high up in a puffy cloud, ungraspable by mere mortal: proverbially gorgeous, frustratingly unmemo­rable. And it's not the only such composition here.

But elsewhere, Silberman gets a bit snappier, capable of pricking your senses rather than just huf­fing and puffing at them. For instance, 'Parentheses' incorporates a smoky, funky, trip-hop groove somewhat reminiscent of classic Portishead, and is occasionally drowned in ominous alarm siren effects — against this sort of background even Silberman's already well-familiar falsetto gets sar­castic, disillusioned, even mocking overtones, a fine contrast with his usual starry-eyed shtick. (And it is totally up to you to decide if lines like "I'm a bad amputee, with no phantom memory / So close up your knees, and I'll close your parentheses" constitute great modern poetry or a clum­sy, ugly, pretentious heap of words, but this is definitely the first time I have encountered the word "parentheses" in the context of a pop song, let alone in its title).

The album's climax, however, is — without a single doubt — 'Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out', one of this century's finest «emo» tunes written by a non-emo artist. Or, actually, it is such a terrific Cure send-up, I'm sure Robert Smith would kill (or, at least, consent to gaining another fifty pounds of body mass) to add this little gem to his own catalog. It is just a good old-fashioned mope-pop tune, bleak, desperate, but moving fast and in a strongly-determined manner towards a brilliantly planned — if not nearly as brilliantly executed, due to Silberman's lack of technical ex­perience — crescendo. Bottomline: don't try too hard — respect the good old golden middle — you might just end up with a real, not fake tear-jerker in the end.

The musicianship, overall, is still not all that impressive, but Silberman's friends are slowly try­ing to turn the Antlers into a real band — Darby Cicci's strange «jug-bass» work on 'French Exit' is worth paying attention, and, although Michael Lerner leans way too heavy on the big robot drums of his 1980s childhood, for the purposes of the Antlers this style really works. It's like an «anti-commercial adult contemporary» thing, taking many of the clichés of the past decades' soft entertainment and turning them on their heads. It's okay. And on 'Every Night' he just drums like a fine Brit-popper of the old school — perfectly suited to Silberman's retroish guitar licks.

In short, not all of this journey is as smooth as I'd like to, but by the time they get around to the grand finale of 'Putting The Dog To Sleep', they get me. At the risk of sounding way inconsistent, I am somehow far more moved by Silberman's soulful singing from the point of view of an abo­ut-to-be-exterminated animal than from that of a hospice worker (or patient). Maybe because this time around we know it's just a little allegory, a bit of rock theater, rather than a pretense at get­ting so close to the point of ultimate understanding of life and death. Maybe it's something else, but it's a good epic finale all the same.

Thumbs up on all levels — this is still nowhere near a masterpiece, but they just might be get­ting close. And, above all, it is imperative that Silberman try to branch out in as many directions as possible: stuff like 'Every Night...' shows that his gift is not confined to cloudbursting falsetto arias, and since, by this point, he has most probably taken that type of aria as high as it could go with him, he'd be an idiot not to try to understand the scope of that gift. Of course, I do not mean branching off into hardcore punk or anything like that, but... the less predictability from these guys, the better.

Check "Burst Apart" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Burst Apart" (MP3) on Amazon

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Amorphis: The Karelian Isthmus


1) Karelia; 2) The Gathering; 3) Grail's Mysteries; 4) Warriors Trial; 5) Black Embrace; 6) The Exile Of The Sons Of Uisliu; 7) The Lost Name Of God; 8) The Pilgrimage; 9) Misery Path; 10) Sign From The North Side; 11*) Vul­gar Necrolatry.

Let us get this out of the way first: I do not «get» the appeal of death metal vocals at all. I admire people who are capable of firing up their larynxes that way without having to be rushed to the hos­pital fifteen minutes into one of their shows or recording sessions, and I even admit that an oc­casional usage — in particularly appropriate spots, like on 'Boris The Spider' — of the death me­tal growl may be warranted. But, for all I know, death metal vocalists growl the entire way thro­ugh their LPs simply out of sheer embarrassment that someone might, like, actually make out the lyrics — because, let us admit it, if there is one thing in death metal that may easily compete with the silliness of the ubiquitous chorus of "HHHRRRWWWAAAARRRGHH", it can only be the texts that go along with it.

Of course, Amorphis must be given some leeway in the matter, considering that they come from Finland, where the snow falls heavy and the language belongs to a different family (not that Nor­wegian death metal poems are any better, though, and Norwegians have no linguistic excuse). At the heart of the band is rhythm guitarist/vocalist Tomi Koivusaari, who also writes much of the music, and lead guitarist Esa Holopainen, who writes the rest of the music and bears primary res­ponsibility for the lyrics. Then there's a rhythm section that will remain nameless — and, at this time in their life, there is no keyboard player in the band.

Which, basically, ensures that The Karelian Isthmus is as generic a death metal record as they come. Fourty-five seconds of medieval acoustic intro, followed by ten virtually indistinguishable slabs of metallic doom. (By «virtually» I mean that pretty much every song begins with the same type of crushing power chord — experienced fans, later on, will obviously pick out the differen­ces). The band's style relies primarily on riffage: solo passages are scarce and brief compared to meticulously calculated rhythmic figures, which always come under one of two sauces — «bru­tal low» and «melodic high», with each song usually sharing at least one sub-section of each. The other typical convention of death metal — alternating between slow/ominous and fast/apocalyp­tic — is also well respected throughout.

The album frequently provokes opinion battles: regular death metal fans may swear by it as Amor­phis' finest moment, angry at the band for an early betrayal of the strict form, whereas prog-metal admirers tend to think of it as little other than an early initiation ritual, upon the perfor­mance of which Koivusaari and Holopainen were free to expand their vision. All I can say here is that death metal, ridiculous vocals and teen fantasy lyrics aside, is a fairly difficult thing to mas­ter, and it is somewhat of a dim pleasure to watch the band wind its way through the complex mazes of their riffage regardless of any other considerations. But, for one thing, it's impossible to con­vey or justify this pleasure in a simple, hastily slapped together review; for another, I wouldn't feel like doing it even if I could do it.

Oh yes, if you are really interested, this is also one Amorphis album that deals slightly less with the band's cherished Finnish legacy and slightly more with Celtic and Germanic motives (which may explain the more conventional whiff of their music-making as well; and don't expect me to quote any of the lyrics). And it also gets a thumbs down — respect for the riffage notwithstand­ing, I think I'll still be going along with the prog-metalheads on this one. Generic death metal just ain't my cup of tea — and, for that matter, it is rather Lady Gaga that is the officially anointed prophet of the Apocalypse, than any death metal band in existence.

Check "The Karelian Isthmus" (CD) on Amazon
Check "The Karelian Isthmus" (MP3) on Amazon

Friday, July 29, 2011

Agnostic Front: Cause For Alarm


1) The Eliminator; 2) Existence Of Hate; 3) Time Will Come; 4) Growing Concern; 5) Your Mistake; 6) Out For Blood; 7) Toxic Shock; 8) Bomber Zee; 9) Public Assistance; 10) Shoot His Load.

More chronicles of big city life from New York's trustiest slum kid advocates. Fortunately, there are some changes made, or else I wouldn't know how to write one extra word on Agnostic Front's sophomore release. Musically, they are moving a little bit closer to the metal side of things and — dare I say it? — even a little bit closer to a melodic sound, mostly due to the addition of second guitarist Alex Kinon. «A little bit» in that a few of the riffs are discernible, and some of the solos run up and down the scales just like they are supposed to for heavy metal players.

Add to this that Roger Miret occasionally delivers the lyrics with mildly careful enunciation —after all, if you want to share your tales of street ugliness with the fans, you might as well ensure that the fans understand at least a tenth part of what is being told — throw on some kickass me­tal­lic «gang choruses», and you get as close as this band would ever get to a song-based «album» instead of simply a twenty-minute slab of sonic brutality. Not that Cause For Alarm really isn't a slab of sonic brutality — it most definitely is — but by the average standards of A.F., it almost sounds like a «sissy» album.

Not in its lyrics, though, which scale new levels of animal hatred (either genuine or ironically si­mulated, depending on your own endorsement of hatred and/or irony). "Killing's my business and business is fine" is the line that opens the record — clearly, someone in the band had just turned a big Megadeth fan (Killing Is My Business came out one year before), and another song that «neu­trally» — no subjective evaluation offered whatsoever, except for a couple inconclusive apo­lo­getic remarks — describes the infamous Bernhard Goetz incident ('Shoot His Load') is the album-closer. In between, there's paranoid thought, apo­calyptic thought, anti-religious thought, anti-social thought, and lotsa talk of death and killing.

In an unusual twist, one song — 'Public Assistance' — openly turns against welfare suckers, as if to prove that Agnostic Front are no close-minded, reality-ignoring leftists; politically speaking, this earns them a few extra points for the ability to assess the situation from different angles, but then, discussing the «ideology» of Roger Miret and his friends on a serious level is much like dis­cussing the impact of 'All You Need Is Love' on world struggle for peace. (For the record, I do not deny that there has been an impact — it's just that one needs to embark on a serious quest in order to locate the ones impacted).

Although, for the most part, the band still clings to laconicity, size no longer matters as much to them as it did before. There is even one four-minute song here ('Growing Concern'), with a near-epic structure — a grim drum-and-feedback fade-in, a «long» solo passage, and a slow «despe­rate» coda; it only remained to make the main riff a bit more distinctive, and they could have en­ded up with an all-time hardcore classic. But, on the other hand, that could tempt somebody into ripping one of the songs out of its context — and, just like their debut, Cause For Alarm is an al­bum to be engulfed altogether, in one sitting.

In the «recommendation» department, Cause For Alarm is a better proposition for «non-hard­core fans of hardcore» than Victim In Pain — more lyrically and instrumentally diverse, more tolerable in terms of singing, and the colorful album cover contains no elements of distasteful hy­perbole (after all, no matter how hard and dangerous NYC life could be in the early 1980s, I doubt that anybody out there would volunteer to exchange it for even one year of vacation in the Eastern Europe of 1939-45). On the other hand, supposedly all fans of hardcore are hardcore, so it's hard to see how any of them could view this transition in a positive light. Which, allegedly, ex­plains the next permutation of Agnostic Front.

Check "Cause For Alarm" (CD) on Amazon

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Amazing Blondel: A Foreign Field That Is Forever England


1) Introduction; 2) Seascape; 3) Dolor Dolcis; 4) Willowood; 5) Pavan; 6) Spring Air; 7) Shepherd's Song; 8) Celes­tial Light; 9) Fantasia Lindum; 10) Landscape; 11) Saxon Lady.

No missing this archive release — for anyone who is even mildly interested, that is, in learning what Amazing Blondel were really all about in their prime. Recorded on the band's 1972-73 Eu­ro­pean tour (most of the tracks seem to be from some French club gig), it's a prime slice of live Blondel at their peak — right before Gladwin's departure twisted the neck of the hen with the gol­den eggs — and it's LOADS OF FUN.

Basically, if you had any doubts about it, during the band's live shows the entire presentation was a buffonade — a bunch of jesters that never for one moment thought of their pseudo-recreation of the musical gallantry of old as any sort of «solemn» or «serious» activity. Light entertainment for the ladies and gentlemen of the audience, punctuated every now and then with bad (occasionally, good) jokes, intentionally flubbed notes, village idiot impersonations, and at least one sing-along number that's gotta rank among the goofiest audience-teasers ever put on record.

None of which belies the band's professional reputation: if anything is played «wrong» here, it is played so on purpose, and the group's collective harmonies are every bit as concentrated and con­trolled as they were in the studio. In fact, most of the songs are generally done very much by the book, and the performances themselves do not give you an Amazing Blondel that would be ama­zing in some sort of different way. The album is really treasurable for the atmosphere and the un­predictable surprises — such as singing "I'd screw you if I could" instead of "I'd woo you if I could" ('Willowood') to a stone-faced French audience, whose mastery of «Ænglisc» clearly does not extend that far.

Concerning other individual tracks... well, 'Shepherd's Song', turned into a ten-minute musical joke, may be delightful or annoying, depen­ding on your DNA structure, but is definitely unforgettable (how could one forget an aggressive­ly out-of-tune crumhorn?). 'Seascape' and 'Landscape', stripped of their orchestral arrangements, may please one more if the orchestration on England seemed too corny and overbearing (not to me, though). And 'Fantasia Lindum' is here complete in all of its 20-minute glory (one of the bits, 'Celestial Light', is even done twice).

Although I am usually wary of live albums that go over their heads in attempts to be lightweight and funny, Blondel were all right. They'd built up this weird collective personality that was, in it­self, much more English than the music they performed, and the album shows that they were fully capable of upholding it at least for the running length of one performance. Thumbs up. Not sure if Rupert Brooke would enjoy the joke at his expense, though.

Check "A Foreign Field That Is Forever England" (MP3) on Amazon
Check "A Foreign Field That Is Forever England" (MP3) on Amazon