Viarosa - Where The Killers Run (Bonus Track Version)
From the first strum of the guitar to the last, this album is an impressive set of songs that are both melodically beautiful and appropriately melancholy in their feel. The dynamics of folk, bluegrass and rock are off the charts. Each song has the unexpected ability to morph from a slow ballad to a hard-hitting rock song and vice versa. The back and forth vocals of Richard Neuberg and Emma Seal is stark as it is versatile. Neuberg, the front man, is well-supported by the feminine vocal touches that punctuate most of the songs and when Seal has her own solo moments, she often steals the show. This is a duo that would challenge the best of the best in male/female duos. The thing I love about this album the most, though, is that it plays just as well as background music as it does when intently listening. This is music that truly moves my soul. Even though the lyrics can often be darker in nature, it never feels like it is unsafe. Matter of fact, this album could be considered a beautiful siren that draws the listener in to their doom against the rocky cliffs. Very easily could be.
On top of all of that, the album is extremely consistent (one of the tops of the years) and is not halted by a single track on it. Even the bonus tracks fit in nicely with the rest of the album, not detracting from the overall feel and emotion and lyrical content of the rest of the songs. “Blindfold” begins the record with slow-burning intensity and it is easily a key track on the record. “Blood from a Stone,” “Poor Man’s Prayer” and the title track all have the melodies and energy needed to make them equally enthralling. However, the show is stolen by the final two tracks of the actual album, “Soul Light” and “Wake” which ooze with atmosphere, not unlike the instrumentation found on Sigur Ros and Hammock. This band is one more reason why British bands can often make unique and sometimes improve upon a formula that is American in origin. This is an excellent addition to the year of gothic americana and I am looking forward to hearing their next album!
Apocalyptic Rating: 5 out of 10 (What a way, what-a-way to hang your head)
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Sons of Perdition - The Kingdom Is On Fire
I am just gonna tell it like it is. I didn’t like this album. Matter of fact, it was one of the hardest albums to get through the week on since the Reverend Glasseye albums and I didn’t come away with near the appreciation for these guys as I did, in the end, with Glasseye (not that Glasseye is a favorite or anything). This might as well have been a Those Poor Bastards album. Zebulon Whatley (probably not his real name) sings as if he is incarnating the spirit of Lonesome Wyatt. I don’t think Sons of Perdition quite get the mixture and frenetic elements that, at least, made Those Poor Bastards interesting, if not good. However, Whatley does have a better voice than Wyatt, but he just doesn’t use it like he should. I read a review on the internet that said that Sons of Perdition is a band that Lonesome Wyatt, himself, gave his support of and it makes sense, they are, within reason, practically the same band. Except the student does not even come close to the work of the teacher.
This is not to say that every song was not good, but it very nearly is. The three songs that I put up this week really were the highlights of the album. The songs that either musically or lyrically (seldom both simultaneously) carried the work of the album are worthy of recognition. Unfortunately, there is not much more. The music, often, sounds like an “indie-fied” re-dressing of old school country B-sides, but not as interesting instrumentally or as far as the presence of the performer. I do, to some level, feel bad for this rather scathing review, but I just didn’t like this album within the economy of gothic americana. I don’t buy that this band, in the scope of this album alone, is a significant factor in the world of the gothic americana genre. Maybe the next album will prove me wrong, but I am not holding out hope.
Apocalyptic Rating: 5 out of 10 (Lord, let they glory shine)
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Strawfoot - Chasing Locusts
Strawfoot’s first album hinges on one musical concept and one narrative concept. The musical concept is largely focused on a more complex version of the old-school country model with inflections of bluegrass and eastern European influences. Most of the album plays like a solid country album (and I am not talking about the general pop-laden country on the radio). However, bring in the electric guitar and a distinct rock attitude to the initial formula. One element that has not been a significant element of gothic americana music up to this point, but is prominently displayed on Chasing Locusts is use of solos in the songs. There are guitar, harmonica, fiddle, and piano solos abounding in the midst of the songs sung. With many bands, this seems to be more of a sign of ego than anything, but Strawfoot does well in working it effortlessly into the context of the whole song. In other words, it doesn’t feel out of place or like the band is show-boating. However, it is exactly the instrumentation that drives this band. They have little to no atmospheric presence and no wall of sound to build a denseness to their sound. Which is why this album, musically, plays fairly lightly and doesn’t seem to suffocate in the darkness of the lyrics.
It is the lyrics that give this album any significant darkness. The album is book-ended by two instances of Strawfoot’s cover of “Wayfaring Stranger” which is exactly the narrative that this album wishes to tell to its listeners. These are largely tales of faith becoming absurd and lost, “good people” becoming the worst of all sinners and a defiant stance in the face of a perceived judgmental god. These stories can go from almost humorous (“My Dog”) to murderous (“Cursed Neck”) to defiant (“The Lord’s Wrath” and “Damnation Way”) and everything in between. It is an interesting pick for the album to be surrounded by a traditionally recognized spiritual about faith and sin and redemption when every song on this album revels the dark and unredeemed aspects of life. But, even then, one can’t help but hear some honesty and spiritual prodding going on in these songs as the characters give in to their own natures, even to the point of walking away from God and telling him that he “can keep his wrath.” These characters are what Flannery O’Connor would call elements of the grotesque South. But even they can’t escape the violent grace of their Creator. This album is immensely satisfying even if it isn’t immensely joyful.
Apocalyptic Rating: 7 out of 10 (You can try to pass the blame but you need an effigy)
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Those Poor Bastards - Hellfire Hymns
I am seriously interested in seeing these guys live. I have a strange fascination with how their studio efforts translate into live performance. With the claustrophobic and minimalistic electronic feel, I really wonder whether I would appreciate them live as much as I have listening to their produced albums. I love the electronic flourishes that embolden their songs without totally overtaking them. Outside of these elements, their song structures are quite simple, to be honest, which helps bring out the starkness of their overall presentation. This album improves, by large strides, over their debut LP. Where the last one, though creative and good in its own right, suffered from a lack of overall cohesiveness, this one excels in spades. It starts out with the sizzling of what sounds like an impending doom only found from the lower reaches of Dante’s Inferno and ends with a simple and desperate song about the after effects of what sounds like an apocalyptic and destructive events and those left to suffer in the ruins. All of the songs play into the overall tone and theme of the album. This would be a satisfactory soundtrack for the end of the world.
For the first time, I am truly conflicted about how to place a band. With all of David Eugene Edwards’ projects, I had no problem seeing the devout and strong faith that flows naturally from his music, not to mention the assurance of that faith which is quite outspoken. With bands like Slim Cessna’s Auto Club and Munly, its not hard to tell that the Christian imagery is largely used for effect, but behind its use is a rather empty faith with no devotion. If it is true that two of the members of Those Poor Bastards are certified Holiness pastors, then I am left at a loss as how to categorize some of the sentiments found in their music; sentiments that strike me as starkly nihilistic. At other times, there are profound descriptions of faith and reverence and the loss of morality. This band is in a messy category all on its own. They defy clear divisions and, to be honest, that is what makes them intriguing. I shudder at certain songs but find myself in utter, unapologetic agreements with the thoughts in other songs.
In the end, this leads to a certain mystery that surrounds this band, which in the end probably feeds my growing interest in them as I am going through their catalog. Its tests my comprehension, my discernment and, to be honest, makes me want to smack my head against a wall in frustration. But such is gothic americana, where even the most “faithful” songs belie a certain dark futility.
Apocalyptic Rating: 9 out of 10 (Behold the black sheep of the Bible Belt)
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The Builders and The Butchers - The Builders and The Butchers
In the whole scope of gothic americana music, The Builders and The Butchers are the first band to really showcase the potential of percussion in the genre. This band is a percussive tour de force and it is largely what propels their songs and their whole albums. When all other bands this year have made the non-percussive instrumentation front and center in the music (as would be expected from the influences of folk, bluegrass and Appalachian music), these guys decided to reap the benefits of bringing the percussion to the front more. On most of these songs, the things you hear the most on the surface are Ryan Sollee’s (and others’) vocals and the percussion (which all members partake in at different times). Once you get past the wall of beats and vocals, it is in the second layer, the second listening, that you realize the banjo, guitars, etc. that give the rest of instrumentation their complete and full sound. This is almost a reversal of what every other band I have heard this year has done and I think it is important to point out and to recognize these guys for their uniqueness in this area.
The lyrics on this album often betray the front-porch hoe-down that the music connotes. These are dark, fierce stories of murder, betrayal, damnation, salvation, death and sin. However, I doubt you will be keep yourself from singing along with this group of songs, because another element of what these guys do well is being catchy while not losing their edge. With the percussion so noticeable and the tunes so infectious, this is the closest I have come to having a similar experience that I had with hip/hop last year. Granted there is a lot that is different, but I was bobbing my head and feeling the groove in much the same way. There is something to be said for that. This is a fun album and a terrific debut album for a band that I have been impressed with for a while.
Loch Lomond/The Builders and The Butchers - Split 12 Inch (Vinyl) EP
I had heard the songs on this EP by The Builders and The Butchers, but I had not heard those by Loch Lomond. And, let me tell you, talk about a juxtaposition of sounds on one EP. Four songs by each band. The Builders and The Butchers had songs that followed along the typical trajectory for the band and serves as a nice transition from their debut to next week’s album. However, not knowing anything about Loch Lomond, I didn’t know what to expect and what I found was atmosphere, sweet melodies and an indie music sensibility in the vein of Arcade Fire. Yes, there was a certain current of darkness weighing down their lyrics but the mixture of male and female vocals seem to really downplay those elements. The sweetness of their sound is almost a little too rich, at times, but they are often saved their their instrumentation and their unique arrangements. This is by no means the easiest EP to listen to considering the listener is forced to listen to a rougher, earthier sound right next to a more airy, pleasantly produced one. At the end of the day, both bands speak for themselves and it ends up being an enriching, thought not perfect, listening experience.
Apocalyptic Rating: 6 out 10 (Something ain’t right here, but there be nothing to fear…yet)
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O’Death - Head Home
What makes this album distinctive from the rest of the albums from this year? The main thing would be O’Death’s ability to take on the established path of the gothic americana genre with a distinctly punk sensibility. There have been songs this year that have teased with this idea, but never quite getting that musical attitude of punk completely established within the framework of the song. However, O’Death has managed to integrate those sensibilities into the gothic americana sound. Their lyrics still sound like the laments and rages of an Appalachian hillbilly, but the propulsion of the bluegrass instrumentation is the same as the guitar and percussion in punk music. That is what makes this a wonderfully intelligent and listenable album. Admittedly, it takes a bit to get used to Greg Jamie’s vocals because most of the time he is screaming and hollering into his mic while the rest of the band matches it with their instruments. It takes a bit to realize just how good of a vocalist he is and it is easy to tell if you focus on the slow songs where he isn’t allowed to yell, songs like “Travelin Man,” “Only Daughter,” “Jesus Look Down,” and “Nathaniel.” What seals the deal, vocally, is how he is able to emit emotion into his singing. He is not the best singer at all, but what he does with his voice makes up for talent. He matches the music with the proper tone and emotion and his own stylistic flourishes.
If there is a weak point on this album, it would be the minute or less interludes that punctuate the landscape of this twelve song album. They neither add nor detract from the album as a whole, they just seem like filler. But their appearance in the economy of the album makes no scars on the reputation of the band. It’s what they did. And there ain’t nothing wrong with that when you have created such a creative and musically enjoyable album.
O’Death - Low Tide/I Think I’m Fine - EP
This small three-song EP is quite large in the effect it makes. I am generally not expecting much from EPs from any band, because they are mainly for the fans to have something new or collectible from their favorite bands, but seldom do they equal or surpass the work found on the long-play records. However, “Low Tide” (which will appear on next week’s album as well!), “I Think I’m Fine” and “Nimrod’s Son” are all quality songs that deserve to be on regular LPs. “Nimrod’s Son” is easily the stand out track as they display more than any other song so far just how much they are influenced by their punk roots. I get little hints of a more instrumental version of a Minor Threat song bouncing around in my head while that song plays. Anything that makes me think of Minor Threat is worth listening to. I also like how the last to tracks on this EP almost perfectly tie in musically without sounding anything like the other one. There is just a string of melody that drifts through each one giving the album as a whole a strangely cohesive and consistent feeling which is an added surprise. If O’Death’s next two albums continue in this vein then I will become a big fan of them after this year.
Apocalyptic Rating: 6 out of 10 (…so it wasn’t as dark as some, but at least it was punk as %#*^)
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