Monday, October 31, 2011

I Break Horses, "Hearts"; The Raveonettes, "Raven In the Grave"

More often than not, shoegaze bands seem to emerge fully formed, at least compared to bands in other genres. For every rock band that releases an iconic, generation-defining debut (e.g. Sex Pistols, Strokes, Smiths), there are a million other bands who need a few albums to find their proper footing. But shoegaze bands have a knack for appearing perfectly crystallized right out of the gate.

In the first wave of shoegaze you had bands like Ride and Slowdive who were never able to top their pre-debut album singles according to some of their most diehard fans. I'm still blown away by the quality of tracks like "Morningrise" and "Avalyn", and how such a young band (in terms of how long they'd been together as a band and in terms of the ages of the individual members) were able to master their craft so quickly and definitively. It took a few years, but eventually both bands started to stray from their initial template and to search for a post-shoegaze identity. The results were more mixed, which is usually the case when you're dealing with a band that's looking to redefine itself.

I'm not sure why shoegaze bands are such fast learners, but I suspect it's because their list of influences is fairly short -- in other words, all shoegazers are stealing ideas from the same few bands. It's redundant to even list those influences because everyone knows who they are, and the bands on the shortlist haven't changed much in the past twenty years. Rock bands have immeasurably more influences to chose from, so it takes longer for a young band to find a combination that works for them.

I Break Horses fit the pattern of shoegaze bands that emerge from nothing and arrive fully formed with a great debut album. After listening to "Hearts" just once, you know exactly what they're all about, which is the nice thing (or most boring aspect, depending on how much you like this kind of music) about bands like these -- when everyone takes cues from the same small set of influences, you don't need to waste time trying to dissect hidden levels of detail or to work out what confluence of styles went into the making of album. After the first listen, you've pretty much heard it all, how much replayability the album will have is a matter of personal taste.

I Break Horses combine electronica and shoegaze, but not in an annoying twee way like most other bands who do similar things, they channel a bit of the warped sampledelic abrasiveness of Disco Inferno, they love "Run Into Flowers"-era M83 but bring the rock much better than M83 did back then, and they wrote a song called "I Kill Your Love, Baby!" (with barely any lyrics besides those in the title). If any of this sounds a little bit enticing then you can safely assume that you'll like this album.


Once upon a time, The Raveonettes emerged fully fomed with their debut album, "Chain Gang of Love". I've been a fan of them for a while but I bought and heard this album for the first time only a few weeks ago. Just the album title and the fact that it was produced by Richard Gottehrer tells you most of what you need to know. It's thirteen blistering tracks of exhilarating motorcycle feedback doo wop JAMC-drenched fun. They continued in the same vein on their sophomore album, on their third album they cranked the feedback as high as it would go and succeeded in out-Psychocandying "Psychocandy, but by their fourth album they were searching for something new and didn't know where to look for it (I almost never feel the need to hear this album).

Now, on their fifth album "Raven In the Grave", they're still in the midst of an identity crisis but the results have gotten a lot better. It's their mellowest album to date, leaning more toward the doo-wop side of the classic rock and roll they love so much. The most interesting tracks are the loop-based "Recharge and Revolt" and "Forget That You're Young", which is a style they've dabbled with in the past (e.g. "Aly Walk With Me") but have never pulled off this successfully. "Aly Walk With Me" is all about holding back until going for the volume kill during the bridge, but "Recharge and Revolt" nails the vocal melody and doesn't rely on sheer volume to eventually hammer home its point. It's like nothing they've done before and therefore makes for the perfect album opener. It's also one of the best "(slightly) less is more" songs in the Raveonettes' catalogue that still manages to unimpeachably rock. The idea of marrying hip-hop and shoegaze seemed preposterous when Bowery Electric tried to pull it off in 1998, but I think I'm ready for the Raveonettes to give it an album-length try.

Friday, October 28, 2011

M83, "Hurry Up, We're Dreaming"

M83's newest effort sounds even more like an album recorded and released in the 80's than "Saturdays = Youth" did, and I bet you didn't think that was possible. Any hint of an experimental bent to the album has been swept away by the even more audaciously gated drums, layers of vocals drenched in echo, and cheap, cheerful sounding synths. Where are the noisy tracks that recall the band's twee/shoegaze roots, like "Highway of Endless Dreams" or "Fields, Shorelines, and Hunters". Where's the epic closing track in all its 10+ minute technicolour glory, like on all their other albums? Instead, it's a steady stream of three to four minute pop tunes and short, mellow interludes. The interludes beautifully tie together sections of the album, allowing the band to segue between different styles. They're like quick, fleeting snapshots of how their music used to feel and sound, as if these short snippets are all that remains of M83's pre-2005 past.

The fact that they shamelessly rip off all of their favourite 80's bands is a huge part of the album's appeal, I know. For instance, if "Coulours" was their attempt to rewrite New Order's "The Perfect Kiss", "Claudia Lewis" strays so close to "Thieves Like Us" that you can practically sing the latter's lyrics on top of the former. But they've also gone the extra mile to steal from themselves, and I can't be sure whether this is intentional or not. I simply can't get around the notion that "Hurry Up, We're Dreaming" is the first M83 album that comes across as nothing but reassembled pieces of old M83 albums, rather than a new piece of music in and of itself. The starblinded, proggy, cigarette lighter waving "Intro" is a dead ringer for "Moonchild" -- both tracks open their respective albums too. The wailing, rapid-fire synth rushes and rhythmic cadences of "New Map" are lifted straight from "Don't Save Us From the Flames". "Splendour" is the piano and choir weepy ballad that recent M83 albums have been contractually obligated to have (e.g. "Safe", "Too Late"). "Echoes of Mine" and "Raconte-Moi une Histoire" revisit the energetic instrumental + fake TV/movie samples combination (i.e. vocal snippets that were made to sound like samples from some obscure, long lost movie but were actually kitsch-y bits recorded for the album) that M83 have done a few times already.

But bands steal from themselves all the time. All we should really care about is whether or not the old tricks still work. Despite the intimidating running time (75 minutes), the album feels like a sprint, never dragging for a moment as it runs through 22 tracks of treble-drenched 80's pop throwbacks. It's dripping with titanic sounding songs that, on the whole, are more immediate than anything M83 have ever done, and whatever the album might lose by recycling so many old ideas, it makes up for in spades by presenting such a varied palate of instantly addicting tunes.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

In case you needed reminding, this is why you sometimes still need to go into music shops; Wolves in the Throne Room, "Celestial Lineage"

I've been a black metal fan for about fifteen years.

The previous sentence is technically the truth, but it isn't particularly accurate. One might be inclined to assume, based on the claims of a person who claims to have been a fan of a type of music for fifteen years, that he regularly buys albums, goes to concerts, reads interviews and album reviews, and is halfway knowledgeable about said genre of music. None of those things apply to me and black metal. In a good year, I'll hear three or four albums. I'm intimidated by the sheer volume of metal out there (across a sprawl of subgenres) and have always felt too intimidated and too daunted by the task of trying to dig through it all. When it comes to journalism, I don't know where to start, all the reference points are unfamiliar to me, it's like I've fallen way too far behind to ever catch up. Metal is one of those genres that I never listened to growing up -- for instance, I didn't listen to 80's icons like Metallica or Slayer, and couldn't even appreciate Guns N Roses like most of my friends did. Simply put, I have no history with the genre. Trying to catch up on folk or country would be just as difficult and feel just as foreign. It's not like techno, where the mountain of music getting released every year might be gargantuan, but I already know the history and culture of the genre, know what I like and what I don't like, and can therefore disappear for a while and always slip right back in.

So if I hadn't walked into Aquarius Records on Valencia St. in San Francisco a few weeks ago, would I have ever heard about Wolves in the Throne Room? There's no way to know for sure. Sometimes it seems that a little bit of internet research and regular trips to a stock list of blogs and websites is enough to keep a person exposed to enough music to keep him or her scrambling for the time to hear everything that piques their interest. And yet all the Pandoras and blog links and Youtube playlists never seem to replicate the thrill of walking into a cool music shop and having your mind blown by a record you've never heard about getting played over the in-store stereo.

When it comes right down to it, all I'm looking for in metal is a killer Wall of Sound.

Across town, I was convinced that goth and metal should almost never be mixed. Ulver's "Blood Inside" (from 2005) was such a disaster that I never believed that a kitchen sink approach to black metal would ever be advisable.

I would have never believed the awesomeness of the intro to the opening track of "Celestial Lineage" if I hadn't been forced to hear it in Aquarius Records with my own ears. After three tense minutes of soothing chants, wind chimes, and sighing synths, "Thuja Magnus Imperium" smoothly segues into its guitar intro before erupting into a choral blizzard of guitars and drums. It's the most satisfying payoff to the long intro of an opening track on an album I've heard since ... well, is there a better one? I need some time to think about this. And only three minutes later, it's back to a Steve Roach lite interlude before exploding again. Spector made three minute operas for the kids, Wolves in the Throne Room prefer a full eleven minutes. Who's counting? Each track is exhausting, exhilarating, and inexplicably heartbreaking.

Give me an honest answer: how would you expect to feel at the end of a ten minute metal track called "Astral Blood"? I promise that if you listen to the penultimate track on "Celestial Lineage", you won't be disappointed that it doesn't match your preconceptions.

The nearly drums-free "Prayer of Transformation" is an elegiac extended hymn that caps off with a distorted drone of guitars that grows slowly in volume only to disappear abruptly. Shouldn't all metal albums end like this??

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Ladytron with Sonoio and VHS or Beta, Phoenix Concert Theatre

This was my first time back at the Phoenix in over five years. Never has a place felt so completely familiar and yet also so oddly foreign. It seems like I know every inch of the place, having stared at these pastel coloured four walls dozens of times over a fifteen year period. But I'm also an outsider now, it no longer feels like *my* place, it feels like *their* place. A venue "belongs" to the people who frequent it, and that's definitely not me, at least not recently. And who are these people, these Ladytron fans? It's a surprisingly male dominated crowd with a few goth types mixed in. What was once a niche electro-pop band who weren't expected to last until the end of the last decade have carved themselves a healthy slice of the local indie scene. The truly surprising thing about the crowd tonight is how boring and generic looking they are.

I only catch the last five minutes of Sonoio's set, which is a shame because it's great stuff, a midpoint between kid-friendly 80's synthpop and the noisy aggression of 00's industrial and rhythmic noise. VHS or Beta seem to have a number of fans in the audience, and to their credit, they come across more as rock stars compared to what you'd expect from bands playing this kind of music. They're kind of like a Depeche Mode-loving version of Linkin Park (or is that just Linkin Park?)

Last year, I wondered aloud whether Ladytron had the endurance to really slay an audience from the gig's start until its finish, and if tonight's set is any indication, it would appear that they knew their limitations too. They've cut the guitars and the noise, loaded up on more synth bells and whistles, slowed the tempos to a more relaxed pace, and settled for going only half throttle. Slow and steady works better for them, even though they sometimes walk a dangerous line between pacing themselves and going through the motions. This style also tends to homogenize their material, cancelling out the highs and lows in favour of a steady stream of middles. But in the end, a juicy selection of oldies mixed in with new tracks from "Gravity the Seducer" show just how many great tunes Ladytron have. The new album might be a mixed bag, but there are enough goodies there to pad their increasingly impressive back catalogue, and once you have enough killer songs in the bag then it's hard to play a sub-par gig.