Ardath by Birth Day

By: Derek Spencer

Ardath is as elusive an album title as I have encountered. A smattering of google searches reveals a British tobacco company as the only catalogued namesake, implying that Ardath is an album named either for it’s destructive and addictive qualities, or otherwise as reference to something personal and decidedly unobtainable. The impalpable name suits the 5-track EP all the same, perhaps augmenting the conceit of mysterious dystopia that LA-based musician Birth Day seems intent on summoning. Deconstructed pop pairs with discordant ambient on Birth Day’s unsettling 2016 debut.

Opener “Link’d” best demonstrates Birth Day’s palette, consisting of icy dissonance, glitched-out synths, and phantasmal filtered-vocals. Tension builds as the voice of yesterday’s fallen popstar rises in classic zombie fashion. On “Bedroom Jester”, Birth Day continues to play with distance and depth, as a single alto melody gives way to the croons of dozens of fettered specters, each presumably a fractured bit of singer/producer Sonya Lanelle Chávez.

The percussive elements of Ardath leave enough propulsion for listeners to dance, but only in the way that dancing can be a mental exercise: a way of answering a question or exploring a thought. With tracks like “blind” and “Seashore”, each clocking in around one minute and devoid of distinct rhythmic features, it’s easier to think of Birth Day as walking us through a process or along a path, as opposed to imagining that Chávez’s vision lies in any one place for long.

Demonstrating a surprising command over dynamics and composition, Birth Day will hopefully have the opportunity to flesh out her work on longer, more immersive releases. For now, Ardath serves as a seductive taste-test, successfully tempting listeners toward some unknown end.

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Abandonded by Timeofhex

By: Derek Spencer

According to label Bump Foot, Timeofhex is “a cross-disciplinary artist from Perth, Australia who converts photographs into music via hexadecimal data.” Aside from it being the form of communication Matt Damon uses to commune with NASA in The Martian, I’m not really sure what hexadecimal means, especially in relation to photography or music. Abandoned in particular, is described as “a series of five tracks based on photographs taken in Vanuatu in 2014.”

Lets try and piece this together. The music consists of synths, ambient vocals, and nature sound effects layered over multicultural (see: *tribal*) percussion. I imagine at least one of these samples was lifted from the soundtrack for NBC’s Survivor. What, exactly is the conversion process from photograph to track? I believe  a proper explanation probably involves the words “pixel”, “MIDI”, and “algorithm”. How all these words fit together into a coherent process is left unclear.

This is not randomly generated music based on a given set of data. It is tonally curated, and conforms to common intuitions of structure and progression. The opacity of the process does not inspire faith in the already tenuous link between photo and composition. The stills we are presented with are colorless, forlorn, and distorted, while the music that supposedly corresponds is bright and globally referential.

In the middle of the third track, “Persistence of the Sea”, a cartoonish voice repeatedly exclaims: “This is not a dream! What’s happening to this place?” This moment effectively turned my skepticism into outright denial. It’s jarring and cheesy and I can’t imagine it corresponds to either a rigorous hexadecimal translation or a looser, pathos-driven cross-discipline technique.

It’s hard to critique process-based art. More like a science experiment than a form of expression, the artist selects a process and adheres to it. My consumption of this product feels more like an observation of results, divorced from any direct communication with the artist. While I can’t say the experiment went wrong or is bad, I can say that it’s effect on me–emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, or otherwise–was remarkably non-existent.

ALBUM REVIEW: Low Spokes by Lucas Van Lenten

Released two and a half years ago, Lucas Van Lenten’s Low Spokes espouses a particular brand of triteness that has since faded from favor. Nonetheless, the album succeeds in it’s appeal to late-indie’s most relatable brand of irony.

The 11-song LP is not dissimilar from a young child that knows how to use her cuteness to gain advantage– you know they know what their doing, but your cultural and neurological predispositions prevent you from doing anything but saying “aww, how cute!”  When Van Lenten sings “and they all come down like rain into us/ we’re born of stardust and luck” I would strongly prefer to not feel the affect of goosebumps down my neck. And yet here we all are. Plenty of Van Lenten’s lyrics fall short of the mark (“there’s no clock to strike the hour/ just the creep of deadly flowers on the stairs”, “a baker’s dozen/ snow-white roses/ picked for no one”), and yet his delivery and evocative structures manage to carry a sufficient number through to the heart-strung finish line.

Low Spokes opens with the bouncy “San Sebastian”, a sign of all the Cloud Cult derivations and emotional manipulations to come. Utilizing lush backing harmonies, an accordion, and a sleigh bell, Van Lenten settles back into his wheelhouse on “Pocketful of Blackbirds.” As a general rule, Van Lenten is less successful when he picks up the electric guitar– exemplified dully on “Black Veruza”. Aside from forgettable tone choices, guitar driven tracks on this album leave behind the dynamics and ambiance that make other selections so successful. By the time we hit “Speak of the Devil”, the first notes of mandolin appear to be god-sent. The light-hearted “Out in the Streets” stands out from the album, as it shirks the oh-so-of-it’s-time signals and instead blends Queen-esque guitar harmonies with Your Favorite Weapon-era Brand New vocal patterns. Unfortunately, it is followed up by the utterly skippable “Toledo Facedown” before Van Lenten finds his natural resting point to end the album in the serenely triumphant “Shake the Bells Down”.

The songs are littered with radio-signal-space-flanger sound interludes that I have no idea what to do with, especially in light of the album’s excusable over-sentimentality. My only other reference point for this strange intersection is the Sagen-influenced 90’s film Contact— and yet I somehow don’t believe this is the intended reference. Even when ignoring the extraneous, however, listeners can look to Low Spokes as an album that clearly knows it’s strengths, audience, and intended effect.

 

ALBUM REVIEW: Sparks by Ender & Valentine

By: Derek Spencer

Bouncy and even-handed, Ender & Valentine generate ample energy on their 2014 6-track EP SparksNadya Grace and Alex Crous function efficiently as a duo as they create pop-conscious alternative rock trysts with restraint and precision.

The opening track “Screens” introduces and relies upon the rhythmic motif of syncing palm-muted guitars with tightly programmed percussion. Alanis Morissette mingles with spacey late-2000’s emo as retro-textured vocals interplay and echo one another. “Fires” demonstrates the internalized indie-pop tendencies of the duo, complete with a single-line earworm chorus. Stand-out track “Wires” embraces a more recent fascination with shoegaze and noise elements. Together, the 6 tracks assemble a series of dream-like evocations not dissimilar from that of more electronically focused acts of the same genre.

While lyrics more-often-than-not use platitude and common-place imagery as a crutch, they do not inhibit the listening experience dramatically. Along the same lines, however, listeners will walk away with few thematic associations to remember the album by. Assuming the magic of Ender & Valentine lies in the moment rather than the memory, there is plenty of room within these tracks for playful romance and flirts with musical intoxication.

ALBUM REVIEW: In Transit by The Bonds

By: Derek Spencer

Ironically pluralized, The Bonds are the solo project of one Massachusetts-based Benjamin Finn. Charged with compositional theatricality, Finn’s 2014 debut In Transit takes the classic theme of external-change-causing-internal-strife to task with minimalist acoustic expertise.

A naturalized musical theater quality permeates the album, most evidently observed on tracks like “Collect Call” and “Overtime” in which clearly defined metaphors and demonstrative lyrics mingle with signal-oriented songwriting. I believe I’m supposed to use the word rock opera here, but this project feels more natural and less forced than that phrase might imply. A transitional period is conveyed, given movement by atmospherics and experienced slowly over the course of the album.

On opening track “Into the House”, Finn’s maddening repetition of the line “I think I’m going crazy” utilizes an experiential approach, allowing the audience to imbibe of the referenced status quo insanity. Directly following, “Freight Moves Fast” leads us through a landscape of chorus and tremolo effects, implying blurred movement and creating the sonic equivalent of the albums blurred cover art. The combination of “Fetch” and “Under” mark perhaps the most exciting segment of the album, establishing a soft underhanded depression before exploding into destructive dissonance. The 7-minute title track serves well as the slow-burning climax it was meant to be.

The Bonds’ musical touchstones are clear. The vocal delivery and poignant drama of The Antlers are referenced on tracks “Too Far Gone”, “In Transit”, and “Housekeeping”, while Sujan Stevens can be felt throughout. Though “derivative” is technically a complaint that could be levied here, In Transit is too raw to be a total imitation, too personal to feel stale. Amateur production stands to be the biggest enemy to Finn’s work, though the imbalances and uneven mixes add charm far more often than they detract or distract.

At its core, the album exudes a coldness– a distinct lack of warm bass frequencies, neatly rounded tracks, or relatable hooks. Practically penning his own tagline, Finn sings on “Sun Shine Away”: “I miss the warmth”.  Exciting, nerve-wracking, and elusive, In Transit evokes the melancholy of transition and invites listeners down its winding winter path. I suspect many listeners will be unable to refuse.

ALBUM REVIEW: Ashland Avenue by Forgotten Tropics

By: Derek Spencer

There are moments of Ashland Avenue in which I decided I was enjoying the EP: notably the bridge of “Movement”, most of “Breaching the Peace”, and the verse of “Bound to Fall” before repetition degrades its focused disconcertion. But in the waning age of emo revival, one At The Drive-In imitator is really only as good as the next. Forgotten Tropics are kind of like your grandma that sends you a hilarious meme years after it stopped being funny, or like a meal of delicious tacos directly following a whole week of eating only delicious tacos: good content, bad timing.

If your goal is to do something a lot of people are also currently doing, you better do it fucking perfectly. This is Forgotten Tropics‘ failure. The production wavers between the “gritty, evocative amateur studio” sound and the “just an amateur studio” sound. The lyrics, when discernible, are trite and unmoving (if I never hear a song with the line “I gotta get out of this town” again, It will be too soon). The album lacks thematic ingenuity; it’s named after a street in the band’s hometown and features a picture of the band, presumably sitting in their apartment on Ashland Ave.

Again, none of this is to say Ashland Avenue is bad– it’s good music made by young musicians who should probably keep making music.  Forgotten Tropics are at their best when they dive into noisey or funky tangents, experimenting with tone in viscerally appealing ways. They lay out compelling rhythms and pull off complex transitions and I liked hearing all of that. It’s just that I’m pressed to find a reason to ever revisit this EP when there are other bands, genre-founding bands and contemporary acts alike, that simply do it better.

ALBUM REVIEW: Tweak Knobs, Not Meth by Fat Randy

By: Derek Spencer

Self-awareness is a saving grace, of sorts. Self-parody, self-commentary– such mechanisms are safeguards against the embarrassment of sincere commitment, and the failure that can frequently follow.  These same safety nets can be limiting as well though; a spectacle is far less interesting when deprived of its inherent risk.

When writing for a very particular audience about a common subject– as is done on Tweak Knobs, Not Meth– it can be hard to avoid destructive, glib self-awareness. Admirably, Fat Randy‘s 2015 EP mostly avoids this pitfall and instead commits to something specific and genuine. Demonstrating a knack for separating their own talents and experiences from the chaff or unattainable, the trio deliver on an EP that is fully in their own wheelhouse.

The group draws on a myriad of musical influences, from Arab on Radar-esque 90’s no-wave to the psychedelic meanderings of Acid Mother’s Temple. The vocal delivery and guitar hues do some work to tie the songs together, but are ultimately unable to reign in a slightly mismatched musical palette. While the composition and textures can be disjointed, the 5-song collection is bound tightly together by tone and lyrical theme. In no ambiguous language, Fat Randy writes songs about the state-school college experience. They even clarify for the listener on track three: the album is about the University of Connecticut. Speaking brashly, and even absurdly, about topics ranging from hangovers to the administrative handling of sexual assault, Tweak Knobs, Not Meth aims for the bullseye and hits; a feat only diminished when one realizes how close the shooter was to the target in the first place.

At their best when they’re more serious-silly than silly-sillyFat Randy delivers most satisfyingly on “Our Beloved CEO” wherein one Susan Herbst, the president of UConn, is called out by name concerning her dealing with campus sexual assault policy (“How does it feel to compromise your sex,O’ Susan?//A politician in sheep’s clothing, O’ Susan//Watch contradictions circle on the floor//Watch her drop when the money don’t sing”). “Wings”, a ska-influenced closer professing love for (what I can only imagine is) the UConn student body’s drunk-food of choice, tarnishes the album slightly; though I can imagine this is a crowd favorite at hometown house shows.

Falling just short of being ~impactful~, yet clearly rising above the expected diligence of undergraduate rock bands, Fat Randy lays dynamic lyrics over a selection of musical styles that can all loosely be categorized as “fun”. Potentially compelling, potentially alienating for non-Connecticuters, Tweak Knobs, Not Meth is sure to elicit nostalgia from college grads and make current UConn students shout something along the lines of “Fuck yeah.”