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.


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: 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.”

ALBUM REVIEW: Hunt ’em Up by Family First, Second Nature

By: Derek Spencer

The cleverly named, mysteriously manned, and LA-based Family First, Second Nature spits out dynamic post-hardcore tunes on their 2015 debut 4-track EP, Hunt ’em Up.

At its best, the album channels a traditional Gothic-Americana rock energy, expressed through pounding rhythms, hammered-on riffs, and Lovecraftian imagery.  Family First leads with their heaviest hitter, “Talley Marked”– a slightly disjointed but nonetheless propulsive anthem of violence and condemnation (“And tendrils spread until it left for dead the earth that held its breath and the planter’s hopes were all but choked”). “Dead Bird”, an acoustic-driven track about fraternal betrayal, sees the unnamed vocalist decry traditional values with whiny flair (“What’s the point in bravery?// Everything’s lost. I’ll watch you burn in hell with me”). “Bedouin Hearts” closes the EP, taking its place as the familiar polyrhythmic slow-burn about destructive love (“Early on we grew to hubris and left our guards wide open// Now the sound of our groans have grown grating”).

The line “a change of heart doesn’t change what you are” appears in both the first and final tracks, less like a bookend thesis and more like a reminder of circularity, frivolity, and the inevitability of identity. Family First forsakes intention and embraces visceral consequence, a compelling gesture toward a zero-sum game. At once plodding and rapid, the arc of the EP is that dream you can’t remember, but can still feel.

Yes, the repetitious Bible reference and horizontal song progression can give reason for pause, but Hunt ’em Up rewards the listener with a penchant for suspending slight incredulity. The melodies aren’t earworms, but the melancholy is contagious. In fact, a close reading of the lyrics does the listener a disservice; better to let the hyperbolic allegories fall by the wayside (as the line phrasings might indicate is the writer’s intention) and serve as blended ingredients in this coldly mixed and slowly served offering of destitute courage.

ALBUM REVIEW: The Watcher EP By Rogues Among Us

By: Derek Spencer

Borrowing compositional and tonal elements from the late aughts’ surge of proggy pop punk and poppy post-hardcore, The Watcher EP whisks it’s more complex elements underneath a rug of guilt-ridden vocals, only slightly overwrought and overproduced.  Houston-based 5-piece Rogues Among Us leans on easily anticipated depictions of violence to evoke and an orchestra of sheened guitar tones to titillate, rendering itself a disintegrate-upon-listening sort of release, save for listeners who may have missed this trend the first time around.

Taking their own work only as serious as this genre has always encouraged but never truly permitted, Rogues Among Us declares: “‘The Watcher’ is a tale of human consciousness and recognition of ones [sic] own deeds. Through a whirlwind of aggressive rhythms and a battle between dissonance and melody, a picture is painted of what man is, and what we must bear witness to. For, we are the watchers.” While melodrama and exaggerated importance have traditionally paired well with pop, this description rings firmly false given any cursory attention paid to the lyrics. The Watcher falls short of accessing the universal nature of man, settling instead for a song demonstrating deep-seeded catholic guilt, a song that’s lost in its own wolf–sheep metaphor, and a song that can only be described as an emo take on the quintessential drug-dealing hip-hop track.

Well-executed chromatic guitar licks, tight rhythm section foundations, and utter commitment to the pathos of Serious Angst salvage the album on a less conceptual, more practical plane of reference. At just under 15 minutes, The Watcher is highly listenable, even if it falls short of it’s goals in terms of novelty and thematic loft.

Little Gift by Sebastian and the Deep Blue

By: Derek Spencer

“We are two abysses — a well staring at the sky.”
Fernando Pessoa

To describe the room you are in, such that the listener can never exit.  To create a sustained continuum.  To accentuate the looming presence of echo and shadow.

Never have I seen such jubilance  at the prospect of universal stagnation.  The happy frustration, the celebration of the loss of nothing, a party commending the end of the work day.