[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Young_Widows_In_and_Out_of_Lightness.mp3|titles=Young Widows: “In and Out of Lightness”]
More than ever, Louisville’s Young Widows is teaching listeners to appreciate the quietness in post-punk.
Consider, for contrast, the slobbering borderline silliness of Pissed Jeans, or any other band that draws on a ton of distortion. At first listen, Young Widows might seem to have something missing. The vocals lead the songs but aren’t panicked or even immediately catchy. The guitars often walk an eerie line between clean and dissonant. The rhythm section — though hardly crude, if you’re paying attention — often favors a ceremonial plod.
In between, there’s a roomy silence, occasionally breached with a wandering guitar echo or backing vocal. But soon it stops feeling incomplete. That lurking silence, and the unresolved feeling that it creates, becomes the hook.
[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Amon-Amarth-War-Of-The-Gods.mp3|titles=Amon Amarth: “War Of The Gods”]
Some hard rock fuels itself on anxiety and doubt, some on an absolute clarity of purpose. Swedish five-piece Amon Amarth stays in the latter camp and pillages it too, playing melodic death-metal songs of fearlessness and bloodthirsty honor. The band’s rune-like fonts and references to Norse myths and Viking battles are only a sign of what’s at the core. Amon Amarth’s power comes not from all the references to Yggdrasil and Asgaard and the like, but from evoking times (real or mythical) in which civilization revolved around the momentous import of war.
Its seamless meld of death-metal agony and Iron Maiden-style songwriting sounds like the man you’d want at your side in combat. He doesn’t bother with a subtle range of emotions, because he’s occupied, from his soul to his skull collection, with a few very solid ones: loyalty, glory-lust, pitiless determination, and pride in his ability to slay.
Our blond-mammoth war buddies don’t much change their outlook on the new Surtur Rising, nor do they tire of it. As with previous triumphs — see Vs. The World from 2003 and Twilight Of The Thunder God from 2008 — the band’s eighth album is carnage writ absolute. Early into opening track “War of the Gods,” it becomes busy with 16th-note drums and tremolo-picked guitar notes, yet it never feels too busy for its own good. For as stately and epic as it is, there’s no fat, no drag of the ponderous. Once again, Amon Amarth is a model of the thrilling interlock that any band should have, whether savaging the underground or longing for shiny hard-rock hooks.
There’s a certain sternness to Talib Kweli‘s rapping. It’s a constant in his music, and it makes you listen a little harder to differentiate where he’s going from song to song. He tends to give his work an intimidating surface, though at heart it’s accessible, unrestful, richly stimulating hip-hop, fiery in spirit and not prone to corny messages. Since the 1998 collaboration Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star, he’s delivered his words with a bold shove forward.
Kweli doesn’t sound humbled or chastened on the new Gutter Rainbows, nor does the bass line that smoothly slams the bolts home on the title track. He says in the liner notes that “this is my second album (after Liberation) that the music industry did not help me create.” This fact cuts both ways. There’s a different producer on nearly every track, but nearly all of them (from M-Phazes to Oh No to Ski Beatz) somehow connect back to the warm instrumentation (flute, guitar, swirly soul vocals) of 88-Keys‘ intro track, “After The Rain.” It’s a busy and collaborative 14 tracks, but thoroughly solid.
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During the few years that he’s been putting out proper records, Philadelphia’s Kurt Vile has played equally the singer-songwriter and the free-form sonic tinkerer. He seems unwilling to force too much to happen in either capacity. He’s sincerely catchy but shy of being blatantly earnest. He’s tempted by the inviting fizzle of tape hiss, reverb, drum machines, and Casios, but can put a simple guitar part at the front when it suits him.
His new album, Smoke Ring For My Halo, is a lot more orderly than Constant Hitmaker (2008) or Childish Prodigy (2009). The frequent, fun instrumental twiddling of Hitmaker is just about entirely gone, and Prodigy‘s push toward rocking clarity continues in a mellow acoustic vein. It no longer sounds like each song was patched together in slightly different circumstances and varying qualities of tape. He achieves a new consistency on Smoke Ring and doesn’t strain himself to get there.
Sims: “Burn It Down” [audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/Sims_Burn_It_Down.mp3|titles=Sims: “Burn It Down”]
Anyone who has seen Twin Cities rapper/producer P.O.S live between the gradual success of Audition in 2006 and Never Better in 2009 has also had the chance to sample the Doomtree crew of which he’s a part. One of the stronger presences at these shows has been Sims, who’s by no means exactly like P.O.S, but is a worthy kindred spirit who gets the crowd in a similar, righteously agitated state of mind.
The lean-built MC is as averse to laid-back songs as his half-rapper, half-hardcore-dude friend. He’s strong through the shoulders and busy with gestures, a good frame for his sharp, often-terse flow. Another vital presence, less obvious onstage but still essential, is producer Lazerbeak, who has made beats for nearly every Doomtree release and doesn’t hear much of a border between catchy synth-based production and scratchy horns-and-soul-vocal melts.
The strength of Doomtree is that no two artists are too terribly alike (see the crew’s self-titled, all-member-pile-on album from 2008). The spectrum runs from the pugnacious Mike Mictlan to the patient density of Dessa‘s 2010 release, A Badly Broken Code. The group supports its members’ identities without intruding on them, something that holds true on Sims’ second proper solo album, Bad Time Zoo.
Sims goes it alone for nearly an entire hour, with just one guest verse during the whole thing (from P.O.S, on “Too Much”). Lazerbeak produces every beat here, making for a collaborative but focused feel. The identity that emerges for Sims, at first, has a lot to do with his opening verse on Never Better‘s “Low Light Low Life.” His specialty is creating the feeling of being sealed into a living nightmare of isolation, reckless corporate domination, and hopeless social ignorance. What comes out over time, though, is that Sims is a straightforward MC who’s brave enough to work through the contradictions of his own emotions.
In 20 years, we will wistfully misremember that all of indie rock sounded like a handful of reliable, definitive bands. It will be tempting to include Parts & Labor in that pleasant exercise of self-delusion. Then again, it wont make our memories any easier to process or simplify.
The electro-rock group’s co-founders, Dan Friel and BJ Warshaw, write lots of lyrical phrases that don’t express a simple opinion or definite image but are tempting to repeat like aphorisms. On the chorus of “A Thousand Roads,” one of the best songs and finest examples of what they’ve achieved on the new album Constant Future, they conjure up one of many fragmentary but astutely realized landscapes: “Come on, praise the progress made, the sharpened grays of a thousand roads / all delays, no lazy days, the latent phase of a thousand roads.”
It may be about touring-band life, or how America seems to measure its worth in paved surfaces. Because it’s not didactic or preachy, though, it can gradually sink in and play with your head, with the internal rhymes and alliterations indicating that there’s some coherent thought running through it that can’t wait to get out.
Parts & Labor’s music also sounds like it reads. Friel’s electronics crawl through the songs like power-line hum given life and dimension, but the hooks, punk-shout-along-worthy choruses, and Joe Wong‘s drums keep insisting that it’s going to make sense to your instincts.
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To appreciate Trap Them‘s new album, Darker Handcraft, it helps to start with the Filth Rations EP from 2010. Trap Them has consistently charged its hardcore side into a collision with metal that refuses to get dragged down in grime.
The four songs on Filth Rations give as sure a sign as ever that the band’s craft and tightness can always match its sheer impatience. The third track, “Dead Fathers Wading In The Bodygrounds,” keeps up a gimpy, stumbling trudge as the drums gradually thud harder, and vocalist Ryan McKenney bellows himself up to a pitch that invokes scalding tears and unforgivable injuries. There’s a sense that Trap Them is in a desperate frenzy to repeatedly overload their songs, lest a single McKenney roar or screech of feedback from the guitar go unused. Even the cramped handwriting of the lyrics in the EP’s liner notes looks more like a dozen rows of snaggled teeth than a sequence of words.
In retrospect, it’s as if the band that made Filth Rations was gearing up to achieve a height of directness and focus. Darker Handcraft is a plenty accurate introduction to Trap Them; it once again captures a sonic force that’s both furiously commanding and remains bitterly hurt no matter how feverishly it tries to expiate its demons. This time, though, that force resolutely says, “Look, one fucking thing at a time.”
Dylan Carlson‘s best work as Earth often creates a crushing sense of inevitability. Between the long-form guitar griddlings of Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version in 1993 and the panoramic beauty of The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull in 2008, Earth has erratically transitioned from smothering to sparkling.
One thing that remains, though, is how Carlson and his assorted bandmates move through their instrumentals: with slow but ever-emphatic steps. Since Hex: Or Printing In The Infernal Method in 2005, people have often said that Earth is creating something more like “Americana” than its earlier doom metal. That isn’t wrong at all, but more fundamentally, Earth’s recent music revels in the basics of melody. It often uses blues-like scales — though rarely as grindingly dissonant as those on Earth 2 — but always explores them with an almost mad patience. It has the frank sureness of a force that knows it will catch up with you eventually.
The new Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light, Vol. 1, might be roughly part of the Hex phase, and might sound just as good as Bees, but with the addition of cello and greater willingness to vary Earth’s format from song to song.
Carlson has said that he likes to find his melodies “within the drone.” It’s clear on the new Angels that he’s as ready as he’s ever been to let his collaborators seek alongside him within the expanses of sound they create. Where Bees relied largely on layers of guitar from Carlson, and, on three tracks, Bill Frisell, Angels finds bassist Karl Blau and cellist Lori Goldston — both new members — pushing right alongside him, and sometimes ahead of him, rather than simply thickening up the core melodies.
Thank You‘s third album, Golden Worry, proves that the Baltimore trio is a band worth rooting for, and one that’s a step closer to making clear what it wants.
Like a few other recent albums to come out of Baltimore — namely, Pontytail‘s Ice Cream Spiritual and Dan Deacon‘s Bromst — Golden Worry stages a good-faith meeting between experimental impulses and an enthusiasm for amiable hooks. This hasn’t always been the case with Thank You. On the band’s last album, Terrible Two, its obsession with rhythm threatened to dry up the guitars, keys, and vocals into a tuneless murk.
Thank You has a compact feel that sometimes works for it and sometimes against it. The drums clamber actively on top of the song, often taking the lead but not always filling up the low end, and the guitars work up a noise-rhythm complement that, while often aggressive, doesn’t pursue a lot of fun back-and-forth with the percussion. As for vocals, only sometimes there and only sometimes coherent, they’re another constant variable in an open-ended format. It might help to know that Thrill Jockey’s bio for Thank You credits each member simply with “everything.”
It would be just like the beaten-to-death art of the remix to take on new life in scorched earth.
Nothing about New York avant-garde group Zs has a hook to give people a happy thrill of recognition when it pops up combined with something unexpected. Not only do sax player Sam Hillmer and his bandmates create sounds that no sane instrument maker could have intended, they do so systematically, in drawn-out patterns of percussive fury.
It certainly has elements of noise and free jazz to it, but even that doesn’t do credit to Zs’ disciplined pursuit of alien, enveloping sound mass. Processing its music can be so demanding — the band has a stated goal of “challeng[ing] the physical and mental limitations of both performer and listener” — that making sense of it might as well be a constructive act of hands-on interpretation.
Refreshingly, the remixers on New Slaves Part II: Essence Implosion! use the opportunity to explore the sounds that Zs pried from extended technique and beyond-maddening feats of repetition on the first New Slaves. Three tracks — “New Slaves,” “Concert Black,” and “Acres Of Skin” — get two remixes here. Neither pair immediately seems to come from the same source, and that’s a great sign.
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It’s so easy to get caught up in Deerhoof’s little eccentricities that it’s worth reminding people that the quartet is also a solid rock outfit — albeit with a supremely jagged sense of rhythm. Deerhoof tends to play these sides against each other expertly: Satomi Matsuzaki’s vocals are usually the first thing to throw people off, but they also often center the songs with hooky energy. Greg Saunier’s scurrying, splattered drums give the songs a feeling of constant ambush, but also let you know that all this madness is definitely going somewhere.
Deerhoof’s work often shows how much craft, instinct, and care goes into sounding bonkers. Deerhoof Vs. Evil bets that those qualities can remain when the racket is turned down. That’s not to say the record lacks the band’s usual joyous frivolity, or even that there’s less of it going on at once; it just offers chances to slow down and appreciate how pretty Deerhoof’s music can be.
That’s a refreshing direction to hear after the band’s last full-length in 2008, Offend Maggie. For as strong as that album is, the blocky, straining chords of “The Tears And Music Of Love” and “My Purple Past” sound like a band trying to wear itself out on blunt-force rocking for good. Evil looks for resources outside the drum-driven rock format and exerts unabashed, spit-shined control over what it finds.
Toby Driver and his rotating cast of fellow multi-instrumentalists in Kayo Dot have always embraced the dizzying difficulty of modern composition and the wandering feeling that comes with 10-minute-plus art-rock songs. The heavier moments of its 2003 debut, Choirs Of The Eye (and of Driver’s previous band, Maudlin of the Well), might have tempted some to think of Kayo Dot as a prog-metal outfit, but even then, it wasn’t that simple.
Driver seems to be able to constantly mutate what’s at the center of his music — sometimes tasteful strings, sometimes creepily melodic electric guitar, but often a beautiful, tense mesh of fragments. The lone 20-minute track that is the new Stained Glass EP revels in that unique flexibility.