North by Northeast: Day 1 (June 15th)

Hello faithful readers!  Yesterday was the first real day of the North by Northeast Festival in Toronto.  Well, technically it started on Monday, but media passes weren’t being handed out until today, and it was the first day of bands playing, so for all intent s and purposes, this is day one.

The first thing I want to note here is how nice and accommodating the staff is; I had a slight snafu with getting my media pass, but the staff made sure to help me out personally, getting me my pass with no problems and joking around with me as it happened.  It was a great start to the festival.

So, for those of you who don’t live in Canada, North by Northeast is a multimedia festival modeled after the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.  The big draw is the music part, which boasts around 650 bands that participate in it, but there’s also 40 films being shown and 50 panels to attend, so needless to say, it’s impossible to see even a small fraction of the festival every year.  Events run all around the city, but each night has an outdoors “main stage” of sorts that is totally free.  They’ve gotten some really good (and pretty unorthodox) bands this year, but main stage shows don’t start until tomorrow night.

I only saw one thing tonight (some of us have full-time jobs to wake up for), and it wasn’t music-related so….sorry about that.  There weren’t any bands that I was itching to see, and while I was originally going to just pick a random participating venue and check out whoever was playing there at the time, a friend of mine asked if I wanted to check out a movie at the Toronto Underground Cinema that was part of the festival, so I did that instead.

The film in question was Mutual Appreciation, a movie from 2005 directed by Andrew Bujalski.  It’s a black-and-white film focusing in on three friends in their early 20s as they go about their lives.  To be honest, there isn’t really much more to say about the plot; this is one of those movies where the individual moments matter much more than the overarching narrative.  It’s a relaxed film that eases us into the characters, and the actors all do an incredible of making every scene feel very real, and not in a Hollywood way; the rhythm of the dialogue, as individuals cut each other off mid-sentence, take awkward pauses and stumble over words, feels less like a canned film and more like we’re simply gazing into moments of personal .  It’s an effect that can make the movie feel like it drags a bit, but it’s also strangely hypnotic and absorbing.  It’s a really unique movie and I’d strongly recommend it.

So, that’s all for tonight; tomorrow night’s main stage is going to be filled with fantastic bands of the punk persuasion, as epic Toronto band Fucked Up, supergroup Off! and hardcore legends Descendents take the stage.  Check back here tomorrow morning for the full report.


Alcest – Le Secret EP review

Considering the wealth of intensely specific sub-genres under the “metal” label – everything from Baroque Metal to Viking Metal – it’s rather odd to be confronted with a band that is actually difficult to lump into one category.  Such is the case with French one-man metal band Alcest on this re-release of their 2005 EP Le Secret.  Ostensibly, Alcest fall under the Black Metal label – the characteristic low-key production, blast beats, and high-pitched shrieking are all here.  But there’s more to it than that: whereas black metal is raw and heavily aggressive, with their use of reverbed-drenched guitars, extended instrumental breaks, and ambient sound effects, the two tracks on Le Secret have more in common with Shoegaze music than black metal in the traditional sense.

But if you’ve heard the original 2005 release of the EP, you already know all of this.  So what’s different on this re-release?  Simple: re-recorded versions of the two 15-minute epics that make up the EP, in addition to the original recordings.  For the most part, the songs are the same as on the original recordings, but better.  They lose some of the original’s black metal rawness in favour of a clearer, more well-balanced mix – considering that same rawness often led to some of the excellent guitar interplay and very pretty clean vocals being buried in the mix, this is undoubtedly an improvement.  The sound is crisper and warmer without glossing up the originals, and it makes an already really strong album even stronger in the process.  There’s also been a few small arrangement changes – the eponymous first track’s sound effect laden intro has been cut a bit, and the second song “Elevation” has been extended by about 45 seconds.

Otherwise, it’s pretty much the EP you’ve already heard, but enhanced.  For anyone who hasn’t heard it yet, it’s easily the version to get, as it contains both the original and re-recorded versions.  In short, Alcest are a unique, fresh little anomaly in today’s over-saturated metal world and Le Secret is really an EP worth checking out.


Omar Rodriguez-Lopez – Telesterion album review

Prolific musicians are, aside from being simply tough to follow, pretty difficult to get into.  Aside from the mass of amount material, a greater challenge is wading through some of the more forgettable material in order to find the true gems.  You ever tried getting into Frank Zappa, whose career encompassed roughly 40 years and over 70 albums?  Quite a challenge, let me tell you.  The same can be said of Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, chiefly known as the guitarist of The Mars Volta, who has released a whopping 23 studio albums over the span of just 6 years – and that’s not even counting his albums with the Mars Volta in that time.

Luckily, Telesterion, Rodriguez-Lopez’s first compilation of solo material, is here to serve as an introduction to the abstract auteur.  With 37 tracks spread over two discs, the album basically does what any good compilation should – it gives people new to his material a well-rounded and much-needed overview of his short but prolific career so far.

So how is the music itself?  For the most part, quite good; a lot of it would fit on any Mars Volta album – considering he’s the main songwriter of that band, this is hardly surprising, but it is a bit disappointing.  That’s the problem with musicians who are as unique as Rodriguez-Lopez; when your sound is so closely tied to the sound of a particular band, especially one as unique as the Mars Volta, it’s really tough to break out of it and find your own sound.

In fact, it’s the songs that go completely out of Rodriguez-Lopez’s comfort zone, or the ones that filter traditional musical forms through his wonky, chaotic style, that really shine.  “Coma Pony” and “Melting Chariots”, both from The Apocalypse Inside of an Orange add a bass clarinet/saxophone player, creating an odd mix that adds an extra layer of intrigue and some R n’ B influence to his usual style; “Viernes” and “Lunes” from Ciencia de los Inutiles are beautiful, minimal acoustic tracks that show a heretofore unheard level of restraint from the guitarist and breathtaking vocals by Mexican singer-songwriter Ximena Sarinana Rivera; “Deus Ex Machina” layers a bunch of effects and guitar noise on top of traditional Afro-Cuban rhythms; and the 30-second long “Solenoid Mosque” is basically a standard blues progression but with Rodriguez-Lopez’s  delay-pedal sounds  layered over it.  These are really interesting, unique tracks from an already interesting, unique musician.

The rest of his material pretty much sounds like the Mars Volta.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though; none of the songs are ever worse than being merely forgettable – and even then they’re at least still fun to listen to – and the good songs are really cool.  If you’re a Mars Volta fan and haven’t heard this yet, you’ll probably love it; if you’re just interested in Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s solo stuff and don’t know where to start, Telesterion gives you a lot of bang for your buck.  It’s a comprehensive greatest-hits collection to an artist that desperately needed one, and because of that, it’s an unequivocal success.

press releases reviews

Tyler, The Creator – Goblin album review

Despite the fact that Tyler the Creator and his ragtag group of somewhat disturbed, darkly humorous, verbally dextrous rapping youths, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (OFWGKTA or just Odd Future, for short) have gained a lot of steam over the past few months, it’s actually a bit surprising how long it took for them to start catching on.  While they’ve had a small cult following virtually since their original mixtape was released in 2008, it wasn’t until the 1-2 punch of Tyler’s minimalist, self-directed video for “Yonkers” and him and fellow member Hodgy Beats’ ludicrously energetic performance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon (with The Roots as their backup band, natch) at the tail end of last year that the Odd Future hype ship really started to sail.  Indeed, though Goblin is Tyler the Creator’s second full-length album, and the hip-hop collective’s twelfth overall, it’s going to be most of the world’s introduction to Odd Future’s particular brand of twisted, violent, hard-hitting alternative hip-hop.

It’s a lot of pressure on one man’s shoulders, especially one as young and ambitious as Tyler, and it shows; whereas in the past, Odd Future has been unflinching and unapologetic in their vision, on Goblin, Tyler is all too aware that the world – or at the very least, the internet – is now watching.  Due to this we get several flashes throughout the album of a self-doubt that has never been felt in any of the collective’s past releases; on the titular album opener, Tyler remarks “I’m not that great of a rapper, but on the whole I’m pretty cool, right?” and he feels the need to preface over-the-top aggressiveness of “Radicals” with a disclaimer to not do anything he says in the song because “it’s fucking fiction”.  It’s a pretty clear shift in his persona, but it’s one that works rather well, giving the album a sense of maturity and self-awareness that was somewhat lacking in past releases.

In fact, it’s when this maturity falters that Goblin does as well.  This album is long.  At 74 minutes, it’s almost an entire disc worth of material, and needless to say, not all of it is gold.  Actually, there are really only three weak tracks, but they serve to totally ruin the flow of the album; the aforementioned “Radicals” is over 7 minutes long and goes absolutely nowhere; “Fish” and “Bitch Suck Dick” are essentially extended joke tracks about that are filled with some pretty embarrassing lyrics.  To be fair, “Bitch Suck Dick” is actually a legitimately funny song by itself, serving as a biting parody of terrible mainstream party hip-hop, but in the context of the album it really drags it down.  And “Fish” is really just bad

But here’s the thing; take out these three tracks and suddenly the album gets 15 minutes shorter and a hell of a lot tighter.  Tyler’s production is nastier, meaner, and thicker than it’s ever been, and his lyrics are among his best work, flowing from emotional distress, sly commentary on the state of hip-hop and Odd Future’s own burgeoning fame, and obscure references to cartoons and movies at the drop of a hat.  Conceptually, the album continues the framing device of Tyler speaking to his “therapist” Dr. T.C that began on Bastard, but by fleshing out his own character a little bit better, the concept is much stronger, creating a more well-defined arc.  This is also easily the most emotionally effective Odd Future release, with Tyler constantly fighting between his various alter-egos, resulting in a complete breakdown at the end of the album that is completely genuine sounding and honestly pretty disturbing.

So, does Goblin live up to the hype?  Surprisingly, yeah, mostly. Tyler won’t be getting that Grammy he wants so badly with Goblin – but he’s certainly closer than he’s ever been.  For the most part, his rhymes are sharp, and his production is fantastic.  It’s easily the most artistic album Odd Future have released, and as a result, it’s as good an introduction to their world as any of their other strong releases.    With its weak tracks excised, it’s damn near a masterpiece, but those few tracks really do weigh it down.  Regardless, Goblin is a more-than-capable culmination of everything they’ve been trying to do up to now.  Only time – and a second wave of new albums – will tell if Tyler the Creator’s band of misfits can cross over into the mainstream consciousness, but for now, it seems like the future is going to be very Odd indeed.


Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues album review

Fleet Foxes are one of those bands that, at first glance, are kind of easy to dislike for a jaded music fan such as yours truly. With their pretty, delicate folk music, generally hushed feel, use of plucked guitars mixed with strings and some other extended instrumentation, Helplessness Blues is easy to dismiss as “too precious”, revelling in the excess of the most middle-of-the-road folk bands.  Alas, even I make mistakes, and after several listens, it becomes apparent that Helplessness Blues is in fact an incredibly strong, emotionally effective album, deserving of a spot on anyone with a passing interest in folk’s shelf.

See, the thing with listening to folk, especially really good folk, is that it demands equal attention given to both the music and the lyrics.  Fleet Foxes strike this balance perfectly, their poetic lyrics and strong songwriting gelling into something that is greater than the sum of its parts.  Musically, almost every song contains some really neat musical flourish; in “Bedouin Dress”, violins slither, alternating between providing countermelodies to the rest of the song and accentuating the vocal part; “Sim Sala Bim”’s main guitar part, eventually accented with banjo and quickly moving strings, feels like a nature expedition. Most notably, “The Shrine/The Argument”, the centerpiece of the album, is eight minutes long, an extended length that very few folk artists could pull off, but with its impassioned vocal performance, overall sense of movement, and ending free jazz sax solo (!!), somehow it actually works.  All of this is combined with deftly-written lyrics and Simon-and-Garfunkel-but-better vocal harmonies throughout.

At the moment, Helplessness Blues is getting accolades from virtually every publication around, and it’s one of those few albums that actually deserves all of the praise heaped upon it.  It’s something of a landmark record, and it’s got just about everything you could want from it; intelligent, well-spoken lyrics, interesting music, and a really good, subdued but exciting feel throughout.  It’ll be very interesting to see where the Fleet Foxes go from here.

interviews reviews

A short but sweet interview with Chris Farren of Fake Problems

Fake Problems are a band from Florida that can have many genre labels attached to them.  At the moment, indie-rock works pretty well, but in the past you could call them anything from indie, to folk, to punk, to Americana.  Needless to say, the band are never quite content to stay in one place or within one sound.  They played a set at the El Mocambo a few nights ago along with Laura Stevenson and the Cans (which you can read about here), and I got to talk to lead singer and guitarist Chris Farren for a few minutes after the band’s soundcheck.

interviews press releases reviews

Show Review: Laura Stevenson and the Cans at the El Mocambo, May 7th

Laura Stevenson is one of the nicest, if not the nicest, people I’ve ever met.  I could tell this would be the case when about three years ago I asked her for some guitar tabs to her songs over a Myspace message and she actually went out of her way to give them to me, reassuring me that she was at her mother’s house for a Labor Day BBQ, but that she would send me them as soon as she got internet in her new apartment, where all of her guitars were.  Such a display of kindness is rare from everyday schmoes, and even rarer from a moderately successful musician towards a random fan.


Timbre Timbre – Creep On Creepin’ On album review

Creep On Creepin’ On Timbre Timbre

One of the biggest problems and, indeed, contradictions with tons of indie music is that for all of the forward-thinking music it attempts, a sizable amount of it relies an awful lot on old sounds.  Countless indie bands stake their claim simply by being fun, nostalgic “retro” throwback music; particularly, the influence of 60’s pop is overplayed to the point of nausea.

Which is why it’s really nice to hear a band use this nostalgia to create something unique and interesting, which is the case with Timber Timbre’s latest aptly-named album Creep On Creepin’ On.  Here, the instrumentally versatile indie-folk three piece use vintage sounds, but filter them through a modern sensibility, creating something at once intensely familiar and completely new.

Ostensibly, the band takes influence from the music of the 50s, especially doo-wop, but warps it from its peppy, simple origins into something very dark and creepy.  Arrangements are kept simple, and lead singer Taylor Kirk certainly croons like he’s from the 50s, but there’s always something that just sounds “wrong” about the songs: a chord progression that doesn’t quite resolve properly, or a sweeping string part that swoops in suddenly, or a piano clomping repetitively.  “Woman” has this weird little kung-fu movie lead part that’s totally bizarre, but outstanding just the same.  It’s never exactly “scary” music, but the whole album has a general sense of unsettling, subdued eeriness throughout that is positively endearing.   It’s the whole manipulation of nostalgia that makes this album work; the band subverts expectations about what this sort of music is “supposed” to sound like, and thus create something that is identifiable, but twisted.

Overall, this is probably one of the best new releases of the year, and I’d strongly encourage any music listener even peripherally interested in modern-day folk music to check it out.


Asking Alexandria – Reckless and Relentless album review

It’s hard to write about bands that are merely average.  Good bands are easy to gush about; bad ones are easy to cut down and destroy.  But the average ones?  They’re just…bleh.  A spectacular failure is much more interesting than a band that’s just middle-of-the-road.  And the middle of the road is exactly where metalcore band Asking Alexandria find themselves on their second album, Reckless and Relentless. All in all, the album’s not necessarily good, but it’s not terrible either.

One thing that’s nice about Reckless and Relentless is that the vocals, courtesy of Danny Worsnop, are rather strong.  His clean singing is a little bit whiny, but otherwise, he’s a really diverse vocalist.  I’m not really one for screaming, but he’s undeniably got a good blood-curdling shriek; his growl is, thankfully, really guttural and death metal-y, instead of the typical Lamb of God-cookie monster growls; and he’s got a cool Devin Townsend-influenced yell.  These different styles are often layered on top of each other to unique effect.

Other than the solid vocals, the only thing that sets Asking Alexandria apart from other bands in the same vein is their pronounced electronic-music influence.  Unfortunately, this tends to hurt more than it helps.  Rather than being a distinct part of their sound, it becomes a disruptive force that either gives the metal riffs an air of cheesiness, or completely destroys any semblance of flow or pacing.  Chief example of this problem is “Closure”, a song that actually uses electronics to positive effect, drops the electronics entirely to switch over to standard riffing, and then stops abruptly before becoming a rave-ready house tune for about 30 seconds.  It’s a real mess of a song, and while its drastic tonal shifts are a little bit interesting, they’re also profoundly silly.

“Silly” ends up being a pretty apt word to describe much of Reckless and Relentless, because Asking Alexandria’s greatest strength is in the most overtly ridiculous part of metalcore music – the breakdown.  This is where all the speedy licks finally build up to a head, and the song literally breaks down into a half-time explosion of (usually) anger and aggression.  The thing with breakdowns is that they’re totally ludicrous and hilariously over-the-top, but they’re also kind of awesome.  Asking Alexandria love these; so much, in fact, that everything in between them just sounds like filler.  It makes all the songs sound like a patchwork of disparate elements, where you can tell the band are just killing time until they reach that crucial meltdown point.

In the end, Reckless and Relentless isn’t really a great, or even particularly good album, but it’s not entirely nauseating.  Everything about it is pretty much fine, but nothing stands out.  The band tries to add in some electronic influence to set them apart from other bands, but these parts usually end up floundering.  The songwriting is okay, but not great.  The musicians are all talented in their own right, but aren’t mind-blowing in any way. In short, there isn’t really much of a reason for anyone except for the most devoted metalcore fans to listen to this album, but at the same time, you could do much worse.


Glasvegas – Euphoric///Heartbreak\\\ album review

I’ll admit that I hadn’t heard of Glasvegas before I was tasked with writing this review. This is a good way to go into a review; a blank slate, with no expectations in regards to the band’s popularity, quality or genre. So I was pretty shocked when, after listening to this album, I went to research the band a bit and discovered that not only are they rather popular, but they’re also critical darlings – Wikipedia says that their first album “received universal critical acclaim”. I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and believe that Euphoric///Heartbreak\\\ is something of a sophomore slump, because the only thing I could say after the album was done was “Who the hell listens to this junk?”

Glasvegas are a band based in Glasgow, Scotland that make self-important music that sounds like 80s stadium rock. To be honest, their songs are not offensively bad, though mostly boring and overwhelmingly average. This would be at least a decent album, if there weren’t two big problems that ruin every song on it.

The first is lead singer/guitarist James Allen. To get a good idea of what he sounds like, imagine Thom Yorke; now lower him about an octave or two, and take away all of his vocal range. Then make him over-emote like Eddie Vedder. Add a Scottish, Groundskeeper Willie type accent that he makes no effort to cover up. Sound good so far? Alright, now put the vocals through copious amounts of reverb and auto-tune, and you’ve got the right idea. Blech.

The second large issue is the production, which totally sucks the life from a majority of the album. It seems like Glasvegas really want to sound like the 80s, because everything possible has been made to sound big and cheesy. There’s a layer of reverb on every single instrument; the drums boom, guitars have a big arena-rock sound, and every song has a keyboard drone backing it, just in case one of the tunes threaten to become too organic or relatable. It sounds like Bon Jovi, except without the hooks or fun.

This isn’t to say that the album would be great minus these two things; for the most part, the writing is pretty sub-par. The songs all sound the same and they hobble along with very little in the way of dynamic contrast or change in feel. Everything’s got this layer of humourless self-importance; the band wants you to believe that all of their emotional lyrics and obvious chord changes are the most important thing you’ve ever heard in your life. At one point, when the song “Whatever Hurts You Through the Night” started, I actually audibly groaned at the big, stadium synth lead that kicks it off. The album also ends in the most hilariously overwrought way possible: a “heartfelt” monologue by a Scottish woman, telling her son not to be afraid of change. The only emotional response I had to it was laughter.

There’s a total of one song that actually works on this album: “I Feel Wrong (Homosexuality Pt. 1)”, in which the band actually allows a bit of space and minimalism to pervade, to good effect. It’s a heartbreaking song in which the narrator displays the disgust he’s been made to feel with his own sexual identity throughout his entire life. The production is still obnoxious and the vocals are still terrible, but for once, it actually manages to strike the emotional chord that they try too hard to hit every time.

Overall though, I’d suggest you run, not walk, away from Glasvegas’s second album, Euphoric///Heartbreak\\\. It’s sickeningly retro, painfully obvious, and absolutely humourless. If you’re really hankering for an emotional 80s sound, I’d strongly suggest you skip this piece of trite garbage and go pick up Kaputt by Destroyer, an album that has a similar feel but actually works by being varied and musically adventurous. In short, Euphroic///Heartbreak\\\ is one of the worst albums I’ve heard in a long while, and has made Glasvegas one of my most hated bands. Congratulations, I suppose.