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Small Black – Limits Of Desire album review

It’s not a small thing to release a 44 minute album. With so many tracks it’s easy for the quality and vibe to be inconsistent the LP progresses. Limits Of Desire at the very least maintains a similar vision throughout. Their love for synthesizers and 80’s culture is never put in question in the duration of the album, its always quite clear who Small Black is and what they’re here to do.

Small Black work best when they have their uptempo nature complimented by the downtempo vibe of the singing and background noises. When the drums and instruments dial down the speed to match the vocals the songs tend to lose steam and become forgettable. There’s a fine balance to be dialed in here, Small Black hits it a few times and makes you want to drive around twilight Miami in a DeLorean. Other times the songs inspire nothing but a bathroom or drink break, Sophie in particular, as well as a couple of other songs, sound like they were ripped out of a venues playlist for bands to set up and break down their gear to.

I’m impressed with the production value here, Small Black has a go-to sound set and knows how to work it even if the results aren’t always exceedingly original. The 80’s synths and modern atmospheres do hit the spot more often than not. Even if you don’t find any particular stand-out track you may find yourself playing the record in the background just to feel like you’re in a brand new John Hughes movie, (though I wouldn’t be surprised if the band was sick of the comparison).

I was more interested in the energetic pieces Small Black has to offer, so I found the second half of the album to be more sleepy than I was looking for. Still, even in their most romantic and sensually aimed songs they maintain the same spirit of the album throughout, which is more than you can say for a lot of releases over the 40 minute mark. I waited to hear the standout dud, the one track half the band was embarrassed for but that one cocky guitarist pushed to get in the tracklist, but never heard it. Small Black is right on target, though I wonder if they can evolve in a way that makes the quiet songs more entertaining than just a relaxation aid.

It would be forgivable if you wrote off Small Black as yet another group cashing in on the 80’s reinvention trend going on lately. The aesthetic they present will surely not be to every ones taste, but if you’ve got a hunger for dreamy synthesizers and neon glasses Limits Of Desire wont be out of place as a soundtrack to your life.

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Three Blind Wolves – Sing Hallelujah for the Old Machine album review

After listening to Three Blind Wolves, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’re from the states. At first glance they seem to be a typical indie folk/rock in a sea of indie folk/rock. Then you hear the songs unfold, and with a few bellowing lines out of the singer they’ve washed any semblance of mundane attempts to imitate a musicians famed idol; no, Three Blind Wolves stands on their own.

The first track takes off as your typical slightly-atmospheric country/folk rock song.. Only a soft backing drone and high pitched mandolin picking set them apart, that is until you hear the low end rumble belonging to the lead singer. It ties the sound together in a way that would have seemed contrived if the vocalist wasn’t as interesting sonically. Not afraid to stand out on his own for a few seemingly falsetto range notes but tightly controlled enough to build drama for the upcoming bridge only to bring it all back into some sense of normality. The individual pieces of the song that may not have seemed like a match end up whirling together into something inseparable.

A same twist of fate happens on “Tall Man Riding”, from what starts out as a typical folk offering goes a little deeper with the vocal melodies, his voice riding along with the dipping and diving guitar riff. This table turning of expectations seems to be indicative of Three Blind Wolves as a whole. Even if your bar is set fairly high for entries into the folk genre, Three Blind Wolves puts a stamp on their sound, eventually, but not usually right off the bat. It takes a minute or two for each song to reveal their worth, and on a higher level the band as well. “Parade” comes on in with another atmospheric country intro. The song doesn’t really take off a tinged Three Blind Wolves until you hear the back-up vocals underneath. It might have been better if it ended around the three minute mark in my eyes though, the parts following get a bit more tiresome than they deserve.

For those expecting another interesting tale from the next indie folk/rock group, you may be left wanting more, but for those who just wanted to see heartfelt and passionate songs played together by a band who seems to be life-long friends, you will probably find a permanent place for Three Blind Wolves’ Sing Hallelujah for the Old Machine in your collection. For everyone else, their single releases are safe bet to whet your appetite.

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It Hugs Back – Recommended Record album review

Recommended Record is surprisingly upbeat for the genre. Its rare to see a psychedelic infused act take this approach to more experimental sounds. This 2013 release is It Hugs Back third album, starting with Inside Your Guitar and followed up by Laughing Party, Recommended Record makes it the UK based psychedelic rock band’s third album. It covers a wide array of colors and stands out from merely not being depressing, let alone inventive and refined.

Sometimes these experimental passages build a false sense of progression to have it fall out from underneath you when the song doesn’t climax as you thought it would. Instead, it lulls you back into the dubbed out coma it spat you out of. Waiting room feels exceedingly like the output of a jam band and hints at the bands classic rock influences. Then they reel back into a dusty country rock song called Skateboard Rhythm, except skateboarding is probably the last thing the song inspires one to do. The title track, recommended records, dials in a driving beat and square cut rhythms contrasting the slow groovy nature of most of the album.

The genre label the band has tagged on to each of their tracks on soundcloud is dubbed “Cosmic” and it couldn’t be more apt. The swooshing wishy-washy bleepy-bloppy sounds of the opening track “Sa Sa Sa Sails” will carry your head into a distant galaxy. Perhaps to a planet where no one wears shoes and plaid shirts never go out of style.

It Hugs Back gets a bit grungy at times. No self constraining brand of thought was behind the copious amounts of fuzzy distortion, and there are times where the early grunge and other punk influences break through the otherwise jam band ethos elsewhere on the album. Even in those moments, however, a sense of legacy is felt, like they are trying to do their idols justice. As for their idols, I wouldn’t be surprised if these guys listed to a lot of MC5 for at least one phase in their life.

Overall Recommended Record is worth recommending even if the album title wasn’t already hypnotizing me into using its namesake as a cheap, but effective, conclusion to a positive review. Though it dips in spots there is enough here to satisfy a variety of rock fans, but now I’m curious in what direction they will decide to hone their style, if at all. The amount of which you like their next piece of work could depend on how they reconcile these opposing styles, either into a fusion of them all, or continuing to expand in all directions which could perhaps be to their detriment.

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Oberhofer – Notalgia EP review

The five piece band fronted by Brad Oberhofer, aptly named Oberhofer, comes to us with a new EP. Notalgia follows up their previous release Time Capsules II under the same label of Glassnote Records. The Brooklyn based quintet comes to us with a handful of dance rock love songs destined to make waves.

Its rare to hear love songs with such a talented backdrop. Most often we are only privy to some rundown acoustic verses with minimal effort trying to impress the listener. Oberhofer, thankfully, isn’t content with churning out just another love song, though one would be forgiven for thinking as much by looking at their lyrics alone. While judged separately, they are the pretty standard affair, however its the total package that brings them to life, and the less than exceptional prose does not detract from that experience.

Where most bands would call a song finished, Oberhofer brings back something almost completely forgotten in these ruins of the civilization leveled by the loudness war: dynamics. Instead of maintaining the same volume and intensity throughout their songs, they know how to contrast their high points with some more quiet and tender moments. These can end as abruptly as they start, reminding you how loud they were to begin with. If it were not for the lack of this quality in most bands, it would not be a standout characteristic so much as a requirement to keep music interesting. Well as it stands not everyone seems to be interested in keeping their music interesting.

Even with a meager 5 tracks, one of which is a 30 second interlude, a couple of the tracks feel like filler. With so many singles under their belt I get the sense they were urged to release something more substantial by a manager of theirs. Personally I would have been happy with a two track release offering, by no surprise, the two tracks they seem to be putting on a pedestal: “You + Me (Still Together In The Future)”  and “Together/Never”, the first and third tracks respectively.

Albeit a rather paltry offering of songs, Notalgia may hold you over until their inevitable full LP release. I would find it hard to imagine Oberhofer not picking up steam and acquiring some mainstream radio play; their style is new enough, but doesn’t stray too far from previous efforts in the dance rock vein, a combination that is sure to win over many.

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Alex Calder – Time EP review

Alex Calder comes to us with his debut EP, Time via the Brooklyn based label Captured Tracks. Previously the drummer backing Canadian cohort Mac DeMarco, this Edmonton hailing singer/song writer presents us with a candid but foggy illustration of himself on display in these seven tracks.

At times he resembles a tighter, more well-spoken Sonic Youth, but not necessarily a more normalized approach, just slightly more accessible. Accessibility can be a dirty word among the indie crowd, but Alex finds a good balance between the dissonant atmospheres and his adoration of the pop song structure.

The opening track “Suki and Me” is a fragmented recollection of young lovers on a journey together, or rather, whatever they do becomes an adventure. The phrasing feels so broken and awkward at times, but this only adds to the song’s aesthetic as the guitars ring out in a breezy but dirty manner. Before you know it, you’re reminiscing in Alex’s memories and not your own.

“Light Leave Your Eyes” might feel like a more traditional take on spacey shoegaze, were it not for the tempo changes that have a tendency to sweep you off your feet. When the drums drop into the guitar riffing in a somewhat joyful manner it may be hard to fight off the urge to go for a walk in the park at twilight.

This sense of exploration and nature is a feeling harnessed by most of the tracks on Time. Almost effortlessly Alex taps into previously inexplicable feelings of a cool summer night with just enough dirt to make it believable. A night drive, a barbeque, a walk in the woods, or a first date; all of these would be apt imagery for Alex Calder’s debut, but you wouldn’t be far off in sensing in all of these interpretations that there is just that one additional element that makes everything feel slightly off. Its this wild card that makes his sound unique to him.

I’m not sure that the style hes crafting would be better suited for anything other than an EP. An LP might have overstayed its welcome, but there is enough of a unique setting to Alex’s songs that kept me coming back for more. The dissonance, however, may weigh to heavily on the side of annoying depending on your taste. On some tracks its nothing but sublime, but others seem to require a more acquired taste, at least before the poppy and pleasant, but still slightly unsettling, chorus rides back into the foreground.

Even though you may be reminded of several other artists over the course of Time, you’d be hard pressed to find another Alex Calder. What more could you ask of a musician, let alone of their first release?

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Nikola Sarcevic – Freedom To Roam album review

The social dynamic of a band can often keep bland or inadequate songs in check, just by the nature of bouncing ideas off each other. If the singer tries to use precious practice time to suggest an acoustic power ballad as the band’s next big hit, the rest are free to ridicule the idea out of existence. When these frontmen break free from such oppressively communist roles, they often make records like Freedom To Roam, Nikola Sarcevic’s fourth solo album apart from his main project Millencolin.

Some may be touched by his everyday woes, but most, I’d imagine, will tune out the dull strumming and barely adequate vocals; that is, if they don’t get frustrated by the shear mediocrity of his music and simply turn it off. Were it not for Nikola Sarcevic’s main band Millencolin to funnel fans from, I sincerely doubt his solo work would merit anything other than a golf clap at your local open-mic night. After returning from said open mic, if anyone were to ask an attendee if there was any stand out performances, I’d have to think that their response would be akin to, “Nah, just some dude”.

In his role here as a singer/songwriter, Nikola, to me, is “just some dude”. He is no longer the soundtrack to 14 year old skaters en route via minivan to the local park. Nikola now lives out the classic solo artist cliche. If Freedom To Roam is the soundtrack to anything, its a first year student’s short film. Despite this, if you relate to folk songs, no matter how dreadfully dull in execution or conception, you might find some emotional attachment to the man, for if nothing else he is being sincere. Sure, innovation for innovation’s sake may yield less than stellar results as well, but this project didn’t have to exist. These songs didn’t have to be played out, practiced, recorded, and distributed, and yet, here they are. It’s no surprise the album releases under his own label (Stalemate Records), because I can totally understand Epitaph’s sister label Burning Heart Records passing on this.

If there is any silver lining to this release, it would have to be the production qualities. Audio quality is always top notch, and the songs backing tracks cover the bases quite well in what you’d expect from a country/folk singer/songwriter’s solo album. Sometimes there is just a track placed in such a subtle way, you might not even know it’s there save for the fact it’s coloring the more present tracks to keep things at least a bit interesting. There is even a drum machine and synthesizer or two, although, their inclusion seems nothing but a “me too” grab at a contemporary sound. The electronic textures mostly sound drastically out of place next to the prairies and desolate small town blues the rest of the album details.

In my time spent drudging through this album, I made notice of many influences, however many of them are at odds with each other. It’s one thing to take a whack at pleasing the Postal Service crowd, it’s another to only attempt it once, and seemingly on a whim in the face of the many bells and whistles a modern studio can provide. In the face of what Nikola Sarcevic is trying to be, he, quite simply, fails.

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Rituals – Mesmerized EP review

Rituals are a band that appears to have self-awareness in spades. They aren’t concerned with making a statement so much as letting you have a peek into their world. Once you look through the keyhole, however, you’re miniaturized and sucked into the sonic universe they have crafted. With their new EP Mesmerized, Rituals isn’t just playing their songs for you to hear, they’re letting you inside their heads.

It’s not all entirely an abstract concoction that they’re brewing. They summon a history of energetic would-be pop songs if the singer wasn’t drowning in a sea of reverberation. Their guitarists may as well have been kidnapped and drugged from a dance punk band. The drums keep things grounded in a way, reminding us that they could have a cleaner, more accessible sound, if they wanted. Thankfully, Rituals doesn’t seem to want that.

Luring you in with a dirty but calming ambient intro, “Delta Delta Delta” gives you a preview of things to come, and its not long before you get the picture. The first real track “Our Blood” makes a great impression and is a near perfect representation of what the band has to offer. You may find “July” as another stand-out track on this EP, where at times the bass and vocals seem to be blending together in a collaboration most often saved for the lead guitarists. Anxious but subdued picking on the guitars make it clear that you have a choice in how you approach the band. You could, for example, go the space cadet route, put on your headphones and just absorb the environment Rituals has laid out for you. But by the same notion its not a stretch of the imagination to picture show-goers to be having a bit of a freak out.

While the vocals add to the vibe of the band in a similar fashion to Comets on Fire or Dead Meadow, in terms of actual musicianship the singer seems to be the weakest link. However, it appears that Rituals knows this, and instead takes the vocals for what they are, just another instrument. He’s not there to dominate the stage or present an icon for fans to worship, hes simply contributing to the bands whirling and frantic sound. Even in their mostly incomprehensible form, the lyrics seem to have very personal and dark undertones, where I feel like if I knew what he was singing, I’d be clued into some very emotionally vulnerable verses. He chooses instead to veil himself behind the drone of the guitars and spacious atmosphere and I’d be lying if I said the band wasn’t better off for it.

Rituals present a fairly clear projection of their sonic vision, I can’t help but feel like a few improvements could be made. The atmospheric interludes would do well to find their way into their more structured songs to give them a bit more dynamics. Some songs seem to neither start nor end; rather, it feels like you simply walked in and out on them playing. More concise endings, and perhaps quiet bridge segments, would give more contrast to their energetic drones.

Whether you like to zone out or get down, this collection of songs invites you to do either. With the full EP up on their label’s Soundcloud (One Big Silence), anyone can get lost in the fuzzy world Rituals has created here. Its easy to get inebriated on their droning atmosphere alone, as they have concocted a brew that hits your psyche as hard as your gut.