Metal has always seemed, to me, to be one of the most enigmatic genres of the music industry. Whether heavy, as in Metallica, or alternative, as in Tool, I’ve never been quite able to get behind it, let alone get it. Case in point, Slipknot — it’s not only difficult to understand Corey Taylor when he sings, but the deal with the masks remains forever a mystery. Needless to say, as I approached Austrian alt-metalheads Gasmac Gilmore and their latest release, Dead Donkey, the air was ripe with apprehension. Standing on the flipside of a good listen, however, it’s at least safe to say that Gasmac Gilmore has been classed as “alternative metal” for a reason.
The Austrian rockers offer up a sound and style consistent with other known alt-metal bands, most notably System Of A Down. The instrumentals are choppy, heavy and rhythmic while lead singer Matthias Wick’s vocals are deep, theatrical and abound with vibrato. In a quirky twist, the band throws a bone to its Central European roots, as many of the tracks feature at least one polka-infused instrumental line that plays consistently through the background and occasionally takes centre stage in between verses of good, wholesome, traditionally-metal fun.
The result is only slightly ridiculous — almost as if Tim Burton got his hands on some seminal Central European dance music and then arranged it into a rock opera. It’s hard to know if the band wants to be taken seriously or is simply aiming to craft a reputation based on pure theatricality — especially when considering songs like “Camilla” which playfully rhymes girls’ names with various drinks, or “Mayonnaise” whose chorus is comprised of repeatedly asking the all-important question, “Would you like some mayonnaise?”
The silliness works to Gasmac Gilmore’s advantage though, because it makes the album — which is, like most metal albums, loud and aggressive — one thing that not all other metal acts can claim. Gasmac Gilmore’s tracks are remarkably fun. They aren’t overwhelmingly dark or unsettling, but are rather a pretty friendly offering for your average non-metalhead. And while it may be that saying this means I still don’t properly understand the genre, at least now I can say I don’t dislike it either.
It’s back to the future with Australia’s Catcall, whose debut offering The Warmest Place stands first and foremost as a tribute to all (musical) things 80s — an influence the band readily owns up to on its website. Indeed, right up behind oversize tops and robot sunglasses comes this album, 14 tracks that reek of 30-year-old dance-pop.
Now, when I say reek, I don’t mean stink. The band doesn’t do a bad job with the hand its been dealt — or rather, the hand it has chosen. True to form, each track is grounded in heavy, rhythmic bass lines that support the hollow, reverberating vocals that were the trademark of the decade’s female vocalists. They can be danced to, bobbed-along to, probably jazzercized to if one is so inclined. Even odd-one-out openers “The Warmest Place,” a 45-second gospel-like acapella number, and “August,” which sees the theme of piety continued with its distinct organ-based instrumentals, have a place in the era if you consider the opening seconds of George Michael’s Faith, which featured an alarmingly somber rendition of “Freedom” played out on the organ as well.
As an obvious and faithful callback to the era of excess, then, the album is certainly a success. The problem with The Warmest Place is simply that it doesn’t really amount to much else. The tracks are pleasant — lead singer Catherine Kelleher’s voice is easy to listen to and the instrumentals are, for the most part, engaging enough to anchor onto, with the exception of the incessant one-note repetition at the end of “Shoulda Been” — but they don’t offer up anything new. In fact, The Warmest Place could verily be simply described as yet another brick in the wall of 80s culture our generation seems so intent on hiding behind. And while certain reincarnations see innovative modifications that make them worth a second spin, this one lacks value beyond the fact that it is a by-the-book imitation. In this way, Catcall is much like a cover band, able to go through the motions to please a crowd well enough, but certainly never a substitute for the real deal — at least, not yet.
Stickers is, simply put, an album of deceit. With vectorized robot adorning the cover art and a genre label like “indie-electro-pop” preceding it, the sophomore offering of British musician Carey Willett’s solo project, known simply as Boxes, easily fosters expectations of a record endowed with noisy, mechanical instrumentals and enigmatic, indecipherable lyrics. The ruse is well-kept, persisting even into the album’s first track, “One” — a wordlessly explosive 2-minute opener that seems to confirm every preconception one might have about the nature of this record.
Until the next song begins, when Willet opens his mouth and the illusion is shattered. Yes, the noisy mechanics remain, to a certain, albeit lesser, extent. But they are coupled with distinctly pure instrumentals and, above all, a quietly emotional voice that sings delicately deprecating lyrics to match. What results from this pairing is an innovative take on the standard of alternative rock as perpetuated by veterans including Death Cab for Cutie and Bright Eyes — call it Ben Gibbard with an electro twist.
This combination is a winning one, when it is actually employed. Tracks such as “Throw Your Stones,” “Red Skies,” and “Silent Alarm” display a well-metered balance of electro-synth and emotion. Listeners find a humanity they can relate to alongside an artificiality that keeps it interesting — the perfect balance of man and machine. Where the album fails is in its inability to maintain this magic formula across the board. The electro influences vary in prominence throughout the album, with tracks such as the very conventional “Stickers” seeing them sorely lacking. Herein lies the album’s final deceit — just when you think you’ve stumbled across something truly unique, you are served up the familiar alt-rock archetype you’ve known all along. That’s not to say these tracks are bad — Willet’s lyrics are as heart-wrenching and his melodies as melancholic as the best of them. They’ve simply been done before, and, given that listeners are simultaneously shown just how far Boxes takes the alt-rock genre with a little mechanized help, Willet ends up losing against himself.
That being said, the album isn’t all bad news. After all, he has to win against himself sometimes too.
With a healthy collection of dapper suits and a neatly-trimmed mustache decorating his upper lip, Sam Sparro appears, at first glance, poised to bang out a record of alternative, indie-rock musings before all else. And yet, with his second disc, Return to Paradise, the Australian child-actor-turned-singer delivers something quite the contrary. Straight out of a 70s time capsule comes, instead, a collection of high energy disco-funk tracks guaranteed to get you up and out of your seat.
Sparro certainly stays loyal to his influences. Each track sees all the trappings of the greatest hits from the era — funky bass lines, Latin-inspired cowbells and hammering piano riffs played out against a backdrop of mesmerizing synth beats. Sparro’s voice, too, is delightfully disco, vacillating between a deep, tinny wail and a perfectly adequate falsetto, while maintaining a consistent cheese factor. Surface alterations have allowed him to update the sound a little — electro influences in tracks like “Let the Love In” put him in the vein of Canadian duo Chromeo, and the Bowie-esque spaceman theme that can be heard throughout make Sparro seem almost otherworldly.
Perhaps the most obvious influence on the album is Prince. Sparro’s disc is wildly reminiscent of the man in purple — “Yellow Orange Rays” heavily recalls Prince’s “Sign O’ The Times” in particular. The two even resemble each other a little bit, at least stylistically if not aesthetically.
What is clear about this album is that it is primarily intended to make you dance. Though Sparro covers a wide range of material with his lyrics, pondering everything from hypothetical situations concerning a whole slew of characters to real, personal heartbreak, lines like “You have me feeling like a crackhead/I squeeze you out just like a blackhead” (“I Wish I Had Never Met You”) quickly disengage listeners from his words. The record is much more effective if you simply allow yourself to be carried by the beats. Every track is so fabulously energetic that what ensues is a near-hour of solid head-bobbing. Even as Sparro considers the deepest heartbreak or greatest pain, the only thing left for listeners to do is dance it out — which is just fine, because sometimes that’s the best cure anyway.
With the May 31st release of By the Horns, Julia Stone is the first sibling to make good on the promise of a solo release following the temporary hiatus of the folk duo she helms with her brother, Angus. A slight modification on the grassroots acoustics for which she and her brother are known, Stone’s second solo offering is a record that is part dreamy introspection, part haunting vindication. The result is a collection of songs that leaves you simultaneously feeling light with possibilities and heavy with the ghosts of predicaments past.
A large part of this dichotomy can be attributed to the characteristics and quality of Stone’s voice. She sings in an infantile coo, airy and, at times, beautifully broken. This is paired with a melodic cadence that seems to allow her to string her words along like beads on a ribbon, smooth and continuous until you’ve lost yourself completely in the mix. It is a tool in Stone’s arsenal that she appears to know how to manipulate remarkably well — it becomes a lighthearted sound almost suited for children’s music when singing lyrics like, “I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees” (“Bloodbuzz Ohio”), only to veer sharply into the territory of the eerily sinister when applied to lines such as, “And she told you that she loved you/And you told her you were tired/Oh, the things we say/Once we’ve got what we desired” (“By The Horns”).
Despite this display of vocal versatility, however the record is still somewhat lacking in variety. It features two spectrums of emotion at either end of its run without much in-between. Combine this with a fairly consistent and, consequently, predictable set of instrumental techniques and you have to be careful not to let what is truly a record for the dreamer put you right to sleep. “I Want To Live Here” is a particular low point, while title track “By The Horns” serves as its immediate follow up and saving grace, a 4-minute crash course in the album at its best — emotional, elegant, and all the while easy to listen to.
Choir of Young Believers, the Danish ensemble driven by vocalist, writer and instrumentalist Jannis Noya Makrigiannis and his band of merry on-and-off accompaniments, is pretty much the definition of new age experimentalism. Described as “avant pop”, the band was widely acclaimed in its home country for its unique combination of various genres including folk and orchestral instrumentals, before receiving recognition in North America after an appearance at SXSW in 2009. With its sophomore offering, Rhine Gold, what is essentially a one-man band sure does manage to cover a surprising amount ground, musically speaking. From 80s-synth pop to acoustic crooning to melodic musings set to the cello — call Makrigiannis a jack-of-all-trades, because this album has it all.
Such a brazen amalgamation of musical genres certainly runs the risk of creating nothing but an enormous mess. In some ways, this is true of Rhine Gold — moving from one track to the next might as well be a trip across the globe, and the marathon tracks featured on this album (Paralyze clocks in at over 10 minutes), could easily be mistaken for several different songs instead of just one. Makrigiannis is truly everywhere with this collection of tracks, a true display of some serious commitment issues. And yet, the erraticism is taken to such an extreme that it almost ceases to have an effect altogether. The inconsistencies stop being jarring, and instead become the very thing that unify the album — you come to expect the unexpected.
That doesn’t stop the album, with its many twists and turns, from being just plain weird at its core. Perhaps the experience of listening to Rhine Gold can best be analogized to that of viewing modern art. There’s pressure to like it and understand it, because it’s a new, hip thing (imported from Europe to boot), and consequently stands to be a benchmark of being captial-C-cultured. And while you might find it agreeable enough when you finally give it a whirl, a part of you is always left scratching your head, wondering who ever decided that being cultured really just meant being kind of strange.
Following in the footsteps of acts such as The Fratellis and Feist are Grouplove, the latest band to get a jumpstart courtesy of an iPod spot. With the success of tracks “Tongue Tied” and “Colours” already firmly cemented, the Los Angeles group emerged in late 2011 with their debut full-length offering, Never Trust A Happy Song.
No matter how much the band claims to abhor happy songs, it’s apparent that they are by no means averse to upbeat tracks at the very least. With a sound quality best described as the vocal urgency of Tokyo Police Club combined with the evocative instrumentals of Funeral-era Arcade Fire, Grouplove succeeds in creating, for the most part, a collection of songs that make a person want to get up, get out, and parade away. The first half of the album, in particular, sees songs that feature swelling choruses (“Itchin’ On A Photograph”), vibrant and varied bass lines (“Lovely Cup”), and a slick rolling lyrical style interrupted by the occasional wail (“Colours”). The tracks may not be happy but they are loud, they are beautiful, and they feel remarkably cathartic.
That being said, the album is not without missteps. Middle track “Slow” lives up to its name, and is wholly inconsistent with the rest of the album. The ethereal quality proves to be a stark change that leaves the track appearing to have been conceived of by a completely different band, and gives the impression of trying too hard to create an alternative sound. Later “Betty’s Bomb Shell” is a much better attempt at a slow interlude for the album, maintaining the sound and style genuinely unique to the band and consistent to the album, but executing them to a lesser extreme.
Given that the band is a relatively new act and, as has been well-documented, were friends first and a musical ensemble second, the oversights are by all means forgivable. From that perspective, Never Trust A Happy Song is everything a fledgling offering should be — a collection beautiful moments and awkward spills that will probably culminate in a smooth first flight. The fact that they sound pretty good in the meantime is just a bonus.