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Monday, September 24, 2012

Album Review: Harp & Lyre - Tribes

There are shouty albums and then there are SHOUTY albums. Oklahoma City’s , hardcore musicians first and Christians second, have conjured up a debut that comes at you in capital letters. They are a group of individuals who are clearly proud to call themselves a band and, boy, do they like to tell you about it. They have spent the last four years honing their music; developing their voice, as it were. It is this voice that, as they themselves acknowledge, can offer “some a soundtrack to parallel their lives”. They give the impression that their urgent, impassioned music and equally fervent messages play out as bullet-points to their own existence. One read of their poetic facebook biography will tip you off as to how deep the H&L well goes and where they believe the buck really stops.

Their first full-length, Tribes, moves one step on from their Clumsy Architects EP, heaping even heavier, harder hits on us one after the other. Through the demonstrative opening forays of “Birthpains” we are hurried through echoing halls where banners declaring “Welcome to humanity” and “Welcome to life” are ripped from their moorings to lie muddied and torn on the floor. Fists burst through the clanging guitar strokes of Jose Hernandez as he sets about shirking off the semi-laconic runs, theatrical breaks and assorted chaos that drummer Dylan Baxter spews throughout “Eyes”. Front and center is Tyler Carder, doubled-up, orchestrating the madness with his all-consuming, vitriolic, scrawling vocals. This is not the type of vocal delivery you are supposed to like. Throughout “I Am Rebellion” and “Tamenation” he is right up in your grill, sonically hewing a path through his own band’s output. Forget weaving in and out of the music; this takes you, as-the-crow-flies, screeching and howling, bisecting the riffs, dividing the battery, careering blindly through the thrum.

Bands like this tend to have a trick up their sleeves. So whilst you’re gawping at their ability to both challenge, like and , and bulldoze, like The Prestige or , don’t be surprised when you happen upon a track like “This Is Giving Up”. Here, you’ll discover build, melody, clarity and harmony wrapped around a heightened level of tense, rhythmic focus. It reminded me of those mind-mangling moments when bands like and switched tack to reveal their singing and screaming voices, one after the other, usually to stunning effect. There’s a frailty, tenderness and passion that hits in layered waves, enough to wash over the brim and into a (pointlessly separated) instrumental tack-on, “Hope In Things To Come”. Hearing this is like actually hearing the band for the first time, as they slice clinically through the bullshit to confess their innermost thoughts.

Most certainly, there’s a deep sense, appreciation and understanding of the power of faith guiding the lyrics, but the band do seem particularly keen to explore both the negative and positive sides of their relationship with the subject so it’s not an overwhelming aspect. What is of greater detriment to the album is the tendency for its tracks to blur together. Tribes‘ initial swathes of volume set about desensitising the listener to such a degree, that the louder and harder the subsequent tracks go, the less of an impact they seem to make and, as a consequence, the lines of division crumble. On the positive side, there are some expansive switches in delivery to be found in the whines of “Wormood”, the totemic beats of the title-track and the tonal trickery of “1:7″ (for those not diving for their little black book it’s a bible passage that refers to “The fear of the Lord”, apparently). The latter two seem like mere afterthoughts that makes something of a mockery of the running order.

Yes, Tribes is definitely a SHOUTY album. As a jockey lashes his ride to go faster, bawling your lyrics across a rabble-rousing backdrop can be a useful tool to inject urgency, vitality and passion to an opus; a trigger for those primal fight-or-flight surges. , a hugely promising addition to this industry, have proven with their debut that if they want to thrash it as hard as they do, the one thing they must also learn is to steady the hand and stay the whip a little more often or they could well end up flogging a dead horse.

Also online (with samples) @ The NewReview = http://thenewreview.net/reviews/harp-lyre-tribes

Friday, September 14, 2012

Album Review: Hexvessel - No Holier Temple

Hexvessel love trees. It’s quite clear that the “Temple” in the title of their sophomore album is referring to all things nature and, in particular, the life cycles of those tall, knotty skyscrapers themselves. Mat McNerney and his “Death Magicians” have moved on from their Dawnbearer debut and are taking their mystical folk music into some pretty dark, haunting places and on trips that may (or may not) have involved prolonged episodes of mushroom-munching.

There’s still a strong acoustic folk vibe going on with big plays coming from sax (“Woods To Conjure”), violin and piano (“Wilderness Is) and even didgeridoo (“Elegy To Goyahkla”), but they also unveil moments that will see you referencing black metal, and a decaying velocity that wraps its outstretched arms around the genre of doom. The opening, wildly self-indulgent, spoken passage outlining the glory of “Heaven And Earth Magic” sets the more solemn tone whilst passages of crystal clear, eulogising vocal plugged with stronger harmonies, particularly noticable in “His Portal Tomb” set one in mind of the work of Neil Hannon (The Divine Comedy). They are rich in melody and travel lightly along a gentle cadence. Around them is layered the sort of music that could be described as possessing a certain Beatles-y charm.

In and out of the subtle shades of potency, those that evoke the music of Ihsahn and Opeth comes something else. Tracks like the 10-minute “His Portal Tomb” and the 13-minute “Unseen Sun” that see the band happily ringing in the changes with warm, fuzzed guitar cracking out those metallic elements. They, in turn, ignite the doom fuse for those that didn’t even realise it was there all along. More twists await in the form of the cabaret wake-up call of “Are You Coniferous?” and the addictive, Levellers-esque ceremonial melodies of “Sacred Marriage”.

Ultimately, though, there is just so much music here that fails to capture the heart in the same way that a small portion of the songs do. It’s always a disappointment to hear so much falling short of hitting the mark that the standard-bearers set. The opening groundwork, so grindingly laid out, is just too weak to support the grit that the back end of the album displays. There’s way too many pompous passages of spoken word; poetic and thought-provoking, for sure, but completely energy-sapping. The fact they’ve covered a track (“Your Head Is Reeling”, one of the album’s better ones) by a band called Ultimate Spinach speaks volumes about them. Hexvessel’s exploration of the connective possibilities of their humble folk music is certainly impressive and No Holier Temple is a definite step forward but they need to stop sucking the life out of their music.

Also online (with extras) @ Ave Noctum =  http://www.avenoctum.com/2012/09/hexvessel-no-holier-temple-svart-records/

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Album Review: Dharmata – Dharmata

Aaah, West Palm Beach, Florida. With sun, sea and sand as far as the eye can see, it’s easy to see why it has taken local alt-rockers five years to polish off their debut album. What teasers they have released over the years have received plenty of regional radio airplay, scored stagetime with bands such as , and , and caused a certain Benji Webbe’s ears to perk up. Not only has he been bigging them up and brought his band, , over to gig with them, but he’s also had a hand here in co-producing the album.

Certainly, the songwriting, whilst being predictably structured, is full of hooks and catchy anthems, so it’s easy to see why Radio Land has picked them up. Plenty of the tracks are full of bounce and there are some neat rhythmic cuts and riff bursts dotted about to suck you in. Combine that with Jay Slim’s crisp, ostentatious and assured clarion call of a vocal, which has a pure, old-school rock quality, and you’ve certainly got potential. Listening closely, it’s almost like they’ve got their stylistic sights set on hitting the point where overlap with . The trouble though is that somewhere along the line they’ve ended up sounding more like mocking mocking .

Tracks like “Outside The Lines” and “Strength In Numbers” are classically strong, inherently catchy and breezy enough to suck us in. It’s easy to forget that underneath those vocal barbs, it’s all a bit bland with soft edges and very little bite. The cotton-wool, dressed-up production, of course, doesn’t help. Those responsible souls have left us with dampened drums, warm guitars and a reverberating bass that smothers as it thrums. The vocal is the only thing we can actually fall back on and even that has had too many of its rough edges sandpapered. We end up looking to tracks like “Do It Again” and “The Awakening” to buck the trends and, firstly, inject some grit and vitality into the mix, and secondly, break-up the rigid verse-chorus-verse shapes and repetitious lines. The former track leans hard on its tub-thumping patterns, nu-metal post-production tweaks and rapped bridge for inspiration whilst the latter explores a few darker tones whilst hinting at something excitingly symphonic.

Undoubtedly, there’s a definite lack of ambition shown here; it’s all a bit too safe. The crueller souls amongst you might suggest throwing acronyms like AOR or MOR at them to see if they stick. “Love Kills” is about as nasty and rangy as Jay Slim gets but, as an album highlight, it’s most certainly worthy of mention. We get growls, an octave drop and even the odd snarled passage that make it through his usual high-register drifting. Just those few cracks in that bland veneer he’s selling shows he’s been holding back on us. Also, listen out for some smart little touches in “Monster” – that sudden break into a bass solo, the short bursts of double-kick and the hints at wordplay. Oh, and let’s not miss out the vicious 5FDP-esque stabs of drum and guitar that swirl around “The Way”. As is often the case, don’t stick around for the chorus; it’s just more of the same. You can harmonise all you like, fellas, over-familiarity and drab production has scuppered your ship.

They may be about ten, some might suggest twenty years too late to the party, but have absolutely got a knack for penning a solid tune. The first two songs are proof of that and the back-half of this debut shows they do actually have the character to take these skills to the next level. If they cut back on the gutless, over-repetitious filler (“Where Do We Go”, I’m looking at you) and sharpen up the production they could really have something saleable. Surf’s up, fellas!

Also online (with samples) @ The NewReview = http://thenewreview.net/reviews/dharmata-dharmata

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Album Review: The Graviators – Evil Deeds (Napalm Records)

Sweden’s trickle of 70′s revivalists is rapidily becoming a flood, as following fast in the footsteps of bands like Witchcraft, Graveyard and Burning Saviours come more worshippers like Horisont and, voilà, The Graviators. Described in their PR flyer as coming from “deep in the woods”, it is no surprise to hear their music sounding so angry, nay, feral; more-stripped down than several of their blues-loving forbears. If Graveyard were, say, the bleary-eyed bongheads of this expanding retro scene, then The Graviators would be the wide-awake tearaways spray-painting Pentagram and Black Sabbath symbols onto buildings.

Take the 2:43 of “Morning Star”. It’s a rip-roarin’ blazing rocker of a track, slicked with Johan Holm’s gnarly basslines, Martin Fairbanks’ thick, fuzz-covered riffing and Niklas Sjöberg’s scowling vocal that rises up and up, ending in a howling falsetto. At other times, during say “Feelin’ Low”, they seem impelled to explore the more Sabbathian realms of old school doom. They linger upon each note to turn the pace into a lollop. They reach a depth and breadth of undertow that begins to congeal around you leaving you mired (by the album’s end, naturally) in the Saint Vitus-worshipping sedentary plod that “The Infidel” becomes. It forms the quicksand that has secreted itself around your legs, slurping and burping all around.

Whilst there’s little new to be found in tracks like “A Different Moon” and “Häxagram”, there are other highlights to be found. Check out the form of “The Great Depression” with its rising-and-falling, walked riff and undercurrent of blues, and “Evil Deeds” which flits about whilst remaining leashed to it’s repeating chorus like a paranoid-afflicted, ADD-sufferer. Oh, and do keep an ear pinned back for the glorious little touches of Hammond organ and Wurlitzer piano (like those in the otherwise overwrought “Presence”) as supplied by Petrus Fredestad.

The one snag in the music (that irksome devil which threatens to stick his trident in their balloon) is Sjöberg’s insipid, reed-thin, chicken-squawk of a vocal which works in direct opposition to the fat licks that surround it. It is the equivalent of pitting a featherweight boxer up against three sumo wrestlers – he’s going to make a hell of a racket while the big boys trundle about after him, but that poor sod is eventually going home in a fucking ambulance. Put it this way, if you liked their debut album and haven’t grown weary of Sjöberg’s output by the close of this follow-up album, then you never will; in which case, I salute you.

Also online (with extras) @ Ave Noctum = http://www.avenoctum.com/2012/09/the-graviators-evil-deeds-napalm-records/