Slowdive : Slowdive

Okay, I must admit that prior to Slowdive’s brand new self-titled album I hadn’t really delved into their music. Yes, I know it’s a travesty and I’m making amends right now by falling completely head over heals for them. I didn’t partake in the shoegaze punch in my younger years(with the exception of Lush’ Spooky back in high school which I adored.) I was a metal guy with Rush and Joe Satriani tendencies and once saw a kid get thrown over the stairs in 11th grade for walking around with a Chapterhouse cassette. I knew I didn’t want that to happen to me so I stayed away from the hazier, dreamier aspects of alternative music. But a funny thing happened on the way to 40 years old, I started listening to those dreamy British bands of the late 80s and early 90s. I loved the worlds they created with guitars and guitar pedals. Sure, there was some synthesizers here and there, but mostly the use of swirling guitar noise and ethereal vocals created walls of beautiful, impenetrable noise that I couldn’t get enough of. I’d listened to Slowdive’s Souvlaki on a whim once and liked it but never returned to it. It felt like there was an equal shot of ambient and dream pop tones as there was the shoegaze “haze” sound.

Well here we are in 2017 and I’m sitting here listening to Slowdive, the band’s first new album in 22 years. It’s a stunning piece of work that works its way into your psyche and you gladly let it sit there in your brain. It’s just an absolute beauty of a record.

“Slomo” opens the record on an ethereal note. The song washes over you like the Atlantic at high tide. The vocals of Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell act more as another dreamy layer of sound than a lead instrument. Like a conversation in a dream that you can’t quite recall once you wake up. Musically this track is dense and feels all-encompassing as the song fills your head. It’s exquisite. “Star Roving” sounds like that first DNA strand that begat future generations of kids staring at their Chuck Taylors as guitar pedals are engaged. Driving rhythm, spacial guitar riffing, and vocal melodies piercing through the vast sound. This is the song I want to hear when I take that first trip into space with Richard Branson, or Starlord. Whichever opportunity comes first. “Don’t Know Why” lingers in Cocteau Twins territory, which in my book is a great thing. “Sugar For The Pill” is the point where the album comes into delicate focus. The swirls of noise and haze dissipate and allow Slowdive to hone in on the magic. It’s not without moments of dreamy reflection, but here the band lay it all on the line.

Elsewhere, “Everyone Knows” sounds like a view of the world from atop the international space station with a touch of Doves Lost Souls thrown in for good measure. “Go Get It” sounds like Neil Young and Crazy Horse in space with echoes of Tears For Fears sprinkled throughout. That may sound weird but it’s really quite brilliant, trust me. The album closes on the beautifully epic “Falling Ashes”. The piano refrain puts me in mind of the piano in Radiohead’s “Daydreaming”, but slower and slightly more methodical. It slowly builds to Halstead singing “Boy, I’m the man/You’re the ghost in this town/Could this be it/Your final words, your own“. The music lopes and loops onto itself in an almost meditative state. It’s a beautiful way to end 22 years of quiet.

Slowdive is one of those rare instances when a band has two decades of radio silence then reappears just as good, if not better, than they were in their heyday. Slowdive not only capture the dream-like beauty of their early records but engage that sound with a healthy dose of age and wisdom. The result is one of the best albums of the year.

8.7 out of 10

 

Zone Out : Transience

Melbourne’s Zone Out dabble in the electro pop waters that bands like Beachzone out House, Phantogram, and even newer Wye Oak have been making their names in for some time now. The duo, which consists of Ashley Bundang and Dove Bailey string together dreamy melodies, pop beats, and catchy retro 80s vibes that would be just as comfortable under the tag “80s alternative” as they would be with “modern pop”. Their debut album Transience was just released last month and it’s a strikingly rich musical affair that balances melancholy with upbeat; longing with contentment. It mixes upbeat dream pop with a slightly downer heart swell that Cocteau Twins did so well.

The album immediately grabs you with the exquisitely spacey “Andalusian Intro”. A mix of ambient waves of synth and 808-like beats with otherworldly vocal snippets before we get hit with the excellent “Inside”. It’s as if Lush went full-on electronic and had a New Order phase before picking up the guitars. “Breakdown” is part Erasure and Blonde Redhead with all the glorious heaviness that comes along with both of those. “Had It Coming” is a beautiful piece of heartbreak. Ashley Bundang has the kind of voice the communicates the heaviness of loneliness quite well, while still possessing a dignity throughout. The instrumental “Cruzcampo” is more of a jittery electro track that feels like The Soft Moon in club mode. It’s a nice change of pace, and it shows off some impressive production muscle for this electro pop duo. “The Cadiz Outro” takes us out like we were brought in; on a cloud of ambient synths that Tangerine Dream would approve of.

Zone Out have made a great debut with Transience. It’s a great mix of dance-y and navel gazing electro pop. If you’re wanting to stoke the fire of a broken heart, or if you’re just wanting to lose yourself in a catchy as hell pop album this one has you covered. Fans of Beach House, Phantogram, Blonde Redhead, and Still Corners; as well as Cocteau Twins, New Order, and This Mortal Coil will find something to dig with Zone Out’s excellent debut.

7.8 out 10

Diiv : Is The Is Are

Diiv tapped into that wandering soul we all have buried deep down(some deeper than others) back in 2012 when they gave us their bigdiiv and dreamy debut Oshin. Guitars swelled in waves of reverb, as did pretty much everything else, as Zachary Cole Smith sang songs like he was lost in thought while emoting into the microphone. For being a straightforward alternative guitar rock record, Oshin was a pretty stunning affair. It took Smith nearly four years to follow-up that debut. Between personal issues, band issues, and wanting to change things up stylistically it seemed that maybe that sophomore effort may never happen. Fortunately Smith and his bandmates got back on track and have finally given us the 17-track opus Is The Is Are.

That stylistic change Zachary Cole Smith had discussed in the years leading up to Is The Is Are really didn’t come about, and that’s evident in the opening seconds of “Out Of Mind”. Clean and crisp guitar, bass, and drums roll in as Cole’s vocals melt into the background of a song that sounds like early R.E.M. “Under The Sun” keeps things going along those early 80s alternative lines, albeit feeling more upbeat than usual. If you were looking for the first great guitar album of the year, Is The Is Are delivers. Jangly guitar weaves in and out of driving bass lines while the drums keep everything in line. “Bent(Roi’s Song)” is where the darkness that permeates Smith’s world shows through a bit. “I saw you with a very loose grip on your tight ship/And I left you with a very big mess then I watched it progress” Smith sings over squealing guitar and a loping bass line. There’s an aloofness to the vocals that gives the song an almost ghostly feel. I don’t know what sort of personal issues the guy’s got, but it’s pretty obvious he’s working some of them out here. “Dopamine” pushes and pulls along with the vigor of classic Cure. “Blue Boredom(with Sky Ferreira)” is the breathy and dark collaboration between Diiv and Zachary Cole Smith’s girlfriend. It’s arty, sexy stuff that would’ve been just at home on Ferreira’s album is it is here.

From this point on, it’s sort of the same throughout. I think as a single record Is The Is Are would’ve been a future classic. Once you get about three quarters the way through you feel the desperation in the air. It’s as if once the record ends Smith thinks he’s going to disappear into the ether, so he just keeps piling on the songs. Unfortunately for a double LP to truly work there needs to be some variety in sound and vision. There needs to be a narrative of flow or you end up feeling like you just heard a single LP twice, as opposed to a single, long vision.  There’s not a bad song here. They’re all good, but there’s not much variety when you get down to it. It’s a continuous sigh for an hour, with the occasional hint of light. “Valentine” is a cool and foreboding, while “Yr Not Far” sounds like some of that classic Captured Tracks fare. “Is The Is Are” is a driving title track that brings krautrock kings NEU! to mind, while album closer “Waste Of Breath” feels like an empty shrug to someone’s plea to get better. It’s all good, but can be draining in one full hour listening session.

I don’t blame Diiv for going for it here. I’m not going to fault any artist for being ambitious. Who knows when or if you’ll get another chance to make your mark. Is The Is Are is a great album. I think it may have been even greater pared down to 11 or 12 songs. A little self-editing can go a long way.

7.7 out of 10

 

 

No Joy : More Faithful

I can’t remember the first time I heard No Joy. I know it was sometime in 2013 when they had justno-joy-more-faithful put out their excellent Wait To Pleasure. Something about that album was immediate and in-the-moment so I was compelled to have it. The guitar and vocal interplay between Jasamine White-Gluz and Laura Lloyd has a very classic sound to it. It’s one of those magical musical things that seems as if they’ve been here all along, since the beginning of this thing we call “shoegaze”. They have this thing where there voices intermingle and become one singular sound. And their guitar playing is intricate and fluid. It’s not three-note power chords and fuzz pedals(though there’s plenty of fuzz happening.) Its’ slippery, wavy, and hard to pin down just what the hell they’re doing. The melodies that emerge from these guitar excursions are also some of the catchiest you’ll likely hear.

With their new album More Faithful, this Canadian quartet has cemented their place among the greats of shoegaze, noise, and dream pop. It’s dreamy, psychedelic, aggressive, and technical enough to keep those guitar dorks(like me) guessing and in awe.

“Remember Nothing” comes blaring out of the speakers like a post-punk fit of rage before the vocals come in and give the song a push into the ethereal. It sounds as if Lush is trapped in a guitar squall vacuum. Enough cannot be said for the rhythm section of Michael Farsky and Garland Hastings. Hastings drum attack is quick, masterful, and raw, while Farsky lays down some great low end, giving the track some solid footing allowing the White-Gluz/Lloyd guitar team to get as noisy as they like. “Everything New” comes rolling in like a sweet breeze. It’s an absolutely beautiful song that would make Elizabeth Fraser weep. Seriously, this is the song that should be blaring out of every car during those summer road trips. “Hollywood Teeth” is a perfect example of how No Joy have cultivated their own sound. Everything feels familiar here, yet it’s nothing you’ve ever heard. Driving, aggressive, yet light thanks to the harmonies in the vocals. At about the 1:20 mark it sounds like the song melts mid jam. Like things start to slow down unnaturally before the song kicks back in. This is something I want to hear live. “Moon in my Mouth” is one of those technical beauties. White-Gluz and Lloyd intertwine their voices dreamily as the guitars banter back and forth. Almost jazz-inflected, this track is as tricky as it is amazing.

No Joy front load this record like no other. Every single is gotten through in the first four songs. Most of the time that might not be a good thing, but with a band like No Joy we’re just getting started. “Burial in Twos” harkens back to some classic 4AD sounds, bringing Cocteau Twins’ Blue Bell Knoll to mind before the guitars and intricate drum beat come in and things get noisy and hazy. “Corpo Daemon” is a punk-inflected rocker with a great pop chorus. Some amazing drumming by Garland Hastings here. “Rude Films” is another musical twist. Subtle and catchy as hell. Another example of the versatility of this band. “I am an Eye Machine” rolls along like a cross between The Motels and Deerhunter, before things blow up a little over halfway through. “Judith” closes the album on a big and harmonious note.

It’s gotten to the point where No Joy have distinguished themselves from their peers. No one sounds like No Joy except for No Joy. White-Gluz, Lloyd, Hastings, and Farsky have found the perfect balance between guitar squall, sweet harmonies, and angular riffage. They have taken their influences and have meshed them perfectly with their own sound, so as to make comparing them with others a hard thing to do(though I tried a little.) More Faithful is an excellent album, and No Joy’s best yet.

8.5 out of 10

 

 

 

The Black Ryder : The Door Behind the Door

The Black Ryder seem to enjoy wading in that hazy, dream pop sound that emanated from the UK in the late 80s and early 90s. Guitars awash in feedback and chorused drone as tremolo bars are in full dip as synths come in and out of the mix. Half-whispered, stoned vocals purr a melody along with the drugged and euphoric music. Just drop the needle(or hit play) on “To Never Know You”, the opening track on The Black Ryder’s debut Buy The Ticket, Take The Ride and everything will become perfectly clear. Continue listening and that My Bloody Valentine/Ride/Lush/Slowdive vibe will coat your brain, for better or worse.

Since that album’s initial release in 2009, Aimee Nash and Scott Von Ryper have put away most of the Creation Records’ roster for what sounds like heavy doses of Spiritualized, Massive Attack, and even some Pink Floyd. The Door Behind the Door, The Black Ryder’s new long player, is a technicolor listen of an album. It has the aspirations of a three-hour cinematic opus, where Buy The Ticket, Take The Ride was a gritty little indie film. While they don’t always succeed in hitting the mark, it’s still fun listening to them try.

Scott Von Ryper and Aimee Nash obviously had a vision for this record. When you open a sophomore record with a two minute noise piece instead of greeting waiting ears with some ear candy you either really don’t care what anyone thinks, or you’re setting the mood for what’s coming next. The Black Ryder are most definitely doing the latter, as the next two songs, the cinematic “Seventh Moon” and the melancholy “The Going Up Was Worth the Coming Down” deliver on a grand scale. Nash has a voice that could make a reading of the phone book mysterious and sultry, and “Seventh Moon” showcases that voice beautifully. Production that would bring a tear to Alan Parsons’ eyes, the scope of the song builds throughout until we’re greeted with backing vocals, what sounds like actual orchestration(could be synths), and climactic swell that even Jason Pierce would have to give a stoned nod to. “The Going Up Was Worth the Coming Down” has Von Ryper plucking a pretty acoustic melody as he musically and emotionally puts all his cards on the table. The song adds keys, loping drums, and electric guitar that only adds to the emotional heft. It’s classic 70s AOR stuff.

Elsewhere, “Let Me Be Your Light” brings back some of that psychedelic ambiance from their debut with Aimee Nash doing her best Hope Sandoval, maybe even better than Hope Sandoval. The song has a slinky quality to it that makes the hazy noises hiding behind the melody all the more interesting. “Throwing Stones” has an earthy vibe to it. Very much reminiscent of some buried track off Pink Floyd’s Meddle. Nash puts a smokey finish on her vocals that makes her sound a bit like Norah Jones. This track gets pretty spectacular with the choir that kicks in half way through. These touches give this record a grandiose feel that most indie rock records nowadays don’t even attempt to achieve.

Sometimes, though, bigger doesn’t always translate to better. “Santaria” seems to have found its ending far sooner than its six-minute length, with the song halfway in getting noisy unnecessarily. “Until the Calm of Dawn” is a pretty piece with a touch of Sparklehorse in the telephone vocals, but unfortunately it’s muted by the 12-minute closer “(Le Dernier Sommeil) The Final Sleep”. While ambitious and quite beautiful, the song feels more like an experiment rather than a piece that adds to the overall feel of the album. By the end, you just feel wore out.

The Door Behind the Door is an ambitious record for The Black Ryder to make. It’s not an “you’re in, you’re out” kind of fuzzy rock record. It’s dense, symphonic, and at times a bit sluggish, but my hat’s off to these two. You either go all in, or you go home. The Black Ryder went all in and then some.

7.5 out of 10

 

 

 

My Drunken Haze :: My Drunken Haze

hazeOne listen to Athens, Greece quintet My Drunken Haze and their self-titled debut, you can tell they’ve done their homework. Their sound is colored with hues found on a late-60s psychedelic color wheel. They veer more on the side of pop than rock, but that’s not to say a fuzz pedal isn’t engaged here and there.

While we’re on the subject of fuzz pedals, “Gambling Woman” sounds almost giddy with it’s blues runs, farfisa organ, and singer Matina Sous Peau’s reverbed and distorted yelps. That’s not to say she can’t sound sweet; check out opening track “Carol Wait” and the neo-psych pop of “Yellow Balloon” for further proof of her sultry, vocal prowess. “Girl Who Looks Like A Boy” is a mixed bag of pure pop confection and drug haze bliss, with Spir Frelini’s songwriting really shining through the dense haze. “Pleasing Illusions” is the centerpiece track on this debut, as it should be. It’s a crawling desert death trip(both literally and existentially) as the tambourine and echoplex work overtime in this dense seven minute opus. Lots of synth noise and percussion move the song along as the band does some great harmonizing vocally. “Reflections Of Your Mind” has a more modern sound, with Silversun Pickups coming to mind. “Paper Planes” sounds like a cross between Melody’s Echo Chamber and Mazzy Star. The longing is undeniable in this great song. Peau really shines here as the track shows her strength as the voice of My Drunken Haze. “Endless Fairytale” closes out this strong debut on a cloud of harpsichord, electric piano, and Peau’s reverbed, distant vocals.

My Drunken Haze dabble in 60s pop, psychedelic haze, dream pop, and even shoegaze at times. When they take all of those influences and mix it with their own mojo, they make something quite lovely, dense, and easy to get lost in.

7.9 out of 10

Medicine :: Home Everywhere

medicine-home-everywhereI’ve been listening to Medicine’s new album Home Everywhere for three days straight and I’m still finding new nuggets of aural beauty every time I hit play. Brad Laner, Beth Thompson, and Jim Goodall don’t make cut and dry kind of albums. They make albums that beg for repeated listens. Much like the films of Bergman, Goddard, and Kurosawa, their records have layers that must be peeled back with repeated listens. You find meaning each time you sit down and hit play. Back when Medicine first began making records in the early 90s it was more just coarse, jagged noise with pop melodies hidden underneath. There was very little subtlety in the sound. The melodies and catchy hooks were there, but you got bruised and battered on the way to that pop bliss. Last year Laner, Thompson, and Goodall returned as Medicine after nearly two decades of quiet and gave us the excellent To The Happy Few. It was the sound they had always made, but honed in and more rapturous. Brad Laner had become quite proficient behind the mixing console and his ear for sonic layers and labyrinthine soundscapes came out wonderfully on that 2013 return to form. Now with Home Everywhere, Medicine make a record that’s as challenging and abrasive as it is inviting and beautiful.

“The Reclaimed Girls” starts off in a flurry of noise and static before exploding into a jangly pop gem, complete with what sounds like harpsichord halfway through. The contrast between the harsh noise bomb at the beginning and during the chorus works to accentuate the great pop hook feel in the verses. Goodall, as always, comes across as a proficient and solid drummer. Like another incredible drummer, Spoon’s Jim Eno, he doesn’t use flash and odd time signatures to impress. He uses rock-solid beats and powerful drumming to move the song along, which allows Laner and Thompson to do that magic that they do. “Turning” has an almost robotic, disco vibe to it. In an alternate universe this would be playing on mainstream radio and kids would be playing it at their freshman prom. As it stands, that alternate universe has yet to be found so I’m resigned to put this song on as many mixes for friends as I can. “Move Along – Down The Road”, if you’ve never listened to Medicine’s first two albums, is a great way to get acquainted with their younger, hungry sound. It takes that visceral, ear-splitting screech they perfected on Shot Forth Self Living and The Buried Life and puts it through Laner’s current prodigious studio finesse and gives us something quite wonderful. The minor key bend in the chorus is quite lovely, too. “Don’t Be Slow” ebbs and flows with a drugged-out dance groove with intermittent blasts of chaos thrown in for good measure. “Cold Life” is beautiful pop seen through the looking glass. It has the sound of a Smile Sessions b-side. The harmonies underneath Medicine’s sonic blanket bring to mind Brian Wilson at his absolute best, just before the indoor sandboxes and internal shouting matches with Murray Wilson. “They Will Not Die” is yet another blissful pop stunner, at times musically reminiscent of Out of the Cradle-era Lindsey Buckingham(an artist that in my mind seems like musical brethren to Brad Laner.) “It’s All About You” showcases Beth Thompson’s great voice without all the layers of sonic grime. “The People” has some great jungle rhythms and psychedelic panning that with the proper headphones will make you think you’re floating away in bliss. The epic closer “Home Everywhere” is over 11 minutes of beauty and chaos. It’s almost mantra-like in it’s breezy beginnings; then morphs into something cosmic and inner light-like. Very few are doing what Medicine is doing, folks. Very few indeed.

Home Everywhere is Medicine re-vitalized and busting at their musical seams with ideas and life. It’s an album that’s lush, dense, extreme, and simply stunning.

9 out of 10