For Whom The Blue Bell Knolls

It wasn’t always easy being able to admit my love for Cocteau Twins. Now that I’m in my 40s, middle-aged with an odd-shaped balding head it doesn’t really matter what I admit freely. No one is listening, nor do they care even if they’re in earshot of my incessant Midwest groaning. But being a metal head in Yuckety Yuk, Indiana in the late 80s/early 90s was a balancing act of testosterone ragin’ while keeping your sensitive side neatly tucked away. Maybe you’d keep that soft side of you in some old shoe box under your bed with a pair of your baby shoes, or buried in the backyard with a signed head shot of Soleil Moon Frye and a Popeye t-shirt your mom bought you when you were 8. You couldn’t show weakness in front of other sweaty, over-nourished metalheads or you were likely to be shunned from the group. You’d be sent to the woods to be eaten by wolves. Or worse, Pentecostals.

Point is, a band like Cocteau Twins was about as alien in my adolescent stomping grounds as ,well, aliens. You know, like Hanger 18 aliens. But there was something about Elizabeth Fraser’s voice that dug right into my freakish, greasy teen soul. It was haunting, ghostly, and ethereal like some divine whisper from the universe itself. Of course at 16-years old I would’ve said something more like “What the fuck? This is weird…but good weird like Brazil or potato chips on my bologna sandwich.” I can distinctly remember sitting over at my best friend Jason’s house on a Saturday night re-watching the previous week’s episode of 120 Minutes. We’d dig into Concrete Blonde, My Bloody Valentine, and whatever other 4AD band was the “it” alternative flavor of the week. Then Cocteau Twins’ “Heaven Or Las Vegas” came on and I sort of felt stunned. Like, what was happening? Is this what it feels like to be touched by an angel? Or groped by a ghost? As Jason started to fast forward the video I say to him “Hey man. Let’s just let this one play, you know for shits and giggles? We could just sit here silently and make fun of it in our minds without words. Or something.” Fortunately, Jason was thinking those same thoughts I was thinking about these Scottish dream poppers. We couldn’t put it into words, but we both knew there was something special going on. Of course we immediately threw on some Suicidal Tendencies or Faith No More and pretended we didn’t just have a moment.

I moved on, 120 Minutes was cancelled, Matt Pinfield got a new job, and I sort of forgot about Cocteau Twins for a couple years until The Crow came out and that soundtrack ruled my brain for most of 1994. One song in-particular got my attention. Medicine’s “Time Baby III”. It was a really cool song, but what really stuck out was the guest vocals of Elizabeth Fraser. It was a voice I hadn’t heard in a long time and it reminded me that I needed to go back to Cocteau Twins and investigate further.

Then about 20 years went by.

Back in 2014 I started up on Cocteau Twins. Having gone “full vinyl”, I knew I had to find some of their albums on the big, black circle. The first album I bought was Heaven Or Las Vegas. It had to be that. That was the album that broke through my big dumb brain in the first place. “Cherry-Coloured Funk” and “Heaven Or Las Vegas” were in my DNA. But the the second one I bought was Blue Bell Knoll. On a streaming binge I happened across the album and was pretty much floored by the whole thing. “Carolyn’s Fingers” felt like a chill going down my spine. Once I heard that I was done.

There are better albums by Cocteau Twins than Blue Bell Knoll. I’m a big fan of Garlands. I love the post-punk vibe and that I can hear where The Cure got their sound from on a song like “Wax and Wane”. Treasure was the first album that saw that truly mesmerizingly beautiful tone they would go on to perfect on Heaven Or Las Vegas. So where does that leave an album like Blue Bell Knoll? Well, to my ears, it’s the last Cocteau Twins album where they still sounded like a small band with very big ideas.

“Blue Bell Knoll” starts out with some of those dark, ominous tones of the early records but quickly adds some synth flourishes and stacks Fraser’s beautiful vocals on top to give the song a much welcomed dreaminess. “Athol-brose” is just absolute brilliance. It’s the moment Dorothy steps from her black and white farmhouse to soak in the technicolor beauty of Oz. It’s dizzying and an overload of the senses. No band sounds like this. Just Cocteau Twins. That’s it. “For Phoebe Still A Baby” feels like some alien lullaby. The bass puts me in mind of mid-80s Cure. I think there’s a thru-line between the two bands. It’s like they both drank from the same Gothic well and somehow worked through whatever demons they were struggling with. This track sounds like contentment with an overcast day.

I have to admit that for years I thought Cocteau Twins were Swedish or French or Finnish. There was something in Fraser’s vocals that made me think what she was singing was not English. I thought it was a very foreign language that was being sung. I was wrong. Cocteau Twins are a Scottish band, but I still think there’s a very alien lean to the words sung by Elizabeth Fraser. She sings beautifully, but it sounds like a language made up by Fraser. The magic in Cocteau Twins, besides the dream-like clouds of flangered bass, guitar, and walls of synth created by Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde, was that voice. It got me every time I heard it. Elizabeth Fraser had a voice like no other. For my money no one has yet to top it.

Every song on Blue Bell Knoll carried some sort of strange magic. “Cico Buff”, “Spooning Good Singing Gum”, “A Kissed Out Red Floatboat”, and “Ella Megalast Burls Forever” all contain some bit of melancholy genius. There’s absolute pop perfection contained on every track here. If it was a fair and just world, Cocteau Twins would’ve been played on pop radio stations worldwide instead of Debbie Gibson, Taylor Dayne, and NKOTB. Of course the population at large couldn’t take this kind of beauty on their commute to work or bus ride to school. There would’ve been massive existential crisis, love-ins in every county courthouse, and the world as we know it would’ve changed exponentially for the better. We couldn’t have that.

Come to think of it, this actually might be their best album.

I guess it’s better this way. A band like Cocteau Twins will live on forever, allowing future generations to discover their timeless dream pop. Their ghostly songs can fill earbuds in the future and maybe shine a little ethereal light on whatever shit show we may be enduring in 10, 20, or 30 years. And hopefully by then, no matter a metal head in the Midwest or a goat herder in Afghanistan, the Cocteau Twins can be enjoyed openly, freely, and without shame.

I love you Soleil Moon Frye. I always have.



Auburn Lull : Hypha

If you’re not paying attention you may just miss the existential beauty that engulfs the music of Auburn Lull. There’s a gauzy drift that permeates from this Lansing, Michigan-based dream pop band and the music they create. Ever since their 1999 debut Alone I Admire there was always this feeling that the band had some serious spatial information to share and that they were conveying that galactic message through their cavernous music. Though being tucked up in the middle of Michigan didn’t help to spread their musical presence of oneness, they have over the course of 20+ years built a strong following among those musical folks in the know. One of those folks is Jonas Munk who runs the most excellent Azure Vista Records in Denmark. Munk and Azure Vista Records are releasing the first record of new Auburn Lull music since 2008’s Begin Civil Twilight.

The new record, Hypha, is what you would hope it would be and more. It’s a dreamy, cavernous record filled with distant harmonies, slow motion melodies unraveling like a tree in the October cold, and ambient textures that hint at greater meaning in nothing more than a sustained guitar note.

Hypha is the kind of record you can put on and let it absorb in the background. Yet, if you stop what you’re doing and let the music wash over you it’s a much more visceral experience.  Album opener “Juni” has the sound of ghosts whispering in the hallowed halls of some ancient building. It’s a mixture of melancholy history and a future unknown. For the younger crowd that may not have a reference point with Auburn Lull, imagine Grizzly Bear’s Yellow House, but far deeper lost in the ether. “Juni” sounds like looking into the beautiful abyss. “Outsight” opens with ethereal guitars and bits of crackling and buzzing of amps. The vocals feel more like ancient tomes than modern pop vocals. It’s like Tibetan chant through the mind of Brian Wilson. “Silo” crackles with electronic energy beneath the cavernous vocals that do indeed sound like they were recorded in a silo. The music kicks in and it has an almost electro pop feel to it, but if Brian Eno was at the helm. “Starlet” is pure droning bliss. It’s more in line with Jason Kolb’s Billow Observatory(a band Kolb is in with Jonas Munk, no less.) It bends and twists into this beautiful vocal track as it makes its way to its far too soon ending.

The songs on Hypha never wear out their welcome, and in some cases they feel as if they could go on forever. The beautiful “Divaldlo pts. i, ii, iv” is indeed one of those songs. Piano, organ, and cavernous reverb are always welcome, and in Auburn Lull’s hands they’re transcendent. Closer “Mora/Mirage” brings all those beautiful elements together expertly. It encapsulates the heady shoegaze drifts, the ethereal ambient, and the spatial pop elements that Auburn Lull have been perfecting for 20 years now.

Hypha is a whisper from the universe courtesy of Auburn Lull. Within its 9 tracks there seems to be some galactic bit of ancient wisdom wrapped up in dream pop and ambient vibes. Auburn Lull have tapped into some serious existential tomes once again in the wooded landscapes of Michigan. In the times we are currently living in, I think we could all use some existential tomes. Drop the needle on Hypha and cleanse your brain.

8.2 out of 10



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