It’s always pretty exciting when a band comes out with an album that is so expansive in its vision that even after listening to the first four tracks you still don’t have much of an idea of what the band is really about. Each track gives you another glimpse into what is possible, and only then can you start to appreciate what is really going on here.
Hello Ocho’s self-titled album actually came out in 2013, and features 13 songs nearly impossible to place into one single genre. I guess we could use the catch-all “psychedelic,” but that doesn’t really make an effort toward clarifying what is really going on here. Songs like “Stickin’ to the Sheets” are created out of a single idea that continually grows over a persistent foundational pulse like what you would expect from kraut-rock inspired minimalist rock. It’s rhythmically driven, and concerned primarily with its propulsion than it is with sticking to a typical, strict song structure.
We immediately shift from the more or less psychedelic, kraut-rock-yness of “Stickin’ to the Sheets” to the bluesy vocal melodies of “Song Gafe’.” There is a considerable amount of focus on the structure here, with an emphasis on more or less refrain based vocals and a pretty catchy hook. Although, that all starts to fall away eventually as the song comes to a close.
From here on out the album becomes a bit more of an instrumental exploration. “Fandancy” and “Charles Romanson” are a bit more experimental, but they are followed by the Animal Collective-ish sound of “Whomp.” Sure, that one is pretty experimental too, but there are also elements of great melodic thinking going on too; once again we’re focusing more on the melodic line here than the structure itself. There are catchy hooks, but somehow outside of the context of a pop-tune format. This works though, it works its strange magic, as everything shifts from one idea to the next, balancing melodic craftsmanship with psychedelic experimentalism along the way.
Hello Ocho’s self-titled album came out in 2013, but there are still copies available in vinyl, both clear and black, available from the Hello Ocho bandcamp page. They also have a bit of a teaser for an upcoming release “In Portuguese,” with a 2 minute sample of a funky, electronic freak out. You can check that one out below. Head to their bandcamp page to get a copy of their self-titled album on vinyl, or as a digital download.
The Chicago based math-rock outfit with steady lineup changes, Joan of Arc, adds to their already frighteningly prolific repertoire with their latest effort, “Life Like”.
You know that you are in for a serious journey when an album begins with a track that clocks in at over 10 minutes, with the vocals not beginning until 7 minutes in. It’s the combination of math-rock and prog that no doubt inspired decisions such as this one, and helps to shape the sound of the band in general. There is also a touch of old-school emo the likes of Braid and The Dismemberment Plan evident in the treatment of the vocals where the singer’s voice is just as clean and unaffected as the guitars. It crackles with intensity throughout many of the tracks.
That opening track, “I Saw the Messed Binds of my Generation”, lays the groundwork for the entire album with its crystal clear sound, intricate contrapuntal guitar lines and a lock-step rhythm section. It seems to me that it could easily be broken into two tracks where the first 7 minutes or so are an introduction, or prelude. The final 3 minutes are what actually constitute the opening of “Life Like”.
The guitar lines across the album weave through one another much in the same way one would hear on a Dirty Projectors album. It’s that clear and clean disjointed melodic guitar work that seems to jut out in a million directions while still obviously focused on a single goal.
My prog-trained brain tells me that this is a concept album. “Life Like” projects that album-oriented sound where everything seems to be heading in a clear direction; uniform sound throughout, with intense lyrics and similarity of compositional style throughout. It just sounds like it was written to be an album and they just had to divide it up into songs. There are some obvious commonality between the songs. They very much belong together. The only problem with this is that even after several listens I can’t fully make out the concept. Joan of Arc seem to be hiding their lyrical content in a web of complex metaphors and symbolism in the same way that their guitar figuration are branching out in a million exploratory patterns. This really is a complex and deeply emotional, challenging album.
Contrasting the smooth, scrolling guitar work throughout most of the album is the spastic start/stop rhythmic interjections present in “Deep State”. To that end there is also the nearly a cappella “Still Life” with only muted guitar strings doubled with drum stick clicked against the rim of the snare drum. Though this track does slowly gain momentum and density as melody begins to creep in from the shadows and we are presented with a pulsating beat with bass guitar false starts with the 2nd guitar trying a number of different approaches to break the silence. “Life Force” stands out for its use of a shoddily tuned acoustic guitar that hammers out a straight ahead quarter note rhythm. Though these tracks are the most unique on the album they still encapsulate that sound that is put forth at the very opening of the album. They still sound perfectly in place on the album and correctly sequenced.
Every song on “Life Like” seems to chart the same course, but not all are dark and hopeless. “Love Life” and “Like Minded” are bright and joyful sounding tunes, though the latter quickly seems to take a dark turn moving from cheerful to foreboding in short order. The polyrhythmic overlapping of delicately plucked guitar lines creates an interesting texture that is less abrasive than much of the guitar work featured on any other track. The song continually grows darker as the distortion kicks in and the vocals move from shouting to screaming, voice cracks and all.
Concluding the album is “After Life”, with it’s martial drum roll and drill sergeant/platoon call and response. A great lyric from this album closer states that “my discovery: I am all alone” seems to accept the irony of stating such a fact while surrounded or followed by people that shout back at you everything that you say while they march in step behind you. That track bursts unexpectedly into a distorted and frenzied guitar solo. That is not the only instance of spontaneous guitar soloing either, they seem to crop up a lot, it sounds like they are being exorcised out of frustration, or that they otherwise come from some deep, dark place and just need to be there warts and all.
The concept comes across in bits and pieces and, judging by previous work by the band, that is exactly how they like it. They like coming off as mysterious and complicated, confusing and comical. This album is certainly many of those things, all balled up in a tightly wound web of intricate guitar work, complex rhythmic shifts and symbolic lyrics that would confuse and frustrate Cedric Bixler, famous for creating equally convoluted and impossibly shrouded lyrics with At the Drive-In, who would be the hard hitting counterpart to Joan of Arc. By the looks of it though this band has no intentions on stopping.
Prog-rock has been around for quite a long time now. Though its roots can be traced back to jazz fusion many bands eschew those undertones in search of a new sound that still retains the complexities in the music but not so much the jazzer attitude that can come off as overly pretentious. Nobody wants to end up sounding like Yes, or (it pains me to type this…) Emerson, Lake & Palmer after all. X-Ray Press has created one of the more complex albums that holds a firm footing in the prog world, but is still so much more.
From the opening of the first track, “Everybody, This Is Everyone (And Nobody Cares)”, the guitar tone reminds me of Shellac. The aggressiveness of the music also matches Shellac’s own ethos in some ways, and though they can both be considered to be creating “math-rock” (a genre that side-steps the aforementioned jazz influences found in progressive rock but still holds to the same “complexity for complexity’s sake” constantly shifting time signatures) Shellac would never consider creating an album with songs that are linked thematically forming a deeply woven story about living in the modern age. X-Ray Press’s angle is more similar to that of The Dillinger Escape Plan, with more than just a nod to their metal leanings, but with not as much of the dialed up anger as Dillinger, and cleaned up a bit. Though there is not an overt jazz sound there are glimpses of its interesting harmonies and song structure that can sound reminiscent of “Starless and Bible Black” era King Crimson as in tracks like “Chord and Mumble” and “Holy Ghost, USA“. But then again, doesn’t every prog band have some element or other that points back to King Crimson in some way? There are also strains that sound like Pink Mountain’s avant–garde improvisations in “Bad Beard (God Under Oath).
Hopefully this will give you an idea of the truly rich palette these guys are working from. Of course, it’s little bits here and there, nothing overtly derivative or “ripped-off” from anyone. Strongly influenced yes, but X-Ray Press really does seem to be doing something different. With “Uvb-76” they have taken a rather complex structured album and, where most bands would leave the tracks at 20+ minutes in length, X-Ray Press is carving out little gems that are much more easily grasped because of their forgiving song length of 2 to 5 minutes. This makes for a prog album that is in your face and quite possibly “radio-friendly”. A significant amount of punch is packed into the 2 minutes of “Cubicle Racist” and “Thin Mint, FSA“.
The concept of the album is primarily one of anger and frustration directed toward the world at large which eventually arrives at acceptance through discovering some way in which one can transcend, on ones own, the problems that are continually faced through creative action of some sort. In short: making lemonade from the lemons that life seems to perpetually dish out. From being just another automaton to making something out of ones life and moving on. The album is divided into 2 acts of sorts: I. Thought and II. Action. The first of these is divided up into 2 “scenes” while the 2nd is divided into 3. These “acts” are broken up by haunting, short piano interludes that appear between scenes. It sounds to me like a prepared piano (a concept first invented and developed by the American 20th Century avant-garde composer John Cage) where the strings are somehow stopped or otherwise prevented from resonating.
I told you it was a heady concept…
As mentioned before, their math/prog leanings means that the time signatures do not sit still for a second, switching all over the place before one can even begin to sort out where the downbeat is. As for the substance of the songs though, and there is a lot of substance that goes far beyond complex time signature changes and polymeter, the band has a way of working elements into each song that find them interlocking into a groove for a short time before pulling themselves apart again to go their own separate ways. The inclusion of a Rhodes piano to the ensemble adds to the hint of jazz influence as well as melding well with the guitar tone. It has the ability to sound like the guitar feeding back, but also adds to the bright high end of the guitar, often doubling it though you wouldn’t know until they choose to go their separate ways.
There is a lot to this album, but knowing the kind of fanaticism and dedication to detail that fans of this type of music are I’m sure that very little of it will be lost. If this is a sign of music to come in 2011 then we’d all better hold on because it is going to be an intense ride.