You may remember my post from a few years back about the fantastic prog-pop psych-rock band Sprïng, or you may not. I can refresh your memory briefly: they were great. Unfortunately they are no longer, though they did trickle out some new material after the release of their brilliant “Celebrations,” it seems there won’t be a follow-up.
However, and thankfully, Sprïng’s former guitarist Elliot has recently released a great five-song EP under the name Freak Dream. The release explodes right out of the gate, with synths and driving guitars combining to create a fusion of the industrial and hardcore punk sounds. Opening tracks “Let Me Out” and “Almost Gone” create a sense of space with more understated prog breakdowns before launching back into the more aggressive sounds favored throughout most of the EP.
The persistent kick of “How Can I” immediately calls to mind Big Black, though again Elliot creates more depth through his ability to pull everything back before piling on the noise again. Although, you’d never find a song like “Breathe II” on any Big Black album. That track’s mode shifting piano and delicate, feedback-driven, atmospherics not only lend the perfect amount of contrast to the collection, but show the range of Elliot’s interests and the palette he’s working with. It lays the groundwork nicely for the final track “Get Up” which is basically a really great, straight ahead rock tune. “Get Up” even manages to touch upon glam with its soaring coda emerging from dreamier, echoes of guitar.
You can listen to the entire EP above, or on the Freak Dream bandcamp page. If you head over to that page you can name your own price for a digital download, or get a CD with an 8-page, color zine for $5 Canadian.
Last year I posted about the new album by Vancouver’s Sprïng. That album, “Celebrations,” went on to become one of my most listened to albums of 2014. The combination of rock and prog elements with pop melodies and wickedly amazing musicianship was definitely a nice surprise.
As it turns out, not very long after I heard about and wrote about Sprïng, they happened to be coming through town. I checked them out and am still so glad that I did. Recounting the show to my friend a few days later I was sure to relay all the details to him in order to make him suitably jealous and angry that he wasn’t here to catch the show. What I heard and saw was actually pretty stunning. The songs all translated really well live, and seeing the band pull off the musical acrobatics necessary to get through their very unique approach left my jaw on the floor.
A few months ago they sent out a link for this new video for the song “Levvee.” It’s another exciting rush of rush of energy from the Canadian quartet. Plenty of dense textures, “OK Computer”-era guitar tones, and jagged edges all with an understated vocal floating over top. It’s a really great and catchy tune, but no news on a new album from what I can tell. I’m taking this video to mean that at least they are working on stuff and that we’ll have something new coming our way very soon. I seriously don’t understand how everyone is not talking about this band. It just doesn’t make any sense.
Until then, you can check out “Celebrations” on Sprïng’s bandcamp page, and watch the stop-motion video for “Levvee” above.
The track listing here might be a bit close to irrelevant from my view, because I think that it may just be better to focus on the entire album as a single entity. That sort of listening really works well for the album. It’s just one long instrumental psych-rock journey. Sure, there are the elements of kraut-rock that tend to pop up in these sorts of albums, but by and large each song is one sprawling landscape of alternating chugging power chords, delicate melodies and fuzzed out bliss with the occasional sudden harmony shift that will really grab your attention.
Great guitar tones throughout, usually a generous layering of reverb and ever so slight delay tinges the quieter moments. On the other hand there is the deep satisfying crunch of thick, heavy, almost pitchless super low fuzzed out bass that helps to really boost the more raucous parts of songs. Each song just continuously drives towards a seemingly never attainable goal, propelling itself headlong into the next track. Reverie starts out as a mass of amorphous sludge with rattling retro-futuristic synth sounds buzzing through the speakers, panning from one side to the next amidst a growing dense cluster of various guitar noises and feedback. It’s a nice little break before “Strange Wave Galore” comes in at full-thrash level. And just when you thought things couldn’t get, or wouldn’t get, any more heavy, “The Sweet Confusion” starts up and just keeps on thrashing for nearly 6 minutes.
I should probably mention at some point that the band is from the Netherlands, and that their album, “Strange Wave Galore” came out back in February on the band’s Bandcamp page. It’s available as a download from that site, of course, but it is also now available for order on ultra-limited (200 copies) clear vinyl, as well as black & white splatter vinyl. If you are interested more in saving a few bucks than getting the clear vinyl then you may want to head over to the Permanent Records site, as they have some import copies that are most likely cheaper than having vinyl shipped overseas.
Continuing on the psych realm from where we were yesterday, today we have Baby Guru taking the prog-psych route. Just listening to the first track, “Especially When,” there’s a lot of ground covered from dance beats and new wave guitar sounds to Pink Floyd-esque delayed synths and a exploratory section toward the end that allows the guitar and synth to branch out. Square-waves on analog synths calling up some early Genesis is a nice touch toward the very end. Truly psych/prog in the best way possible.
“Baby You’re so Weird” takes things in a completely different, poppy, catchy direction. But after that we’re right back into prog land. The title track brings out the analog synths again, stomping through the verses with a clear distinctive pulse. When the chorus enters the ascending chord progression and introduction of the bass guitar completely turns everything around. By about the 3 minute mark we’re in Gentle Giant territory.
I just can’t get enough of the buzzing analog synths all over the place, so much so that I forget to pay attention to the vocals at all. When I turn my attention to all of the other things going on in the tracks I’m surprised at just how good everything fits together. Baby Guru has a knack for creating some really uplifting choruses with verses that really build up into them, not making them sound like separate parts that can be exchanged for others.
Every track has these great little moments that spin out into seemingly ever expanding space, but they are all contained within a song of about 5 minutes or less. Truly a prog band that is aware of the importance of song structure, familiarity and pop sensibilities. A rare thing, to be sure.
If you aren’t already then you should definitely be checking this album out from top to bottom and on repeat. It’s available right now as a download, limited edition cassette, limited LP and as a CD. Head over to bandcamp to pick out which one you want. You’ll thank me, I’m sure of it.
Have I ever railed against prog-rock on this blog yet? I can’t remember. Well let me sum things up really quickly: When I was a teenager, and just learning the guitar, and in a really terrible band, I was all about the King Crimson, and Yes and Genesis, which later turned into being all about Tool. I think that (I mean I know that) the reason that I gravitated toward these bands was that their style of music doesn’t really focus on finesse at all. There’s no groove to it. Groove is something that you can’t learn, you either have it or you don’t. On the other hand, technical facility, such as within the confines of prog-rock, is something that can be learned.
It’s not that all prog is bad, that’s definitely not the case. It’s just a genre that is really easy to overdo; when the music takes a backseat to the group showing off how complicated that they can make things, that’s when things start to get annoying. Yes, we all know how smart you (think) you are, now can you play some music please? So often actual, well-crafted melodies are thrown away in favor of something that is jittery and obtuse for the sake of being jittery and obtuse. Give me a melody that I can sing along to! Give me something that flows and has a little bit of a swing to it! I don’t want to hear machines with guitars, I want to hear human beings!
So hearing “Awaiting” by Confluence was actually a pleasant surprise. Sure, there are all sorts of complex musical things happening, but they aren’t made the focus of the tune. It’s much easier to sit back and listen to the melody, and enjoy it for what it is, without having to take into account the technically complex backdrop. I’d hate to take the term “melodic” away from its specific meaning, but it is very tempting to place something like this under the label of “melodic prog.”
What the song immediately brings to mind for me is Maps & Atlases “Trees, Swallows, Houses” EP. This song, like that EP, manages to walk the line of technicality, but with a sort of groove, or delicate sensibility in that they are flashy, but not for the sake of being so. I dig the way this track grooves, and the clarity of the recording, that’s something that really helps a band like this that seeks to take advantage of all the spaces between notes, those little silences. Sometimes those little silences can just make a song.
Give it a listen above and then check out one of the many links below.
Julie’s Haircut is an Italian pysch band, though I’m really trying to think of a point of reference to clue you into the essence of their sound. There are elements of Stereolab in the synth work, but those are criss-crossed with more complex atmospherics, akin to Air’s output.
And that might be a good jumping off point. Julie’s Haircut is creating atmospheric, meditative psych-prog with songs that would fit nicely onto “Moon Safari” or some of the more kraut-rock inspired, motoric Stereolab tracks. I don’t think that those two things need to be mutually exclusive, and the pieces on “Ashram Equinox” explore the sound possibilities of mixing these two worlds to varying degrees. Where “Johin” is more of a driving force, with a persistent rhythmic backbone and droning harmony, “Taarna” is more melody driven, with buzzing and echoed synths casting long lines over top, finishing out with textless vocals, adding a rich complexity to the texture as the piece draws to a close.
I hear the album not only as an exploration of the atmospheric and the motoric, but also as an overall arch form where middle track, fittingly named “Equinox,” is nothing but mood, color and drones. But added to that mix is an unmistakable Eastern influence, imitating tabla and the tense sounds of an Oud, managing to evoke an entire landscape with only a few plucked notes.
The latter half of the album continues the trajectory of the first, the balancing act, with more moody instrumentals and driving rhythms. “Taotie” is the most active track on the album, perhaps calling to mind Kraftwerk’s “Tour De France,” while album closer “Han” uses silence effectively to create more space in the texture with a beautiful simplicity that seems to me to the best way to close an album. The relative silence and calm of “Han” focuses on one short repeated keyboard phrase, cycling around in minimalist contemplation.
“Ashram Equinox” was released on Crash Symbols on October 11th, and as such is currently available from their bandcamp page. The cassette is limited to 100 and are still available. Personally, the artwork goes so well with the album it is definitely worth the few dollars to get a physical copy of the album. In my opinion, it’s always nice to have something tangible anyway. Check out the album above and visit Julie’s Haircut’s site for more info and downloads. And be sure to check out the videos below that work as companion pieces to the album.
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.