The release of Baroness’ Yellow & Green has taken the form of a coming-out party for the band’s departure from “heavy,” and is sure to become part of a larger conversation regarding how American metal bands are evolving. The motives for such evolution are admirable: everyone in the old guard wants to save rock from obscurity as well as sustain metal’s legacy of consistent evolution. More and more cues have been taken from previously isolated metal landscapes, as evident by the recent sundering of Black Metal (Liturgy, etc). In the other direction, where we find Baroness, bands like Mastodon, Kylesa and Torche are spiraling out from the confines of any sub-genre to produce simply good guitar-based music.
Baroness’ previous albums, Red and Blue, found them suited for the job of saviors with astute skill and attention to detail (traits which have largely dropped out of whatever has become of rock & roll). But skill and hard work will only take you so far—look at Mr. Bungle. And because so many participants in the metal conversation have been charmed by Baroness’ gall to—I’ll say it—go soft in the company of an underground culture noted for extremity, there have been few (if any) accurate evaluations of their work as a result.
Yellow starts where Metallica left off in 1996, when they abandoned thrash for tones too subdued for the old guard, but not for exorbitant album sales. Write “Yellow Theme” off as an intro (and not the foreshadowing to more cringe-inducing moments that it is), and the two songs that follow provide hope for the album. The anthemic “Take My Bones Away” and “March to the Sea” prove to be Baroness’ strongest showings in terms of any breach from hardened metal institutions. But they’re low-impact, marginal and not what the fuss is about.
Instrumentally, Yellow & Green does cater to a rich span of genres, largely prog rock and psychedelic folk. But even post-punk and post-rock can be found in “Little Things” and “Psalms Alive,” the latter being the most challenging song on the album. “Board Up the House” must be what is getting the indie rock references, but a more apt comparison can be made to the adult-contemporary of Flaming Lips and Radiohead. All of this impresses by exhibiting stunning moments of pastiche, so convincing, in fact, that you can imagine almost any vocal style servicing it well—all but what actually kicks in. While the desire to trade bellowing for a more traditional way of singing is reasonable, what is more humiliating than phoning in expired metal angst is lyrically reciting equally sophomoric tour diaries. It’s self-indulgent bro-therapy that condenses into a thick cloud which subsequently rains all over the party.
Poolside, the Los Angeles–based duo of Filip Nikolic and Jeffery Paradise, leave little to the imagination with their debut album, Pacific Standard Time. As the name implies, this is music designed to evoke a very specific location—either an endless beach scene or wet pavement surrounding a chlorinated watering hole—and in doing so trick the senses into smelling wafts of salty air, tanning lotion, and mixed rum beverages, and into feeling the immense heat from the sun baking the sand. According to the duo, Pacific Standard Time is “daytime disco,” which is apt as most of these songs never really burn into the night and instead simply exist as weightless distractions and gentle fever dreams used to escape the grind. What’s contrarian about Nikolic and Paradise’s barely-there blend of Balearic beats, rubbery basslines, skittering guitars, and cascading synths is that this is not merely music for leisurely soundtracks. There are serious arrangements at work, deeper meanings, and a wholly engrossing studio-as-a-canvas experience if one listens closely. Tossing Pacific Standard Time off as Saturday Night Fever-meets-Ipanema filler is doing the record a disservice. Yes, on the surface it’s wispy and simple, but it can also be whimsical and deceptively psychedelic if given a chance.
The hallmarks of beach ephemera are what are in focus for most of the record; from the wave crashes that frame “Can’t Get You Off of My Mind” to the steel drums that percolate in “Kiss You Forever,” there’s never a doubt that the expanse of the ocean is central to their vision. At times—especially on the sophisticated stun of songs like “Slow Down” and “Next to You” (itself a stoned version of blue-eyed soul)—Poolside is almost too lethargic to be considered of the disco variety. If you’re dancing, it’s an extremely mellow step. Moon tides move faster. But the deliberate pacing allows Poolside to explore sonically and to inject all types of open-ended instrumentation. The final throes of the album, in particular, really start to dabble in a wide rainbow of synths and guitar tones. Poolside truly excels, though, when they scale back the beats and the faux-coastal comforts and look towards the cosmos. Their reinvention of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” is the epitome of this gaze beyond the dancefloor. Sure, they turn Young’s classic into a disco lullaby, but as with other moments on the record which become less terrestrial, there’s much more going on than could be contained on the dancefloor.
Kevin J. Elliott
Cardiff, Wales three-piece Mclusky burned bright and furiously during the nearly nine years they were a band. Unfortunately, there probably aren’t a great deal of people who remember the band’s output, but those who do know that one would be hard-pressed to find a more delightful slice of sonic anarchy than the band’s “Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues,” from 2002’s Mclusky Do Dallas. It is the essence of rock & roll’s carnal being boiled down to an intoxicating elixir. Leaving such triumphs behind them, the band left us all too soon in 2005.
Less than a year later, McLusky singer and guitarist Andy “Falco” Falkous and drummer Jack Egglestone re-emerged with Future of the Left and are our now on album number three, The Plot Against Common Sense. With guitarist Jimmy Watkins and bassist Julia Ruzicka, the band swerves between irreverence and pointed commentary, white-knuckled rage and erratic industrial funk. As such, FOTL is markedly open-ended in comparison to Mclusky. Take leadoff track “Sheena Is a T-Shirt Salesman” with its title on artistic commodification. Here, Falco seems as intent to cram in as much commentary as blitzkrieg riffs. Its successor, “Failed Olympic Bid” moves in a different direction, with a jerking mechanized beat juxtaposing with a big bassline and plenty of space between Falco’s economic metaphors.
With the remainder of the album careening with equal abandon, it’s hard to ever get a firm grip on everything that’s going on, not to mention get one’s head around Falco’s rants. But then it’s not necessary to fully comprehend the pieces as they fly by to enjoy the cumulatively thrilling effect they create.
Most bands, even the ones you like, tend to be slightly one-dimensional. That’s not to say that they’re boring, but you kind of know what to expect. Lamb of God isn’t going to break into an Al Jarreau–influenced scat moment, and Barbara Streisand isn’t going to spit a hot 16 bars. As a result, when a band is able to rustle up some legitimate surprises, you better sit up and take notice. Such is the case with Omaha’s Icky Blossoms. The trio, comprised of vocalist and keyboardist Sarah Bohling, Tilly and the Wall guitarist and vocalist Derek Pressnall, and lead guitarist and vocalist Nik Fackler, are dropping their self-titled, surprise-filled debut on Saddle Creak Records.
It’s a record that keeps the listener on his toes. The group trades vocalists and styles like a tilt-a-whirl version of musical chairs. One track they’re reminiscent of latter-era New Order, while on the next they pull out a moody indie rock number with insistent synths, and yet on the next one they create a pulsating dark dubby cut appropriate for the dankest warehouse club. But the band doesn’t tip the balance by trying to do too much in one song. Each song is a self-contained universe. In theory, it should sound like a scattershot mess. Instead, it all hangs together remarkably well. Even amongst the various elements, there’s a sense of unity.
Part of the reason behind the cohesion may be the steady hand of Dave Sitek (TV on the Radio) on the production board. Or perhaps it’s the fact that the record has a moody, dry undercurrent. However, it may just be that each member plays his or her position extremely well. So if Bohling needs to channel Kim Gordon in “Kool Thing” mode for “Babies,” she’s going to sell it like the rent is due tomorrow. Pressnal knows just how much and when to use his guitar and when to lay back and let the rest of the band do the work. It’s the type of self-awareness and restraint that other bands still struggle with on their fourth and fifth albums, so it’s astounding that Icky Blossoms have hit the mark on their debut. It will be exciting to see where they go next, but Icky Blossoms has enough nooks and crannies to dig into for awhile.
Dorian S. Ham
Evolving from a mix of enchanting electronic tones, glitchy beats and ethereal vocals into a more organic form that might be described as Sigur Rós Lite, Iceland’s múm has remained a curious creature throughout its 15-year existence. With the release of Early Birds, a compilation of outtakes and whatnot recorded between 1998 and 2000, one might think that something of the inner-workings of the band’s magic might be revealed, but that’s really not the case. Even the accompanying liner notes do little to demystify múm’s unique body of work.
The first four songs on Early Birds come from the band’s first recording, a four-song cassette. While perhaps less distinctive than what would appear on múm’s proper albums, tracks like “Gingúrt” and “Glerbrot” show the initial incarnations of the band’s mix of electronic sounds with atmospheric touches. “Hvernig á aõ særa vini sína” is perhaps the most fully formed moment on the album. Örvar Þóreyjarson Smárason and Hildur Guðnadóttir’s vocals, which were recorded in a bathtub filled with water, work with a lilting bassline and muted drum machine beats to create a track as delicate as their latter work. Similarly, “Hufeland” has a simplistically rendered melody placed against frenetic beats that makes for a song that is equally evocative and skittish. That is perhaps the best way to describe Early Birds—evocative and skittish—as it is as baffling as it is moving, making for a collection of unique charms.