Thursday, June 12, 2003

Music to My Ears XXXVII

A five-pack of new record reviews!

Anberlin "Blueprints for the Black Market"
A hard rock-inspired alt.rock five piece, Anberlin propels a peppy approach to its music on this record. With a bizarrely dramatic Danny Elfman-like vocal delivery in sections of the opening track, "Ready Fuels," the Orlando, Florida-based band adds an almost Push Kings-esque doot-doot-doo-doo-doo sing-along bridge in "Foreign Languages." While I appreciate the band's power pop tendencies, the record's production values and the group's occasionally lackluster alt.rock leanings -- per the press sheet's comparisons to the Foo Fighters and Superdrag -- make this release whinily white bread. I'm sure the hard-rock heartthrob hoi polloi in middle America might find Anberlin's anthemic assumptions palatable -- especially given the CD insert's pinup-worthy photography and the band's too-true cover of the Cure's "Love Song" -- but I fear that there's not too much to their music. The drawn-out classic rock chorus in "Change the World (Lost Ones)" isn't overly convincing, and "Cold War Transmissions" brings in a bit of boringly radio-friendly blather. This consistency continues for the bulk of "Blueprints," and for the most part, the record rarely resonates with this reviewer. That said, "The Undeveloped Story" contains some promising progressions, and "Autobahn" and "We Dreamt in Heist" return to the Push Kings reminders. Regardless, Anberlin doesn't sustain the interesting sections or sequences enough to hold my attention. When the band's not too ashamed to revel in its unabashed power pop playfulness, Anberlin aspires to a goal worth attaining. But its hard rock approach to alt.rock falls flat, and it's really only the second half of the CD that shows any steady sensibility. I'm not sure I'll return to this for repeat listens. Tooth & Nail, P.O. Box 12698, Seattle, WA 98111.

Armor for Sleep "Dream to Make Believe"
I think I need to seek out more punk and no-wave records to review, because it seems Media Diet is starting to secure service by the more sleepy Sunday sad boy sing-along emo and melodic hardcore labels. Not that I don't appreciate receiving the records or enjoy listening to them, but so much of this style of music sounds the same to me and doesn't always demand repeated listens. Having toured with musical groups such as Thursday and Piebald, the four piece Armor for Sleep is cozily comfortable in the earnestly aggressive yet slightly prone to shoe gazing school of indie rock. "Being Your Walls," the fourth track, is the first song that really caught my attention, with a subtly cyclical and off-kilter song structure. Maybe it's the interwooven chorus or justifiably jagged guitar stabs. Maybe it's the little bit of hesitant herky jerk as the song builds to the end. The segue to "My Town"'s start and stop opening and its simple synth section maintains my interest, and this number encourages me to temper my initial dismissal and doubt somewhat. Not a bad song! "The Wanderers Guild" is a slight step backwards, but the record's rise to the occasion returns, and Armor for Sleep is redeemed by the increasingly intense "Front and Front Steps," an impressive slice-of-life snapshot. This is by far the best song I've heard on this. Whild the CD's closing four songs return to the band's more mellow meanderings, the lyrical content of "Raindrops" and "Kind of Perfect" beg some attention and analysis. The former adequately addresses how certain people in our lives can overwhelm, fill, and feed us. These are perhaps the hardest relationships to lose -- and the most frustrating unrequited loves. As satisfying as it can be to be submersed in and washed over by someone -- as sufficient as that unshared swelling can seem -- it almost always brings the corollary danger of drowning, self-dismissal, and self-denial. The penultimate piece, "Kind of Perfect," also hit me hard. Sometimes you just want someone in your life, to share your space, to settle in silently and soak up the collective experience of being together. In the next room. Silent on the other end of the phone line. Drifting off to dream. Singer and songwriter Ben Jorgensen captures the tension of passive and persistent presence and heartfelt hope, as well as the loss inherent in that longing. All in all, this record doesn't always share its strength in terms of song structure, but substantially, its content brooks no compromise. And to Jorgensen's emo credit, the last song "Slip Like Space" is an impressively intent statement of moving on and leaving behind, as bittersweet as that process and progress may be. Worth checking out. Equal Vision, P.O. Box 14, Hudson, NY 12534.

Fall Out Boy "Take This to Your Grave"
I am such a sucker for this sound. Ecstatically enthusiastic and melodically meaningful! I don't know if I'm prone to prefer pop punk or if I just like energy and intensity with my thoughtfully tuneful and hook-laden sing-along songs. But it's getting so, as interchangeable as some of these bands can be, I almost don't care, I'm such a big fan of the genre. Don't get me wrong, I'm not so far gone that I appreciate or even begin to understand the output and popularity of Blink-182, Sum-41, and their punk-by-the-numbers commercially complicit comrades. But a band like Fall Out Boy, being quite a different animal, is right up my alley. Coming from a monied suburb of Chicago, the band combines the maybe mopey but still hopeful emotionalism of bands like the Smoking Popes with the northern Californian clash and catchiness of the early Lookout roster, as well as some of the melodic grit and grin of the much-missed Underdog Records scene. After several blissfully beatific pop-punk numbers "Saturday" adds some disappointingly screamo backups just before some frightfully delightful falsetto. I wonder whether the band really thought that worked well -- or if both are indications that they don't take themselves too seriously. I like to think the latter, as the next track, "Homesick at Space Camp," is cheekily geeky at several levels. Fall Out Boy combines sugar-sweet songwriting with enough regional place dropping and existentially emotional energy that the end result almost evokes an equation. Plug this record into a computer, and I'm sure you'll come close to a recipe for radio play. Fueled by Ramen, P.O. Box 12563, Gainesville, FL 32604.

Shai Hulud "That Within Blood Ill-Tempered"
Now this is more like it! Unlike emo-leaning bands that adopt some semblance of screamo to elicit an edge, the four piece Shai Hulud avoids such aspirational adaptation and maintains a masculine melodicism amidst its acerbic aggression. Passionate to a point (as in pointed stick, not possibility or promise), this is heavy hardcore that still holds harmony as a value and a virtue. From the very first song, the verbosely titled "Scornful of the Motives and Virtue of Others," Shai Hulud erupts with mirthfully moshing metal and high-minded hardcore. The screamo, shouted vocals don't stick out as silly but instead solidifies Shai Hulud's seriousness. The second piece, "Let Us at Last Praise the Colonizers of Dreams," adds an amusing sing-along chorus that surprised me. Even in the thick of metal-tinged hardcore, Shai Hulud still manages to shout along in harmony. Brilliant! Turning to the lyric sheet, Shai Hulud impresses me with the depth and breadth of its inspirations and influences. Without coming across as cartoonily literary, the band draws on the work of Frank Herbert and J.R.R. Tolkien, composing almost operatic metal concept album-level lyrics while chalenging Johnny-come-lately bandwagon also rans. Truth be told, the album's design screams fantasy metal, but instead, Shai Hulud sheds light on what smart metal or intelligent hardcore might be. The band is aggressive without being assholes. Melodic without being mellow. Clever without being cloying. There is no inconsistency in terms of intensity song to song, and as far as this batch of reviews goes, Shai Hulud's new record is the most consistent, complex, and crucial record I've recently received. Given the band's brand of metallic hardcore and shouted singing, it's somewhat of a challenge to differentiate songs from one another, but the entire record holds together, the overall sound is impressively massive, and the words are worth watching. Even the end notes and thank you list highlights the band's heart, honor, and humor. Think Backstabbers Inc. with the sense of humor and politics of Propagandhi. Or Dillinger Four collaborating with Napalm Death. This is an excellent record that proves aggressive rock doesn't need to be cartoony or overly corrosive. Revelation Records, P.O. Box 5232, Huntington Beach, CA 92615.

Silverstein "When Broken Is Easily Fixed"
After a surprisingly screamo opening to the first song, "Smashed into Pieces," this south Ontario, Canada, five piece falls into a pleasantly aggressive melodic style that combines hardcore and emo. While the strained screamo parts tend to interrupt the effectively assertive melodic basis of the band's songwriting, the overall effect works surprisingly well. I just wish vocalist Shane Told could carry an angry, aggro line without resorting to all-out shouting. In fact, even in the second song, "Red Light Pledge," the guttural interruptions undermine what is otherwise a forceful emotional song. The band shows a sensitive side further with the introduction of strings under a plaintive spoke-word presentation. Do bands feel a need to break down into illegibility in order to claim hardcore credibility? The band adds a subtle nod to heavy metal fret work with the guitar work under the chorus to "Giving Up" -- a nice variation that's not too over the top until another screamo section. Not to continue the song by song, but in general, were Silverstein to find another mode of distraught or slightly distorted vocal delivery, their songs would really shine. Don't shy from your more sensitive side regardless of your metal and hardcore influences. As a side note, Victory's press sheet makes a point to mention that the band took its name from children's book author -- and countercultural freak -- Shel Silverstein. It's an interesting bit of trivia, but the influence doesn't carry across on the CD itself. Silverstein possesses neither the writer's innocent bliss a la Where the Sidewalk Ends nor his more adult-oriented hippie hullaballoo such as "Freakin' at the Freaker's Ball," opting instead for forcefully forlorn songs about love and loss. Regardless, Silverstein does provide a promising brand of emotional hardcore that wins at its most melodic and only suffers slightly when the band lapses into lazy yelling. "The Weak and the Wounded" stands out as a piece with potential, and if the band considered a more herky-jerky angular approach to its song structure, it might not need the back-and-forth screamo to maintain its energy and direction. A closing tip of the Media Diet hat to Martin Wittfooth, whose artwork adds a lot to the overall packaging. Victory Records, 346 N. Justine St. #504, Chicago, IL 60607.

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