East of the Wall Returns After Five Years With a Strong Prog Rock LP

NP-Complete is a fun listen for fans of progressive rock and metal, though it may turn off some outsiders to the genre.

East of the Wall is a progressive metal outfit from Keyport, New Jersey. They debuted with a self-titled EP in 2006, which kicked off a fairly impressive career and expansive catalog. However, after their fourth full length LP in 2013, they seemed to fall off the map a bit, only releasing one EP in 2015 under Epistemic Records instead of their usual partners, Translation Loss Records. After a long hiatus and more than a few notable lineup changes, they’ve finally returned with their first full scale release in almost six years, NP-Complete.

Much of what works so well about this album is what one would expect from a prog metal band of this caliber, but there are a few surprises, namely in the production. The stereo imaging on this album is absolutely wonderful, and really demands a nice set of headphones. Take a track like the opener, “Tell Them I’m Sorry,” for example. The production work doesn’t quite jump out, but closer examination shows that not only is every instrument, especially the drums, extremely well mixed, but every sound has a direction allowing this album to really surround a listener. 

Another strength which is all too often ignored in the metal world is the excellent bass guitar work. From cuts like the hilariously named “Fast-Bang Pooper Doop,” to the later “Somn 6,” the bass is not only extremely well played, leaving the guitars side for some inspired melodic lines, but it’s also able to cut through the rather chaotic mixes and shine quite effectively. It’s often missing from even the best metal records, and so a strong bass presence is a welcome feeling on NP-Complete.

Of course, the staples of great progressive rock are still here. A multitude of electric guitars form the melodic front to nearly every track, even verging on some shoe-gaze inspirations at a few points. “Leinholder,” is an excellent example of the pure proficiency with which these guitars are played by nearly every member of the band and the track dances through strange signatures and quick riffs with ease. The closer and best track, “Non-Functional Harmony,” on the other hand, is more sparsely populated with a driving and well written riff.

However, while the guitars may be the muscles of this project, Seth Rheam on drums is definitely the backbone. Nearly every song incorporates complex rhythms, strange signatures, and remarkably fast fills, all of which Rheam does with relative ease. “Clapping on the Ones and Threes,” is a nice shining moment for the drums as Seth strikes a great balance between tight, sharp fills and explosive cymbal shots. “N of 1,” on the other hand kicks off with a fantastic drum solo which carries over into one of the best, most rhythmic cuts on the album.

All this being said, I do have a few loud gripes with the album. First and foremost, the vocals leave quite a bit to be desired. While there are a few nice moments like the brutal screams on “Somn 6,” but the majority of the album is packed full of incredible instrumental work and sub par vocals.

Additionally, the instrumental and overall sound pallet are a bit clean and safe for my taste. Nearly every guitar sounds almost pristine, and the majority of vocals are clean as well. When they do attempt to add other instruments, be they synths or a saxophone on the closer, it feels mostly out of step with the direction of the track. I can’t help but wish for a more daring, and perhaps more abrasive pallet.

Worst of all, though, the pacing varies widely, but leans on the side of slow and dense. This, of course, may not be an issue for the hardline prog-metal fan, and I myself can forgive some of it, but a track like “The Almost People,” illustrates this quite well as it just becomes lost in itself over the near eight minute runtime, with no discernible sectioning or direction.

Overall, I enjoyed NP-Complete. It can be a bit of a slog at times, and the lack of risks does catch up with the band at times, but for fans of long-form, jazz-influenced, technically challenging music, this is a treat.

NP-Complete is a fun listen for fans of progressive rock and metal, though it may turn off some outsiders to the genre.

6/10

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB

Advertisements

American Football’s Third Album is a Blizzard of Complex Emo Rock

LP3 is a luscious piece of math rock that deserves to be heard in one long sitting, and a worthy third entry to the American Football catalog.

American Football is an emo/math rock four piece from Urbana, Illinois. They debuted with a self-titled EP in 1998 which gained them quite a bit of underground buzz for their unique sound, impressive instrumental abilities, and garage-based aesthetic. Just a year later, they dropped their self-titled LP which is something of a landmark for the emo genre. The album is universally praised, and saw the band sore to new heights of popularity, even years after their abrupt split. Without any new material to follow up, the self-titled release achieved near mythic status. Finally, in 2016, 17 years after their debut, they released the much celebrated LP2. Thankfully, there was no near 20 year wait for the third entry, and LP3 has just arrived.

The record is immediately notable for a unique and broad instrumental pallet. The bells on the opener, “Silhouettes,” are fascinating, dancing across the stereo image and carrying a well written melody. On a cut like “I Can’t Feel You,” on the other hand, there are choruses of humming and marimbas being used perfectly in tandem the more traditional instruments for an almost other worldly feel. Most importantly, each of these strange and surprising instruments is perfectly integrated into the mix so as to avoid feeling like a gimmick.

Beyond this, though, the core instruments are fantastic! The rhythms and bass line on a cut like “Heir Apparent,” inject just the right amount of energy and variety into the song. Of course, they take a back seat to the lead guitar work which is the strongest driving force behind every track, never overpowering but always leading. This is achieved to perhaps the best effect on the closer, “Life Support.” American Football has always been respected, primarily, for their instrumental abilities, and LP3 leans into this heavily.

This all leads to a chilling and at times haunting tone. On “Every Wave to Every Rise,” for example, the band utilizes repetition and minimalism in a way that feels almost clinical, leaving a listener searching for any sense of warmth or melody. The thick layers of complex guitar lines add to this general disorientation, with the quiet but present harmonies and rare moments of conjunction bringing a sense of relief.

I also found myself quite blown away by the band’s ability to flesh out every idea they present. Take a song like “Doom In Full Bloom,” which runs just shy of eight minutes, which can often feel like a life time, particularly with soft rock acts like American Football. Instead, this cut is able to be at once luscious and completely frigid. The many interesting instruments hidden in the mix make repeat listens a treat, and the perfectly toned drums and virtuosic guitar refrains make it infinitely entertaining. Overall, it’s the best track on the album, and a testament to American Football’s abilities as songwriters.

This brings us to the album’s strongest point without a doubt, that being the production. It’s already an obvious achievement to helm such a wide variety of instruments, as is unmistakable on a song like “Mine to Miss.” The way bells and horns gently dance in and out of nearly every track is wonderful, and takes an experienced hand. However, even on relatively simple tracks like the lead single, “Uncomfortably Numb,” the stereo image swirls around a listener gently, almost hypnotizing. Haley Williams’ voice sounds excellent on her feature and the guitars seem to ring forever, only to be split in half by the sharpness of the snares. From the big and obvious to the small and subtle, virtually every aspect of LP3’s production is nothing short of perfect.

All said, this is a great album. While it doesn’t jump out to blow you away from the first moments, the subtle touches, wide pallet, and despondent tone make for a moving and cohesive listening experience. It’s not perfect as the vocals are only passible, save a few great features, and the pacing can seem unbearable to non-fans. It’s not for everyone, but if you love this brand of soft but complex emo rock, it’s a must listen.

LP3 is a luscious piece of math rock that deserves to be heard in one long sitting, and a worthy third entry to the American Football catalog.

8/10

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB

The Bouncing Souls Celebrate Their 30th Anniversary with Fun EP3

Crucial Moments is an ultimately enjoyable, if flawed celebration of thirty years of good music.

The Bouncing Souls are a punk rock band from New Brunswick, New Jersey. They debuted in 1994 with The Good, The Bad, and the Argyle, and went on to release four albums throughout the 90’s, each finding some level of underground success. Though their catalog lacks any real mainstream hits, it does show every sign of a hard working, old school punk act with 10 studio albums and 15 EPs since their formation in 1989. After beginning with Chunksaah Records, they left to work with Epitaph for the majority of their output in the 2000’s but they’ve recently returned to Chunksaah for their most recent projects including 2016’s Simplicity, which is one of their best selling albums to date. With their 30th anniversary approaching, they’re adding to their extensive catalog with Crucial Moments.

The EP opens with the high energy title track which kicks off the tracklist in style. It’s essentially a straight forward, pop-punk cut driven by Greg Attonito’s impressively clean vocal. The drum fills are fast and exciting and lead guitar is extremely well played. The pulled back bridge, though quite cliche’d, is enjoyable and the crisp production makes for quite the opener, overall.

“1989” is a much more true blue punk track, all the way down to the terse, 90 second runtime. Instrumentally, there’s no dip in quality to be heard and, in fact, there is the improvement of a very well played bass line on the bridge and an entertaining guitar solo. Unfortunately, Greg’s vocals lack the grit needed to pull off this sound, and the song is at it’s best when he returns to his melodic style near the end. Additionally, the structure of this track is just awkward and it leaves quite a bit to be desired, ultimately.

“Favorite Everything,” follows, driven especially by an ear-worm guitar lead. Lyrically, its a fun love song full of quirky platitudes which are performed quite convincingly. Beyond this, the drums are, once again, excellent, aided by a great rhythm in general. The track’s biggest weak points are the transitions between sections. Choruses just seem to start and end with no noticeable change beyond lyrics, and the track as a whole bleeds together a bit by the end.

“Here’s To Us,” on the other hand, is easily the strongest showing on the project. The instrumental is explosive and Attonito’s vocals are his best thus far. The melody on the chorus is fantastically well written, though the lyrics are a bit juvenile, admittedly. It ends with a soaring guitar solo directly into an exciting passage of doubled vocals. It’s exactly the sound you want to hear out of this band and it’s delivered better here than anywhere else.

The band returns to the traditional punk sound again with “4th Avenue Sunrise,” this time with much better results. Greg defaults to a more charismatic, blues-tinged vocal style which fits the song much better and more importantly, this cut doesn’t feel nearly as incomplete. Each idea is presented and fully fleshed out while the high tempo retains the quick impact they’re going for.

“Home,” closes the album and it’s a relatively enjoyable finish. It features yet another excellent chorus which is very well performed by Attonito. The crunching lead guitars are pure pop-punk and explosive drumming brings the choruses to a head in a very satisfying way. Overall, it’s one of the stronger cuts on the project, not the least of which because of the very strong songwriting.

Ultimately, this is a fun collection of songs, though it’s lacking in more than a few areas. There’s really not a single track that isn’t enjoyable in some way or another. The tracklist is very well paced and the production is slick but full of life.

Crucial Moments is an ultimately enjoyable, if flawed celebration of thirty years of good music.

3/5

Hear the EP

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB

Mystifier Is Back With a Brutal Fourth Album

Primal Black Magic Dynasty has plenty to complain about, but it’s a fun listen for fans of the more brutal side of the music world.

Mystifier is a black/heavy metal band from Salvador, Brazil. They debuted in 1992 with Wicca was a large part of the often overlooked Brazilian metal scene. With a handful of EPs and demos, they began to find some success worldwide and released their second LP, Goetia the following year. This was followed by a large scale tour and quite a bit of critical acclaim before the group split for a long hiatus. They returned in 2008 with their career defining third album The World is So Good That Who Made It Doesn’t Live Here which kicked off yet another large tour followed by yet another long silence as they’ve only sparsely appeared since the release. Sonically, Mystifier is, in many ways, a poster child for the kind of stereotypical, satanic black metal that newer bands only see fit to elude to. Now, after more than a decade off, Mystifier finally returns with Primal Black Magic Dynasty.

One of the album’s most interesting touches are the haunting and well placed atmospheric sounds that begin a few of the tracks. Perhaps the best example of this comes in the horrifying opening to “Witching Lycanthropic Moon,” which melds a wide array of nocturnal animal noises with a gritty, growling vocal to set a listener immediately into the hellscape that Mystifier is trying to create.

Yet another strength unique to Primal Black Magic Dynasty is the very well mixed and played bass guitar. In a genre which consistently struggles with allowing the bass to cut through the fog, Mystifier makes it sound easy. There are fantastic solos on tracks like “Heart Weighing Ceremony,” and “Demolish the Towers of the Sky,” but throughout nearly every song, the bass is not only loud and clear, but active and creative, adding to the dark scenery of the project.

Those scenes are quickly ripped to shreds, however, by the gut-wrenching guitar riffs that populate the album. From the last single and highlight of the entire record, “Six Towers of Belial’s Path,” to the later cut, “Soultrap Sorcery of Vengeance,” the guitars are extremely thick and driving, owing in part to excellent performances and in part to strong production choices. Most importantly, the tone and melody isn’t lost in the growl, but instead a near perfect balance is struck.

Vocally, the leads are about as horrific as one would expect from the gothic horror on the album cover. There’s a pair of vocalists trading lines between each other, one much thinner and piercing, the other lower and cacophonous. Tracks like “Thanatopraxy,” and “Al Nakba,” stand as strong showings for the pair, and while they aren’t perfect at every turn, there’s a power and passion that comes through on each effort.

Instrumentally, though, the most technically demanding parts are left for the drumming. From the opening title track to the later and darker “Church of the Molested Children,” the drumming is lightning fast and explosive. This isn’t uncommon for music in this genre, but it’s especially noticeable on this record.

Their best quality comes when they are all working together. Namely, the dynamic shift from brutal, high speed thrashing to melodic breakdowns and back again on cuts like “Akhenaton,” is exhilarating. Mixing in elements of more traditional heavy metal allows them to create moments that even a casual hard rock fan can enjoy before diving headlong again into the crushing blasts that characterize most black and death metal.

On the other hand, I do have my complaints, which mainly fall into three categories. The first of these is the lead guitar  which almost never seems to fit as none of the solos are particularly impressive and it constantly fails to make its way to the front of the mix. The second is is the instrumental pallet which, though somewhat wide, feels almost like a gimmick outside of the core instrumentation. All of this is made infinitely worse by my third and main complaint, which is extremely poor mixing, particularly in instrumental passages as the drums never quite fit and the rhythm guitar seems to drown out all else.

All this being said, I enjoyed this LP quite a bit. It’s good to hear such an early member of the black metal movement return to the scene with a strong effort.

Primal Black Magic Dynasty has plenty to complain about, but it’s a fun listen for fans of the more brutal side of the music world.

6/10

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB

Badflower’s Debut is Flawed but Exciting

OK, I’m Sick is imperfect, but a promising start for an exciting new rock band.

Badflower is an alt-rock four piece from Los Angeles, California. They signed with Hundred Handed Records in 2014 and released their debut single, “Soap,” the following year. They began touring as an opening act for The Veronicas in Europe and gained quite a buzz within the industry. This eventually lead to their being approached by Republic Records who began a complicated discussion of buying their contract out from Hundred Hands. Frustrated with this process, Badflower took to their garage to record and self-produce their debut EP, Temper. The project was extremely successful with singles charting in the top 40, larger crowds attending their shows, and a few spots in rock festivals across the country. After building an impressive following, especially in the difficult landscape of current alt-rock music, Badflower has finally released their debut LP, OK I’M SICK.

From the very start of the record, it’s clear that the instrumentation is a driving force behind Badflower’s sound. Guitarist Joey Morrow drops quite a few impressive riffs across the album from the opener, “x ANA x,” to “Die,” on the latter half of the LP, he benefits quite a bit from a thick, fuzzy effects that allows the guitar work to cut to the front of each song. On top of this, his riffs and solos are not only impressively performed, but extremely listenable and well written.

This is also true for Alex Aspiritu on bass. While much of the bass work on the album serves to add depth to the already powerful instrumental pallet, it also has a few moments in the spotlight. On by far the best cut of the record, “Heroine,” or on a track like “Wide Eyes,” the bass not only plays its own interesting melody, but when the full instrumental falls back, its often the bass guitar that carries the track. I’ve said before that the sign of a great rock band is their bass player, and Aspritu does excellent work on this album.

There’s also some great songwriting on this album. This is especially true in the melody department, as tracks like “The Jester,” and “Ghost,” feature earworm choruses without sacrificing the overall edge of the album. In a modern music landscape that isn’t exactly friendly to rock music, the ability to write a strong chorus and hook is extremely important and luckily, it’s a skill that Badflower seems to posses.

Perhaps a bit less noticeable, however, is the lyrical quality of many of these tracks. “Daddy,” for example, deals in difficult subject matter with an admirably unflinching hand, translating much of the discomfort caused by the story into relentlessly honest writing. “Girlfriend,” on the other hand, is an old school, blues cut with comical lyrics that mirror the punk energy that comes with the instrumentals.

All this being said, Okay, I’m Sick ultimately lives and dies by Josh Katz’ vocal work, which is, for the most part, excellent. There are clear influences from the likes of Gerard Way and Jack White, but he makes the sound his own with emotive delivery and a manic energy lifted straight from the pop-punk days of the early 2000’s. On a track like “Murder Games,” he’s able to stand out above a raucous band. The closer, “Cry,” on the other hand, sees Josh carrying a much longer track as one of the most dynamic and interesting elements.

The shortcomings on the record can be narrowed down to one specific area and that is production. There is a depressing multitude of songs, namely “We’re in Love,” “Promise Me,” or “24,” that are all but ruined by the mixing and production. The majority of the problem is characterized by an insistence on sanding down every hard edge across the entire album. It sucks the life out nearly every cut and robs several tracks of any energy.

Despite this, OK, I’m Sick is a largely enjoyable experience. It hits many of the best points of alt-rock and emo-rock but injects enough melody and energy to make the record accessible to fans outside the genre.

OK, I’m Sick is imperfect, but a promising start for an exciting new rock band.

6/10

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2HcppUD

Xiu Xiu’s Newest Release is Hellish and Fascinating

Girl with Basket of Fruit is certainly not for the faint of heart, but if you can brave this hellscape of an album, the reward is well worth your time.

Xiu Xiu is an American experimental rock outfit from San Jose, California. They debuted in 2002 with Knife Play and have gone on to release 13 studio albums with rarely a year going by without a Xiu Xiu release. Few have charted, though their Record Store Day special, Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks hit number nine on the US heat charts. By and large, their work has been largely underground, though they’ve built a respectable cult fan base. David Espinoza compared their sound to a mixture of Robert Smith and Trent Reznor while Pitchfork noted a “continual poetic and romantic beauty,” in their lyricism.

Sonically, Xiu Xiu is hard to place, not the least because each of their albums vary widely in style and influence. The majority of their work can largely be placed under umbrella groupings like industrial rock, noise pop, and experimental psych, each of which do describe some aspect of what’s happening on a Xiu Xiu record. Most importantly, their manic energy, massive pallet, and disregard for traditional rules of music make for an unpredictable and unique experience. Girl With Basket of Fruit is their most recent effort and it’s the darkest and most crushing to date.

From the first moments of the album, it’s pummeling and horrific soundscape becomes extremely clear. The opener and title track features abrasive loops of electronic instrumentation at a breakneck tempo while “Pumpkin Attack on Mommy and Daddy” sounds like a soundtrack to a hellish rave with grating, high pitched tones setting a quick pace which melts away into bizarre breakdowns that will likely sound alien to even the most dedicated fans of experimental music.

There are clear looks to the past of experimental music with tracks like “It Comes Out as a Joke,” utilizing the kind of manic chaos that characterized the most insane works of artists like Captain Beefheart and Jim Morrison. Meanwhile, “The Wrong Thing,” is reminiscent of the haunting, experimental jazz works of David Bowie’s final releases.

On the other hand, the sound pallet of this album contains a fascinating duality between past and future. Take a song like “Ice Cream Truck,” for example, where futuristic lasers and hisses are intercut with guttural growls from unknown creatures, only to dissolve into a dancing baseline played on upright bass, the recording of which is left almost raw. “Scisssssssors,” on the other hand, mixes a rolling collection of latin-inspired drums and a few chilling screams with synth squeals and low, rumbling buzzes. This imbalance is fascinating and contributes to the overall sense of unease this album creates.

This sense is made far stronger by some of the most unnerving lyrics in recent memory. “Amargi ve Moo,” seem to be written by a man so unhinged from reality that he speaks on of horrendous ideas with a poetic beauty which permeates even his descriptions of collecting tumors and beheading saints. On the other hand, “Mary Turner Mary Turner,” recounts the true story of the appalling murder and forced abortion of a Southern black woman in the early 20th century with such unbridled honestly that I’ve genuinely never been more disturbed by a piece of writing.

As excellent as the album is, it seems to stumble just a bit at the finish line. The closer, “Normal Love,” has a lot going for it, namely intriguing vocal performances and well written lyrics, but the relatively simple chord progression and many of the more cliched vocal ad libs in the background completely kill the momentum of the record thus far. The song also lacks some of the cohesion that made earlier cuts so fantastic.

Regardless, Girl with Basket of Fruit is absolutely incredible. Every second of the project is daring and spellbinding. It reaches some of the darkest lyrical places I’ve ever heard a record go,  and it gets there with mind-boggling instrumentation and production.

Girl with Basket of Fruit is certainly not for the faint of heart, but if you can brave this hellscape of an album, the reward is well worth your time.

9/10

Amazon Link: https://amzn.to/2X8UrSM

Calling All Captains Drops Energetic Label Debut

Nothing Grows Here is an bombastic EP from an exciting young band.

Calling All Captains is a emo/pop-punk five-piece from St. Albert, Canada. They formed in early 2014 and released their debut EP, A Way With Words later that year, which followed many of the tropes of pop-punk of the era with a fair share of catchy songwriting. They went on to release a follow up in 2016 entitled, Disconnect. This project was noticeably heavier, especially in the instrumentation which featured much more active and intricate drum work, though there was a bit of screaming incorporated into the vocals. Their underground success lead to a signing with indie label, Equal Vision, best known for alums like Coheed and Cambria and We Came as Romans. With a studio budget and a couple releases under their belt, Calling All Captains has dropped their Equal Vision debut in the form of Nothing Grows Here.

The EP opens with the band’s recent hit single, “Chasing Ghosts.” It’s a strong single and an even better opener as it really sets the tone for the entire track list. There’s an excellent tone coming out of the rhythm guitar and the group is extremely tight, rhythmically. Best of all, Luc Gauthier’s lyrics have matured quite a bit between releases as he know writes fairly thoughtfully, avoiding some of the pop-punk tropes that acted as pitfalls on the last two EP’s.

They continue with the more low-key title track. Above all else, the song is highlighted by yet another powerful rhythm guitar performance.While the verses leave something to be desired melodically, the chorus makes up for the short coming in spades as one of the most catchy moments on the entire EP. The dropout is very well done, and the track closes out strong.

“Fools Gold,” follows and is perhaps the best of the five tracks. Gauthier’s vocals are emotional and dynamic with quite a bit of power filling out yet another extremely catchy verse. The track is, not unlike the rest of the EP, driven by Tim Wilson’s active and creative drum work, using cymbal crashes to accent explosive moments and lightning fast tom fills in between. Nick Malychuk’s bass also comes through much stronger here, anchoring the track very well.

Another of the lead singles is next, this time “Disconnected.” Here, the drums do tend to be a bit overwhelming, though they’re still expertly played. The bass is well placed once again, and this is yet another song with an excellent chorus and hook. The screams are at there best on this track, and the build out of bridge carries a lot of momentum into the outro.

The record closes with “Out of My Head,” which is simply fantastic. Maybe the only time when the verses hold up to the quality of the chorus, the track also features a the best bridge on the EP. The breakdown at the end is absolutely thunderous, drumming near the end is at a creative peak. It’s a strong close to a solid EP.

Overall, Nothing Grows Here accomplishes it’s goals with admirable precision. It’s an energetic label debut for Calling All Captains, and it shows off their instrumental prowess perhaps better than any previous work. I do have my complaints, however. 

The production is extremely stiff, leaving no room to breath for many of the instruments. The bass is often lost in the mix, a shame as it’s played so well by Malychuk. The lead guitars, though solid when they appear, are rarely heard despite the fact that almost every track is crying out for a strong lead riff. Finally, the pacing could use some attention, as the middle of the EP does seem to drag thanks to similar tempos and styles on each track. Most of these are minor issues here, but may present themselves more glaringly on a full length LP.

Nonetheless, Nothing Grows Here is an bombastic EP from an exciting young band.

4/5