East of Empire - Into the Elephant
I was given a nine track EP of some local ragamuffins playing that music the hippie kids listen to these days. The man whose nephew or cousin or something plays in the band wanted to know what I thought of it. I feel like I'm allowed to slag it if I want to, because neither of us are doing the blind-cheerleader kerfuffle shuffle.
My first impression was, oh, another Arcade Fire wannabe, with an admittedly good band name - but as you might expect, I came to see value and originality as I went on. Not that the sliver-margin of originality allowed at this stage of the information age is wide enough to fairly use as a benchmark for artistic merit.
Arcade Fire bells are certainly ringing for me during the first track - in fact, they ring throughout the album, complete with relentless straight-eighth banging from all accompanying instruments. I could sound less ignorant if I criticized a band for being a wannabe of a sub genre or a sub-sub genre, rather than a whole genre that isn't even really a genre, the kids would say, fuck genres. But I don't care to investigate the wide world of maudlin-indie-folk (or whatever term would be more precise than my out-of-touch catch-all). I'd rather chalk it up or boil it down to the mostly-arbitrary categories I've come to rely on. I can't challenge my preconceived notions for the rest of my life! I obey the laws of thermodynamics, sad to say. I'm so very very tired.
As I listen on, I hear Wilco in the male lead voice, and then, holy shit, Sigor Ros! Is this the band I almost joined two years ago, that didn't have a name at the time, that responded to my "keyboard player available" ad in The Scope, that went on without me after I failed to show up to the second practice, who described themselves as Arcade Fire and Wilco-esque with a hint of Sigor Ros? Or are there just even more bands trying to sound like that than I'd thought?
Now let's look at the songs. Can't You Notice is all about the refrain. Can you guess what the refrain is? You'll hear it a lot. I like the arrangement. I like how the meter changes abruptly from four to three and back again. And I like how the bass drops down to a poignant-sounding pedal point.
Track 02 is where the goofy vox kick in. They sound drowned in reverb for some reason other than actually being drowned in reverb. There are annoying pop melodies with always quavering vocals. Is this trying to be "art-rock"? Okay, that was obnoxious, me putting art-rock in quotes, because I want to accuse them of trying to sound like something, but don't want to take ownership of that term, because it's stupid, but not entirely stupid. Maybe art-stupid. Maybe these songs are just a case of people who sound like that, sounding like that. Sometimes it strikes me as unique and homespun, the way the voices blend together, and then it starts to sound like Penny-Arcade Fire again. Halfway through, the drums break suddenly into a no-frills solo and the bass gallops into the backwards Four Tet stock jitter-samples to bring us out.
Piano Song begins with hollow Vegas chapel organ and kitchen drums. The insistently simple guitar riff gets in your head like a cultist's chant. Even without the organ, it sounds like a church camp sing-along Manson family acid jamboree - or a Moldy Peaches version of Neon Bible. They clearly haven't wasted a lot of time on making it sound good. It's better than it sounds though. It's gotta be setting the exact right mood for something, but I probably had to be there. Okay, what the hell are the words? What language is it? Is it made up? Maybe that's why I heard Sigor Ros.
I have affection for the guitar tone in Hunter, it's all mid-range, like it's been phoned in, which in this case is good. Reminds me of Bright Eyes B-sides and dissociative anesthesia. There's been no deviation in mood by so much as a micron, thank god the songs are short, I'd have trouble with over half an hour of this. Oh the consonance. There's a guitar that sounds like a plunky saloon piano. Or is it a piano that sounds like a guitar? Whatever it is, it fits.
Okay, a welcome bit of change in feel for track 5, Tired Game. Ironically, it's the most energetic song on the album. Not that it's energetic. But a little more rock and less shoegazing. Sounds like Velvet Underground. Oh, a shoegazey anthem for the chorus though, so now it's really velvet. So velvet I can't feel my legs. I hear a scratchy violin, so far away and yet so close. I like the way instruments stumble into each other with pleasing results, in a way that evokes organic chemistry rather than contrivance.
In Come Calling, a half-sentence, "forward to the brink", can be heard several times, and the rest is... uh. What? Wha language? Yes. Ol' Man Thunder on sad pills. Sounds important though. Really heavy and all emotional.
There's three more tracks, which is three too many for me, cause they're so similar to what's gone before, but the band sounds like it's having fun and playing with soul. Yes, playing with soul, like Mephistopheles on a monday. But I wish the rest had more of that track 5 flavour. Piece of My Mind has a female lead with a strong vocal timbre. The chorus pokes its head out of the mud and sounds poppy for a minute, then dives back into the swamp. Then there's a cool bridge where she sings: "my nerves jangle".
Last track, Waves, is their version of No Cars Go, or so I wanted to say, but the anthemic drums never kicked in, so I can't, which pisses me off. "When does it come in waves?" they ask. It suggests that deep thematic, maybe literary thinking went into this album, that I can't or won't penetrate. I don't know their stories, I'm not gonna cobble them together from four or five half-sentences in english and a background moan of made-up words. But I do suspect there's something to it. The sound is minimalist, yet crowded. I'm in the room with all those people on the back cover: a hobbit-sized third story jam livingroom above Lemarchant Street on a bleak January, taking refuge in body-heat. The music feels disturbed and biological, with enough technological detritus to keep things interestingly horrific in a post-apocalyptic sort of way. Hmmm... maybe it's "post-rock", whatever the hell that is. Maybe that's it.