Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

neon fictionLately, it almost seems like a trend for members of punk bands to start acoustic side-projects during lulls of touring and writing with their original bands.  You might blame it on “the increasingly grim state of the music industry,” and you might be right too, but that’s not to say that every Tom, Dick, and Harry can push out a well written acoustic album in their droll downtime from making crowds of fans all sweaty and light-headed at stanky punk shows.  Fortunately, Sundowner’s main man (and The Lawrence Arm’s guitarist/vocalist) Chris McCaughan seemed to have taken his good ol’ time to write Neon Fiction in between Lawrence Arms albumsprobably even to many impatient fans’ lamentbut let’s be honest, it was well worth the wait.

Neon Fiction is a bit of a step in a new direction from previous Sundowner records, most noticeably from an instrumental perspective.  To call this album an “acoustic album” might be a bit of a stretch.  Plenty of tracks feature fellow Larry Arms bandmate Neil Hennessy on drums and bass guitar, and many of the tracks even utilize the pretty standard punk trio instrumental structure which would be considered anything but acoustic: electric lead guitar over a rhythm guitar, rolling electric bass, and driving punk rhythms on drum set.  Really, just about the only ingredient Neon Fiction‘s nostalgic opener “Cemetery West” (along with a few other similarly structured tracks like “Concrete Shoes” and “Paper Rose City”) is missing to be considered a full-fledged, less intense, Lawrence Arms song is the third and final delightfully crusty Larry Arm, Brendan Kelly.

What're you doing Chris?  No shoes on the bed!

“Chis! No shoes on the bed.” No Mom, it’s punk.

Setting the lyrical tone for the rest of Neon Fiction, “Beautiful Ruins” speaks of the brisk and bustling city of Chicago like she’s a beautifully tragic lady who McCaughan leftwhich isn’t that surprising considering McCaughan had recently left his hometown of Chicago for his girlfriend’s homeland of Portland, Oregon (which I’m sure Fred and Carrie would agree is quite a different place).  Further on in the track list, “We Drift Eternal” can get quite heavy sonically, and, at times, the song even reminds me of another Larry Arms side-project known as Brendan Kelly and the Wandering Birds, especially during the palm-muted verses.  One of the few acoustic songs on Neon Fiction, “Grey on Grey”, is a growing depiction of simple love, and one of my favorites from the album.  Towards the end of the track, drums start to crash and McCaughan settles into the outro pleading “hope you’ll love me the same way, when the colors are grey on grey.”  “Life in the Embers” is sure to make you bob your head and set your life straight while “Origins” (Neon Fiction‘s last truly acoustic track) consists of a pretty non-traditional song structure, especially for how traditionally Sundowner the lyrics are; honest, introspective depictions of hometown living.  “Paper Rose City” is yet another great example of how Sundowner has mastered the blending of acoustic and electric instrumentation to make for bright, full, and light songs.  Another particular favorite of mine from this album, “Poet of Trash” is a devilishly booming son of heart-felt self-deprecation with a tinge of hope.  “Wildfires” is a bouncy uplifting track which, rather than sung next to an uncontrollable “wildfire”, is probably best played next to some comfy, recognizable campfire which burns not in some wild forest, but behind the flannel covered chests of the campers (sorry for the cheese overload all over your eyes, but I couldn’t help my sorry self)a perfect closer for such an eclectic and minimalistic approach to a full-band version of Sundowner.

~ D.B.

jew-damageLet’s be honest with ourselves here—there will never be another Clarity or Bleed American, simply because those records are modern classics, and Jimmy Eat World got older, and so did we. These days, I’m not expecting JEW to put out the next Clarity, because it’s not 1999 anymore, it’s 2013.

That being said, I don’t want them to abandon what made them excellent in the first place. I don’t think they ever completely did, but some of their previous records flirted with it, becoming poppier and more produced than I would have liked.

Damage is the closest Jimmy Eat World has come to returning to their classic emo/alternative rock roots in many years, and it is excellent indeed. The record seems to mix the older stripped-down emo sounds with the Futures-and-onward full-bodied aesthetic. In short, it’s a good mix of the old and new Jimmy Eat World.

Right off the bat, “Appreciation” hits the listener with an organic guitar-based approach that typifies most of Damage. It’s probably thanks to the bare-bones recording-to-tape approach used by producer Alain Johannes, a regular Queens of the Stone Age collaborator. The title track, “Lean,” and “Book of Love” are upbeat, jaunty pop-rock songs. Lead single “I Will Steal You Back” boasts one of the stronger choruses on the album.

“Please Say No” might be the “Hear You Me” of Damage; a gradually-building slow-tempo ballad with deeply personal and specific lyrics. The next two tracks step up the energy—the exceptional “How’d You Have Me” is full of driving guitar and catchy hooks, and “No, Never” is the closest thing to Bleed American/Futures-era Jimmy Eat World I’ve heard the band produce since those records were released.

JEW has always thrived in the open spaces—expansive, mid-tempo rock songs with emotive lyrics from frontman Jim Adkins. The superb “Byebyelove” is a great example: another standout for sure, and one of my favorites. Album closer “You Were Good” is a simple acoustic song that almost sounds like it could have been found on one of JEW’s lesser-known EPs like Firestarter, the self-titled EP, or Stay On My Side Tonight.

Along with guitarist Tom Linton, bassist Rick Burch, and drummer Zach Lind, Adkins has crafted another masterwork here with Jimmy Eat World’s seventh studio full-length. Although the record is rather short—ten tracks, clocking in at just over a half-hour—the band consistently pulls off what they do best: sweet and simple emo-rock songs that stick with you. 2013’s Damage is unexpectedly excellent.

~ J.M.

Before I start this review I want to bring something to your attention dear OBR readers: if Strange Vacation sounds like a few other bands to you, don’t be so quick to turn down the volume.  The fact is that Strange Vacation is absolutely influenced by certain bands (i.e. The Dangerous Summer, The Graduate, Angels & Airwaves) and it just so happens to be pretty blatantly obvious, but that doesn’t make them any less enjoyable or interesting to listen to on a budding summer’s morning.  In fact, I find myself listening to Strange Vacation because of their unique take on this kind of unspoken sub-community in pop-punk where Tom DeLonge is their god, delayed guitars and spacey synths is their language, and the typical “pop-punk breakdown” is fortunately nowhere to be found.

ThunderstormsYou see, Strange Vacation made quite the splash amongst these excited fans with their debut album Chasm.  Since then they’ve played only one public show as Strange Vacation (as far as anyone knows), successfully crowd-funded a vinyl pressing of the debut record, and had been secretly working on a follow-up album to Chasm almost immediately after it was released.  Now, it’s here – Thunderstorms.  If that wasn’t enough hype for you, check your pulse because you’re probably dead.

A sophomore release is a difficult one for any band who gained any kind of success from their first album.  No matter what, listeners will want every record after their first colossal debut to be even more exceptional.  Thunderstorms certainly rolled in with a fan-pleasing boom, but I have to say; I have a few things to gripe about.

Strange Vacation is now solely comprised of Mark Warren (bass, keys) and John-Paul Bakaric (vocals, guitar) with the occasional vocal accompaniment from Jem McTaggart.  Since Chasm, Strange Vacation’s line-up dropped two players with the leaving of Josh Waldorf on guitar and vocals and Kyle Mueller on drums.  Much to my surprise, Bakaric (vocal/guitarist) filled in on drums for all of the tracks on Thunderstorms.  I can’t say that Bakaric’s drum tracks are as difficult and technical as Mueller’s contributions on Chasm, but it’s clear that Bakaric has an ear (and apparently the ability) for placing fitting and well-rounded drumming behind his own songs.

Strange Vacation was able to pull off another record showcasing their unique adaptation of The Dangerous Summer-esque bands, but it seems like an overall less-mature version of their first beloved release.  Some of my favorite tracks such as “Come Watch The Sunset” showcase a slew of harmonies and vocals from Bakaric and female-accompanist Jem McTaggart, but I can’t help but think that the track begs for a change of pace with vocals from their previous-member Waldorf.  Without the mind-blowing chops from past-drummer Kyle Mueller and refreshing vocals from past-member Waldorf, I find myself noticing what I don’t like about these tracks, for example, like how the vocals now sound forced at times (much like many other places on the album).  The same stressed yell worked well at the end of Chasm’s “Round and Round”, but the same can’t be said for their excessive and even somewhat ridiculous use on Thunderstorms.

The real gems on Thunderstorms are towards the end of the album.  Songs like the mid-tempo builder “Oasis” and the relatively inquisitive “Purpose” are examples of Strange Vacation’s ability to make meaningful and instrumentally fitting songs.  The album’s title-track is an accurate representation of the better elements of Thunderstorms, and rightfully so, with its huge chorus and conservatively used minor chords

My biggest complaint with Strange Vacation’s otherwise solid album is the lyrics, and the best example of this let-down is the song “On and On”.  The catchy track is possibly one of their best instrumentally and, without a doubt, has the most potential (with it having the heaviest guitars and whatnot), but along come Bakaric’s seemingly phony lyrics in the verse, “A little late night drunk sex, before I know it we’re in a fight, by the morning all that’s left is a regret.”  Compared to the thoughtful, contemplative lyrics from their last album, “Recreate your stability, new inventions to cope, and create the sounds you love, with sharp clarity in your dreams,” there’s simply no comparison – it’s unfortunate, but one has to assume that Strange Vacation have lyrically taken a giant leap in the wrong direction.  There’s even a couple songs on Thunderstorms which remind me of cheesy pick up lines like in “Heaven Must Be A Mess Without You” when Bakaric and McTaggart harmonize to say, “My angel, Heaven must be a mess without you.”

“Road Trip” is a more mature take on youth and quite possibly my favorite song on the album, especially compared to “On and On.”  It even features an Angels & Airwaves type of delayed guitar riff which just so happens to sound pretty similar to AVA’s “Do It For Me Now,” but the riff isn’t similar enough where it ruins the song by any means.

Don’t get me wrong, a few tracks on Thunderstorms are some of my favorites from their catalog yet.  Songs like “Sick Cycle” featuring none other than The Dangerous Summer’s very own AJ Perdomo during the bridge and outro serve as a reminder to anyone doubting the record (myself included).

So I guess my real grievance with Thunderstorms is that it showcases the skilled and listenable best of Strange Vacation, but doesn’t leave out the disappointing worst of Strange Vacation, which leads me to conclude that the record, much like this review, might be one big contradiction.  With that being said, though, don’t let this discourage you from giving Thunderstorms a chance.  Strange Vacation have still done it again and made for an interesting and unique twist on this growing sub-genre in pop-punk, but maybe just start listening to Thunderstorms somewhere in the middle of the album instead of from the beginning like some lunatic OBR writer does from now on.


CityColourAlbumIt’s certainly been interesting watching Dallas Green’s progression since his early days as part of post-hardcore outfit Alexisonfire. After disbanding AoF to focus exclusively on his solo career under his pseudonym City and Colour, Green seems to have garnered a larger and more respecting fan base than he ever did in the post-hardcore world. In my mind, City and Colour has allowed Green to convert the American Eagle-types who are drawn to the pop sensibilities, while, thanks to his background, retaining the respect of hardcore fans who loved Alexisonfire’s scream-sing pummeling.

His latest album, 2013’s The Hurry and the Harm, shows Green incorporating even more of the full-band sound that he flirted with in previous albums. It’s a far cry from his first record as City and Colour, 2005’s Sometimes, which was much more early-Dashboard Confessional-oriented with just an acoustic guitar and Green’s pretty voice. Personally, I prefer that era a little bit more than the backing band aesthetic Green uses now, but that doesn’t mean The Hurry and the Harm is a bad record.

The title track leads off the disc in a slow-rolling manner, complete with Southern organ swells and swinging drums. This is the type of sound that makes a large portion of the disc: very open, expansive tunes, all with Green’s smooth vocals driving it along. Next is “Harder Than Stone,” which features one of the strongest and catchiest choruses on the album. A cool acoustic version of the song is included on the deluxe version of the album.omg-i-3-dallas-green-wait-whos-on-fire

“Thirst” and “The Lonely Life” are jauntier high-energy pop songs. “Of Space and Time,” “Commentators,” “Two Coins,” and “Ladies and Gentlemen” make up the bulk of the rest of the disc, and are decent enough, albeit a bit formulaic, tunes.

“Paradise” and “Take Care” harken back a bit to the Sometimes era, which I appreciate—somber acoustic lines blend in behind Green’s subdued contemplations in a similar way to the City and Colour of 2005. The Hurry and the Harm ends on a high note: the excellent “The Golden State” and solid “Death’s Song” are a good way to round out the disc before the bonus acoustic tracks come in.

Modern City and Colour is more spaced-out, more rollicking and rolling, more full-band and folk-pop oriented. If you enjoy that, you’ll like The Hurry and the Harm. Even fans of the older singer/songwriter/acoustic City and Colour can find something to like about this disc—there’s a little something for any fan of Dallas Green.

~ J.M.

tumblr_mn4v1iFEE71qm9pv9o1_500One has to wonder what guitarist Tomo Miličević was really doing half the time while 30 Seconds to Mars recorded their latest album, Love Lust Faith + Dreams, because there’s really not a whole lot of guitar to speak of. It’s been replaced by synths, orchestral swells, and electronic percussion sounds (which begs the question of what drummer Shannon Leto was doing half the time, too). I guess they were busy fiddling with keyboards and drum machines, because I’m afraid 30STM’s latest album sees the band give way to the over-processed modern dance-pop sound instead of the straight-ahead alternative rock from their early days, or even the U2-inspired arena-rock from their last disc, 2009’s This Is War.

Jared Leto and company try so hard to be astronomically grandiose, to be the biggest band on the planet, to be some kind of rock messiahs, that it just ends up coming across as empty, contrived, and more than a little cheesy. This trend reared its head occasionally on This Is War, but I did like that album because I felt the grandiose ambitions didn’t completely overwhelm the quality of music. On Love Lust Faith + Dreams, the ambition has eclipsed everything else.

Little things irritate me about this record. It’s divided into four categories, based on the four names in the title of the disc. Okay, good enough. So then why is “End of All Days,” whose chorus finds Jared repeating “All we need is faith” over and over in his best Rhianna impression, found in the “Lust” section? Further down, we come across “Bright Lights,” which in its defense is probably one of the more solid songs, if we were forced to pick. Three tracks later a song comes along called “Northern Lights.” Bright lights, Northern lights… too many lights. It bugs me when track names are so similar, especially found so close together and not intended to complement one another.

Lead single “Up In The Air” sounds like a dancey Maroon 5 song… not that I have anything against Maroon 5, since they never claimed to be anything other than what they were. The aforementioned “End of All Days” sounds like a Rhianna piano ballad with Leto’s voice instead of Rhianna. The interlude-esque “Pires of Varanasi” brings in some world music touches along with orchestra dirges ripped straight from The Dark Knight Rises soundtrack… it might be cool if it wasn’t so cheesy. “Do or Die” is an okay song, probably one of the better ones, although the main riff sounds very similar to “Night of the Hunter” from This Is War.

Almost every song utilizes a four-on-the-floor quarter-note bass drum pulse, giving almost every track a dancey club feel, considering the bass drum is heavily processed every time. It’s as if 30STM pulled the classic “sell out” maneuver, changing their sound to suit the mainstream radio crowd, but the band members remain completely oblivious and think their music is the greatest gift to mankind that they could have possibly rendered. Okay, so Jared Leto’s voice is very impressive, as always, but his lyrics are so unimaginative, so pompously grandiose, that he comes across as a self-important rock star with a god complex.

If 30 Seconds to Mars had turned down the cheese factor, upped the humble factor, and focused more on inventive and exciting songwriting, Love Lust Faith + Dreams might have impressed me more as the follow-up to This Is War. Years ago, I read an article in which a bandleader complained that Jared Leto was just acting out the part of a rock star frontman. I didn’t agree at the time, thinking that those other bandleaders wouldn’t say that if Jared Leto wasn’t in fact a successful actor. Now, though, I’m starting to agree with that sentiment. It seems like 30STM is more focused on acting out the image and grandiose messages they wish to send, rather than the actual quality of music they’re putting out. Even if that’s totally not what they think, Love Lust Faith + Dreams certainly makes it come across that way.

~ J.M.

The-National-Trouble-Will-Find-Me-608x608With each full-length from Brooklyn’s The National, the band has progressed and grown in sound and scope. They continue the trend with their sixth LP, Trouble Will Find Me. While—for me personally at least—the novelty of The National’s sound may have worn off a bit considering I listened to Alligator, Boxer, and High Violet about a trillion times each, their new material is certainly as solid as anything they’ve released, and will be unanimously praised by fans of their prior work.

Trouble sees vocalist Matt Berninger stretching his limits like never before. On opener “I Should Live In Salt,” he sings in a higher register than normal, almost sounding like a normal indie band vocalist instead of the baritone bass crooner we know him as.  His whimsical ruminations rise to the forefront on songs like “Heavenfaced” and “Fireproof” in a way they usually don’t—most of the time, Berninger’s lyrics lurk behind the groove, rather than standing out front. Personal stories, regrets, worries, tales of love and loss—Berninger doesn’t break too much new ground here lyrically, but as per usual submits his lines expertly and humorously.

I’m also intrigued by the odd time signatures that occasionally crop up within Trouble Will Find Me. It’s most notable in lead single “Demons,” where an otherwise-standard National song is made unique thanks to a 7/8 groove, lead by drummer Bryan Devendorf. Devendorf’s parts seem a little less frenetic and busy than usual, opting instead to support the tunes tastefully rather than stealing the spotlight.

Some of the songs on Trouble are classic National (“Graceless,” “Don’t Swallow The Cap,” “Humiliation”) while some are more whimsy and fleeting than usual (“Heavenfaced,” “I Need My Girl”). “Pink Rabbits” utilizes a nice slow swing/shuffle type of groove that suits the band well, especially Berninger’s somber illustrations of his experiences. Closer “Hard to Find” ends the album with a subdued piano ballad, only introducing a light percussion part in the final minute—a cerebral closing to an album that sees the band covering some new ground.

I can’t say Trouble Will Find Me is blowing me away like 2007’s Boxer or even the band’s earlier records did, but as I said, it might just be that the charm wore off a little. That’s not The National’s fault, it’s mine. In addition, most National albums take a few weeks to really settle in and grow on the listener, so I’ll probably be more stoked on Trouble by the summer.

It may seem obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: those who already enjoy The National will like this record, and the band’s detractors, who might foolishly label this music “boring,” probably won’t find a whole lot to gravitate toward this time around. Even so, Trouble Will Find Me continues this band’s incredible growth and expansion, and is a solid addition to their existing powerhouse of a catalog.

~ J.M.

lucero-texas-and-tennesseeI pretty much divide Lucero into two eras nowadays: the old half and the new half. The old half, back in the That Much Further West/Nobody’s Darlings period, when the band had a more punk-influenced sound with crappier production values and more whiskey-powered sadness, seems to have waned in recent years. It’s given way to the new half, spanning 2009’s 1372 Overton Park until the present, which includes brass instruments and a healthy helping of Memphis blues and soul.

I enjoy both halves of the band’s career, although I prefer the old. On Lucero’s new four-track EP, Texas & Tennessee—to my knowledge, the first EP of their long career—they dip back into the old style a bit on the first two tracks, then give way to the rambling bluesy aesthetic on the last two. All in all, it’s a refreshing mix of their new full-bodied sound with a touch of the old depressing Lucero of yore.

The title track starts things off with an acoustic guitar that could fit it on some of the first Lucero records. Understated brass, a tasteful tambourine, and frontman Ben Nichols’s gravelly vocals round out the track nicely. Possibly the most solid tune on the EP.

My favorite part of “Union Pacific Line” is the beautiful finger-picking lead guitar part, supported by the full-bodied bass underneath. As with the first song, gentle brass swells accent the choruses—this is how I prefer the brass in Lucero’s sound: as supporting characters, accents to provide depth and emotion as Nichols groans on mournfully.

As mentioned, the last half of the EP relies on Lucero’s newer sound, a swinging blues-and-soul influenced aesthetic that seems decidedly, well, happier than the EP’s first two tracks. “Breathless Love” is a triplet-based groove with tinkling piano and more upfront trumpet lines. “Other Side of Lonesome” ends the EP in a ramblin’ Texas sort of way, complete with southern-style guitar riffs and a jolly tambourine-and-bass-drum foundation. These two tracks could have appeared on Lucero’s last full-length, 2012’s Women & Work.

Whichever side of Lucero you prefer, the Texas & Tennessee EP offers a little bit of both. If you like alt-country, southern blues, or soul music, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy this latest offering. Texas & Tennessee might not be essential for a skimming of the Lucero catalog, or even a good place to start digging into the band, but it’s definitely a must-have for longtime Lucero fanatics or any fan of alt-country.

~ J.M.

P.S. Does anyone else think it’s weird that Lucero’s sophomore album was called simply Tennessee, and now this EP is called Texas & Tennessee? Maybe it’s suggesting an expansion of the old Lucero, adding a “Texas” style of rambling country to the old Tennessee sound. Or maybe they didn’t think twice about it and just liked the name. Conjecture on my part!

PERILS_Digipak-4 panelTwo of Open Bar Reception’s previously-featured artists, Mark Kozelek and Jimmy LaValle, have teamed up under their pseudonyms—Sun Kil Moon and The Album Leaf, respectively—to release one of my most highly-anticipated albums of 2013, Perils from the Sea. At first blush, the pairing seems unorthodox—mixing Kozelek’s low, droning ruminations with LaValle’s electronica-based bleeps and gurgles, which brings to mind the more electronic side of Radiohead as well as another well-known sound engineer/vocalist combo, The Postal Service. But, as with most things Mark Kozelek touches, this album is fantastic, even if the combination sounds strange at first.

Maybe this SKM/TAL combination is a sort of next-decade Postal Service, although I’d venture to say that Perils from the Sea imparts a depth and somberness that Ben Gibbard and company never quite attained. That’s mostly thanks to Kozelek, a sort of godfather of down-tempo and indie-folk thanks to his first band, Red House Painters. LaValle’s contributions shouldn’t go unmentioned, though, as his 8-bit synth sounds and Daft Punk-esque techno drum machines bolster the whole project. In fact, if it weren’t for LaValle stepping out of his comfort zone here, there wouldn’t be much to separate Perils from the Sea from recent Sun Kil Moon albums or records Kozelek releases under his own name.

Kozelek’s lyrics touch on relationships, traveling, touring, family, hotels, and his own songwriting process and career. As usual, he communicates them with an honesty and bluntness that makes every song a valuable slice of Kozelek’s musical output. Another thing I like is the length of the songs. Not only do you get the most bang for your buck—a solid hour and 17 minutes of music—but this genre seems to lend itself to lengthy, repetitive compositions. Not one tune is under five minutes, and half of them stretch over the seven-minute mark. Kozelek’s pondering verses expand over these longer tunes, weaving in and out of LaValle’s bloops and bleeps entrancingly.

“Ceiling Gazing,” an eight-minute tune composed mostly of droning organs, seems to be the most popular track, judging from iTunes ratings and what I’ve been reading from other critics. It’s a decent song, but definitely not one of my favorites. I much prefer the excellent “By The Time That I Awoke” or lead singles “What Happened to My Brother” and “Caroline.” The plodding “You Missed My Heart” tells a strange story of murder and arrest; something in the lyrics and the way Kozelek sings the verses reminds me of Modest Mouse—and maybe that’s not far-fetched, keeping in mind Sun Kil Moon’s 2002 collection of Modest Mouse covers, Tiny Cities. “1936,” “Gustavo,” “Baby In Death Can I Rest Next To Your Grave” and “Here Come More Perils from the Sea” shore up the rest of the album sturdily.

If I had to make a complaint, I’d say that by the time you’re through with the whole affair, some of the songs start to blend together because of the formulaic nature of these tunes—Kozelek’s rise-and-fall lyrical styling in front of LaValle’s drum machines starts to feel a bit pedestrian. I like the repetition within each track, but one has to wonder if the formula was used one too many times.

If you’re a fan of Mark Kozelek’s work, you’ll love Perils from the Sea. If you’re not, maybe this is the moment of his career that can be your ticket in. I highly recommend listening to this album with headphones, or at least loudly. You can’t hear the intricacies (especially LaValle’s background atmosphere-building parts) by playing this record quietly. While unexpected, this is a surprisingly great combination that in turn produced a great record. Here’s hoping this isn’t the last time Kozelek and LaValle team up.

~ J.M.

12 Jacket (3mm Spine) [GDOB-30H3-007}Lawrence, Kansas’s The Appleseed Cast return in 2013 with their eighth full-length, Illumination Ritual. Boasting heavy nautical, astrological, and geographical themes via the artwork and song titles, Illumination Ritual is in some ways a conceptual record and is best listened to as such: from front to back, without pause, in order to soak in the entire thing as one composition.

Musically, the album isn’t drastically different from TAC’s other work from recent years—splicing together sweeping instrumental sections with rollicking technical parts—but manages to feel fresh and relevant nonetheless. In typical Appleseed fashion, singer/guitarist Chris Crisci’s vocal is far back in the mix, echoing hauntingly behind the guitars and bass. Drummer Nathan Wilder’s parts oscillate between open beats and more intricate, busy sections—sometimes almost distractingly busy. Then again, it wouldn’t really be an Appleseed record without that, would it?

We begin with the wonderful “Adriatic To Black Sea.” The track demonstrates the band’s uncanny ability to maintain a flow and smoothness in a math-rock type of song. I can’t think of many other bands that pull that off, although American Football and latter-day Minus The Bear do come to mind. In fact, “Adriatic…” reminds me quite a bit of the leadoff track from American Football’s eponymous album, “Never Meant.” Interlocking guitars, a long intro before the vocal, a solid bass line—the comparisons are there.

“Great Lake Derelict” is one of the more powerful songs on Illumination Ritual, boasting an epic outro and a stellar lead guitar line. It’s sure to be a winner on the live stage. “30 Degrees 3 AM” is another solid tune that seems like it could have fit on Peregrine or one of the Low Level Owl albums; it also has a touch of the melodic tendencies of Two Conversations. “Branches on the Arrow Peak Revelation” is a cool instrumental interlude, followed by three more good songs in “Barrier Islands,” lead single “North Star Ordination,” and “Clearing Life.” The latter utilizes a perfectly subdued and overlaid vocal track behind repetitive drums and guitars.

The album rounds out with the title track, another instrumental. I’d prefer if the last song wasn’t an instrumental, but it’s a minor complaint and the song is still a good one. Also, a quick warning: the synth action in the middle of the song sounds just like police sirens—if you’re driving while listening to it, don’t worry, you’re not getting pulled over, so don’t look around frantically like a clown the way I did.

From the epic nautical and astrological motifs to the sweeping soundscapes, intricate instrumentation, and nifty artwork, The Appleseed Cast’s Illumination Ritual is one of 2013’s most depth-filled and ethereal releases so far. A highly-recommended listen from a band that has yet to let me down.

~ J.M.

alkaline-trio-broken-wing-ep-cover-okladka-46192_250x250I feel strangely guilty as I sit here wondering if I enjoy the four tracks on Alkaline Trio’s brand-new Broken Wing EP more than any on their brand-new full length, My Shame Is True. That’s not to say I don’t like the full album—quite the opposite. I just think these four tracks, tacked onto the end of the deluxe version of My Shame Is True, are possibly the most cohesive, well-written, and memorable songs of the whole package. It doesn’t hurt that three out of the four are Dan songs—that is, the vocal track is led by bassist Dan Andriano. If you ask me, some of the best more-recent Trio songs (“Off The Map,” “Love Love, Kiss Kiss,” “Fine,”) are Dan tracks. Furthermore, many of the classic Alkaline Trio B-sides like “Don’t Say You Won’t,” “My Standard Break from Life,” or “We Can Never Break Up” are led by Mr. Andriano. As a result, the tracks on the Broken Wing EP exude a nostalgic, instant-classic type of feel.

“Balanced On A Shelf” leads the EP off on a strong note. Guitarist Matt Skiba’s picking parts in the background are most excellent, as are his backup vocals. The driving chorus is a highlight of the EP as a whole, and, in all honesty, as strong as anything found throughout the full length.

Next is the only Skiba-led song of the EP, “Pocket Knife.” We take a trip back to the macabre lyrical style the Trio is known for as Skiba muses about suffering through a dream in which a female chases him with a pocket knife. Overall, a simple, short, and sweet power-punk song.

Then it’s back to Dan for the title track, “Broken Wing.” Another excellently-catchy chorus here as Andriano guides the listener through a broken relationship toward recovery. Apparently My Shame Is True was largely inspired by Matt Skiba’s recent nasty breakup; lyrically, it almost seems like “Broken Wing” is Dan talking to Matt, trying to help him out. Conjecture on my part, but it’s interesting to consider… although Dan calling his bandmate a “little bird” seems somewhat disturbing.

When I first saw the title of the last song, “Sun Burns,” I had hoped it was some kind of nod to the first song Alkaline Trio ever wrote and released, “Sun Dials.” While that doesn’t seem to be the case, it’s still a solid track. That opening guitar riff, for a note or two there, sounds just like a Gin Blossoms song. More lyrical mastery by Andriano, more helpful harmonies from Skiba, and solid drumming throughout from Trio skinsman Derek Grant. Grant keeps getting better and better—he impresses me more on every album, although I think his best contributions this time around are found on the full-length album.

The 14 minutes that the Broken Wing EP runs are 14 of the most indelible minutes the band has ever released. These four tracks more than justify picking up the deluxe version of My Shame Is True. Another quality effort to add to the catalog of one of my most beloved bands. Cheers, fellows!