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.

SunnWhy spend the time writing about some droning, satanic metal band from the depths of Seattle, Washington you ask?  Because Pitchfork magazine did, and I’ll cover myself in my own urine and run all up and down Route 22 before some hip metal reviewer from Pitchfork writes a review about an album that I’m not willing to take a few minutes out of my trivial excuse of a life to write about.  So, it’s time to take a trip down into your cellar or basement torture-chamber to break out that dusty ol’ cast-iron pentagram and bottle of Persian virgin-blood you’ve been saving for that one very special occasion, because today is that day: Sunn’s White1 is a ripe ten years-old.

After three full-length albums, a few shows with surprisingly large turnouts (even without including the bandmates’ parents and grandparents), and numerous burnt infant corpses, it’s safe to say that Sunn wasn’t looking to write a crowd-pleaser with White1.  I mean, the first track is anything but accessible, clocking in at a cranium-boiling 25:17.  If I wanted to hear a bunch of ringing in my ear for a half-hour I would’ve just fired off a round beside my ear using that vintage Nazi Luger P08 in my dresser drawer – or better yet just aimed it at my head.  White1’s high point (seriously, I’m not kidding here) comes at about the 2:00 mark in “The Gates of Ballard” when Joe Preston, guitarist/bassist/drum-programmer, starts the surprisingly listenable seven minutes of the album.  The moment I’m speaking of consists of a repetitive, fuzzy bass line which paves the way for complex yet catchy metal-like programmed drums.  Closer, “Shaving Of The Horn That Speared You,” is a typical example of Sunn’s droning melancholy, and is encouraged to be played at your daughter’s sixth birthday party.

For those of you interested in skinning goats and gulping down their coagulated fluids, White1 tells the story of a satanic enthusiast who finds himself in a barren land facing a wall, hence the album’s cleverly-titled opening track name “My Wall”.  The story’s satanist is apparently very out of shape and lethargic since instead of finding a way over, or around the wall, he just sits against the wall wallowing in his own self-pity and hatred, like a nark, for days or possibly weeks.  While hallucinating from dehydration, our main character notices The Gates of Ballard, of which the album’s second track finds its name.  He tries pulling the lever to open the gates and pass through the wall, but he’s too emaciated and weak to pull the lever at first – likely from not getting his lazy behind up off the ground all week to just order a goddamn pizza from Domino’s.  Eventually he manages to tug on the lever with all his might and open the gates where (no surprise here) he finds nothing but more darkness and despair for miles and miles.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, here comes the last track, “A Shaving of The Horn That Speared Me”, with some beast that shanks this poor kid in the chest where upon he bleeds out a slow death – bummer.

This giddy tale may have been true, or I may have just pulled it out from under my shorts.  Either way, a few things are for sure; Sunn is not for the light of heart, the vocals are delightful, and doom/drone metal will always be defined by the likes of one band – Sunn O))).

~D.B.

tigerjaw__68558_zoomAs usual, I’m a day late and a dollar short, seeing as Scranton, PA’s Tigers Jaw went on indefinite hiatus less than a month prior to the time of this post. Nonetheless, I decided to check out their stuff after a friend of mine mentioned the group recently. I’d heard of the band before, but I was always a little hesitant—for one, why does their name sound like a cross between Glassjaw and Tiger Army? Why is there no apostrophe between the “r” and “s” in “Tigers”? Doesn’t the tiger “own” the jaw? Without the apostrophe, it sounds like there are multiple tigers “jawing,” as in yipping and yapping and talking a lot.

But never mind all that. The music on Tigers Jaw’s self-titled second album makes up for any silly grammatical tangents my brain needlessly follows. They seem to be (well, seemed to be) one of several Pennsylvanian bands helping to revitalize the punk/emo genre in the 2010s, along with The Menzingers, Balance and Composure, Title Fight, and The Wonder Years. Good to see OBR’s home state of PA actually mattering in a legitimate scene of late!

Some classic emo influences appear here—The Get Up Kids, mostly, along with bands like Saves the Day and Sunny Day Real Estate. Tigers Jaw also seems to have listened to their share of more modern emo rock, like Bayside or Armor for Sleep. With lyrical lines like “Because you are everything and I am nothing” and “I’ve never felt that lost before / I just don’t feel incredible,” more judgmental listeners might focus too much on the “sad emo kid” side of the band, rather than realizing just how well such sentiments pair with the musical and vocal styling. In short, fans of emo (as in the musical genre, not the Hot-Topic/My Chemical Romance societal image) will like this, and haters will not.

Album opener “The Sun” is one of the strongest tracks, utilizing a standard guitar progression and catchy melodies and lyrics. Lead vocalist Adam McIlwee shines in this song and throughout the record. “Plane Vs. Tank Vs. Submarine,” a more acoustic-based track that often sounds like a dead-ringer for Armor for Sleep, is one of the band’s most popular songs. “I Saw Water” is easily one of my favorites—an all-around solid melodic emo song. “Chemicals,” “Between Your Band And The Other Band,” and “Heat” comprise the middle of Tigers Jaw. The latter is the shortest song on the record, but possibly one of the most memorable.

I read another review of this album in which the author claimed that Tigers Jaw sounds like the record Brand New didn’t write between Your Favorite Weapon and Deja Entendu. I couldn’t agree more, and I think the last four tracks of Tigers Jaw highlight that excellently. Simple, memorable, catchy, and classically self-deprecating, these tracks ensure that the album doesn’t trail off by the end. Album closer “Never Saw It Coming” even uses a bit of the vocals-yelled-from-a-far-away-room technique that Brand New pulls on songs like “Tautou.”

It’s too bad that most of the band’s members bailed, because an album like this would be a good one to see performed live, and expand upon in years to come. Oh well, can’t have everything. Speaking of things I can’t have… I kind of want pizza now. I suppose that’s thanks to the amusing cover art, which might seem goofy but is actually—take my word for it as a Pennsylvanian—rather fitting, seeing as there’s not a lot to do in the small towns of this state except eat pizza with friends, make music, and drink Yuengling tall-boys with aforementioned pizza. From the cover art to the melodic emo/punk tendencies found throughout, Tigers Jaw is refreshing, hunger-inducing, and just plain good.

~ J.M.

0000558079_500In some ways, Lagwagon’s five-year hiatus between 1998’s Let’s Talk About Feelings and 2003’s Blaze was a good thing—during the layoff, frontman Joey Cape made two stellar albums with his alternative side-project Bad Astronaut as well as a bunch of great covers with Me First and the Gimme Gimmes.

Of course, Blaze is my favorite Lagwagon record, so I should probably be thankful the band got back together. Today, April 8, the album is ten years old. Happy birthday, Blaze!

Jovial, driving, melodic, fast, harmony-filled… Blaze is really everything anyone could ask for out of a skatepunk album. It’s personal at times, political at others, and anthemic throughout. The classic punk drumbeats abound, but it never gets overdone. Cape’s voice has something in it that rings of the everyman, the blue-collar worker, the slightly-oppressed middle class—it’s very appealing, but never whiny, resulting in a very accessible band sound. Throw in solid musicality, punk snarkyness, and some humor, and you get a classic early-2000s punk rock album that helped cement Lagwagon in their current cult status as the frontrunners of Californian skatepunk.

The excellence doesn’t let up—album opener “Burn” blasts forth after a subdued intro, then the pop-punk of “E. Dagger” showcases the band’s considerable melodic tendencies. “Dancing the Collapse” has always been one of my favorites, and with good reason; it’s “my” song, evidenced by Cape’s lyric at the 48-second mark: “This one’s for Jimmy / with two more for me.” Thanks, Joey!

“I Must Be Hateful” is an absolute classic, as are “Never Stops” and “Lullaby.” “Max Says” and “Dividers” ramp up the punk again. “Billionare,” “Tomorrow Is Heartbreak,” and “Baggage” round out the album on three more high notes. All in all, Blaze is an album that’s both classic and essential in Lagwagon’s collection, as well as the entire Fat Wreck Chords catalog. Oh, and I always get a kick out of the cover art. (Although nothing will ever beat Hoss’s cover.)

There’s a chance that Lagwagon will be putting out a brand-new album this year… we can only hope it will be as solid and entertaining as the Lagwagon from 2003 was. Until then, we’ll have to rely on the now-decade-old—but still superb—tunes on Blaze.

~ 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!

~J.M.

My Shame Is DrewI’m not trying to make any bold statements here, but take the time to listen through My Shame Is True and you’ll undoubtedly notice a more true Alkaline Trio-punk approach suggestive of a connection to their earlier “more punk” albums.  Maybe this came from the influence of the album’s producer and drummer of the punk legends, The Descendents’ Bill Stevenson.  Maybe it had something to do with having two of their longtime Chicago-punk-figureheads and friends, Brendan Kelly (The Lawrence Arms) and Tim McIlrath (Rise Against), join in on the record.  Whatever it was I’m thankful for it, the majority of Alkaline Trio fans are thankful for it, and I’m sure that it’s feeling pretty darned good for the ‘Ol Trio to get back to their roots.  If there’s one thing that really sets My Shame Is True apart from the rest of Alkaline Trio’s catalog, it’s the unabashedly vulnerable and honest nature of Skiba’s lyrics.  Skiba even said the album is a kind of love letter/apology to his ex-girlfriend, who you’ll find right up there on the cover of the album.

Unlike most albums, Alkaline Trio didn’t choose to start off with a classically “album defining track” like most great albums do so often nowadays, but with that said I can’t think of a better track to listen to first when I put on My Shame Is True.  “She Lied To The FBI” is really just a Ramones-esque take on the typical Alkaline Trio song, but it carries with it everything I’ve come to love about the Trio i.e. catchy hooks, allegorical lyrics, a solid rhythm section, unmatched harmonies, and an obvious chemistry between both dynamic-duo of Matt Skiba and Dan Andriano.  Speaking of album defining tracks – queue “I Wanna Be A Warhol.”  This catchy song is just covered with strong synths, a catchy harmony where Skiba sings in lower octave underneath his other, higher and more aggressive harmony, and even features some faint, gruff guest vocals from fellow-Chicagoan Brendan Kelly (of The Lawrence Arms) in the verses.

Now, drummer Derek Grant doesn’t usually get much attention, but he’s arguably one of the most underrated drummers of the punk genre.  That being said, although his drumming throughout the entire album is great, “I’m Only Here To Disappoint” is an especially extraordinary example of Grant’s tight, swift, and complex-when-applicable abilities.  A couple other songs where Grant really shines include the dynamic yet quick “Kiss You To Death” and the punk-throwback “The Temptation of St. Anthony.”  I simply cannot express the excitement I had upon the first listen of “The Temptation of St. Anthony” and realizing just how much it reminded me of their earlier, typically more punk material.  I can’t call this song my only favorite, but it’s definitely one of my favorite tracks on the album.  “I, Pessimist” is one of very few aggressive and fast songs in Andriano’s catalog within the band.  His smooth tone accompanies Tim McIlrath’s (of Rise Against) harsh voice in a blend of Chicago-punk-glory like never before imagined.

Much like on Crimson, Andriano contributes only less than a handful of songs, but it’s safe to say that with his contributions to My Shame Is True that album sounds all around more interesting and complex.  “Only Love,” one of the four songs sung by bassist Dan Andriano, seems reminiscent of a more folky approach to punk similar to his side-project, and (don’t shoot me here) is in a lot of ways a bit of a country song.  The song includes a rolling piano underneath a wailing Andriano that, if it was just about any other set of musicians playing this song, would stick out as being too Coldplay-ish (and maybe it does), but Alkaline Trio has done this thing now where after nine albums of scary chords, dark lyrics, upside down crosses, and pentagrams on drumheads their pianos sound like they were recorded in a haunted house rather than in a white room while wearing matching pseudo-military costumes (hopefully you got that Coldplay reference so I don’t look like as much of an idiot).  His last contribution on the album, “Young Lover,” is another case where Andriano was able to juxtapose Skiba’s  longing and broken-hearted mood with a solid and thoughtful take on the classic “let’s live like we could die” type of love song.

Whatcha got there, Matt?  Is that a V8?

Whatcha got there, Matt? Is that a V8?

Movin’ right along (heh see what I did there [insert Muppets joke here]), the next three songs “The Torture Doctor,” “Midnight Blue,” and “One Last Dance” are the apology letters and shame Skiba’s been talking about.  Whatever he’s apologizing for, he certainly doesn’t need to apologize to his fans – these are three great examples of classic Alkaline Trio song structures and a good example of what Skiba brings to the Trio in general.  Save the last track on track on My Shame Is True, if there’s one song fans will unquestionably scream back at the top of their lungs it’s “The Torture Doctor.”  The song is just huge all around.  I don’t know where the “south-side” is, but I know I want to be there.  “Midnight Blue” and “One Last Dance” are good examples of something I noticed in some of Skiba’s songs a while back (i.e. “Hell Yes” and “Dead End Road”) where he’ll sing in a lower, more descending octave making himself sound more down and sub sequentially  making the songs sound a bit more melancholy throughout than they would’ve sounded otherwise.  If you didn’t quite catch the whole vulnerably honest lyrics everybody’s been talking about by now, the album’s last track “Till Death Do Us Part” is most definitely going to smack you right in your blissfully unaware face.  The song draws a lot of comparisons to the equally depressing and slow in nature fan-favorite “Radio,” only this time around the “Till Death Do Us Part” uses less allegorically dark lyrics and just comes right out with it leaving no room for interpretation.

For most pop-punk bands that have been around since the late 90’s, their song-craft or spark if you will, has unfortunately long since flickered out or at least taken to a drastic change in order to stay fresh (man, I sound hip using words like “spark” and “fresh”).  Many have even said (not including myself) that Alkaline Trio had succumb to a sparkless-era with 2010’s critical release This Addiction, but if there’s one thing their latest release My Shame Is True has easily proven it’s that this album couldn’t be less of a continuation from This Addiction.  It seems like Alkaline Trio, with its perfected and original dark-pop-punk formula, have no plans of letting up anytime soon, and My Shame Is True is a perfect example of that established and enduring sound.

P.S. Look for an upcoming review of Alkaline Trio’s Broken Wing EP, released on the same day as My Shame Is True, in the very near future from OBR’s Jimmy Moul.

~ D.B.

What You Don't See

It’s safe to say that The Story So Far’s 2011 debut full-length album, Under Soil and Dirt, threw me back in my chair, like it did for most, the first time I heard its brutal yet catchy approach to the ever-typical sound of pop-punk.  By the way, I was sitting in a swivel computer-chair that also rocks back and forth, which would’ve made the whole flailing mess horribly embarrassing to watch (just saying).  Just as they did with Under Soil and Dirt, I’m finding that everyone seems to have a different set of favorite songs from The Story So Far’s 2013 sophomore album, What You Don’t See, which tells me that The Story So Far made a well-rounded album packed full of at least decent, if not spectacular, songs.

Right off the bat with the first track, “Things I Can’t Change,” the four Cali-boys set the general song structure and rhythm-centered standard for the rest of the album.  Take notice to that cleverly placed bass drum from the hard-hitting Ryan Torf.  Songs like “Stifled,” “All Wrong,” and “Face Value” show a lyrical theme of longing for friends and loved ones, which isn’t exactly rewriting the book on writing lyrics, but singer Parker Cannon still manages to do so thoughtfully and (as in true The Story So Far fashion) with a hint of angry accusations and finger pointing.

What You Don’t See’s real adrenaline-fed climb begins at track five with the song, and first single having been released earlier this month and constantly screamed back from fans at shows, “Right Here” is only the beginning of what I found to be the album’s three peak songs.  “Empty Space” is arguably the title-track, the album’s highest regarded song, and is just packed with anthemic lines including “I know it seems like I’m always upset!” which makes me (being over presumptuous about these types of things and all) think this track could prove to be a kind of “Quicksand Part II.”  Finishing out the album’s top three gems, “The Glass” provides What You Don’t See’s best outro, by far.

“Bad Luck” and “Face Value” prove the notion that The Story So Far didn’t just create a second Under Soil and Dirt but managed to demonstrate instrumental growth in their sound – exploring more hooks, adding interesting new rhythms as well as unfamiliar chords, and all leading to a slightly more mature and complex sound (now, granted this is still pop-punk – obviously nobody’s breaking down any barriers like their John Cage or something).  It might just be my overly-presumptuous excitement again, but is it just me or does Kelen Capener’s little bass ditty at around the two-minute mark in the track “Face Value” sound like something Mark Hoppus has done before in fifty other songs?  The album’s closer, “Framework,” displays a fine example of just how The Story So Far skillfully manages to mold hardcore into pop-punk without having to utilize those dreaded Four Year Strong/A Day To Remember/Same As Sunday-break-down-beats that even their self-proclaim predecessors, Set Your Goals, managed to fall victim to in some of their own songs every now and again.

The largest of the very few criticisms I have of What You Don’t See would have to be my favorite tracks of the albums’ tendencies to also be the shortest in length, but I guess that’s what you get for liking a punk band.  If nothing else the album is well done solely on the grounds that no one else in pop-punk is successfully making this type of sound, not the same way The Story So Far has been.  Well maybe Such Gold (shameless plug), but still, not with the same simplicity that The Story So Far manages to accomplish.  Just as they did with their acclaimed debut album Under Soil and Dirt, The Story So Far’s sophomore spectacle, What You Don’t See, continues to lay the path for the future of a more hardcore, yet still predictable, pop-punk.

~ D.B.

51NDOWk1I2LPersonally, hearing the word “renacer” brings back painful memories of struggling through college-level language courses, something I’m glad I don’t have to deal with again. The unconjugated Spanish verb—meaning “to be reborn” or “revive”—is, however, a fitting title for Senses Fail’s fifth full-length album.

Fitting indeed, both musically and otherwise. Renacer is SF’s first full-length released on a label other than Vagrant, and they switched up producers, going with founding Far member Shaun Lopez instead of their usual Brian McTernan. With no disrespect to McTernan—he’s actually produced a multitude of my favorite albums by bands like Thrice, Hot Water Music, Circa Survive, Strike Anywhere, Cave In, and Texas is the Reason, and that’s just scratching the surface—Lopez was a good choice here. The guitar tone is heavier, more Deftones-like (not surprising, considering Lopez’s considerable Deftones connections), and the drum sound is less “wet” than on previous albums. The production results in a far more visceral, brutal, and raw effect than found on prior Senses Fail releases—and that’s saying something, because prior Senses Fail releases were never exactly light and fluffy.

We can’t chalk it all up to the production, of course; the band members themselves deserve credit as well. Vocalist Buddy Nielsen unleashes the most guttural screams and growls of his career, guitarists Zack Roach and Matt Smith layer wonderfully down-tuned metallic riffs throughout, and the consistently solid Dan Trapp never lets up on the drums.

My one wish for this album was that some of Nielsen’s side project, hardcore-punk outfit Bayonet, would find its way into the new SF material. My wish was granted. Songs like “Canine” and “Snake Bite” feature elements of the hardcore aesthetic that Nielsen’s other band pulls off so well. Tracks like “Ancient Tombs,” “Closure/Rebirth,” and “Frost Flower” harken back a bit to classic Senses Fail with their harder verse/half-time-clean-vocal chorus patterns. The title track, “The Path,” and “Holy Mountain” feature some of the hardest moments the band has ever produced, particularly the latter; check out Nielsen’s gut-busting low-register scream around the two-and-a-half-minute mark. If I didn’t know better, I’d think I was listening to modern metal bands in the vein of The Ocean or Neurosis.

Closing track “Between the Mountains and the Sea” is a slow-building, post-rock type of song, slightly reminiscent of Still Searching’s last song, “The Priest and the Matador.” “Between…” is, though, harder and more punchy than “The Priest and the Matador,” a suitable end to this album of unprecedentedly metal moments for Senses Fail.

The “rebirth” of Senses Fail musically and aesthetically, coupled with Shaun Lopez’s wise production, make 2013’s Renacer an incredibly solid and refreshing release from one of New Jersey’s most beloved and longest-running post-hardcore groups. Always a fierce live act as well, I’m excited to see how Senses Fail translate these new tracks onto the stage. If they keep up the energy and conviction the way they do on Renacer, it will be nothing short of extraordinary.

~J.M.

Beneath+Medicine+Tree+hq+pngAhh, Beneath Medicine Tree. An album instrumental in ushering forth what I call “the Spill Canvas Era.” What is the Spill Canvas Era? It’s those couple of years from—roughly—2002 to 2008 where 19- to 24-year-old girls wearing floppy beanies and hemp Toms stroll into their local Best Buy, pick up the newest Spill Canvas album, and proceed to bask in the feminine-voiced indie-rock lusciousness with their heavy-rimmed-glasses-and-leather-bomber-jacketed boyfriends as they drive home in their dark blue latest-model Honda Civics.

I might just have that all wrong, but I like to think it was an actual trend. It might still be going on, for all I know. Whatever the case, Copeland’s 2003 debut album, Beneath Medicine Tree, came out exactly ten years ago today, and it’s definitely one of the hallmarks of that era (even if I just made that era up).

A song like leadoff track “Brightest” finds Copeland at their most delicate and vulnerable. Moments like these are not really why I like Copeland; it gets a little too mushy even for my taste. Luckily, they redeem themselves quickly with songs like “Testing the Strong Ones” and the classic “Take Care.” Copeland is—oops, was, they called it quits by 2010—at its core a guitar-based indie-rock band, and the guitar riffs shine through excellently in these tracks.

Next is one of my favorite Copeland tracks, “When Paula Sparks,” written for singer Aaron Marsh’s grandmother. It blends wonderfully into the slow-building “California,” which concludes in an epic—epic by indie rock standards, that is—outro section bolstered by simple but tasteful drumming. More stellar tracks come along later, including “She Changes Your Mind,” “Walking Downtown,” and fan-favorite “Coffee,” which pretty much sums up the Spill-Canvas-Era mentality here with lines like “If it’s not too late for coffee / I’ll be at your place in ten / We’ll hit that all-night diner / And then we’ll see.” Those Spill-Canvasers love all-night-diner java runs, and “Coffee” is their mantra.

On album-closer “When Finally Set Free” the band treads into a more electronic-based aesthetic that would be featured more prominently on later Copeland records like Eat, Sleep, Repeat. It probably shouldn’t work as well as it does. In this song and throughout Beneath Medicine Tree, Aaron Marsh’s high-register wails soar over the guitar foundation, a combination that was really the root of Copeland’s success. Marsh’s voice is one of the most solid aspects of the record and of Copeland in general, if one can get past the “prettiness” of it.

Happy Birthday, Beneath Medicine Tree, and rest in peace Copeland. The band’s 2003 effort is both a sturdy debut release and an important fixture in indie-rock subculture of the mid-2000s. All of those beanie-toting Spill Canvas-types probably moved on by now to Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes, but we can hope they still give credit where credit’s due. If you ask me, that stuff wouldn’t be as popular as it is now without the hard work of bands like Copeland and solid albums like 2003’s Beneath Medicine Tree.

~J.M.