The Appleseed Cast, Illumination Ritual (Graveface/French Kiss)
Signs and wonders… that’s the first thing that comes to mind as I sit down to write about this album (their first full-length since ’09). This luminary Lawrence, Kansas institution, that is so far beyond postrock and invented its own musical vocabulary, and that has been one of the very greatest American indie bands of the last two decades, also happens to be one of my personal favorites. But even though I own six of their records and have listened to them for years, I’m only just beginning to comprehend what it is they do. Founder, and the one constant member throughout, Chris Crisci is a stone cold musical mad scientist of mood, melodically, tonally, structurally; he’s the bastard child of Buckminster Fuller and Shakespeare, of Isaac Newton and Jack Kerouac, he’s a flat-out sick freak, dripping with talent. The musical moves on a lot of his/their songs are so sublime it’s impossible to engage them properly in one passing, or two, or three… This is the kind of “rock” music you have to live in for a while if you really want to “hear” it. You have to completely squeeze yourself into this musical space and be there, completely and totally, as if you were exploring an avant-garde jazz record. Not that it’s that exhausting to listen to, but it’s so compelling in its shining moments as layers fold open and close without notice that you are always needing to turn it up to hear what’s underneath. Then you let it pour over you like Kerouac’s prose. How on God’s green earth are they making the guitars sound like that? That’s got to be more than just a pedal. And how did they determine the exact amount of aural space required between the guitars and vocals to make it sound like it’s being broadcast from another galaxy? Okay, that’s enough gushing. This record includes some new collaborative exploration in the studio. And, as usual, some kind of metaphysical magic was happening when they recorded. If you like Mercury Rev or The Twilight Singers or The National or Wilco, how could you not love this band? If you like music how could you not love this band? They blur the line between acoustic and electric (electronic), digital and analog; mashing two worlds together seamlessly, pushing and pulling from pole to pole, with a half dozen “hooks” woven into an instrumental “melody” that connects disembodied vocal breaks that contain their own “melodic hooks” that don’t seem to be of the same song sometimes. What they do with a handful of notes and chords on a song like “Barrier Islands (Do We Remain”) is mind-blowing. How do they do that? And there’s that gloomy, rainy day radiance, with Crisci creating “imagistic” lyrics to be pieced together like the separate musical parts into the complex whole. “Clearing Life” is just stunning, beyond description. One of the best albums of the year. Why isn’t this band playing Summerfest or Lollapalooza or Bonnaroo this summer so I could see them just once?
Copernicus, Worthless (Nevermore/Moon June)
For almost 30 years Brooklyn-based Joseph Smalkowski, primarily via his Nevermore record label, has released 13 albums as Copernicus, beginning with the 1985 debut, Nothing Exists. Anti-philosopher and outlier who practices a philosophy of nothingness, his rugged and booming semi-spoken word vocals have always been an intense combination of beat-cum-slam poetry and quasi-musical ranting, and his songs are always a call to go further or deeper into inner or outer-consciousness as he expresses his alienation from the normal world. An ever-evolving musical missionary, his records tend to smash all genre-based barriers. Slices of jazz-rock and hard-rock and alt-rock fusions of various flavors tease the listener, and the playing is almost always exploratory without becoming ham-fisted. On the Moon June website they refer to it as “a subatomic existence and a sonic free-fall.” He’s a one-man vocal wrecking crew once again here, with the help of musical director and keyboard player Pierce Turner, along with 16 other musicians. Recorded in Hoboken, it’s avant-garde alt-rock with an expansive palette and lots of open space for the strong vocals. Also notable throughout is the guitar playing of Marvin Wright, Poppa Chubby and Cesar Aragundi. Long, lumbering songs typified by the ambitious 8-minute opener, “Quantum Mechanics” make up much of the album. (It clocks in just under an hour.) But it’s not all from the same mold. “A Hundred Trillion Years” even sounds like Tom Waits, but early in the a.m. before the trademark gravelly voice decays completely. The soaring vocals of guest singer Sari Schorr on a song like “You Are The Illusion That I Perceive,” color this album in shades not heard on a Copernicus album before, at least not by me. Usually, on a Copernicus album it’s all testosteroney all the time, but this takes things to another level. It’s also interesting to see how that dual vocal approach connects with the general themes in the music itself. I assume most of Copernicus’s audience is overseas, and I really have no idea who is buying Copernicus records in the U.S. at this point, other than a select few adventurous, enlightened souls. People need to actually be exposed to new music, and how does someone like this get any exposure in the mass market matrix? On the other hand, there are those souls out there somewhere awaiting every transmission that is generated by this guy, and this album will not disappoint them. Another triumphant showing.
Dead Confederate, In the Marrow (Spiderbomb)
This Athens, GA band hasn’t released an album in more than two years, but they did release an E.P. entitled Peyote People last year. This is not exactly the album I expected from them, but I’m not really sure what I expected either. (They’ve also performed Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night album in its entirety on tour, FYI.) With the name Dead Confederate I’ve always imagined they should sound like the mangy, angry, dismembered ghost of a Confederate soldier. But this is more like a dis-embodied pop- psych dream-like ride through the starry night. David Barbe recorded it and it seems a little flat and compressed, but maybe that’s intentional so as to push the vocals to the forefront more easily, since most of the songs are showcases for the vocal part. The 7-minute long opener, “Slow Potions” isn’t slow-core, per se, but it’s sluggish and druggish, sometimes connecting with early 90s shoegaze, but not staying there long. Then “Vacations” ups the ante and the volume, and takes off like a supernova with a subtle melodic hook leading to a twangy, noodley guitar break. It makes for a wily and weird alt-pop gem. The shifty “Bleed-Through” stretches out even more, and plays it cool enough to almost be an out-of-nowhere mainstream radio hit. “Best of the Worst” may be the best song on the album, recalling some kind of… how to describe it? …oddball, slack-jawed, early 70s psych-blues rock that might have existed for five minutes accidentally in Kalamazoo or Sheffield. This fairly simple rock song harbors a world of possibility that is impossible to fully define, but is understood in an unconscious way. This album has grown on me like a kudzu vine, and I’m over the “they should sound like…” hang up. They can do whatever they damn well please, because they don’t really sound like anyone else anywhere. This has got to be among the best albums of the year that no one is talking about.