Category Archives: Album Reviews

Bon Iver // 22, A Million : the math behind the mind

If For Emma, Forever Ago and Bon Iver, Bon Iver conjure up the people and places of the memory, then 22, A Million conjures up the voices and landscapes of the mind.
As ever, Justin Vernon uses the music as a way to expresses the thoughts and feelings important to him at that time in his life. But it’s around here that similarities between the old music and the new album get pretty sparse. 22, A Million is an expression, not just for emotional release, but for inspection. The theme of calculation and codes is integral to the record. Every track name includes a numerical code and the album artwork is packed with symbols, both cultural and mathematical. Each song also has a lyric video which displays even more connections between words, sounds, numbers and images. Mathematical and emotional ideas are frequently combined in text and images – the video for ‘8 (circle)’ writes ‘you called +’ and ‘i came -’ and shows a bone dividing 8 and 9, and a diagram that fills with numbers and symbols to the sound of trumpets.

This mathematical expression of emotional, subjective ideas represents an attempt to make sense of the unpredictable and nonsensical human mind – to find ‘the math behind it’. The record’s constant merging of art, technology, math and poetry is also a symbol in itself of the clashing and merging of new and old within music-making. 22, A Million acknowledges itself as an example of this. Whilst it relies heavily on live instrumentation and maintains aspects of the romantic, acoustic style of earlier Bon Iver, the new record enthusiastically embraces the potential of the digital age.
One really interesting thing about 22, A Million is how it combines natural and artificial sounds to express emotional experience. The record uses a load of weird and wonderful tools and techniques in its attempt to express itself. One amazing tool used throughout the album is the ‘Messina’ – an instrument created by Justin and his engineer, Chris Messina, to fluctuate pitches in a number of different harmonies. The instrument is used in ‘____45_____’ to warp the saxophone which, paired with Justin’s overdubbed vocals, creates a gorgeous, trippy, introspective track. The Messina is given sole credit for ‘715 – CR∑∑KS’, which uses volume and pitch fluctuation to echo the similarly fluctuating emotions of a troubled mind. ‘M◊◊N WATER’ also uses digital effects to describe human experience – heavily manipulated samples build the calm, modest track into a discordant jumble of overlapping sounds that echo the conflicting, erratic behaviour of thoughts. This feeling of conflict is also created in a number of songs by overdubbed vocals singing different lyrics. If minds could sing, I imagine it’d sound a lot like this record.

Despite the intimate, referential nature of Justin’s lyrics, the album is by no means an expression of just his feelings. Its plethora of emotional, symbolic content not only offers the audience a glimpse into Justin’s mind, but the mind of every contributor, including their own. Like the album’s artist, Eric Carlson, says, ‘symbols in the context of music have a lot of power’ – ‘Justin assigned a specific meaning to the numbers and logic to their creation, but in the end, they are open containers to be filled with new meaning’. 22, A Million is not just one story – it’s a sprawling mass of creation and expression that invites you not only to listen but to think, create your own connections, and find the math in your own mind.

Moses Sumney // Lamentations : a voice that transcends worlds

Though Moses Sumney’s extraordinary voice and unique sound have earnt him a solid fan-base and a good deal of support in the music industry over the past few years, his modest number of releases has left him relatively out of the spotlight. But recent collabs with the likes of Thundercat, Solange and Cinematic Orchestra, the release of Lamentations, and his upcoming debut LP are rapidly pushing Sumney into the limelight.

Sumney writes that Lamentations is made up of songs that didn’t fit the tone of the upcoming album – but this is by no means an EP of rejects. On the contrary, it may be one of the most beautiful, imaginative releases of the year.

Sumney’s music has an immediately dissociative effect. It seizes the senses, replacing them with those of some far-off ethereal place. The EP’s instrumental intro, ‘Ascension’, actually feels like immersion – dark waters simmer around the listener while guitar notes glance off cavern walls and ghostly voices echo out from hidden depths. Over the record’s five tracks, Sumney shifts through avant-folk, downtempo, synth-pop and choral – ignoring genre barriers as he builds his vast, intricate dream-world.

For me, the pearl of the album is the final track. ‘Incantation’ is a Yiddish recitation of Jewish prayer: the first line of the Kedushah and a night-time protection prayer. The song is stripped down to bare the full, raw beauty of Sumney’s voice. Harp-like guitar flickers in like a candle after the first prayer and low choral vocals follow, perfuming the sound as his voice twirls, dances, and eventually soars beyond reach.

If this is just a taster of what’s to come, we should all be very, very excited about Moses Sumney.

Listen here:

Balance and Composure // The Light We Made : a playlist for angsty romantic daydreams

  • Sounds like: Title Fight, Tigers Jaw, Cheatahs
  • Recommended songs: ‘Midnight Zone’, ‘Afterparty’, ‘Postcard’

It is made clear from the offset that things have changed. The first track on Light We Made, ‘Midnight Zone’ opens with a fluctuating synth line, gently punctuated with guitar and drum hits until they break through into a sparkly, downtempo sound that leans more towards shoe-gaze than the rough, heavier style of earlier Balance And Composure. Jon Simmons’ usual grated shouts are replaced with high, dreamy vocals and there is a far more melodic focus. The shift in musical style is entwined with the lyrical theme of the album – that of change, growth and acceptance, particularly in regards to love and music.

‘Spinning’ and ‘Afterparty’ feel a little more like classic B&C, albeit their most mellow songs. The live instruments are subdued but more central, and Simmons’ vocals drop to his dragging, melancholic style, albeit with an added melodic buoyancy.

‘For A Walk’ tries something very different – its sexy, grungy electronic style starts off well and it has the potential to be really cool song, but it gets a little lost. The tension created by the muffled shouting is unfortunately dissipated when, instead of building, it’s pushed almost out of earshot by the synth. ‘Mediocre Love’ also falls a little short, bringing back the favoured sparkly guitar and soft, melodic vocals but failing to do anything very exciting with it.

It’s in the album’s single, ‘Postcard’, that the band really nails a confident and interesting new style. The recurring guitar riffs and vocal hooks create a moody, immersive vibe while the programmed drums give you something to grip and keep the song from feeling whiny or slow.

There is a lot less experimentation in the latter half of the album, and the sound lapses into a kind of subdued old B&C style. This can be forgiven and understood, however, when you think about where the band is right now. The group has just returned from a lengthy break and, having been away from music for a while, are unsure of where they stand with it.

It’s clear from this album that they want change, but it’s also clear that they’re not completely sure of how they want to change, and they’re worried about what fans might want. This album is a cautious, intriguing probe into something new. As with all experiments, there are hits and misses, breakthroughs and dead ends – but this new direction has a lot of potential. I look forward to watching the band refine and settle into their new dreamy, downbeat sound. Despite its downfalls, the album is currently my favourite playlist for angsty romantic daydreams.

Written for and published by http://www.headfirst4music.com/

Listen here:

Biffy Clyro // Ellipsis : hits and misses

  • Sounds like: Twin Atlantic, Band of Horses, Foo Fighters, Marmaduke Duke
  • Recommended songs: ‘On a Bang’, ‘Howl’, ‘Don’t, Won’t, Can’t’, ‘In the Name of the Weeman’

 

Like the first track on the album, whose intensifying intro builds anticipation for a disappointingly average track, Ellipsis is somewhat of an anti-climax. The interviews, teasers and discussion leading up to the new record promised something bold and exciting, and Ellipsisjust hasn’t delivered. Similarly, the energetic build-up and intro riff on ‘Wolves’ only makes it more disappointing when the song dwindles into bland melodies and predictable progression. Simon’s vocals and lyrics, not only on ‘Wolves’, but through much of the album, fall short of his usual wacky genius. The riff at around 3.13 is awesome – it’s just a shame that the song then returns again to the boring title chant to finish. The entire album hovers around this region of ‘OK’, with some parts rising above and others sinking below. Overall, Ellipsis falls far short of the passion, imagination and variation expected from a Biffy Clyro record.

Friends and Enemies, Animal Style, Herex and Flammable are all pretty forgettable – though not awful tracks by any means, each falls into the category of that predictable, catchy chart rock that sounds a lot like about 50 other tunes. On first listen, ‘Re-arrange’ could easily be dismissed as a similarly unoriginal pop-rock love ballad, yet there is a sincerity to it that somewhat cuts through its thick gloss. It also makes for undeniably smooth listening, perfect for a summer afternoon drive. ‘Medicine’ is another pleasant but unexceptional track. The bridge, with its soft vocals, darting synth and rising strings, provides a pretty and much needed detour from an otherwise predictable song progression.

Thankfully, the album does perk up near the end, with the exception of ‘People’ – a boring, clichéd acoustic. ‘Small Wishes’ is a fun, quirky track which nicely juxta-poses a jaunty country music style with sharp, challenging lyrics concerning Scottish independence. ‘Howl’, ‘Don’t, Won’t, Can’t’ and ‘In the Name of the Wee Man’, however, are the real saviours of the album. ‘Howl’ yanks you to your feet with its upbeat, melodic energy. Simon’s vocals suddenly regain their presence, swooping through sunny melodies that complement the song’s cheerful chord changes and peppy drums. When the disappointing ‘People’ threatens to kill interest again, ‘Don’t, Won’t Can’t’ strikes right back with an energetic reggae beat, punchy vocals and engaging, cryptic lyrics. The song ends with a wonderfully distinctive Biffy breakdown, leaving the listener longing for a head-bang. This wish is granted immediately by ‘In the Name of the Wee Man’, which sees a return of the aggressive, ragged guitar and famous vocal screeches that dominate Biffy’s earlier, heavier records.

Give Ellipsis a few listens. Accept that it’s not Biffy at their best and allow yourself to find the gems hidden amongst the filler – after a few plays, parts do start to shine out. That being said, you really shouldn’t have to work that hard to find something great in a Biffy record. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not an awful album. For another rock band, it may well be a particularly good album – but not for Biffy. They say we are the harshest judgers of those we expect the most from, and it proves true in this case. I am loath to speak ill of one of my favourite bands, but I know that Biffy Clyro are capable of more than this album offers.

 

Written for and published by http://www.headfirst4music.com/

Listen here: