Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen

Don't really have a theme or a plan for today's post, so sorry in advance if it's muddled and, heaven forbid, crap. Chalk it up to wanting to remain on my strict routine of one post per week.
So what to do, what to do.
Well I thought i'd originally just nick some of my reviews from Beat magazine that hadn't been published yet, but I'm feeling generous (that and I might be really creatively bankrupt somewhere down the line) - so instead I thought i'd just chat about some recent albums i'm really digging.

Ah! I just thought of a theme, consider the link between these two to be 'Wildly Unpopular Genres That I'm Trying to Defend (Again)' - yeah, that's catchy...

Pure Reason Revolution - Amor Vincit Omnia (Superball, 2009)

Firstly, the facts. Pure Reason Revolution are an English progressive rock band, only they're not your usual run-of-the-mill prog rock band. Well at least they're not anymore...
The band's debut, the excellent The Dark Third of 2006, was a refreshing, powerfully confident work and an assured opening statement from a group that made an oft criticised genre fresh and exciting again. Though heavily indebted to Pink Floyd, it's centrepiece Bright Ambassadors Of Morning named after a lyric from Floyd's track Echoes, it nevertheless managed to balance it's influences with a thrilling concoction of heavy rock, layered harmonies and the occasional flirtation into electronica.

Shortly after the Victorious Cupid E.P. in 2007 however, the band slid back into obscurity, the departure of two band members didn't help matters and it looked, for a while, like that it was the start and end of a great band. But thankfully posts on their MySpace site began small waves, releasing some unreleased material and hints of a complete change in sound. The remaining members Jon Courtney, Chloe Alpner, Paul Glover & Jamie Wilcox soldiered on.

Jump to today and we have Amor Vincit Omnia which signals the stylistic shift in the Pure Reason Revolution sound. Opening track Les Mahleurs signals the new intentions from the outset, bathed in staggered, bassy synths and a pure dancefloor backbeat, it could just as easily be something by The Presets or Cut Copy. It's quite the shock to any fan, but it soon becomes clear that the band haven't ditched all the elements that made them so great. Their boy/girl dual vocals (courtesy of Courtney & Alpner) remain essential, opening the album in fact, as well as their cylcic lyrical patterns that loop and dance on top of each other. The passionate melodies and singing lend the record a human quality in the face of the newly attached army of synths, keyboards and sequencers. This does result in a distinct lack of crunchy guitars and virtuosic drums, which isn't to say the record doesn't rock. One spin of Victorious Cupid or Deus Ex Machina dispell fears that the band have gone completley electronic. The focus instead has shifted into forging ahead with a modern integration of electronic music with the spirit of progressive rock.

Whereas the more traditionally influenced sounds of their debut will be missed, that void is much more likely to be filled than the strange new genre that the band have invented here.
No, Pure Reason Revolution instead have charted a course for an entirely new constellation that seamlessly combines electronica with prog rock affectations. There may not be long-winded guitar and keyboard solos or a fictional narrative running through Amor Vincit Omnia, but they sure as hell have managed to maintain the genre's character.
Witness the two track, three-part evolution of Keep Me Sane/Insane-Apogee-Requiem For Lovers which has all the lyrical pretension and musical progression of classic prog, but instead distilled into a focussed six minute mini-opus.

While the album's first half settles the listener into the brave new results of the group's experiments, it is the tail-end of the album that contains the biggest rewards. Bloodless begins a charming pallete of plink-plonk synths and sequenced horn parts before shiftinng into a melancholic hymn.Disconnect takes that most obvious electronic music staple, the vocoder, and uses it as a catalyst for an upbeat electro-ballad while The Gloaming is a ruminative epic that floats and builds into a trance.
The closing (semi) title track AVO is, appropriately, a show-stopper. Despite being one of the shortest tracks on the album, it manages to achieve an epic drama usually reserved for long-winded compositions. Thanks in part to its marked break halfway in, where the music halts in favour for a slowly rising three-part incantation of the album's latin title, which repeats as a meditative chant while the music rises into a powerful coda. That latin translates as "Love Conquers All" a theme that courses its way through the album, especially lyrically.

Amor Vincit Omnia is a triumphant return as well as a reimagination of Pure Reason Revolution and they should be commended for their invention alone. The three year gap since their debut could have resulted in a case of 'too little, too late' but instead they have risen against the odds to craft something strikingly new without sacrificing the components that made them so great in the first place.

Check It Out:
-Les Mahleurs
& AVO can be streamed from the band's MySpace
-Plus here's a live performance of Deus Ex Machina

Mastodon - Crack The Skye (Reprise, 2009)

Mastodon always managed to stay just off the edge of my radar. Though I was intrigued by (of all things) their artwork and some of their alt-metal riffage, there was always something that put me off about their brutal approach, what seemed a tipping of the scales to the blunter end of metal fans. All that has happily changed with Crack The Skye.

The band's fourth album, it's a contradiction in terms in that it's a natural progression of the band's dense oft psychedelic metal but also a record whose softer edges may polarise long-term fans. It's precisely this calmer approach that has opened up the band's powerful sound to the tools of melody and harmony, the opening salvo of Oblivion and Divinations demonstrate a newfound grasp of harmony that makes for spacey (as opposed to fast, techincal) guitar solos and memorable choruses wihtout compromising the band's dense, heavy guitars.
Mastodon have always been the metal band's metal band, held in high esteem amongst their peers, their albums featuring collaboration with the likes of Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), Cedric Bixler-Zavala (The Mars Volta) and Scott Kelly (Neurosis) who contributes vocals again here, on the title track.

Crack The Skye
sees Mastodon in a freer, contemplative mood fulling giving in to their ambitions and musical explorations. Reuslting in them drifting further out into their heady, complex compositions. Not since Tool has a band dazzled so with its amazing song structures. At once invigorating the powerful rhtyhms and riffs that support them as well as justifying the extensive track lengths such as The Czar which shifts and mutates through four distinct sections, and winding closing track The Last Baron - both hitting the ten minute plus mark.

Supporting these vast excursions is the album's narrative, yes that's right Crack The Skye is a concept album. This will come as no surprise to those who have followed Mastodon thus far, they've covered an album about fire and flaming horses (Remission), an album based on Moby Dick and a trek up a mountain side battling against both the elements and fantastical beasts in the form of Blood Mountain.

So what is Crack The Sye's narrative then? well, *deep breath* it follows the story of a paraplegic who astral projects himself into a wormhole that takes him back to Tsarist Russia, where a cult of sorcerer-types discover his lost soul and put it into the body of Rasputin. Rasuptin then attempts to usurp the Czar but is murdered releasing both his and the protagonist's soul into the void, Rasputin then must lead the wandering astral projection back home but then they're confronted by the Devil who attempts to steal them, making for an epic final battle that could the harm both souls.

....or something like that.

To be honest it's not so much the story that is important, you hardly get the narrative from the lyrics anyway but as with most concept albums, it is a thematic thread that ties the complex explorations together. Besides, to follow the album in a strict story would take away from the mystery and psychedelic fug that the band manage to conjure anyway. Their power and rhythm becomes meditative and as each track burns and fades into each other it's like tectonic plates shifting, there's a drastic change in geography but it's still the same planet.

Massaging this combination of heavy metal aesthetics with moody, melodic ambience is producer Brendan O'Brien who has produced and mixed a number of cross-over acts, chiefly Incubus and Audioslave, which aids in reaching the kind of audience Mastodon is stretching out to.
Those worried that O'Brien's mainstream success would neuteur Mastodon's immense sound can rest easy, the whipcrack drums and complex guitar arrangements are cranked to the fore of the mix without getting in the way of the vocals.

Actually that's a key point to Crack The Skye, it's vocals are as important a texture now as the rest of the band unit. With lead vocals shared between the Ozzy Osbourne-ish yowl of Brett Hinds, bassist Troy Sanders and for the first time, drummer Brann Dailor. As well as swapping vocal duties, there are a number of subtle vocal harmonies that are peppered throughout the album, particularly on the psychedelic Quintessence and the mid sections of The Czar.

Crack The Skye
might be an awful lot to take in for those not trained in prog rock escapades, high concept metal, stoner rock or anything in-between. But it's precisely the densely-layered textures and evolutions that emerge after several listens that make it such a rewarding and mysterious journey. This thinking man's metal may lose them some stubborn fans who refuse to let go of the Metallica chug that they used to make, but for the rest of us - we are openly welcomed to the strange new world of Mastodon.

Check it out:
-The suitably trippy official website of the album Crack The Skye
-Oblivion and The Czar on YouTube.

Whew - good old word count bug kicked in again.
Well, in the immortal words of Farmer Hoggett:
"That'll do pig, that'll do"

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