Monday, January 18, 2010

2009 Honourable Mentions: Part 1

So it's time to go back and pick through the bones of 2009, to sift through the torrent of great music and pick out some highlights. As that big Part 1 in the title should suggest, there's an awful lot of great albums, artists and songs that deserve a mention. As such, you won't find anything from the Top 15 Albums of 2009 list, just the best of the rest. So let's get started.

Essentially the new group for Art Of Fighting's Ollie Browne, Parallel Lions continued his unique brand of soulful, eloquent songwriting but adding a new spin on it. Thanks largely to the equally talented Hamish Michael and Sam Bates filling out the other two thirds of this great new Australian act.
Wild Beasts - Hooting and Howling
Led by Hayden Thorpe's idiosyncratic falsetto (perhaps an understatement), the lead single for Wild Beasts' second album Two Dancers, it is a perfect showcase of their talents - moody, evocative, rhythmic and exciting.
Ramona Falls - Russia
In actual fact this is the working name for one Brent Knopf, of Menomena fame, and the resulting sound is not unlike his dayjob. Looped sampling of traditional instruments is weaved into beautiful, crystalline arrangements.
It's hard to extrapolate a single track from The Decemberists latest, The Hazards of Love a prog-folk odyssey of operatic proportions, but this cut comes close to representing its scope without sacrificing on its individualistic storytelling, a creaking murder ballad.

Them Crooked Vultures - Scumbag Blues
The supergroup to end all supergroups. Three rock legends: Josh Homme (Queens Of The Stone Age), Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters) and John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin) made every music fan's wet dream come true with their debut that managed to mix all their styles into a cohesive beast, and Scumbag Blues is just one of its excellent litter.
Archive - Bullets
A little-known UK outfit whose decade-long career has skirted the likes of alternative rock, electronica and even trip-hop. Taken from its parent album, Controlling Crowds, this track has a whiff of Radiohead about while only scratching the surface of the full album. I highly recommend you check it out if this pikes your interest.
I usually hate those “sounds like band ‘x’ jamming with band ‘y’” descriptions, but the haunting if elusive atmosphere of Odawas can best be thought of as Mercury Rev jamming with The Blue Nile by way of Neil Young's crooning and harmonica. Beautifully produced music with an air of breezy relaxation.
The Temper Trap - Fader
One of Australia's breakthrough acts of last year. Sweet Disposition may have led the charge on their popularity, but it was their confident debut album Conditions crowned it. With album cuts like Fader, it proved they were capable of upbeat rock as well as moody post-punk and dreamy atmospherics. Plus it features the great line, "I pledge myself allegiance to a better night's sleep at home."

Mos Def - Casa Bey
Prior to unleashing The Ecstatic you wouldn’t be wrong to assume that Mos had left behind the hip-hop game for a burgeoning, if selective, acting career. Instead he performs a complete 180 and delivers one of the top-tier rap releases of the year, including this, the excellent closing number.
Pure Reason Revolution - AVO
Speaking of 180s, the prog-rock luminaries ditched their classic Pink Floyd-influenced sound for a shiny new chrome finish that can best be described as prog-tronica. The title track from their second album, Amor Vincit Omnia, is a haunting example of their shiny new sound: progressive, textured and stunning.
I can't really put it better than my original assertion, The Captain sets a jubilant mood, featuring a giddy refrain of "somebody help me sing" that bounces and fizzes against a rolling brass section. If my interview with frontman Simon Neil is anything to go by, it is the work of a newly invigorated group.
...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead - Isis Unveiled
Album number seven from the Texan art-rockers featured an even more symphonic approach to their epic sound, with Isis Unveiled being no exception. Its fiery hooks sound like gods clashing before a brooding mid-section sees them taking a breather. Widescreen, climactic music at its best.

Brand New - At The Bottom
Restlessly pushing to reinvent themselves with each passing album, Brand New delivered a claustrophobic but engaging record in the form of Daisy. Taking its cues from mid-nineties grunge as much as experimental rock, with At The Bottom providing a secular portrait of their daring sound.
Patrick Watson - Big Bird In A Small Cage
An equally eccentric and incendiary performer, Patrick Watson wields his talents towards this touching ballad, a Sufjan Stevens meets Damien Rice-esque acoustic number if you will. But you'd do well to seek out the rest of his diverse oeuvre, namely his two albums Welcome To Paradise and 09's Wooden Arms.
Volcano Choir - Still
aka. what Bon Iver did next. After releasing arguably, 'the best album of 2008', few would have predicted that Justin Vernon would join Collection of Colonies of Bees to form an experimental side-project - but that's precisely what he did. Still is actually a rewrite of Bon Iver's Woods (taken from the Blood Bank EP), and the resulting full band arrangement is nothing short of breathtaking.
U2 - Moment Of Surrender
Sure U2 are pompous, grandstanding and commercial; but they're these things for a reason - there's still one of the most popular and enduring acts in the world today. And that doesn't mean they're not good. In fact, their latest - No Line On The Horizon - was one of their best records yet. Including the long-winding Moment Of Surrender, a relaxed epic if ever there was one.

Wilco's self-titled album followed in the same vein as its predecessor Sky Blue Sky, namely an album that drew from the band's tight live show and band line-up, steering away from the strenuous experimentation they peddled at the start of the decade. It even featured a classic duet in the form of You And I with Canadian indie queen Feist.
The Very Best - The Warm Heart of Africa (feat. Ezra Koenig)
Calling themselves "ghetto pop" only goes some way to describing The Very Best's unique brand of hip world music. The combination of Milawian singer Esau Mwmwaya and European production duo Radioclit, this is the title track from their debut; in which Mwmwaya trades verses with Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig making for a joyous summer track.
Devin Townsend Project - Trainfire
Devin Townsend Project - Numbered!
'Hevy Devy' was a busy boy in 2009. The Canadian metal pioneer finding time to release two (of a prospective four) of his self-titled Project series. The former taken from Ki, a more ambient, spacier approach to Townsend's usually thunderous prog-metal, while the latter is taken from his unabashed pop album. Paired with Anneke Van Giersberg (formerly of The Gathering) to create what he calls "Heavy Enya." As is usually the case with Devin Townsend, it's all so crazy - it works.

Stay tuned for Part 2, and feel free to provide some suggestions in the comments below.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Fit To Print

Welcome to another year for Al's Music Rant, which as it turns out is now its fourth(!) in existence. No new year's resolutions here, except perhaps to maintain my own personal standard of quality. Which is to provide writing on music that is informative, well-researched and most importantly, passionate.

I've got a lot of bigger ideas ticking over from 2009 (which if you need a good summary, try the Top 15 Albums list), including an honourable mentions/best of the rest list. But to kick things off instead, we have a review of the Editor's performance last week at the Palace Theatre in Melbourne.
So without further ado.

Editors, live @ the Palace, Jan 4th

w/ support by Big Scary

Getting the crowd started were Big Scary, perhaps one of Melbourne’s best new acts, even if they’re still one of the town’s best-kept secrets. The correlation between their popularity and their quality is totally out-of-balance, but with this support slot: their biggest show and venue yet, perhaps the scales will tip more in their favour.
Sidling onstage is one-half of the band, Tom Iansek, unassumingly silencing the crowd with a wash of guitar chords and his impressive Jeff Buckley-esque falsetto. He’s soon joined by drummer Jo Syme, who in an impressive rolling drum solo leads the duo into the rocking Hey Somebody. The lead single for their forthcoming EP, all bristling with energy thanks to its stop-start dynamics and tempo changes. Though they are visibly (and only just audibly) nervous they soon find their feet with a string of up-beat rockers, namely Polly and Apple Song. Both demonstrate that once the group rev their engines they make a much broader sound than the sum of their two parts. Happy Helpless introduces Syme’s extra talents, harmonising and playing xylophone before Lullaby and a freshly minted song “written yesterday” offers a snaking riff reminiscent of Led Zeppelin. As the numbers pour in and the floor fills with people for the main act, Big Scary receive an ever-growing positive response. When they finish with the crashing chords of This Weight it’s safe to say that, despite their disparity musically speaking from Editors, their talent and energy has won them more than a few new fans.

Where Editors previously struggled to shake comparisons to Joy Division, it seems with their compass now set in the direction of grandstanding electronics they will have to dodge another band’s shadow, namely Depeche Mode. Lanky frontman Tom Smith even vaguely resembles a younger David Gahan. Flanked by his similarly clad bandmates, all uniform black, he stalks the stage –often mouth agape, arms branchlike – lurching from mic to mic. As such his captivating presence confirms that Smith has evolved into a strong frontman. His enthusiasm matched by his strenuous enunciation and urgency on every syllable he sings. Accompanied by arching gestures and equally emphasised playing with energy to spare. If he’s tired of his songs after playing them so many times, he’s hiding it extremely well.
More captivating still is his rich baritone, perhaps the key entry point to Editors’ crowd-rallying appeal. Like the love child of Coldplay and Interpol, they tackle the ‘Big Themes’ - like Love and God – in gloomy histrionics and crowd-baiting anthems.
Even at a relatively young five years of touring, they’ve managed to command a strong reception at both headlining shows and the festival circuit. Generally thanks to the critical and commercial success of their first two albums, 2005’s The Back Room and 2007’s An End Has a Start, and particularly hit singles Munich, Bullets, Smokers Outside The Hospital Doors and Racing Rats.
Their latest album however, In This Light And On This Evening, sees them ditching their signature twin-guitar attack – all skyscraping riffs and skittering lines – for synths… banks and banks of synths. The keyboards and processed drums that go with it make a sound that while certainly starkly new sound for the band, it isn’t necessarily a better one.

While the newer material makes more sense in a live context, offsetting the nervous energy of their four to the floor anthems with cooler, slower moods, the reception to the newer songs is also occasionally just as frosty.

Chalk it up to a lack of familiarity, but every time the group trump up a new track, they retreat back to older, more familiar material to follow it. There’s almost an audible lull during The Boxer and The Big Exit until the pounding rhythm of Escape The Nest startles the audience back to life. Likewise the horribly titled Eat Raw Meat = Blood Drool receives some sporadic audience vibe for its industrial bounce, a seemingly good reaction until it’s followed by All Sparks whose crashing chorus confirms the entire Palace is now astir.
Exceptions to the rule however are a belting rendition of Papillion that fills the encore, and Bricks & Mortar closing the main set on a highlight, enrapturing the audience with its bluelight groove, all seven hypnotic minutes of it.
Time may well prove In This Light And On This Evening as a transitional album, the likes of You Don’t Know Love, The Boxer and the title track, have echoes of their original blueprint. Each morphing from a slow-burning front half to rocking closers, while consistently seeing the band dart from guitar to synths and back again. Still, whether flaunting their third album (the entirety of which is played during the course of the evening) or drawing from their impressive back catalogue, they rip into their playing with an equal amount of gusto. An energy equalled by the rabid fans.
Even against the rousing receptions that Racing Rats, Bullets and Blood receive, it is towards the tail-end of the set that Smokers Outside The Hospital gets the biggest response, hands-down. Its intro of pounding drums inciting near hysterical levels of cheering that quickly switches to an unprovoked anthemic sing-a-long from the crowd. Including, ironically one particular sozzled punter, who wails along to the chorus while dragging on a cigarette.
He is, however, merely one of a sea of people who Editors manage to unite into a fist-pumping, foot-stomping mass with their engaging anthems and yearning, every-man appeal.
On the strength of well-polished performances such as this one, it won’t be long till they graduate to the stadiums, allowing room to bloom their solid rock show into a spectacle with all the requisite flourishes. After all, Editors deserve a canvas as widescreen as their music.

Here is a live performance of Papillon in both QuickTime and Windows formats;
as well as an accompanying video: