The spiceman cometh.

Concept: Classically trained performer Patrick Wolf tries to develop a romantic and sweeping commentary on our times.

Sound: As much as megaflamboyant costume fetishist Wolf wants and tries to be David Bowie 2, now with more homoeroticism, he just can’t. That has nothing to do with the sound, of course…or does it? A like-minded album released earlier this year, St. Vincent’s Actor, had more or less the same setup: lush instrumental combinations, themes of restlessness and weightlessness in the machine, ridiculously high production quality. What’s the distinction? With more concept albums this year than we could possibly want, the bar has been raised, and even the most fantastical arrangements are at risk of transparency. Case in point, The Hazards Of Love, which caught its creators squeezing dry all the wrong elements of antiquity, a lady of the lake keychain from the gift shop that screams ‘who the hell cares’. At least Patrick has tried to dispense the colorful if overwrought plaster dinosaurs…but classical training is not equivalent to classical quality, and no one on earth could confuse the tempestuous voices of Bach’s Toccata And Fugue In D Minor with the violin beat of Hard Times. Wolf falls back on orchestra and choir whenever he hears himself approximating Fallout Boy. His strength is his willingness to dabble in various styles, and this album’s increasing focus on a baroque-pop techno blend, or ‘folktronica‘ as his Wiki page calls it, disarms him and leaves his pomp and circumstance with no resolution or decent use. The songs may be infectious at first, but their repetition exists not only within them but between them, and what started as an epic swoon ends in a deadpan wipeout.

Lyrics: You can expect Mr. Wolf to coordinate, and that’s as positive a statement as can be made. Reaching for a universal truth, he just ends up making out with his hand. Unlike his previous efforts, The Bachelor shows his ambitions to be a mile long and an inch deep. This is often the trouble with getting political. It isn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last. It won’t even be the last for him: the second half of his concept arch, The Conqueror, drops next year.

Quick And Dirty: Strong-willed hits aside, the album doesn’t play to any of Wolf’s strengths except his commanding inner/outer drama queen. (♦♦♦)

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Concept: An EP of polished tracks from the cutting floors of their last two albums.

Sound: A lot of the songs aren’t necessarily the rare tracks a fan might have discovered before now, but they do recycle previous material. The EP fits together rather nicely in its own right. This isn’t just a grab bag of scraps anymore. These songs can stand on their own, a handful of them dry and chattery reels that avoid the sounds if not the styles of their hits. After the infamous disappointments of the last album, fans might expect this collection to be a sign of the band’s entrance into an existential crisis…then again, Modest Mouse is often advertised and even exalted as a catalogue of melodic existential crises. One track that really stands out for anyone with such concerns is Whale Song, which testifies to a kernel of Modest Mouse’s screwy, monstrous old sound still trying to escape from the cause or effects of their recent assimilation into mainstream music. There’s hope yet that the band can reconcile all its forms with each other.

Lyrics: Repetitive, bitter, and independent. It’s a little irritating that someone with as much clout as Isaac Brock so loves to demonize God; you can’t help but feel he needs religion more than a believer sometimes, if only for commercial reasons. The important thing is that he gets his message across inside the flow of his songs, and it’s more catchy than preachy, not to mention it’s usually ambiguous enough to apply to anybody in your life you don’t like.

Quick And Dirty: A worthwhile retracing of the band’s steps that does its part to expand and restore them. (♦♦♦♦)

Dandelion children.

Concept: Multi-genre band pursues pop rock and a bit of funk at their own peril.

Sound: To set the record straight, these guys are not Beck, and are not what you would call musical chameleons. Their electronica is their specialty, as evidenced by their lesser-known EP It’s Complicated Being A Wizard, featuring one twenty minute song with multiple movements of contrasting textures. The brief teases of this sound on every other new track are the only thing I can recall having listened to the entire album. Their attempt at rock is of the same quality you’d expect if The Decemberists tried their hand at experimental metal. The music is completely unoriginal, the vocal flourishes brain-dead. Chk-chk-chk is a far superior alternative in the narrow market for groove bands with a weak singer that ruins everything. What we get here on The Satanic Satanist is the unfortunate lovechild of Oasis and John Mayer, its parents smiling uncomfortably as it grins with a finger in its nose and accidentally kicks the ball offside in the final minutes of the Junior Varsity tournament. The yawns rarely cease in this centerpiece manifestation of tune-in drop-out philosophy.

Lyrics: Why, yes! The world would pretty much have to be a better place if we all just loved one another! C’mon everybody, all the people, my goodness, we have so much to give. Captain Lanyard von Poppedcollar, kick off your sandals and grab an acoustic guitar — let’s go pick up some chicks. This is set at strange odds with the occasional twist of a knife, “once you crawl in / you never come back again” or “nobody will love you,” spoken more like a command than a concern.

Quick And Dirty: Portugal The Man is hell bent on wasting their time. (♦♦)

Algo ha cambiado.

Concept: Long time Maryland jam-band Clutch releases its ninth album, travelling further into blues territory while pondering their odd and translucent mythological dystopia.

Sound: Clutch’s music has always been pretty unremarkable, but it has always been fast or heavy enough to keep itself a comfy vehicle for the band’s kooky narratives. This is no longer the case, as Clutch steps back with slower jams and longer solos which are less inspired than ever. They’ve also lost the two newest band members that made their more recent albums so fun: Mick Schauer, keyboardist, and Eric Oblander, a solid harmonica player who flexed his rock muscle on From Beale Street To Oblivion. Their vocalist’s thick, booze-drenched baritone can’t carry the album alone. The only thing musical on this album worth mention isn’t really about their work as much as their taste in music. They continue their legitimate tradition of exposing great rock and blues artists by covering Pappo’s Algo Ha Cambiado.

Lyrics: Neil Fallon has often proved himself an eloquent, humorous, and well-read storyteller, so why is he tending more and more towards the tired and antagonistic devices of the very cherry-picking radicalists he criticizes? A lot of the time on this album he is not saying enough metaphorically or literally. There are a lot of good ideas waiting to be expanded in an album that discusses (through a backwards symbiotic invocation of the Civil and Cold War eras) the minotaurs of a spiritually mutated state, “the clockwork of a collapsing thing”, with a song about a girl named the V-2 rocket before chupacabras and Hollywood sleestacks turn on their masters while a crippled society across the sea cries “Fate is the idiot’s excuse. Freedom is the sucker’s dream.” An unusual image, especially with a new Administration. It’s almost as if the band faults everyone in this great nation #1.

Quick And Dirty: Clutch has taken some bad scrapes and bruises with this album, teetering from their definitive balance between fury and literacy. This album is for loyal fans only (♦♦½)

Seven days.

Concept: Jack White and a guitarist from Queens Of The Stone Age with two other people. Sounds awesome, right?

Sound: Jack White’s on drums. He can’t sing and play drums at the same time, although his skills on a kit are adequate. The vocalist is the gal from The Kills, Alison Mosshart. She’s not so great, trying too hard and giving too little. When the guitar is good, it’s awesome, dropping all kinds of bulgy inhuman art rock effects like you would expect from a fellow that worked with Josh Homme. Most of the time, though, it regresses to the most negative aspect of QOTSA‘s style: repetition. Also, most of the solos are your dad’s rock solos, and virtually every song is just a little too long for the material it offers. The album is trying to be swampy and sinister, and it comes off more often than not like a starving roadside rock act.

Lyrics: Wouldn’t you know it, White, who is clearly the eminent lyricist of the group, only wrote one song. It shows. Most of this material could have been pulled from a censored AC/DC songbook, except for the Bob Dylan cover thrown in the middle.

Quick And Dirty: Stretched and disappointing. It just makes you wish the band’s more famous members were working on their own new albums instead. Also, has anyone noticed that Jack White is slowly transforming from Leonardo Di Caprio into Tina Turner?

Oh, dear Lord.

(♦♦♦)

Beep bop boop.

Concept: Members of Vampire Weekend and Ra Ra Riot try to convince everyone that there’s something to love about the 80’s. All hipsters will agree by default, or is it by definition?

Sound: There are moments that you can see what the group was on to, with ticklish digital arpeggios and swift club beats. That is not an excuse for what they have produced. They have taken modern pop hooks and melodies, with autotune thrown in, and given them the gamut of eighties and nineties lyrics and synth.

Lyrics: See above.

Quick And Dirty: Pop and indie merge. The emperors have no clothes. (♦♦½)

O)))

Concept: Two years in the making, the metal band’s latest effort cooperates with a gigantic cast of instruments and composer Eyvind Kang. The result is four works intended to create auditory illusions through experimentation with timbre.

Sound: The first four and a half minutes of track one, I wasn’t feeling anything. It’s a fat old guitar chord fuzzing and rotting, changing every twenty seconds or so, not so much noise as the slowest metal song ever. With twelve minutes left, I had to wonder where everything was: the multiple double basses, the conch shells, the hydrophone, the viola, the clarinet, the english horn. Five minutes and sixteen seconds in the guitar chord cuts out briefly, and there’s something in the background. I take the band’s recommendation. I grab the noise-cancelling headphones, plug them in, and turn the volume up as loud as it will go. Holy cats. The album cover is by minimalist artist Richard Serra. Is it a planet? Is it an eye staring into the sea? There is a vast depth of tones in this album, and over time it becomes difficult to determine what key the pieces are really in and whether some of its sounds are being made by instruments, feedback, or the power of suggestion, opening an absorbing delirium akin to Merhige’s Begotten, an exquisite psychological pressure.

Lyrics: Something Hungarian. I didn’t really notice.

Quick And Dirty: It’s hard to imagine drone or noise music producing anything better than this. That is to say, even if you think noise music is a bunch of bunk, this is far and away as good as it gets. (♦♦♦♦♦)

Artist: The Monroe Transfer
Album: I Dreamt I Was A Hammer and Everything Was Glass
Released: 2009

The Monroe Transfer’s seventh album, comprising of a single song. Clocking in at about 20 minutes, I suppose you could more accurately call it an EP.

Now, I could have sworn that I’d heard this song before. What’s that? Long intro, starting off with a lonely violin, with another instrument coming in as time goes by? Wacky 7/4 time signature when the song ACTUALLY begins(at about the 11 minute mark)? A climax that wants to blow the listener off their feet?
Wait a second… That’s EVERY SECOND-RATE POST ROCK BAND IN THE WORLD. I swear to God, it’s like all these people think that if they just drag the song on forever it’ll reach the same level of intensity as “The Dead Flag Blues,” or that if they have strings, it makes them a better band.

What makes it worse, is that when the band actually gets into the song, when everybody’s got the groove, it’s actually pretty decent! But those 5 minutes are drowned out by the far, far, far too long intro, and a section right before the end that sounds like an outtake from Syd Barret-era Pink Floyd. So I know they have skill!

Disappointing. I guess if you’re a hardcore fan of the Godspeed You! Black Emperor style post rock, and have everything else remotely similar to it, and NEED something new, go ahead.

The Monroe Transfer is:
Rhiannon Armstrong – violin
Neil Walsh – viola
Nicole Robson – ‘cello
Nick Gill – electric guitar
Dave O’Brien – double bass
Martin Austwick – electric guitar
Ed Howard – drums

Artist: Sleepy Eyes of Death
Album: Dark Signals EP
Released: Sleep Capsule & Mass Mvmnt (dist.), 2009

Dark Signals EP

Dark Signals is a collection of very good electronic tracks. Synthesizers tweedle and moan, guitars are distorted, and the drum line is intense in each of the songs. In the second track “Final Heart Beats Black” the band experiments with some heavily modified vocals. “Pierce the Air” adds synth layers together like a cake, with the guitarist coming in every now and again to remind you the rest of the band is there, while “Metastatic” lets the drum take control here and there.

The music, just beyond its structure, is very unique. Being a fan of electronic myself, Sleepy Eyes of Death has a one-of-a-kind sound that I’ve yet to run across elsewhere. The music is intensely visual (apparently their live shows have fantastic lights), even if the images are more impressions than fleshed out drawings.

If you’re looking for some good electronic beats, grab this one, it will not disappoint.
Stand Out Tracks: Shattered Limbs, Final Heart Beats Black

Sleepy Eyes of Death is:
Keith – moog, roland, beats, programming
Brandon – industrial light and magic
Cassidy – gibson
J Andrew – korg, fender, sampler, vocoder
Joel – moog, roland, beats, vocoder