Monday, December 11, 2017

Thomas Abban - A Sheik's Legacy (2017)

Written by William Elgin, posted by blog admin

Rock n’ roll has been in dire need of a savior for quite some time.  It’s hard to find interesting acts these days, let alone people with a vision that goes beyond settling on and staying in one style and one style only.  Thomas Abban could be the man up for the job of saving or at least resuscitating rock, thanks to his dizzying, wild-eyed debut album, A Sheik’s Legacy.  With an orchestral sense of arrangement, many of the album’s 15 tunes pass through “movements” or “passages” on their way to the finish line and many of the songs end up in far different territory from whence they began.  It’s a testament to Abban’s immaculate writing and composing as well as the reason why this album works the whole way through and its after effects are long-lasting. 

The record’s first four songs alone cover a lot of musical ground.  Mournful and elegiac, “Death Song” conjures up an acoustic trance of wayward, soulful instrumentation that takes a good 4 minutes and change to finally launch into a distorted, riff-tastic crescendo.  “Symmetry & Black Tar” is full of progressive twists and turns; lively acoustic guitar licks sweeping across pile-driving tom-tom fills and thundercrack bass lines grooving steadily along keep things in the red yet the song never goes into an outright frenzy.  Abban saves the frenzy for bruising, beef-up guitar figures on “Fear” and “Aladdin,” a pair of brawny blues-rock hammers that drive home riff after riff of old school songwriting. 

As the record moves into its second phase, the songwriting opens up into arid, open range acoustic textures with songs that trot and traipse but never lapse in holding your attention.  The gusty, bluesy guitar shades, acoustic transitions, heavy drums and whistling vocal melodies of “Time to Think” acts as a calmer interpretation of the hearty riffing of the prior two cuts, settling the album down into the elaborate, finger-picked folk of “Horizons” which smacks of some subtle Dylan influence.  World weary blues is the order of the day on “Sinner” where Abban’s voice wavers between smooth and smoky to a shrieking howl.  Neoclassical strings and symphonic elements add some meat to the bones of the tune’s very traditional framework.  Delta acoustic blues and Nashville country elements wash to the forefront of “Don’t You Stay The Same” and “Let Me Tell You Something,” both tracks relishing largely stripped-down, solo-songwriter ethics with “Irene” applying those same standards to a wandering folk-pop ditty.  “Lord” dips into similar waters before the album goes back to the hard and heavy stuff with the crushing guitar surgery of “Uh,” the fiery atmospherics contained in “Echo,” “Black Water” and “Born of Fire” making for a superb culmination of A Sheik’s Legacy and its many awesome attributes.   

Abban never plays the same tune twice on his debut and the massive amount of stylistic fluctuation between numbers makes for an impressive and engaging listen.  Each tune is very much an individual piece that stands on its own two legs without the songs around it being simply used to buttress any weakness.  A Sheik’s Legacy is all killer and no filler!

Ben Brookes - The Motor Car & The Weather Balloon (2017)

Written by Daniel Boyer, posted by blog admin

The success of The Motor Car & The Weather Balloon will likely define, at least in part, Ben Brookes’ career until he bows out of the music scene. He has debuted with such astonishing variety and imagination that it makes one breathless to consider where he might go from here. His creativity on this collection makes it vividly clear that there’s a world of musical possibility at his feet and whatever direction he takes from here will likely bear ample fruit. The UK born Brookes has brought in a crew of UK music veterans of near musical royalty level – namely Joey Molland and Greg Healey from legendary pop rockers Badfinger. It is, perhaps, natural that Beatles and Badfinger influences come through strongly in the music and Healey’s production skills accentuate that quality when its present in Brookes’ work, but there are other influences coming through as well and they are accompanied by a highly individual quality that raises it all far above mere homage or imitation.

“I Wanna Go Home” serves notice of Brookes’ influences without ever getting lost in them. The ability to transmute the sounds that have influenced you as an artist into something truly your own isn’t as easy it might seem – the requisite talent is often beyond many young performers or else they lack seasoning. Whatever experience Brookes’ lacks is rendered moot by his talent level. He makes the coy vocal melody stick with you and never risks annoying the audience with its playfulness while the real longing at the heart of the song comes across quite effectively. “Asleep in Galilee” is another wonderfully effective number, one of the best on The Motor Car & The Weather Balloon, and the relaxed sweep carrying listeners through the song is made all the more appealing thanks to his vocal. A third high point comes with the track “Before Sunlight” and, once again, it’s melody that wins the day for Brookes. A closer listen to his lyrics, however, should reveal to any discerning listener that Brookes is an important songwriter who, each time out, makes meaningful statements with his considerable writing talents.

Two of the album’s grittier tracks, “Stories in the Rain” and “Somewhere Around Eight”, both rely on twining up distorted electric guitar runs with strong acoustic rhythm guitar underlying the entire song. Brookes gives us a different side of his vocal excellence with each of these songs and communicates vast oceans of feeling both times out. The album’s last song “Shackles” has a more poetic and moodier feel, but it ends the album on the right note and spares the audience any unnecessary histrionics. The quality of this release is such that it sounds like a much more experienced artistic hand is responsible for its excellence, but it’s clear we’re in the hands of prodigious talent with this one. Ben Brookes’ The Motor Car & The Weather Balloon is a worthwhile release in every meaningful respect.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Cyborg Asylum - Never Finished, Only Abandoned (2017)

Written by William Elgin, posted by blog admin

Cyborg Asylum is a duo whose first full length album Never Finished, Only Abandoned is one of the most compelling post-industrial alt rock releases to come out in many years. The tandem of David Varga and John Tumminia have written and recorded twelve songs that embrace vivid atmospherics while presenting a master class in how to incorporate melody and introspective textures into a style not typically associated with such qualities. Never Finished, Only Abandoned certainly has some darker moments spanning across the album’s dozen songs, but the flexibility Varga and Tumminia demonstrate as songwriters far outstrips anything offered up by peers and contemporaries working in the same style. This is a musical and lyrical experience alike; Tumminia’s contributions in this area are intelligent and measured while still fitting the musical landscape in a near ideal way. Never Finished, Only Abandoned is a powerful studio release in every respect and the songs are poised to prove engaging in a live setting as well.

A significant portion of the album is instrumental. The opener “Blitz” serves ample notice that this is an intelligent, albeit aggressive, affair more than willing to couple its swirl of instrumentation with ambient sound effects. The first track featuring Tumminia’s vocals, “Synergy”, introduces listeners to a central element of the duo’s treatment of such elements – rarely are Varga and Tumminia content with producing a straight forward vocal track and, instead, adorn his singing with a variety of post-production effects dovetailing nicely into the musical mood. Phil Jones’ guitar work emerges here for the first time and offers a lot to the song as a whole. “My Metallic Dream” doesn’t come off as dream like at all – unless that dream is a nightmare. The pulsing, low hung thrust of its musical attack engages listeners immediately and doesn’t provide the audience with much in the way of breathing space. This hint of the claustrophobic is a recurrent quality on the album and one of its signature virtues. “War Machine” revisits the tandem’s talent for composing and performing evocative instrumental pieces. The focus present in the earlier songs is even tighter here and one of the chief strengths we find on Never Finished, Only Abandoned is Cyborg Asylum’s persistent avoidance of any wasted motion.

“Weightless” begins with Tumminia’s vocals juxtaposed against a dark sheet of synth sound. There’s fewer post production effects applied to his singing on this song and, as a result, it engages listeners much more readily than the obvious atmospherics investing the earlier performances. The dread at the heart of the song only expands as the track develops and, by the end, we have one of the album’s best songs. “Steampunk Highway” features another great Tumminia vocal, although the lyrical content experiences a drop off in quality from the aforementioned gem. “Ion” brings together the industrial crawl at the center of many Cyborg Asylum tracks with an ethereally tinged melody line and it makes for one of the best instrumentals on the album. The closer “Paradigm Shift” is obviously intent on ending Never Finished, Only Abandoned with an emphatic exclamation point driven deep into listener’s memory thanks to the intensely physical tempo and arrangement. There are a lot of different textures employed during the course of this album, yet it retains an overall unity that few debuts can ever hope to achieve.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Josh Birdsong - Where the Light Bends (2017)

Written by David Shouse, posted by blog admin

Josh Birdsong’s sophomore EP Where the Light Bends builds on the resounding success of his debut Simple Geometry and takes his performances and songwriting a step further. Birdsong is clearly a songwriter, musician, and vocalist who invests every ounce of his heart into his material without ever taking shortcuts or pandering to the lowest common denominator. Instead, Birdsong has an effect on listeners through artistry and intimacy working in tandem and the results are impressive to hear. The six song EP covers a fair amount of sonic ground, uncommon for such a comparatively brief release, and illustrates the full breadth of talent that’s attracted awards and led to his music being featured in programming on MTV, E! Network, Discovery Channel, and ESPN, among others. Where the Light Bends is an enormously gratifying release that shows terrific bravery from first song to last and there’s not a single identifiable lull throughout the entire release.  

It opens up with great energy on the track “Complex Context”. While Birdsong will later flirt with this sort of energy on the release, no song on Where the Light Bends grabs the attention with the physicality we hear here. It begins, however, in a more scattered and atmospheric way before the drumming comes in to give it a much more definite shape. There’s a steady escalation of guitar and percussion on the track “The Sound Beneath the Static” that carefully modulates itself and Birdsong’s voice punctuates it nicely with his melodic flair. His sinewy guitar lines, urgent despite the electronic effects applied to his tone, are another highlight of an overall excellent track and his lyrical content rates among the EP’s best. There’s a chiming pop feel to the song “Cloud 8” that, naturally, provides near perfect accompaniment to the open-hearted feel of his voice. This is a much more nebulous, atmospheric track than the first two, but it retains enough similarities to make it feel like part of the same overall design.

The EP’s longest track “Too Much to Hold” has the same quasi-nebulous focus on atmospherics over more conventional moods and, running almost five and a half minutes, has a slower track of development than the earlier numbers. The remarkably open, generous qualities of Birdsong’s voice are vividly highlighted with this song and it relies much more on synth textures than the preceding songs. The guitar regains a measure of prominence with the song “Arctic Desert” and Birdsong matches its muscle with a more dramatically physical vocal. The song runs nearly as long as “Too Much to Hold”, but the distinctly different tack it takes sharply distinguishes it. The ambient touches on the EP’s title and final track add a degree of artfulness to the performance that never risks self-indulgence and the guitar work keeps it tethered to earth rather than allowing the song to waft away. It’s an appropriately hazy and poetic way to end an EP that makes big statements with a decidedly low key air. Josh Birdsong’s Where the Light Bends is a major step forward from his exceptional debut.

Monday, December 4, 2017

EZLA - Outcasts (2017)


Written by Raymond Burris, posted by blog admin

The power and imagination of EZLA’s debut EP release Outcasts distinguishes her as one of the most promising performers working today. She comes out of this five song collection with a self-possession we normally hear from singer/songwriters much further along in their career rather than such young performers, but there’s no question listening to this song that EZLA entered the studio with a clear idea to what she wanted this release to sound like, what she wanted it to invoke. It conjures a handful of moods that, sometimes, seem far beyond the ken of your typical young singer/songwriter and she makes somewhat difficult textures recognizable to our ears thanks to her consistent use of melody. It’s an approach she’s already managed to parlay into a successful Spotify presence and there’s no doubt this EP release will greatly expand her renown and public profile.

“Outcasts” begins the release with an assertive spirit and more than a nod to commercial considerations. The truly impressive facet of EZLA’s presentation is how she manages to incorporate those commercial considerations into what she does without ever compromising the personal nature of her performances. She envelops tracks with oodles of commitment and this title cut is no exception. It further illuminates her self confidence that she feel embolden to deem this cut the lead single and kick off her first release with its near anthemic thrust. She continues to emphasize her loyalties with the outlaw, the outsider, in the song “Skeletons” and her penchant for dark imagery without reducing the song to a difficult listen. The electronic driven backing never settles for taking an across the board uniform approach and, instead, matches the inventiveness of her vocal. “Satellites” differs some from the EP’s other four songs and has a clearer, less ambiguous mood than the other songs on Outcasts. She does a fantastic job, both through the words and music, of conveying a genuine sense of longing without ever being lurid. This moment gives way to a return back to the EP’s central atmosphere of heavy drama and darkness creeping around the edges, but her artfulness in depicting that remains as even handed as ever.

The final track “Psycho Killers” might have fallen flat if EZLA had put any further heat behind its musical feel and lyrical imagery. EZLA tackles this track with a great deal of relish and obviously enjoys amping up the dramatic potential in her music; this doesn’t have nearly the intimacy of some of the earlier songs, but it’s successful on its own merits. EZLA is working out of Nashville, an intensely competitive musical environment in the worst of times, and rises above the pack on the basis of her debut alone. Outcasts’ five songs show impressive variety and have a percolating energy that’s impossible to resist.