Elephant9’s “Silver Mountain” Breathes Fresh Air into Psych’s Overflowing Canon

Psychedelic rock, at least the modern variety, has been consistently sabotaged by some members of the press and casual listeners alike as a poor man’s genre – a style of music rooted in the ”good old days” of Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and the 13th Floor Elevators with nothing to say. They’re not entirely wrong. It seems increasingly difficult to find inventive, innovative acts operating within the confines of psych. From the dazed-out-pop of Unknown Mortal Orchestra to the far-out, volcanic jams of Earthless, these are essentially the same kaleidoscopic conjurations your parents heard in the ‘60s and ‘70s. “What’s next” is a question many bands of this ilk wrestle with, whether in the studio or deep in the lion’s den of music journalism. But Norway’s “best live band” Elephant9 brings a simple answer to the table: “just add jazz.” With “Silver Mountain,” Elephant9 rejects the pretense of modern psychedelia and embraces its namesake with arms and minds wide-open.

Minds-wide open seems like a good tagline for the record, as the band’s ingenuity is apparent from the get-go. Whereas the prototypical psych outfit contents itself to ride a colorful passage for all its worth, Elephant9 and Reine Fiske reject stagnation. Much like the genre’s namesake, compositions shift shape with regularity, evoking variegated hues and visual patterns. “Occidentali” snakes and slithers its way through curious, jazzy instrumentals before blanketing the audience with echoing washes of synth and guitar. The calm, however, quickly snaps into a spastic freak-out. Guitars, courtesy of Dungen’s Reine Fiske, rocket through the percussion’s inconstant gravity before dying out. Moments like these come in ready supply and almost always captivate. Though it should be obvious by now, it warrants clarification: this isn’t your parent’s psych. “Silver Mountain” doesn’t ride the strength of its instrumental creativity alone, though.

Both production and mixing play significant roles in the album’s success. Each instrument breathes in relative clarity, but makes allowance for the natural obfuscations warranted by the genre. Fiske’s guitar is given extra attention, piercing through moments of tranquility with a colorful, pin-point trajectory. Here, the music is vivid – vibrant, even – but never polished to a fine sheen. Centerpiece “Abhartach” pounds its way through an off-kilter groove dominated by side-step drum patterns and surreal, thick spikes of distortion. Elsewhere, the militant, pounding rhythms of “Kungsten” hammer down with serious gravity, weaving in-and-out of line while battering the listener. It’s noisy, often chaotic, but it sounds exactly as it should: evocative and engrossing. And really, if you can say a modern psych album is evocative and engrossing, not just a despondent and derivative addition to an overflowing canon, then you’ve got a winner.

9.1/10

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Gazpacho’s Molok Is Not the Art Rock Masterpiece You’re Looking For

Expectations are often our own worst enemies. We hear an exciting, novel record for the first time and fall head over heels like starry-eyed saps. Soon after, we begin constructing the absurd mythology of a band “too big to fail.” Gazpacho’s Demon worked as the perfect lure for that trap. Haunting, bizarre and curiously beautiful, 2014’s progressive rock sleeper hit found the band firing on all creative cylinders for a career milestone – an album that, by all accounts, will go down as one of art rock’s overlooked gems. Molok, the follow-up to 2014’s masterful Demon, seemed primed for rounds of universal praise, and it’s probably going to get it. Best-of-the-year lists will likely make room for the Norwegian ensemble’s latest record. Droves of avid listeners will likely throw the album into heavy rotation. But I won’t. Gazpacho’s Molok isn’t what I hoped for, and it’s my own fault for expecting perfection.

A major reason for this lukewarm reception is the band’s approach to songwriting, which finds Ohme and company once again discarding the extended, long-form compositions of Night and Demon in favor of bite-sized chunks of sound. This wouldn’t be an issue, however, if Molok’s thematic and conceptual depth didn’t demand more from each individual track. “Algorithm” effectively grips the listener by the throat with its ominous, tribal soundscapes but loses hold just as quickly; it merely segues into another track and never truly develops beyond beleaguered sighs and pounding rhythms.

Elsewhere, “Bela Kiss” quickly earns its spot as Gazpacho’s most curious track to date. It’s an ethnic romp with little substance, not dissimilar in sound from the Italian tarantella outro of “Wizard of Altai Mountains” but without the impact. Oddly, the track isn’t attached to a more substantial centerpiece, and it doesn’t carry enough fire to warrant itself as a standalone composition. These tracks would have served well as smaller pieces in a larger whole — small segments in the vivid, sprawling sonic canvases the band has so thoroughly demonstrated its talent in coloring. “Algorithm” and “Bela Kiss” aren’t the only offenders here: they’re just the most egregious.

It’s a shame, too, because Molok is one Gazpacho’s best sounding records. “Know Your Time” sports a spacious mix that allows each instrument room to breathe, evoking the band’s trademarked ethereal wonderment with ease. But even the record’s brightest moments flicker out when put into perspective. Gorgeous as it is, “Know Your Time” is a retread of familiar territory. In many ways it’s the prototypical Gazpacho song. River-of-glass vocals? Check. Haunting atmospherics? Check. The subdued percussion of “Choir of Ancestors” is a smart production choice, allowing Ohme’s smooth vocals to take center-stage, but, ultimately, it feels a bit hollow – like an excerpt from material that wasn’t strong enough to get out of the cutting room last time around.

Despite this, Molok isn’t a poor effort, or even an average one. It’s decidedly good, but when a band has consistently raised the bar to herculean heights – Night, anyone? – it becomes progressively harder to be impressed. 2014’s Demon introduced bizarre instrumentation and unexpected twists into the group’s arsenal, but Molok merely doubles down and dumbs down. Nothing here caries the ethereal, cinematic sweep of “I’ve Been Walking, Pt. 2” and nothing hits quite as hard as Ohme’s dramatic declaration of “I lost it down the rabbit hole” in “I’ve Been Walking, Pt. 1.” Molok, in many ways, seems natural as a next step for the group: it continues to divorce the band’s sound from the sea of uninspired prog-rock tribute acts. That’s a great move, but opting for refinement over revolution only works if you’re actually upping the ante, and, sadly, that’s where Gazpacho drops the ball. Molok certainly isn’t a revolution, but it’s not really a refinement, either: it’s a band in suspended animation.

6/10

Emancipator Seven Seas Tour, Variety Playhouse 10/8/2015 Review

Five years is a long time to anticipate seeing an artist live. Adrenaline and expectation churn together, slowly simmering, before coalescing into the perfect drug: hype. And really, if any artist in the downtempo, trip-hop scene deserves that kind of accolade, it’s Emancipator. Douglas Appling’s studio work has been nothing short of immaculate, overflowing with rich textures, vibrant compositions and a smooth, smoky haze you can taste on the tip of your tongue. But that’s in the studio. One question hung heavy throughout my evening: could Emancipator’s live show capture the sound-room magic?

Yes. Emancipator’s sound engineering was, in a word, phenomenal. Guitar, bass, drums, violin and all computer-generated effects were clearly audible throughout the performance, with only minor obfuscations. Appling’s music has always been lush and densely layered, and the mix effectively brought these nuances to life. “Greenland,” one of Appling’s sharpest openers, came through with crystal clarity, bringing me back to the first time I ever heard the cut. Nostalgia rarely felt so sweet.

Even when Emancipator played heavily into cuts I’d yet to develop keen feelings for, the feeling of nostalgia never truly went away. That’s largely owed to Appling’s strength as a songwriter. Regardless of where the cut came from – the chilly lilts of Safe in the Steep Cliffs or the organic swells of Seven Seas – they each struck their respective cords. Whether playing it cerebral, emotive or some murky concoction of both, Appling and his crew turned in a remarkable set covering the full-range of Emancipator’s sound.

The crowd seemed to appreciate the set even more than I did. Couples, friends and lone wolves danced to the beats, swaying and snaking along the beats in constant motion. One girl in front of me seemed as though she’d entered a trance – hands rising and falling, hips sliding and head shifting; she completely lost herself in the sound. Emancipator had his audience in the palm of his hand, and, really, he earned it. Together, Appling and the Ensemble brought Emancipator’s smooth vibes to life in brilliant fashion.

Downtempo and trip-hop may seem like a peculiar live experience to uninitiated curiosities looking for a “lively” event, but don’t fall into that trap. There’s nothing boring about the Emancipator Ensemble’s chilled-out vibes. If you’re looking for an evening to shake loose on strong rhythms, go. If you’re looking to space out into the rafters and cascading lights, go. And for those who want a night of exceptional music? Go. You won’t regret a moment.

The Dear Hunter Maintains its Record of Excellence with “Act IV”

Fire engulfs a mounted ring, and the crowd roars with excitement. The ringleader cracks a whip, cutting through the air like a gunshot. His lion roars and primes itself; its tail sweeps gently to and fro as its eyes narrow. Then it happens. The beast leaps through the flames with triumphant swagger, spinning circles as it lands. Fireworks burst through the air, and men on unicycles ride across tightropes in the sky. Every member of the audience explodes with applause. This is the level of bombast Casey Crescenzo achieves with The Dear Hunter. Since 2006, Crescenzo has been crafting one of music’s most ambitious projects – a six-part story of loss, love and redemption told over the course of six albums. If that sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. What’s also ridiculous is just how consistently good this project has been. Defying all the odds, Crescenzo’s magnum opus has gone swimmingly so far. Infectious hooks, orchestral excursions and progressive songwriting all coalesce into an unmistakable sound that’s garnered a cult status among underground music fans. Good news, then, because Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise keeps The Dear Hunter’s tradition of excellence alive and well.

Much of Act IV’s success comes from Crescenzo’s self-awareness; he seems to know himself as an artist inside and out at this point in his career. He knows he’s at his best when he goes for broke, and “The OId Haunt” is as good an example as any. Rollicking bass and tumultuous guitar leads snake beneath a solid percussive backbone before erupting into an explosive, roaring chorus. It’s a moment of exhilaration and triumph for Crescenzo, who’s fully bought into his own capacity as storyteller. Moments like these work to sell the narrative and drive it home. It’s obvious that the band has bought into this story, but standout performances like these will buy the audience in, too.  As good as that track is, I’d be remiss not to bring up “Waves,” one of the year’s finest songs. Here, Crescenzo plays to another side of The Dear Hunter’s persona: emotional resonance. Swelling strings, crashing drums and female vocal accompaniment come together into a wrecking ball of emotional force. When Crescenzo’s final lament of “but I can’t see the lighthouse” bursts through the speakers it’s a gut punch of Mayweather proportions – one that will stay with you long after the record’s stopped spinning. This isn’t the only track on Act IV to evoke a potent reaction; it just happens to be the most effective of the lot.

Despite these standouts, it’s hard to shake the thought that many listeners will grow fatigued before the album’s end. This isn’t an issue of quality, but of energy. Cresecenzo’s larger-than-life personality and sharp narrative focus may demand too much investment from casual listeners, but honestly, this album was never for them. You won’t unearth the record’s subtleties on your first listen, and you certainly won’t realize how deep its hooks have sunk until later still. Tracks like the narrative-heavy “Bitter Suite IV and V” and the nine minute “A Night on The Town” aren’t easy listening – you will expend energy to get these songs. This might sound like a hazard sign, but don’t let it deter you; the effort required here is worth it. Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise is a fantastic, ambitious record if you allow it time to spread its wings. This may not be the easiest rock album of the year, but it’s certainly earned its place as one of the most impressive.

8.7/10

Chelsea Wolfe’s “Abyss” is an Ugly, Engrossing Ride Through the Mire

Ask me to point you towards an artist that could be described as oppressive, and I’d point you towards Chelsea Wolfe. That isn’t meant as an insult given her stylistic playbook. Since her debut The Grime and the Glow, Wolfe has been perfecting an ugly concoction of doom, dreary folk and mired electronics. It’s the type of combination that sounds gloriously miserable on paper and sounds even moreso when put to practice. Even so, the ride through Wolfe’s discography hasn’t been without its issues. Her last album, Pain is Beauty, suffered from an identity crisis. Approximately half the record played to throat-crushing atmospherics while the other worked in quirk-riddled, murky pop tunes, leaving some fans to wonder which side of Wolfe would appear on her follow up. Turns out it’s the former. With Abyss, Wolfe buries all traces of uncertainty behind the shed. It’s uncompromising, unrelenting and unsettling. To put it in other terms: it’s pure Chelsea Wolfe. Welcome to the mire.

Abyss immediately sets itself apart from its predecessor in numerous ways, none more obvious than the bold songwriting decisions littering the record. Though she has often opted for the slow-burner opener, “Carrion Flowers” marks a clear departure for Wolfe. Hideous waves of distortion wash over mechanical, militaristic drums as her ghostly vocals soar and crash against the cacophony. “Iron Moon” is an equally abrasive cut, hammering the audience before Wolfe’s chilling vocals play out over soft, acoustic strums. Stark contrasts like these are part and parcel on Abyss, and they work wonders. At this point in her run, Wolfe is a seasoned artist – seasoned enough to know the subtle difference in sustaining real power and creating monotony. “Maw,” oddly enough, may be the perfect example of Wolfe’s penchant for power, though not in the way you might expect. It’s a slow, surrealistic dirge of a song that as obfuscated as it is beautiful. Finding the right mix of ethereal synth and acoustic guitars, Wolfe draws the audience in like a whirlpool. Her music might tap into natural beauty from time to time, but don’t let it fool you; there’s a sick, emotional violence beneath that will swallow you if you let it.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a murky undertow without the proper production, and Wolfe delivers here as well. Tracks like Grey Days showcase this fidelity best. Running through obscured, muddied lows in equal proportion to crystal-clear highs, the track truly shines and earns it spot as one of the album’s best. Just when the song seems like it’s about to slip into an inescapable muck of solemn distortion and pounding rhythms, Wolfe’s vocals pierce the fog with a tremendous relief. Moments later, ethereal strings lift the veil. Here, songwriting and engineering work in tandem to create something special. Sure, Wolfe’s been playing with this song-meets-sound approach for years, but it’s never resounded quite like this. Wolfe’s fourth album feels like a mission statement in many ways: tightened songwriting, consistent aesthetics and keen talent in the sound room all come together in spectacular ways on Abyss. If 2011’s Apokalypsis showcased an artist coming into her own, Abyss is that artist pushing past the pack.

9/10

Tame Impala’s “Currents” Is Equal Parts Dance Fever and Mediocrity

It seems that Kevin Parker will never be happy with taking the indie world by storm. It just isn’t enough. While some fans would be happy to hear his debut “Innerspeaker” over and over again, those looking for a change of pace are likely to find a lot to like about Tame Impala’s third album, “Currents.” The fuzzed-out guitar of Parker’s debut is entirely absent, replaced by variegated cascades of synthesizers and dance beats. It’s undoubtedly different, but different doesn’t always translate into better. Parker’s third foray into the Tame Impala canon starts admirably with a series of invigorating cuts, but “Currents” gradually drifts away in Parker’s own ambition for change. Swept by the currents, indeed.

The album’s biggest problem isn’t its quality: it’s the record’s slow dive into monotony. “Let It Happen” may be the best opener Parker has ever recorded, full of vibrant synths and romping disco beats, but the luster of Tame Impala’s shiny new aesthetic quickly wears off. By the time “The Less I Know the Better” comes around, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that this exact song played just a few minutes ago. For all purposes, it did. Parker has clearly fallen head over heels for his shining new psychedelic dance persona. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this sound, but by album’s end the whole proceeding washes over like waves of obfuscated noise. Tracks like “Reality in Motion” drag the album to a grinding halt as it repeats the same tricks heard minutes earlier and serve only as deadweight to pan out the running time.

Monotony isn’t the only issue plaguing Parker’s latest opus: bizarre songwriting quirks spring up like weeds. “Past Life” is the worst offender, beginning with an irritating spiral of synth repeated ad nausea beneath a low-register, roboticized spoken-word intro. Just when the irritation ends and a song starts to emerge, the baffling narration returns for continued sabotage. “Let It Happen,” the album’s highlight, isn’t free of problems, either. Midway through, the same note repeats for thirteen seconds straight. It was literally as though the media file had been corrupted and glitched into a loop, but for some reason this was determined to be a desirable effect. It’s inexplicable, and it doesn’t do the album any favors.

Don’t get the wrong idea, though; there are gems to be found here. “Yes I’m Changing” is a remarkably pretty ballad, full of confessional self-inflicted barbs and crooned exclamations of “bullshit.” Parker’s admissions feel genuine enough warrant a considerable emotional response from the listener, securing its spot as one of the album’s key tracks. Album closer “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” injects some much-needed life into the proceedings with its expansive, electric sweep, and “The Moment” works well as an early album energizer with its charming boot-heel stomp and Parker’s spaced-out recollections of dance-floor magic. Lines like “I fell in love with the sound of my heels on the wooden floor, I don’t want our footsteps to be silent anymore” work well to sell any hesitant listeners on Parker’s new aesthetic.

Moments like these, though, come few and far between the further one delves into “Currents.” It’s an album of jolting revolutions without the backbone to support them. Engaging songwriting, typically one of Parker’s strengths, seems to disappear half-way through the album, leaving the listener to wonder whether the magic is truly gone or whether it’s been buried beneath top-dollar production sheen and endless barrage of electric noises. Unfortunately, “Currents” is likely a better album title than Parker realized. The further he ventures from that illustrious debut, the further and further away he’s drawn from what made his music special in the first place.

5.1/10

Hiatus Kaiyote’s “Choose Your Weapon” is a Remarkable Genre-Bending Ride

Unusual might be the perfect descriptor for Australia’s Hiatus Kaiyote, a future soul four-piece waging a personal war on all things traditional in a traditionalist’s genre. Starting with 2011’s “Tawk Tomahawk,” the band has set fire to the neo soul rulebook, paving its own, unique path forward. Whereas many acts seem content paying repetitive homage to Prince and Marvin Gaye, Nai Palm and her conspirators have taken a basic formula and bent it beyond recognition. Pulsating electro-funk, oddball R&B, smooth jazz and gyroscopic tempo-shifts abound. Unlike many of its peers, Hiatus Kaiyote understands that the best path to pay respect isn’t to play the imitator’s game: it’s to push the envelope. “Choose Your Weapon,” the band’s much-anticipated sophomore album, does exactly that.

It’s immediately apparent that the band’s second album isn’t going to be straightforward. Album opener “Shaolin Monk Motherfunk” snakes through multiple moods and genres with electric fervor, snapping any inattentive listeners to attention. Dream-laden neo-soul worship quickly gives way to a smooth jazz groove smoothed by Palm’s river-of-glass vocals. It’s a beautiful start, but it doesn’t last. The song boils over like a cauldron of volatile elements. Funk, skat and electronic overdubs surge and swell in a feverish rush. The drums crash. The synthesizers swell. It’s exhilarating, and it’s just the beginning. The rest of the album follows suit, though it always reshuffles its deck of tricks. “Borderline With my Atoms,” for instance, never roars into a bull’s head rush of an end. Rather, it lulls the listener in with its slow, dream-like rhythm and Palm’s low-register croons. Essentially, it’s the yin to the opener’s yang. Everything from the first prelude to the final notes of the record falls somewhere in the space between, cementing Hiatus Kaiyote as a band with a remarkably varied arsenal.

Hiatus Kaiyote also deserves praise for the record’s crisp, warm sound, which invigorates the inventive songwriting. “Breathing Underwater” sounds much like its namesake thanks to some clever studio tricks. Computerized synths modulate in bright sonic palettes, evoking the rush of bubbles to a watery surface. Later, the same instrument swells in the background like the rise and fall of waves. It’s a sweet, somber latin-esque ballad brought to stunning clarity. Each band member has room breathe, allowing the small touches like these the spotlight. “Swamp Thing” is similarly impressive thanks to some inventive sound engineering. The song is dominated by thick, meaty bass stomps that capture the menace of the song’s namesake quite well. It’s loud, crunchy and undeniably fun. Track after track, it’s clear that’s the band’s talent doesn’t end at the writing stage.

If any substantial criticism should be leveled at “Choose Your Weapon,” it’s that the band too often opts for undeveloped interludes to pad out the tracklisting. Sure, the album sports a lengthy 18 tracks, but six of these tracks don’t even hit the three minute mark. Some barely pass one. Really, though, that’s more of a perfectionist’s critique than a grievous fault of the album. Despite some unnecessary filler, Hiatus Kaiyote’s “Choose Your Weapon” is fantastic. It’s unique. It’s innovative. It’s pure Hiatus Kaiyote, and in a year full of quality releases, the hardest earned compliment is often standing out. More than that, it stands beside the year’s very best. So kick back and enjoy the lounge jazz vibes. Enjoy the funk-laden grooves. Fall in love with the samba-dance rhythms. You can choose your weapon, but odds are good that you’ll have trouble picking just one.

9/10

Marriages Deliver Tightened Songwriting And Grace With “Salome”

Shoegaze often seems split into two distinct categories: bands who obscure their music beneath million dollar guitar tones and those who allow their songwriting to rise above the reverberating soundscapes. I’ve always found the latter of those two approaches the more compelling. Sure, eschewing convention can lead to some interesting experiments, but in burying the songs there’s little else to cling to but the nagging suspicion that we’re listening to rock covers of old Tangerine Dream tracks. California’s Marriages seem to share that opinion. Instead of writing an ambient album composed of rock instrumentation, they’ve written a rock album shrouded in ambience, and that’s exactly what shoegaze should be. “Salome” is just the type of spaced-out, naval-gazing escapism you’d expect from the genre’s best artists channeled via nine neatly-packaged songs.

“Salome” works so well largely because of its enthralling atmosphere. The record’s instrumentation is unabashedly miasmatic, but it’s also firmly rooted by solid rhythm-work. It feels grounded and airborne all at once, like a vapor trail of smoking tendrils trapped inside a bottle. Tracks like “Southern Eye” and “Binge” would drift like worried smoke if not for the propulsive drum fills anchoring them. When Emma Rundle’s vocals pierce through the noise of “Skin,” it’s hard to imagine the result as so gut-wrenching without the sturdy basswork locking everything into place. Marriages’ debut album sounds free enough to float but only within the confined space of its rock sensibilities. Compelling soundscapes are only part of the picture, though. “Salome” wouldn’t be nearly as successful without keen songwriting to back it up. Fortunately, the band brought it in spades.

Marriages’ made a smart decision in scaling back the metallic sludge and post-rock tendencies of their debut EP, “Kitsune.” Sure, those elements made for an engaging and varied listen, but by refocusing their songs into traditional structures with cleaner production, the band has honed its songwriting to a fine point. The third cut, “Santa Sangre,” is a perfect example of this newfound focus. Working through the standard verse-chorus approach, the song makes itself known, makes its point, and moves on. There’s no deciphering required. Whereas “Kitsune” buried itself beneath multiple ideas and genres, “Salome” operates with simplicity. Tracks like the album’s closer, “Contender,” work so well because of their direct approach. Lesser bands playing this style may have opted for the moody, ambient sprawl as a closer, but it’s clear that Marriages is confident enough in its songwriting to close out the album the same way it began: with a well-crafted rock song shrouded in ambience.

Whether you look at it as a shoegaze record rooted in rock instrumentation or a rock album rooted in shoegaze ultimately makes little difference. Here, Marriages has crafted one of the year’s most exciting debuts. It’s a remarkable consolidation of the band’s best qualities from “Kitsune” that cuts out the excess. Razor sharp and finely honed, “Salome” brims with vitality; it’s the album this band showed itself capable of making, but not the one we expected this soon.

8.1/10

10 Years Address Two Audiences on the Conflicted “From Birth to Burial”

One of the most respectable aspects of alternative veterans 10 Years is their refusal to release the same album twice. It would’ve been easy to ride the success of 2005’s excellent “The Autumn Effect” for years to come, but Jesse Hasek and company opted for the rougher road. Rather than give in to expectations, the band denied them with “Division” and utterly ignored them on “Feeding the Wolves.” It wasn’t until the band’s 2012 effort “Minus the Machine” that 10 Years decided to tap back into the atmospheric art rock vibes of their seminal recording, if only in sporadic bursts. Enter 2015, and here we have an album bearing that iconic hummingbird – skeletal and reflected over the eerie image of a child locked in utero. Sure, this is a blatant throwback, but it’s one that’s likely to ease fans into yet another sonic shift for the band. Sadly, this newest iteration of 10 Years seems split – much like the mirror image reflection of their logo — into two distinct halves: one embracing the band’s penchant for ethereal vibrancy and the other drowning in the ugliest recess of alternative metal banality.

For the positives, 10 Years still knows how to play 10 Years. Album closer “Moisture Residue” makes this abundantly clear, running through a slew of plaintive piano chords and sighing strings beneath Hasek’s trademarked croon. It’s enthralling when Hasek’s voice pierces through the thickening soundscape and singlehandedly underscores why he’s the group’s greatest asset. It’s as deflating of a closer as one could hope to ask for, playing out like a bleak epiphany in slow motion. “Vertigo” is yet another winner for 10 Years, channeling the band’s signature stylistics into a mid-tempo rocker replete with a soaring chorus and downtrodden, uncomfortable verses. Here, the band fires on all cylinders to deliver one of its finest songs in years; it’s concise, engaging, and meanwhile manages to retool the band’s established sound into a new, edgier angle. “From Birth to Burial” is at its best when it reinvigorates established concepts with a murkier slant. It does this often, but not often enough to save the record from numerous wasted minutes.

Problems begin to surface when the band deviates from its own blueprint. Rather than opt into a total consolidation of its strengths, roughly half of “From Birth to Burial” plays into the least engaging aspects of the alternative metal scene. Tracks such as the feverish “Triggers and Tripwires” totally eschew any hint of the band’s personality in favor of mundane exercises in musical weightlifting. Riffs abound, but the band’s muscle seems far more atrophied than in their less metallic recordings. Rare exceptions snap the listener back to attention, such as the simplistic, energetic crunch of lead single “Miscellanea” and the rollicking head-smasher of the title track. For the most part, however, the least engaging moments on “From Birth to Burial” come from its loudest. It’s a shame, really, because these surges of muddy force come far more frequently than on previous albums.

Unfortunately, the album’s cover says a lot more about the state of the band than they probably realize. That split image reflection of the hummingbird, the band’s logo, shows two distinct entities – two bands. With “From Birth to Burial,” 10 Years and 10 Years are playing to two separate, contradictory audiences. Half of the album winds through darkened permutations of the band’s atmospheric tendencies while the other half fights for the adoration of head-bobbing alternative addicts stuck in the mire of nu-metal. It’s unclear whether or not 10 Years will consolidate itself, but one thing is certain: 10 Years will always stay 10 Years, for better or worse.

6/10

The Mountain Goats Faceplant in Spectacular Fashion on “Beat the Champ”

If we inventoried a list of things that don’t belong together, it’s likely that indie music and professional wrestling would sit in a comfortable position. John Darnielle and The Mountain Goats, however, seem to disagree. On the band’s 15th album “Beat the Champ,” Darnielle has tapped into his childhood love of large men grappling one another into submission (yes, typing that was weird). But, here we are, with one of the most peculiar indie albums of the year staring us in the eyes with a masked, sweat-drenched face. It’s inventive. It’s brave. Unfortunately, it’s just not particularly consistent. On their 15th album, The Mountain Goats seem more interested in riding the quirk of the album’s lyrics than penning compelling songs. “Beat the Champ,” oddly enough manages a knockout – but not how the band intended. Sporting an unfavorable ratio of misses to hits, the album goes all-in for a pile driver but winds up face planting the floor in spectacular fashion.

The Mountain Goats’ latest record suffers most from the wavering quality of its songwriting. Throughout 13 songs, “Beat the Champ” covers all the indie bases – starry-eyed balladry, up-tempo romps and mild-mannered acoustic dirges. It does these things competently, indifferently and stupidly – sometimes all at once. “Werewolf Gimmick” provides a much needed shot in the arm after a ponderous track, but even the rolling percussion and fiery acoustics can’t save the song from its uninspired sigh of a chorus. It’s the perfect example of buzzkill, captured in a mere two minutes and thirty-five seconds for your listening convenience.  “Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan” is one of the record’s worst offenders. It’s not at all unreasonable to think one of the longest cuts on the album should spare the courtesy to end on some semblance of a climax. It doesn’t. The song lurches forward with sporadic string runs that punctuate and contrast Darnielle’s nasal yelps. This irritating game of back and forth, admittedly, does get louder, but louder alone doesn’t make for an exciting finish; it makes for a lazy one.

Lyrically, the album treads through stories of muscle-bound braggadocio and untimely demise. Over the album’s 13 tracks, it eventually becomes apparent that this thematic unity, while impressive in how well it’s maintained, reeks of gimmickry. Take “Foreign Object,” for instance, which documents the pre-fight insults wrestlers hurl with reckless abandon. Lines such as “sink my teeth into your scalp, take an icepick bite, save nothing for the cameras, play the angles all night” work well enough as lowbrow black humor, but aren’t exactly highlights of stunning lyricism. Really, it’s a shame; on previous releases the Mountain Goats’ lyrics, while not profound, did manage to conjure some semblance of relatability. Listeners could feel what the band felt. Here, connection is taken to the shed out back and buried. Sure, it’s easy to tell that it’s all meant to be tongue in cheek, but that doesn’t make mediocrity any easier to swallow.

This is The Mountain Goats performing their shallowest songs in years behind a fresh coat of lyrical paint to mask the deficiencies. The joke’s on the band, though, because that fresh coat only works to sabotage the record even further. If this sounds exciting, then by all means, jump right in. I hope that Mountain Goats fans enjoy it. I really do. But when you wind up with your face plastered on the floor, it won’t be anyone’s fault but your own. It’s bad enough that the band’s down there. One embarrassment is enough.; we don’t need any fans down there with them.

4.2/10