OPETH – Pale Communion (2014)

Review by: Nina A
Album assigned by: Graham Warnken
The appeal of metal music to the wide audience (all of its many subgenres seem to have a sizable enough fanbase) I have always found has to do a lot more with the psychology of the fans than the merits of the actual music. Not that I mean to say all metal music is bad because it is metal music. Nope, I actually mean to say that all metal music is not that special… because it is metal music. See, for some unspoken reason, metal music has to abide by the various metal music clichés and tropes, and that I find, is the thing that severely limits it and also cripples it somewhat. I was going to go on with more thoughts on the metal-loving community and their chosen genre of adoration but I feel that you folks will stop taking me seriously if I say “metal” one more time. So the reason I am bringing this up is because Pale Communion here (really, could you have picked a cheesier title) is a textbook example of my main problem with the genre: it’s just trying too hard. To be badass and important, I imagine. 
 
Any review of this album will probably go on about propulsive drumming, anthemic electric guitars, dynamic textural passages or I don’t know about its prog goodness or Middle Eastern whatever melodies but the truth is that none of this matters because ultimately the whole exercise is kinda soulless. They probably talk about friendship, betrayal, doom, hell, treason, hate, wisdom and other stuff from the high fantasy handbook of epic but it all just comes across as items off a checklist. A checklist I feel I’ve seen so many times already even if I’ve listened to like 20 metal albums in my life. Even worse, the sound of it all, for all its intellectual approach and expertise and delving into different genres and influences also ends up being this processed generic slick metal sound. And this is even more so what makes it mind numbingly boring. What’s up, metalheads of the world? Will you be considered less metal if you stopped sounding like pseudo-angsty metronomes?
 
Now don’t get me wrong, Pale Communion (oh, how about Brooding Aubergine or something) makes for some excellent background music, especially the more fusionish track “Goblin”, and I dig how they channeled Purple on the opener “Eternal Rains Will Come”. “River”, which I suppose is meant to be the more intimate offering in this album, also flows pretty nicely and showcases some amazing taste in arrangements and the skill of the bandmates. Truthfully, I’d probably find enough nice things to say about each of the tracks here, and I suppose it is for this reason that people feel good about praising such records very highly. Fair enough. Just don’t pretend this stuff is supposed to resonate with you emotionally or blow your mind artistically because in the end it all boils down to the formulaic metal checklist.
 
PS: There is a harmonic minor tune towards the end of “Voice of Treason” that is almost verbatim out of a trashy 90s Bulgarian pop song, which is a fun coincidence.
 
PS2: I can’t believe this came out as recently as 2014.
 
PS3: At least the cover art is somewhat imaginative.

THE WAILIN’ JENNYS – Bright Morning Stars (2011)

Review by: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Album assigned by: Graham Warnken

I was going to start this review by pointing out how the fact that the name of the group was a convoluted pun on Waylon Jennings was probably the most interesting thing there was to say about them! Truth is I originally found Bright Morning Stars to be massively soporific, to the extent that I had to force myself to listen to it all the way through. And it’s no understatement to say that I really struggled to summon up any kind of enthusiasm for it. But before I continue on my way to the eventual denouement of this little tale, let me give you at least a smidgen of background on the band itself. 

The Wailin’ Jennys are a female vocal harmony trio in the country-folk-roots mould. They hail from Canada — the band was formed in Winnipeg on the Eastern edge of the wide Canadian Prairies — and the record, Bright Morning Stars, their fourth album, was first released in 2011. My first few listens I’ll admit to having them down as the kind of placid, overly sincere music that you might associate with say a feminist knitting circle, or a tiresome but particularly self-satisfied coffee shop. It’s not that I have any kind of problem with country music or folksy americana (set aside for the moment the fact that it’s Canadians that made this) in general: no, not at all. Indeed a lot of my favourite music would easily fit that description, or at least fall within the overall sphere of influence of those genres. It’s just, well, I couldn’t escape the whiff of cliche emanating from the album, and I found it to be an awfully dreary and generic affair at first — but let me emphasise that ‘at first’ here. 

But even more than that, I was put off by the fact that the whole album seemed stuck in a sort of low energy trap, which isn’t much help when you consider that — and realise I am in no way proud of this — my main mode of listening to music nowadays is over headphones at work. And, well, I have enough problems concentrating on anything for more than a few minutes during working hours anyway, so the additional torpor induced by Bright Morning Stars made it a challenge to get through, especially on balmy afternoons with the sunlight streaming in through the blinds. I was after something much more ‘stimulating’ and so felt slightly resentful that I had to listen to the record and at least try and be half-way fair to it for the review.

Like I said this was originally gonna be a dismissive review, but at certain point my subconscious intervened and took a firm stand on behalf of these three mellifluous if lethargic folk maidens. It happened one morning, round about dawn, that I was in that strange and vulnerable hypnopompic state of mind between sleep and wakefulness, when I heard, or more accurately was haunted by the sensation of, a serene chorus of female voices, siren voices, singing a song that was so comfortingly familiar it was as if I’d known it for years. Except I hadn’t known it for years, I’d known it for about a week or so; waking up with the residue of those blissful voices still ringing in my mind, it took me a minute or so before I realised where it was I’d heard that song before — at which point I was fairly taken aback. I mean I certainly hadn’t expected to be won over so quickly, and my mind become suddenly so attuned to a record that just the day before I’d struggled to listen to all the way through. Where I had previously perceived an insubstantiality to Bright Morning Stars, an insipidity that seemed reflective of mediocrity and a lack of imagination, I now found myself listening to music that was weightless — yes — but that also sounded graceful and inspired: the melodies were not lukewarm and aimless, as I had first taken them to be, instead, transformed by time and the deeper workings of the brain, I appreciated and was able to applaud their delicacy and refinement. 
Folk music is at its best when it sounds timeless — especially, that is, when the songs themselves are new; that’s the craft. Each record, each performance, is supposed to fit seamlessly into the tradition, so as to ensure that there aren’t any jolts of the sort that used to occur every so often in rock and pop. Indeed once upon a time rock music and popular music used to thrive off of breaks in continuity, these challenges to the old order, only to emerge energised and newly relevant to yet another generation of young people. And so it would seem that the strength of folk music lies in precisely the type of continuity that rock and pop music once used to spurn; it’s not that folk music doesn’t progress at all, but that it’s always at a far more stalely pace. Pondering over these thoughts I asked myself if that which I had initially identified as the Jennies’ genericity — and that I took such an immediate reaction against — might not in the end actually be a point of strength. What matters in the end, at least as far as the genre is concerned, is the deeper resonance of the music, and on that score the Jennies are startlingly successful; they’re a revelation. The tl:dr, then, is that the Wailin’ Jennies are responsible for some very fine music here (in all senses of the word fine): music that manages to seep down into your subconscious and make itself absolutely at home there, without your really realising it and, maybe without you really wanting it — after all what if you don’t like knitting circles and self satisfied autumnal coffee shops — and isn’t there something a bit sinister and even a bit frightening about that? (8/10)

ULVER – ATGCLVLSSCAP (2016)

Review by: Graham Warnken
Album assigned by: Christian Sußner

Well, shit.

In the previous two rounds of the Only Solitaire Review Game, my luck wasn’t that great. I was assigned Preservation: Act 1 by The Kinks, which I found mediocre, and Scenes from a Memory by Dream Theater, which was pretty enjoyable if overblown. Neither one was an album that I truly loved or at the very least was intrigued enough by to want to revisit immediately.

It’s perhaps ironic that this album, which is mostly a canvas of ambience rather than a set of songs a la its predecessors, is the one that grabbed me so strongly, but there you are. Perhaps it helps that, unlike The Kinks and Dream Theater, whose reputations precede them, Ulver is a group I was utterly unfamiliar with going into the listening experience. Regardless of the answer, despite its daunting length (80+ minutes), it’s a record I want to revisit almost immediately.

I never would have known this album was mostly recorded live had I walked into it blind. True, it consists of multiple live shows overdubbed on top of one another, and additional studio trickery has been applied, but the sound is so pristine that even then it’s hard to believe any of it was recorded in front of an audience. It’s comprised of dense sonic layers, sweeping synths and chiming bells and swirling guitars and pounding drums piling on top of each other in a sound that’s misty and enticing rather than an overblown Phil Spector mood. Apart from two penultimate tracks, there are no vocal melodies, merely vague chanting and vocalizing that serve to supplement rather than dominate the music.

Without driving melodies or intricate structures, it would be easy for the songs to turn into so much ethereal self-indulgence, noodling their way into a directionless new-age haze, but this thankfully doesn’t happen. Lack of melody doesn’t mean lack of direction or power, and the record has those to spare. It’s not very helpful to say that it sounds like many great SF/F stories read, but that was the thought that kept recurring to me as I listened; there’s an otherworldly, beautiful aether that runs throughout the music. The only place this falls apart comes with the aforementioned duo of penultimate songs, “Nowhere (Sweet Sixteen)” and “Ecclesiastes (A Vernal Catnap)”. It’s here that vocal melodies become prominent, grounding the music in a way that doesn’t really suit it and injecting a force of individual personality where it isn’t wanted. This is especially damaging on the latter track, whose lyrics consist mostly of a recitation of a passage from the titular book of the Bible. Beautiful poetry, obviously, but it can’t help but feel canned when it’s sung over music; it smacks of empty pretension, as if the artist felt he had something important to communicate but fell back on a Biblical text because he couldn’t be bothered to say it in a new, interesting way. Yuck.

This misstep aside, however, this is an engrossing and frequently gorgeous piece of work. It’s already a part of my iTunes library, and I hope upon further listens to uncover a myriad of new things to appreciate.

DREAM THEATER – Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory (1999)

Review by: Graham Warnken
Album assigned by: Victor Guimarães

I never really feel qualified to analyze prog music, because I’m not really knowledgeable in musical theory. As a pianist of some eight or nine years this really shouldn’t be the case, but time signatures and key changes and whatnot aren’t something I’ve ever really been able to internalize. All this basically to say that I can’t really speak to the technical intricacy of anything on this album.

That said, what I go to prog albums for is an atmospheric listening experience. I listen to The Dark Side of the Moon or Pale Communion or In the Court of the Crimson King when I want to get into a certain mood, when I want to passively let sound wash over me rather than actively engage with the music. And in this respect, I quite enjoyed Scenes from a Memory.

It was always gonna be love at first sight, because the cover art is done by Dave McKean, the man who created the covers for every issue of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics. The Sandman connection is indicative of the thematic material that is to follow: dreams, altered consciousness, the thin line between reality and illusion, etc. etc. Of course, as with pretty much every rock opera, the story is melodramatic and preposterous when examined under scrutiny, but as that’s a given it’s easy to move past. The lyrics are also nothing particularly special, but again, that’s not why I’m here by and large.

The music, then: I listened to the album as one long suite on YouTube with no divisions between songs, so I can’t really isolate moments on a name-by-name basis. The whole, however, was remarkably pleasing. The adjective “dreamlike” is too abstract to use, and bears connotations of hazy, misty ambience that isn’t really appropriate, but the music definitely does communicate the multi-layered perceptual maze that the album is all about. Twisting, intertwining instrumentals, reminiscent of Opeth’s more recent stuff but not as heavy, feel like water trickling through one’s ears or a helix spiraling upward in the brain. It’s an album to get lost in, to be experienced in total rather than in drips and drabs.

I thoroughly enjoyed this listening experience, and look forward to returning to Scenes from a Memory and Dream Theater’s other offerings. Here’s to a proficient, enveloping musical experience—even if the story is still kinda silly.

TEAGUE CHRYSTIE – Adventures in Faking This (2014)

Review by: Nina A
Album assigned by: Graham Warnken

The Internet doesn’t seem to know a whole lot about Teague Chrystie, apart from the fact that he is a visual effects artist and that he has at some point written a musical of the name “Sad Max” with another guy, named Jim Frommeyer. But this scant information does indeed put the 5-track record “Adventures in Faking This” into perspective. It suddenly does make sense that the guy who’s written it has had experience with musicals because all these songs are textbook-crafted. They showcase expert knowledge of how to do your song in this or that style, to suggest this or that. (And probably not a ton of originality, if I have to be honest).
 
The opening track, with the visually concrete title of “Limp-Dick Christmas Lights”, already suggests that if we’re not dealing with full on comedy here, it is at least spoofing or self-aware irony. The singing on it I’ll assign to the self-aware irony column, aping very successfully the Elvis Costello school of setting your lyrics to the music, but the musical backdrop is probably more suited to the spoofing column: there are even the obligatory announcing-a-Christmas-number jingly bells in the intro. The bombastic horns and the boogie-woogie rhythm associated dashing sleighs (or zombified shopgoers) really drive the point home here. Unfortunately, while I thought this track is super fresh and funny on first listen, by the fourth I kinda hated it the way I hate every Christmas boogie-woogie, jingle bell rock or bluesy number ever.
 
Next up is a delicate waltz time ballad of the name “Blank Walls and Crowded Shelves”. Now the waltz signature is used widely for such purposes as depicting nostalgia or comfort or feelings you’ve sort of made peace with or… yeah… a vignette of ordinary people’s life drama, which is the use it is put to here. The string accents emphasise the whole affair in just the right way and the corny lyrics are something I find no pleasure in listening to. But hey, I know for a fact that some people can have a cathartic experience on something like this.
 
I feel that “I Feel More Like a Leonard”, the third track here, is supposed to be this cultural reference or a sublime in-joke but I don’t know what it is about really. Again, the energy, passion and measured shredding are just as prescribed (textbook derivatives, remember) and the 6/8 meter is a nice touch that enables this song with a driving rhythm.
 
The penultimate “Writing a Letter” is a gentle piano ballad, equipped with a heartfelt vocal delivery and lyrical details such as “perfectly mature adult” and “can’t stand myself”. This sort of thing would work great in a musical actually — where you have to shed light on the internal character drama and his motivations. Outside this context though, again, it is something I have absolutely no interest in learning about.
 
The raunchiest track on here serves as a closer to this 5-part magnum opus and this time Mr. Chrystie puts on his best Gogol Bordello impression. “The Insidious Communist Propaganda of Steve” opens on a rhythm as heavy as a drunk dancing bear from Belarus and sports the correct amount of chaotic enthusiasm to make it work, although the chorus-like “la-da-da-da”s are not nearly as drunken and tobacco-hampered as those that can be found on a Gogol Bordello record. The lyrics are probably funny too, if you can take communism puns and jokes by people who have a super vague idea of communism, which I usually cannot. In fact, why don’t we ban the word “propaganda” altogether — it certainly would make most high-school assignments more pleasant to read, as students would no longer feel the urge to use it left and right to prove they have understood the topic. It would also be relieved of its duty of a go-to word for people who cannot be bothered to do their own thinking. Anyway, the song features the obligatory spoken (or rather boisterously shouted) word coda and even gains steam to finish on a beat worthy of a balkan brass band. It does not hold as long as a balkan band would have it hold though (’cause that’s when the most frantic dancing happens), as it derails into its quirky component sounds pretty quickly. Oh and there is a scream.
 
So in conclusion, I’d say that “Adventures in Faking This” can be a fun record for a couple of listens, but I wouldn’t exactly cry if I never heard from it again. Congrats to Mr. Teague Chrystie on being so impressively good at faking this, though. The professionalism shines on all of the tracks.

ANAÏS MITCHELL – Young Man in America (2012)

Review by: Jonathan Birch
Album assigned by: Graham Warnken

Anais Mitchell is a modern folkie, in the same ilk as Bon Iver, and from the cover it’s clear what you’re getting into: the travels and travails of the Americana experience. The opening song sets the mood, with a lot of sparse guitar chords, screeching vioin, and oohs and aahs. Dorothy, we have found ourselves back in Kansas.

The second title track highlights the grievances I have with this record.  The instrumentation is professional, the production clear and pristine, the backing vocals soulful and atmospheric. But Miss Mitchell’s voice could not be more twee and precious, as though she is purposefully emulating the intonations of a twelve year old valley girl from southern California. It was one of those things I could just not move past, save for when she briefly stopped singing, and it hampered my enjoyment of the rest of the record. Something about the overly earnest and cherry sweet delivery made me wince whenever her voice squeaked into my ear canal. Which is a damn shame, because everything about it is easy to like. The second track begins as a simple folk ballad, before morphing into this New Orleans jazz-style tale of a young girl’s journey to adolescence. It’s both simultaneously moving and annoying to listen to. It does finish with a little bit of flourishing flute work, so that creates a nice high note at the end.

Third song, “Coming Down,” has a lot of teary eyed emotion to it, with Mitchell singing about the time she got very high and laughed so loud. I’m not sure what the message behind the song is, but it’s very pleasant with the breezy backing harmonies and crisp playing. It gets better on “Dyin Day,” a country/bluegrass piece with a slightly more energetic feel. I’m no longer dozing off but tapping my feet to the steady beat and groovy mandolin solo. Miss Mitchell seems to know the way to my roots rock heart. “Venus” is a pleasant little number about the singer discovering her womanhood and meeting the Roman goddess Venus. A nice electric guitar shuffle melds with jovial accordion solo, which really tickles my earbuds. How can one not feel happy when listening to such optimism?

The rest of the songs do sort of blend together after a while in this pudding of syrupy folksiness. The lyrics do begin to travel bit heavily into biblical, country-bumpkin, John Steinbeck-ish territory, as Mitchell wails about how her daddy “was a builder who swung his hammer brown and silver” or “how she sowed a party dress with a needle and thread.” It’s almost like she’s trying her darnest to convince me how pragmatic and salt of the earth she is. Because she’s from rural Vermont you see.

The track “Tailor” has a fair bit of annoying, and dare I say ostentatious lyrical utterings, where she repeats some seemingly innocuous phrases over and over, such as “In and out, In and out, In and out,” or “Who am I? Who am I? Who am I?” I don’t know Anais, I wish you’d get to the point and tell me though.  Apparently the album was designed to tell a story that relates to the recession of ’08, and Miss Mitchell seems to anoint herself as the voice for the zeitgeist of modern America’s alienated youth. But her themes never seem to expand beyond the superficial side of longing for love and motherhood, and her overall style is slightly too drippy to carry any weight; the track “Shepherd” sounds like something I’d hear on a commercial for Johnson’s baby powder. Supposedly it’s based on a short story her father, a college  professor and former novelist, wrote, which I appreciate for its honesty, but the self-indulgent audacity of it is rather cringe worthy too. Miss Mitchell, I understand you come from a long line of distinguished bards, but your poetry need some more bite for it to catch my interest.

“You Are Forgiven,” the second to last track, is slightly more rocking. Which means that the acoustic guitar is strummed a bit faster and we finally have some drums. There’s even a nice trumpet solo that adds some spice, but by now it’s too late to enlarge the horizons of this record beyond the obvious. It’s clear this was designed as one of those albums you listen to intently on a sultry evening, but there are billions of these homely folk albums that I would be willing to recommend in its place. It’s slightly less labored than your average Red House Painter’s record, but not as atmospheric as The Cowboy Junkies. It’s somewhere on the scale between enjoyable and pleasantly mediocre. 

THE KINKS – Preservation: Act 1 (1973)

Review by: Graham Warnken
Album assigned by: Alejandro Muñoz G

I had never actually listened to The Kinks before outside of a few isolated songs, so I was excited to do my first full album by them. Unfortunately, I think I’m forced to agree with the mostly negative reception it’s gotten.

The production is uniformly wonderful, which is a big plus, and musically a lot of the songs are pleasing enough. If there’s a plot to this rock opera, however, I can’t see one. Worse yet, the lyrics are utterly grating. Davies wants to be a cutting satirist but he paints with far too broad a brush and far too simple a sentiment to come off as anything other than smarmy a lot of the time. Where Randy Newman’s satire is horrifyingly cruel because it’s laced with empathy and pity, Davies clearly considers himself above most of the people he’s describing and treats them as such. It’s not amusing, it’s obnoxious.

As said above, I mildly enjoyed a good deal of the album’s melodies, but they can’t rescue it from the lyrics for me. Having seen that this is generally considered the beginning of the end for the band, though, it won’t deter me from eventually seeking out their earlier work.