Kozen: A Fearful Wonder (Self Released)
Kozen is uncomfortable with the term ‘genre’. Their description cites influences ranging from Metal to R&B to Prog. You can certainly tell that from A Fearful Wonder. Although quintessentially rock, the style is lathered in intricate beats, changeable melodies, and diverse compositional elements. Obsessively harmonic and surprisingly well produced for a debut, you can hear every aspect present, and you notice more upon successive listens. With Open Eyes begins the album on a distinctly funk inspired tone, the luscious guitar textures, the strong presence of the rhythm section, and layers upon layers of hooks, seizing the listener from the outset. Rooted In Thin Air proves decidedly mellow, with soothing acoustics and cleverly placed piano touches creating a deliciously sanguine feel, as the instrumentals spill over into a soaring chorus. Continuing the diverse nature, Steel takes on a strong electronic influence, which not being entirely up my street, discerns itself through a retro tone, and impressive guitar techniques. As far as the pop influences are concerned, To The Wind is insatiably catchy, and despite the repetitive rhythm, stays interesting through the charming execution, and huge personality cultivated across its four-minute runtime.
Fully acknowledging that the pop leanings won’t be for everyone, Take The Sky is long, winding and complex, beginning on a sombre note and gradually developing into a powerful anthem of hope and optimism, as the guitars and synthesizers grow in presence and ambition. Indeed, although it might seem strange to describe rock pieces as jazzy, that’s exactly how moments like The Locust Season and Nail feel, with their emphasis on precision, skill and melodic versatility. Not a note is wasted, and there’s a wonderful sense from start to finish that a range of disparate ideas and notions are coming together into something truly refreshing and revitalizing. Overall, on their debut, Kozen has managed to embrace a miasma of genres and styles, while still setting out their unique sound. One aspect which may detract some people is that not all the ideas on display will resonate with everyone. However, if you are open minded to experimentation, and you are prepared to take a risk you’re your listening habits, then this piece may prove less fearful and more wondrous. 8/10
Phoxjaw: A Playground For Sad Adults (Hassle Records)
Phoxjaw has only been in existence for a year and has only two EP’s to their name. Strangely, that has not diminished the image of them as an ‘up and coming’ act. Perhaps the distinct weirdness at their core is what is taking everyone off guard. While you can trace their proggy, avant-garde style to influences such as Pixies, Faith No More, Deftones or Glassjaw, they don’t sound exactly like any of them. Their songs are interjected with visceral contrasts, outlandish vocals, and paranoid lyrics. Continuing the work started on the Goodbye Dinosaur release, A Playground For Sad Adults takes the strangeness to new levels, offering elusive darkness and intricate experiments. Melt, You’re A face Of Wax is the totally understandable and not at all puzzling title to the opening track. An enigmatic guitar riff serves as the backbone to the song, growing louder and quieter and proving shudder-inducing as the slight note alterations create an unsettling feel. ‘’All our dreams of fantasy are melting into lunacy, we sit there staring at our screens, a reverie of make-believe’’ Garland sings, his voice taking on an erratic tone as he condemns the idea of a world distracted by technology and media.
At the mid-way point, the complex lead line gives way to a macerating bout of distortion which furthers the grim, futuristic aesthetic, and brings the opener to a biting finale. Monday Man strolls along next, taunting with a playful, spirited melody which is thrown into disorder with perplexing synth effects, heart-racing guitar effects, and unpredictable drum patterns. Another great track, which shows that catchiness and eccentricity need not be totally far apart. We soon come to Whale, Whale, Whale which I'm going, to be honest, is one of my least favourite tracks. While there is still plenty of adroit playing and unpredictably to be found, especially if you’ve got a good ear for detail, the whole thing bears too much in common with a traditional hardcore track, lacking in melody and memorability. Thankfully, Bodies In The Wall revitalizes my interest, which despite being simple, is carried through its subtle background flourishes, quirkily gruesome lyrics and morose tone – something these musicians absolutely excel at, and probably part of the reason why they’ve received so much attention as of late.
Closing the EP is The Curse Of The Button Man – another title that’s going to make me lie awake at night, pondering. Sounding like the soundtrack to a circus run by maniacally depressed clowns, you don’t know whether to laugh at the oddness or recoil at the blackened presentation. You’re going to want to make up your mind as the song only intensifies, with increased exaggeration and dramatics.Following on from my last sentence, given the trajectory of their music on their two releases, and the recognition they have received for charting their own course ‘intensifying in exaggeration and dramatics’ might just become the template for their entire career. 7/10
Torchbearer: Against The Tide (Self Released)
Pulverizing rhythms, angsty vocals, and muddy, grungy production value. These are all aspects which make up Torchbearers sound and a large portion of hardcore punk. I have always been unabashed in my appreciation of championed pun acts such as The Clash, Dead Kennedys, Bad Religion and NOFX to name a few of my favourites. However, while I sharpened and expanded my music tastes through Post-Hardcore acts in the vein of Rise Against and Billy Talent, I was never really a fan of ruckus hardcore and Oi bands. While the influences are clear on Against The Tide, nothing here really distinguishes the EP from a sea of underground punk releases. From Time Served to the self-titled Torchbearer, the riffs are incredibly forgettable, the chorus harmonies are not well thought out, and the production is bad even for punk standards.
Not only does it fail to offer anything to me, but I can’t see what it's offering to punk fans in general, given that the style has been performed more passionately by generations of bands. I don’t begrudge these musicians for an inconsequential release. They are clearly a band in their infancy and there’s a high probability that they will improve with experience. As for now though, I can only judge what I’m offered, and the naivety, amateurishness and unintentional recklessness on display, means there’s a lot of improvements that need to mad if Torchbearer is going to live up to the character and personality of their idols 4/10
Defying Decay: Metamorphosis (Self Released)
Defining themselves as electronic alternative, Defying Decay had me immediately asking questions about how they would sound. After all, their choice of genre can yield mixed results. Ultimately, it depends on how the synths are integrated, and how far the artist is prepared to use them creatively. That may seem obvious but believe me when I say that incorporating keyboards to maximum effect can be risky. I have seen so many acts lather their sound in glossy artificial textures, and come out all the worse for the experiment. Not that it’s all bad. When executed well synthesizers can enhance a band’s sound, complementing the rest of the instrumentals, and taking the music to new levels of sonic brilliance. How does Metamorphosis fare in the grand scheme of musicians taking a more ‘mainstream’ approach to songcrafting? Well, one thing I’ll say, to begin with, is that the different instruments never obscure each other. Take the opener, Crimson Butterfly/Frozen Butterfly, where the ambient instrumentals play a strong part but stand alongside guitars and drums perfectly in the mix to create a loud, ferocious feeling. Dying Program also benefits from this technique, the crafty uses of contrast and harmony, fostering a ghostly aesthetic, which all five of the members contribute to. Even the album closer, Yellow Fever, differentiates itself through a crushingly visceral tone, aided by subtle background noises and strange modulations – the extra layer of detail bringing the anthem to life.
However, while I may have nice words to say about the production decisions on display, the compositional elements leave a lot to be desired. Too often, the electronics, as well as the guitars, bass, and drums are just there, and not really standing out in their own unique way. I commend the way these musicians turned what could have been a very convoluted mix into something cohesive and paced, yet part of me can't help wishing that they were raucous and musically obnoxious, if only to give me something interesting to talk about. While Sad Song tries to conjure an emotional and heart wrenching feeling, the generic, unambitious and meek attempts to accomplish a sense of sadness, fail to meet the mark. Then there's Headrush which plays with scratch turntables and primitive, animal rhythms – the resulting whirlwind certainly feels like a rush, yet one where all colour is swept away in a featureless blur. There are many songs like this as well. Judas Kiss is a play on a cliché metal formula, as is Swan Song. The technical proficiency is certainly there, yet there's a clear sense that Defying Decay are wasting their potential on pandering to a style, rather than employing their combination of electro-rock and alt-metalcore, to create something truly intriguing. 5/10