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Sunday, 12 May 2019

Reviews: Adrian Belew, Maraton, Daniel Tompkins, The Mountain Goats (Alex)

Adrian Belew: Pop Sided (Self Released)

Adrian Belew remains drastically overlooked, despite performing with some of the most revered musicians in history. From Frank Zappa to Bowie to Talking Heads, to King Crimson, reading his biography is akin to looking at a list of famous people he has caught the imagination of, with his quirky yet virtuosic style of playing. His solo work has definitely emphasized experimentalism, yet has also fused a distinct knack for melody and Beatles-esque harmonies into the rich tapestry of his discography. Pop Sided emphasizes the Songwriting centered aspect of his musical personality while remaining unique. Performed entirely by Belew, the album has an intimate and youthful feel, which proves comforting. Whatsmore, despite its relatively short runtime, it packs a lot of detail and influence into the 30 or so minutes it utilizes to impress. When Is It Coming Back? is a pleasant folk-influenced acoustic ballad, the timbre emitting a warm, heartening feeling, the relatively simple compositions easing the listener into the album. For those longing for Belew's more experimental side though, fear not - Obsession is a bizarrely complex piece, where the harsh distortions appear to mirror the abrasive synth beats of pop, thus staying on theme, yet very much twisting the genre in unexpected directions. Everybody Sitting demonstrates a bizarre lyrical palate of criticisms of modern society, the psychedelic touches adding a layer of trickery to the otherwise humbly composed anthem.

On an utterly different note, Lobsters And Hypocrites is a spoken word piece, accompanied by spontaneous instrumentals, evoking an overarching sense of being lost in a different world. Our tour guide through this realm of strange ambiances and sensations is more than willing to pay respects to his muses. The Times We Live In is reminiscent of the 60’s style of pop song-crafting, the sprightly tempo, jaunty touches of piano, and huge chorus lending well to the influences our frontman cites in crafting his understanding of pop. "I don’t fit in with the time we live in" our frontman sings here. He’s got a point. Pop Sided takes cues from masters of catchy, unpretentious Songwriting, yet uses them to explore a vast array of different ideas. In that sense, the piece has one debt to the sounds of the past and quite another to the creative advances of the future. Don’t let the name deceive you, this album is not accessible like the majority of pop. Doing my research for this review I stumbled across an interview where Belew confesses that the album is based entirely off his interpretation of pop, gouged from what he listened to growing up. Flying around in a myriad of different directions, the piece takes its starting principles from the creative mainstream but refuses to constrain itself. In some respects, I don’t even like all the directions it explores: I simply don’t know what to make of some of them. Still, it is the kind piece to be looked at as an exercise in adventurous creating, from one of rock’s most incisive musical figures. 8/10

Maraton: Meta (Indie Recording)

A self-identified Progressive Pop act from Oslo, there are hints of new wave and alt-prog about Maraton. Although Far from the first musicians to meld diverse song compositions, with layered synths and sweeping melodies, there is a dark futuristic tone which Meta embraces. Hints of Muse and Leprous come to mind. There are definitely elements here which, to quote the bands own description ‘’ deserve to be savoured and absorbed in more than one listen’’. At the same time, however, there are frustrating aspects which don’t so much make me want to return as they do make me want to cease listening altogether. Let me be clear, the core sound and ethos here is a fine one, yet there are numerous distractions – including one large and consistent one - which make the debut a chore to slog through, dragging down the listening experience as a whole.

To begin with the positives, I love the epic synth/guitar combination on Seismic and the way the different layers gradually stack on top of one another before igniting a dramatic chorus. On a different note, I greatly appreciate the changes in tone, between bliss and chaos on Prime, the unpredictability proving a fascinating aspect. Moments like Body Double and Spectral Friends are intricately composed, the complexity and progression proving hauntingly fascinating. Meta really excels in never once staying the same. As soon as we begin to settle into a groove, the piece lurches off in a distinct and unexpected direction, a feature particularly aided by the juxtapositions of traditional instrumentation with keyboard effects, and electronic passages. Although this can feel jarring at times, the jolting nature is strangely not one of my main complaints, for where the execution is lacking, the determination to stay enthralling and keep the listener enticed is always present.

Chief among my gripes with Meta is the production. Of course, everything is perfectly audible and clear, yet it is almost too clean. Everything glitters and shines with a sickly amount of polish, frequently detracting from the commanding tone. Take Blood Music, the second song on the album. With the harsh synth touches, and the short, sharp bursts of energy emanating from the bass, I would have expected this anthem to enrage my senses and set my heart beating with excitement at the sheer force of the vigour on display. Rather, the sheen of the production robs the entire album of any power, making me feel bored and disillusioned. I think I can posit a guess as to why this approach might have been taken. Logic utilized: a squeaky clean mix will help bring out the detail and lend well to the spacey motifs. Reality: a mix this sanitized takes away more than it adds. Whatsmore, while I’m prepared to attribute my second issue to acquired taste, our vocalists singing doesn’t help matters, his lack of character and tendency to recklessly slide from one note to the next, serving as a major disruption. Together, these problems do not bode well for my overall enjoyment and make an otherwise decent album, arduous to sit through.

Conclusively, I would say Maraton has the potential to be a unique and interesting act, by virtue of the different pathways and avenues that they explore. Crucial in their development, however, must be a willingness to hone their production style, allowing their compositions to truly shine. 6/10

Daniel Tompkins: Castles (Kscope)

When I heard that Tompkins was making a solo album, I was intrigued yet sceptical. An excellent vocalist, I wasn’t sure how he would fare outside of the progressive, space rock of Tesseract, and didn’t know what direction the project would take. Not fully detached from his main work, yet different in its own right, Castles is a distinctly mellow album. There is a clear focus on atmospheric synths and moody vocals, with guitars only cascading in on particularly climatic moments. There have always been elements of electronic music in his songcrafting and this was his chance to explore those ideas outside of those confines. Lyrically, the album is all about relationships, and their creative yet destructive potential. There was no reason why a minimalist approach, with a strong concept to draw from, couldn’t have worked. Sadly, I find the follow through on a lot of these ideas to be dull, tedious and emotionally vacuous. There is nothing offensive here, yet there is nothing awe-inspiring either.

Saved begins, its rising and falling synth melody, looping throughout the entire song and quickly becoming tedious. While the archaic imagery, ruminating on kings, queens, and betrayal is thought-provoking, the music itself does little to complement these ideas, keeping its slow, monotonous path. I admit that Black The Sun is one of the only songs which goes some way towards being emotionally deep, the contrast between the smooth verses and soaring choruses, somewhat living up to the sentimental themes at play. However, when our narrator is trying to conjure emotion, as on the allegedly anguished Kiss, or the pseudo-contemplative Cinders, the music fails to chart a course through those sentiments. Instead, the songs choose a seemingly appropriate tone, which they then refuse to deviate from, across their entire run length. Make no mistake, I can appreciate the discrete approach, yet had Tompkins experimented with a larger array of effects, worked with another synth-pop act, or fleshed out the instrumental palate, I may not have been so disappointed. Considering the precision and detail which Tesseract load into their compositions, I cannot believe that I’m criticizing this project for being too shallow. Though this may be a calling which their frontman is passionate about exploring, I fail to see that passion fully transferred into any of these songs.

While I like to end my reviews by assessing the quality of an album based on the tastes of those who enjoy that particular type of music, I don’t think people who enjoy electronic music will get much out of Castles. The album is such a vapid void of nothingness that I can’t see anyone’s life being enriched by its ambiance. While I take no pleasure in pouring scorn on an idea which may mean a lot to Tompkins, the overarching emptiness on the show means most won't remember the album's existence, come the end of the year 3/10

The Mountain Goats: In League With Dragons (Self Released)

Creative brainchild of Jon Darnielle, The Mountain Goats type of clever, sharp-witted folk rock, has earned them a cult following. Despite the admittedly shoddy production quality of the first few albums, that has been an aspect which has improved over time. Albums like The Sunset Tree and Transcendental Youth are classics to many fans, enticed by the careful and meditative songwriting. In recent years, there has been a focus on thematic albums, which don’t so much as dive into the concept at hand as they do use the theme as a catalyst to explore human relationships. Beat The Champ wasn’t solely about Pro wrestling, just like Goths wasn’t entirely about youths who wear black and listen to The Cure. We are confronted with a similar case here. In League With Dragons has been described by Darnielle as a ‘partial rock opera’ inspired by tabletop role-playing games in the vein of D&D. 

Throughout, our chief polemicist takes the mythical and twists it to portray real-world circumstances. Gradually, we are led to explore introspective themes, through the unique lens of fabled civilizations and mythical creatures, leading the listener to confront the bizarre, uncanny and dreamlike aspects of their own existence on earth. Aside from the obvious illusions to D&D lore, it is worth noting that parts of this album are set in a besieged seaside town named Riversend, ruled over by an aging wizard. From the start, we are painted a bleak picture of this fantasy world, yet by constantly returning to the idea, Darnielle is able to tie his commentary around a fictionalized arc. ‘Give thanks to the broken bones you used to build your ladder’ he sings on Younger, referencing a literal tabletop game act, and making clear the importance of moving past destructive tendencies. Contextually, the album opens on the anthemic Done Bleeding where the imaginary elements are stripped away, and our narrator addresses his recovery from drug addictions. The album constantly flickers between the existent and make-believe, but the idea which stays constant is that of wizards whose power is fading. Clemency For The Wizard King details a part in the story where the aforementioned ruler of Riversend is taken captive, while the locals plead for his release. Likewise, the preceding, Passaic 1975, is all about Ozzy Osbourne – a personal icon of Darnielle’s – and the struggles he endured. 

There are similar songs dedicated to Doc Gooden and Waylon Jennings, and what are they if not illusions to how powerful figures can surrender or wear out their ‘magic’ overtime, and calls for today’s ‘magicians’ to ‘cut loose the handcuffs’? As the album goes on, the line between personal experience and fantastical storytelling becomes less and less clear, in a move which I’m sure was intentional. Going Invisible 2 and Cadaver Sniffing Dog are fruitful in their images of destruction, the former seeming to rejoice in the idea – ‘I’m gonna burn it all down today and sweep the ashes away’ – while the latter describes gazing upon a ‘smoking wreck’ of a scene. In true mountain goats style, the wordplay switches between being autobiographical and story focussed. These songs could just as easily be portraying opposite perspectives in a bloody battle for power, as they could a corrupt and abusive relationship. Alternatively, look to the mournful piano ballad, An Antidote For Strychnine, a piece sung from the perspective of a scientist who feels trapped like a ‘lab rat’, doomed to an existence of finding medical cures for wounded war personnel. 

Sicilian Crest is a triumphant moment presenting a heroic character, who is characterised by the songwriter as a ‘phasi-fascist individual’. These ambiguities are crucial to understanding In League With Dragons, and indeed everything The Mountain Goats have ever done. Darnielle is not one to present easy answers, preferring to introduce a surface level theme, leaving the rest to the listener’s imagination. As nerdy as an album based on Dungeons and Dragons might sound, it is testament to the excellent songcrafting that such a simple idea can be twisted and melded in so many directions. 8/10

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