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Sunday, 26 April 2020

Reviews: The White Buffalo, Enter Shikari, Khôra, Abhorrent (Alex & Rich)

The White Buffalo: On The Widows Walk (Spinefarm Records) [Alex Swift]

Jake Smith a.k.a The White Buffalo has made a career from songs of love, heartbreak, and politics, grounding his humble though brilliantly penned songs in a tradition of folk-rock with elements of punk thrown in. That may not seem like a novel concept, though Smith certainly gives the idea a certain honesty and personal quality. Though his songs are not particularly difficult to broach, it is still hard to imagine anyone besides himself playing them. They invoke long-buried human memories making you feel rage or love, making you laugh or leaving you tearful. I first became a fan through 2017’s Darkest Darks, Lightest Lights, an album of positivity, and inspired storytelling. From there, I delved into the Latin and Jazz inspired Death Of Damnation and the scathing exploration into American imperialism and war which is Shadows, Greys, And Evil Ways. On The Widows Walk is less of an album of hard truths and more one of sentimentalities and extending a hand to the listener. Torn firmly from the alcohol and ink-soaked pages where our narrator is contented, the record continues to prove that he is one of the most overlooked and defining songwriters of today.

“Well, they come and go, highs and lows that lead to the dark and light of my mind, but they're so sincere, triumph and fear, coursing, forcing their might” Smith sings on the hopeful piano-led middle section on Problem Solution, bringing to light the album's themes of learning to get through difficult days while trying to make an impression with our lives. The acoustic and electric guitars, as well as the keys working in harmony with each other, lend these sings their sense of warmth, yet they never surrender their sincerity. These are designed to be played with a band or solo, and you get a feeling they would be just as beautiful either way. Proving this is The Drifter, a gorgeous ode to loneliness and memories, the humble composition lending to the contemplation desolation felt by our frontman. No History is an exuberant anthem about not living in the past, throwing hints of Americana and blues into the mix, refusing to get lost in sentimentality, and simply saying “here are the lessons I’ve learned, take or leave them”.

When I say that these songs have a way of imparting personal stories, I mean every word. “I miss the sound of the breeze through the leaves of the sycamore trees. Wading in the waves to my knees on the sandy shore…I miss you more” confesses the sombre yet authentic Sycamore. Even going as far as to mock his own style slightly, Come On Shorty sees The White Buffalo deriding his romantic and mawkish nature, before concluding of course, that he wouldn’t care to see the world in realistic terms: “I'm gonna ride my horse into the setting sun. I want a happy ending gonna’ get me one, find a heart that bleeds strong and true, so I can finally say fuck you.” Even though that song demonstrates a sharp and resolute commitment to self-mockery, the more observable tribute to fairy-tale nostalgia comes with the lovely piano ballad Cursive. Starting off with a worry that people will one day forget to write in that style, the piece grows from simple beginnings into contemplating all the aspects of life worth savouring, which may one day fade away.

There’s always been an appeal towards taking simple morals and creating art out of them – on Faster Than Fire that idea takes its roots in environmentalism. A fast-paced anthem influenced in equal measure by rockabilly and punk, Smith adopts a venomous snarl on this track, while abrasive six strings and a rolling beat emphasise the impeding severity. ‘’The flames ignite, spreading hell across the earth. Our lives are engulfed, with no regard for their worth. Homes and hills and broken wills are blackened by the burn. Death to the dream, there's nowhere to turn” runs one warning shot, making clear that some elements of this world are worth saving, more than money. I started this review by praising our songwriter for his stories and this shines through wonderfully on the title track. Smith, usually one to guard his tales, has elucidated the gentle story in interviews - “We were driving through an east coast seaport town where the houses each had outcropping like balconies. The wives of the sailors would pace around on the roof-tops longing for their husbands to come home safely. There’s so much romance in that.” - That observation, paired with the brooding instrumentation and ruminating harmonies, renders my words almost obsolete, I find. Smith’s words, however, remain vital.

River Of Love And Loss draws on solemn Celtic folk tales about forlorn romance and the ceaseless cycles of nature, the swaying use of traditional instrumentals and haunting symbolism, making this a truly outstanding if chilling moment. The Rapture takes a similar approach, despite being more guided by an instinct to develop into something more than its humble beginning by the end. Pursuing the motif of addiction, there are vague nods to alcohol, yet so subtle are the menacing stanzas and spiralling stridencies of sound, that they could apply to any despised habit be that obsession or mental degradation. Closing out on I Don’t Know A Thing About Love, our addressor reminds us that he’s no experts on the subjects close to his heart and that his views are just one word against many.

“All I want to do is give people, what, 42 minutes of something else – of not thinking about the devastation, and the fear, and the anxiety, and what it is in this new normal, which is really strange’’ Jake imparted when pre-empting On The Widows Walk. He certainly achieved that for me. While at first, this album may not seem as great as the last three, there's a warming aspect about the way they change meaning, and grow on you. As such, these songs get one of my malleable scores, with a promise to revisit. 7/10

Enter Shikari: Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible (SO Recordings) [Alex Swift]

If you had asked me a few years ago, to name a popular act who I saw the appeal of yet didn't personally care for, I would say Enter Shikari, without pausing for thought. I’m not sure entirely why, though I had heard the singles Arguing With Thermometers and of course Sorry You’re Not A Winner (clap, clap clap - Ed) and decided their abrasive and often crazy brand of electronic hardcore was not for me. Then, in 2015 they came out with their first great album – The Mindsweep is a work of pure sonic exploration into electronic rock, with entangled compositions, fiery rhythms, and socially aware lyricism. Indeed, the record even inspired me to look back and see the elements which led to that point. To my disclosure, I realized that these weren't the obnoxious, loud-mouthed band that myself (and radio stations, who never promoted their most interesting songs), had characterized them as. As important as that mid-2000s release was though, it also marked something of a turning point for the Hertfordshire quartet. And 2017’s The Spark, despite alienating some, was a risky experiment in ambient textures, synth-wave, and previously unexplored boundaries. However, if there was any weight to the criticisms that record received, they centered around the lack of bombast and exaggeration in comparison to previous works. Thankfully, Nothing Is True And Everything is Possible takes their experimental urges and combines them with a commitment towards pomposity and grandiloquence. It is not a perfect experience yet proves a logical next stride in a career imbued with startling leaps into the unknown.

‘Is this a new begging or are we close to the end?’ Rou Reynolds sings on THE GREAT UNKNOWN, accompanied by an overture of piano and synthesizers, while the improvisational bass components grant a shadowy dancehall vibe to the already ominous opener. In stark difference, Crossing The Rubicon bursts with dynamism, employing a feeling of exhaling optimism, and emerging from a state of darkness into the glorious light. This is one in a sequence of anthems in Enter Shikari’s catalogue that could have been too preoccupied with mood, yet instead bursts with charisma, not least aided by the multi-coloured instrumentation. {The Dreamers Hotel} – One of the many tracks with titles designed to perplex critics – continues on that investigational path, the seizing effects, and ecstatic drumming, contrasting powerfully with the chorus - one which will be sure to make an impression live. Always retaining the socially conscious side though, the listener is reminded ‘If love is blind, hatred is deaf…and well-fed’.

From there, the experience gets odd. Waltzing off the Face Of The Earth (I. Crescendo), commands with mysterious trumpets, lending a dizzying sense of tradition to the track, albeit one that's laced with the tension of a psychedelic opus. Reynolds continues to lace his rhymes with astute observations about the way the world has tended: ‘There's been a shooting in a Walmart, so put guns on every shopping cart. There are dead kids on the beach. Bigoted parents now decide what teachers teach’ he laments at one point. While musically this may be the upmost level of riskiness the act has aspired to, they’re also vivaciously honest throughout, in a way that transcends their past work. Of course, some moments are better than others. The next one, modern living… and its electronic little brother, Alcoholics Anonymous (Main Theme In B Minor), may transmit well at shows yet comes across as pretentious in the context of a forty-minute record. Thankfully, The Pressures On reassures us that there's still a humility to these songs.

T.I.N.A ignites the brilliant second half – a melancholy yet evocative electronic piece, you can get caught up in its formidable sway, as the ceaseless nature embroils itself around you until all that’s left is the persistent dance which the instrumentation and poetics conjure images of. Elegy For Extinction proves a gorgeous opportunity to showcase the violins and classical elements that have been played with before yet never fully realized on a Shikari record. I would have loved to have seen the idea brought to life throughout rather than as a novelty, yet there’s scope for exploration there. Despite this, Marionettes, I (The Discovery Of Strings), is thrilling in a different way – unfurling as a dialogue between the slave and the ‘vandal’, it demonstrates some of the greatest writing in the already multifaceted discography. Amongst the changes and turbulence which define the composition, we are told ‘the world they created is not mightier than our means to remake it!’. Marionettes II (The Ascent), excellently develops off the pressure of the first part, utilising the knack for ambiance and chaos to maximum effect, in crafting a conceptual piece that brings together the elements of character and world creation into a mighty leap. Satellites* *, is another great emotionally inspiring song, as is the bombastic and satisfyingly sardonic the king. We finish on a reprieve to Waltzing…, a promise maybe that we will continue to see surprises from these boys, long into the future.

Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible is definitive proof that Enter Shikari have another great record up their sleeves, and while this might not be that piece, with all the creative directions they are spinning off into – many never considered likely in the early 2010s, when we first heard their name - there is no reason to believe that their next full-length will be anything other than spectacular. 7/10

Khôra: Timaeus (Soulseller Records) [Rich Oliver]

Although there are purists that would argue otherwise black metal is always at its best and its creative peak when it flirts with experimental and alternative sounds. It should always be seen as a genre with no boundaries considering its non conformist nature and has moved on leaps and bounds since the Norwegian second wave in the early 1990’s. There are a plethora of great black metal bands which twist the formula and mould into new forms of twisted sonic depravity and Khôra are a new band to add to that list. Timaeus is the debut album from the German/Irish band and certainly makes a bold statement with its expansive and experimental sound. The band is composed of three core members but the album features a whole host of guest musicians and vocalists which benefits the multi-faceted nature of the sounds and songs. Timaeus is a dissonant and complex album that twists and turns in many different directions whilst retaining a cohesive nature about it.

 After a brief atmospheric intro the album starts off good and proper with the frantic yet claustrophobic sounding Noceo before it shifts into the slower and more melodic L’Annihilateur before shifting yet again to the complex Harvesting Stars with its baritone clean vocals and unconventional structure. These shifts and meanders continue throughout the album but never sounding forced or abrupt with further forays into experimentation with the abstract melodies of Roe Too Noo (Flow Of The Mind), the dissonant fury of The Purge and the aggressive almost death metal nature of Sempiternal. The album brings us back down to earth at its finale with the gentle progressive nature of The Occultation Of Time and the atmospheric instrumental Void. This is a great album which is a lot to take in initially but the songs are fairly short and precise and never get to the point where you feel they are dragging on too long. This is black metal which dabbles into progressive and psychedelic territories sounding like a cross between bands such as Dark Fortress, Arcturus, Naglfar and Blut Aus Nord. A fantastic debut for a very promising band. 8/10

Abhorrent: Kathabasis (Self Released) [Rich Oliver]

Two of my great loves in heavy music are thrash metal and death metal.  When these genres are combined it can be a truly wonderful thing. Both these genres get me overly excited when done well but also extremely critical when done badly. Abhorrent are a death/thrash band from Chile who formed in 1987 (originally as Accurst) with Kathabasis being only the third album from the band. An old school band playing death and thrash metal definitely had this old school thrasher salivating but unfortunately it far from met my expectations. Even though there are some decent riffs and suitably frantic moments throughout Kathabasis overall it is a completely underwhelming release. The songs themselves just seem completely lacking in energy and enthusiasm.

Thrash and death metal are meant to be intense and energetic but this just seems to be missing throughout. The production of the album doesn’t help matters either being horribly flat robbing any decent riffs of any spark. Being such a fan of death metal and thrash metal I can be overly critical but Kathabasis just fails on so many levels for me lacking what makes these subgenres so special to me. There are odd moments and half decent riffs scattered about the album but they are surrounded by such mediocrity and such a life sucking production that they fail to make any impact. Sorry Abhorrent but this did nothing for me. 3/10

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