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Wednesday 27 September 2023

Reviews: Code Orange, Explosions In The Sky, I Am Low, Svartkonst (Reviews By Matt Bladen, Maria Owen, Rich Piva & James Jackson)

Code Orange – The Above (Blue Grape Music) [Matt Bladen]

Having been given several ‘next big thing’ tags Code Orange release their new album The Above, drawing on their amalgamation of sounds and forward thinking attitude this Pittsburgh 6 piece have progressed from hardcore punk, through metalcore into a much more well-rounded, progressive leaning band that pairs building levelling heaviness with, on this fifth album notions of grunge, trip-hop and hip-hop to make a sound that will “wash over you” as Jami Morgan (vocals) puts it.

He and Eric Balderose (vocals/keys/programming/guitars) produced the record bringing in the legendary Steve Albini to engineer, it’s the inclusion of Albini that brings that grunge/alt rock influence as he is one of the most celebrated producers/engineers, his work with Nirvana, Pixies, PJ Harvey and Husker Du amongst many, many (over a thousand) others, his rebellious ethos perfect match for Code Orange and their wall of guitar noise, something Albini has long been the main exponent of.

Recorded for the first time in the same room to catch the vibe they wanted The Above is a record that will become a turning point in the Code Orange history, their maturity and focus on achieving a certain goal is admirable. Building from that repeating drum pattern on Never Far Apart, Morgan and Reba Meyers trade off vocals, the creepy, beginnings reminding me of Smashing Pumpkins as the abrasive guitars of Meyers and Dominic Landolina, frothing and building until they finally get to be unleashed on the woozy Theatre Of Cruelty, the buzzing and twitching of the electronics invading the verses, goes a bit Deftones, as the chorus breaks out into the more familiar heavy sound.

The dissonance returns for Take Shape has Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins, his voice here and the next track The Mask Of Sanity Slips come through like a mix of NIN and Alice In Chains. I’m all here for it as that era of grunge/alt has always been a go to for me, unflinching and unfussed about being popular, it’s music for the outsider, this ethos coming through on The Above. The guitar sound is rough and raw, so it’s for the keyboards and programming to fill the spaces I between, Joe Goldman’s bass often directing the heaviness but on Mirror, where there’s PJ Harvey and Alanis Morrissette, his bass is intricate. Max Portnoy commanding the kit with dexterity on A Drone Opting Out Of The Hive where the Slipknot level of extreme percussion is used on a stop-start track, driven by breakbeat.

The Above is 14 tracks but the album is only just over 50 minutes, you get a wide breadth of music sequenced, produced, engineered and performed to be taken in one sitting, the thematic and musical links creating a bridge between the past and the future. Intense and visceral, Code Orange have made cross generational record where Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z will all find something to latch on to! (Sorry Boomers). 9/10

Explosions In The Sky - End (Temporary Evidence Limited) [Maria Owen]

Ok, so one of my favourite bands have just released a new album. I can't be bothered to waffle so I'll just jump straight in.

The album's introduction track; Ten Billion People, starts with an uncharacteristic upbeat build up with layered droning crunchy guitars that break into a more military drum led section that settles the track back into musical territory more emotive and typical of this band. It plods along pleasantly creating lots of headroom for the multiple layers of guitar at work subtly in the back ground, setting the tone ready for track 2, Moving On, this track is again surprisingly upbeat and has quite a 90s alternative rock vibe going on before once again pulling everything back to an atmospheric minimal state before kicking in with another military style drum build up. This song offers up some dynamics that I expect will be stunning live.

This flows beautifully into the next track Loved Ones starts with some gorgeous and strange effected guitars that are picked with a beautiful discordance, before a simple acoustic piano takes over. This band once again prove that they are masters of simplicity. The build ups once again beautiful and more hopeful sounding than on previous albums. So far it's like happy post rock by numbers.

Peace Or Quiet starts with a more pentatonic quality very akin to their sister band, Mogwai, in all it's mellow splendour. The delicate and warming tones and textures are subtle and somatic. It's so relaxing that I feel as though I'm being gently rocked to sleep. Of course they interrupt this state by smashing some drums and guitar stabs in the mix; steering the track in a new direction that feels like a modern Baba O Reilly, and that I have to start running over fields being a teenage waster that doesn't give a shit. Nice.

All Mountains starts with a suspended intro that bursts into a restrained but beautiful, almost math rock section that doesn't lose it's sense of wonder as new instrumental parts are added bar by bar, twisting and turning in it's mini labyrinth of surprises. Absolutely stunning sections cascade from one to the other, oscillating between its highs and lows aided by always colourful and fuzzy drumming and alternate picking displaying beautiful reverbs and delays galore. This track really brings it up with a heavier build of tremolo strumming, weaving up a frenzy before letting the track end without dragging it out for the sake of self felatio. Always a band that know how to keep it classy.

Returning to a melancholic sound, much more typical of EITS, The Fight instills in me that familiar desolate feeling of despair. Straightforward in its approach it juxtaposes more minor chords against the protruding upbeat sections to create a bit of an emotional struggle. It's all so sad and bittersweet. The songs fades out and is taken over by a solo piano as the album slides into it's final track It's Never Going To Stop; that just hits where it hurts then tries to sooth my now inconsolable heart with beautiful upbeat bass and guitars that contradict the heavy and depressing moments that interject throughout this piece. It is the perfect example of tension and release within this mini odyssey that finishes the album perfectly.

Although more upbeat than their previous albums, End reveals itself to be another gentle, creeper that will drill itself into your soul and then will haunt you for eternity. Pioneers in post rock, Explosions In The Sky have once again produced an album that stands shoulder to shoulder with their previous albums and although formulaic in some ways it is quite refreshing in its treatment of more cheerful feels. A consistent band that don't churn out any old shit just because it't been a while, Explosions In The Sky evidently, meticulously put a lot of thought and heart into each and every note and beat.

I'm very much looking forward to hearing this live in November when they play at Troxy in London. 8/10

I Am Low - Uma (Majestic Mountain Records) [Rich Piva]

The Swedish band I Am Low play fuzzy stoner grunge and are influenced by who you would think they would be when you see some of those words. What band do you hear a lot these days when describing bands who describe themselves as grunge? Well, Alice In Chains of course, and I Am Low come right from the House of Jerry and Layne for sure. They are in no way a direct rip off; however, you can hear the influence but never where it is too much. I Am Low just leverages what we all love about AIC and incorporates that into Uma, their debut full length and follow up to their introductory EP, Illusions.

One thing about Uma that is different than what you heard from especially their early Alice stuff is that Uma just sounds cleaner. You feel kind of dirty (pun intended) when you listen to those first AIC albums, I Am Low just seems a bit cleaner. It may be the production, which is clean but not too clean (bordering on but I am cool with it), but the grime you get from Facelift is missing here. Which is fine when you have a catchy, 90s alt rock radio hit like Gunman opening the album. Gunman is more STP than AIC, with a groove that reminds me of Crackerman from the first STP record. 

Dead Space slow burns in with those AIC style vocals and here is where the worship begins, and I am here for it. The vocals on this track are great but try not to think of Layne and Jerry harmonizing when you listen. Ruins is a quick two-minute ripper that has 90s alt rock all over it, leading into Wake that comes at you with a heavy riff, driving bass line, and vocals spookily reminiscent of the band I have mentioned a few times already. I like the weird guitar effect about halfway through. Other standout tracks include Pigs, which has a riff that reminds me of Sunczar and a bridge that screams Jerry and Layne and Release, the closer (not sure any grunge album should close with a song called Release given there is already a perfect example of this), that is super catchy and the most unique track on all or Uma, reminding me of the Backwater version of the Meat Puppets.

This is going to come off sounding like an insult, but I Am Low sounds like an Alice In Chains-lite. I mean this with only Peace and Love, as the band does the AIC thing very well, albeit just not as big and gross as those guys perfected. That is not to say Uma is not a great listen, because it is. The AIC lite thing is just a reference point. There will be a lot of people who really dig Uma, me being one of them, but to ignore the influence would not be right here. I Am Low have given us a nice batch of tracks leveraging their love for 90s grunge and put their spin on it. I am fine with this and will always be fine with this. Just don’t expect anything earth shatteringly unique, just what is considered well done grunge in 2023. 7/10

Svartkonst - May The Night Fall (Trust No One Recordings) [James Jackson]

Citing themselves, or at least by the bio that comes with this pack, as blackened death metal, Sweden’s Svartkonst release their third album to date this year and upon a first listen I will admit I was a little bit sceptical, for my journey into black metal was short lived and finally settled, to this day, within the realms of the more symphonic, gothic elements portrayed by the likes of Cradle Of Filth and Dimmu Borgir. The only other blackened death metal act I’ve actually listened to was Behemoth and whilst I was quite the fan of 2014’s The Satanist, I must admit that that’s probably when I last listened to them. 

So diving into May The Night Fall I wasn’t overly sure what I was getting myself into, though ultimately it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I had feared. It’s an album of two parts, not conceptually or as in the good old days of cassette but those death and black influences and aspirations are almost divided into tracks, as if a conscious decision was made to alternate between the two genres track by track, opening track Haunt Me has the feel of early Samael, their early 90’s work and their album Ceremony Of Opposites in particular, there’s a groove and head nodding rhythm to it but the heaviness is still there. 

Such is the case for Straight To The Grave and Crooked Horns, tracks three and six respectively, similarly I’m reminded of Entombed and their Wolverine Blues album, again early 90’s death metal that was dabbling in something more than their peers at the time. Then there are tracks like Breath Of Satan and Endless Dark which are unashamedly black metal through and through, offering blast beats and frenetic guitar lines. Curiously there are two instrumental tracks upon this album and I was quite intrigued by the last of the two, the gorgeously entitled Crown Of Dead Flowers, it has a strong doom metal vibe to it, that unfortunately doesn’t lead into a similarly influenced track but at just over two minutes long it was quite interesting. 

Whilst the likelihood of me listening to this album again are minimal, it’s not bad at all, certainly something worth considering if you like your black metal with a dash of death. 5/10

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