Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Rejectionist Front - Evolve (2017)

Written by David Shouse, posted by blog admin

The sophomore album from the New York City outfit Rejectionist Front Evolve is an aptly titled twelve song collection that shows the development of the band’s musical message keeping pace with its intelligent lyrical subject matter. Produced by World2Be Entertainment, the four members bring obvious passion and expertise to what they do with a dramatic edge tingeing the songs that’s never overplayed. The band has shared stages with a number of important acts, iconic and otherwise, including Joan Baez and Immortal Technique, and for good reason – the same spark setting apart those aforementioned acts is found in their music and casts a bright light for every listener to appreciate. Michael Perlman’s lead vocals and lyrics are more powerful than ever before and the harmonies often making their way into music courtesy of guitarist Lincoln Prout and bassist Tony Tino sweeten the hard rock mix fueling much of Evolve.

“Ride”, the album opener, has an exultant edge Perlman’s voice matches from the first and the rhythm section attack from bassist Tino and drummer Dave Dawson make an impressive impact. It’s an excellent choice for the album opener and the dueling voices vying for listener’s attention are compelling listening, but it’s the way Rejectionist Front manipulates dynamics that leaves the biggest mark on the band’s audience. Evolve’s second track “All I Am” balances a hard swing with some head-down passages of tight riffing to excellent effect. The presence of harmony vocals aren’t as strong here as the first cut, but the band’s songwriting places it just right in the context of this tune. The chorus for “Savior” is a great example of one of the band’s greatest songwriting strength and the transitions between verse and chorus are adeptly handled without a stumble. Naturally, this is a studio recording, but Rejectionist Front sounds like a remarkably live unit despite the obvious overdubs and production work enhancing the performance. There’s a strongly engaging quality surrounding this song that makes it one of Evolve’s best.

“Sign” has a hard-hitting whiplash riff that Lincoln Prout layers with some colorful lead guitar flourishes. This is another emphatic number on an album full of them, but the clenched fist tightness of this tune is notable on a release that never takes its foot off the gas pedal. “Innocent” is a great song further improved by the band incorporating some voice over passages. In the hands of a lesser act, these kind of moves often come off as pretentious twaddle, but Rejectionist Front understands how to make judicious use of such effects. “Flush” has proven to be an effective single from the album with an accompanying video and even a cursory hearing of the song bears out why the band keyed on this song’s potential for mass appeal. On a whole, Rejectionist Front does an outstanding job of crafting accessible yet highly intelligent near prog metal sans keyboards or synthesizers. There’s a more raucous, sometimes bluesy, edge twisting the band’s music a little more than you’d hear from similar acts and it’s one of the distinctive qualities that helps position Evolve as one of the best guitar-driven albums in recent memory.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Chris Murphy - Water Under the Bridge (2017)

Written by Mike Yoder, posted by blog admin

Chris Murphy’s fantastic new recordings blurs genre lines but in a completely different way from most current artists.  By focusing on ol’ tyme musical remedies the singer, songwriter, musician, producer and arranger manages to come up with something fresh in the process.  The resulting album, Water Under the Bridge gets in a time machine and warps backwards to the pre-album rock days.  Sounding truly Americana influenced and untouched by the British Invasion, Murphy (and his compatriots The Blind Blake Blues Band) are almost like the prog-rock version of what they choose to play by breathing a towering complexity into the compositions that crams numerous genres together. 

Though I used the word “crams,” I feel I should clarify my point; at no juncture does Water under the Bridge feel cluttered, unfocused or overweight.  In fact the album’s lengthy 14-cut sprawl becomes neither tiresome nor overwrought during its daunting runtime yet Water Under the Bridge is a challenging listen at every musical intersection and some tunes bottle and shake-up nearly 5 or 6 various styles all at once.  Lead-in number “Moveable Feast” retains its buoyancy thanks to vibrant, madman piano pitter patter and winding violin figures that exhale blues, country, big band, jazz and soul within a single breath.  “Joan Crawford Dances the Charleston” complete an instrumental opening couplet, although this time the boogie’s main theme is implanted and blues n’ soul while sprinkles of moonshining country and western, a little wooly bluegrass and even some rock n’ roll come together to craft an exciting, vocal-free piece.  All throughout Murphy’s dazzling violin/fiddle playin’ practically steals the show; practically being the optimal word seeing as his band compliments his every major movement with sturdy rhythms fronted by upright bass, acoustic/electric/slide guitar and a pocket drum performance that’s not afraid of some tricked-out fills and jazzy cymbal ghosting. 

“Table for Two” trades off shots of crazed piano playing, mandolin, flamenco guitar, banjo, violin, viola and fiddle in a gutsy display of bluegrass bravado that would make The Louvin Brothers proud.  Even the dueling, 2-part vocal harmonies call to mind The Louvins’ classic work.  Dialing down the mood to a dusky blues “Riverboat Blues” is exactly the kind of slinky number you can imagine cheating to cards to during a high stakes poker game on a rickety old steamboat.  Restrained rhythms lead by the busking bass lines and brush-played blues drums collide with intricate violin ambience making for a superb standout song.  The ideas included in this first set of songs lays the groundwork for the rest of the album to come as the elements remain the same throughout but are delivered in varying tempos, permutations, amalgamations and arrangements. 

Punch-drunk piano playing, shuffling blues tempos, hickory smoked lead vocals, genteel acoustic licks and numerous well-woven strings yield “I Swear I’m Going to Learn This Time” serious lead single potential.  It’s got a catchy pop sensibility throughout (especially in those big vocal hooks and soothing mid-tempo instrumentals) but Murphy’s sense of pop is simply from another time and twice as refreshing as anything you’ll hear on the radio.  Each piece is beacon of poise, precision and poignancy in terms of the songwriting and playing.

Water Under the Bridge is such a wonderful record that it’s hard for a contemporary review to even do it justice.  This is a record that you must hear yourself to truly appreciate its many peaks and valleys.  With no songs even approaching the realm of “mediocre” or “filler,” Water Under the Bridge is a must have album for fans of everything from jazz, pop and rock to blues, country, swing and Grand Ole Opry.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Alpha Mule - Peripheral Vision (2017)

Written by David Shouse, posted by blog admin

It’s hard to be innovative and inventive in traditional genres such as country, folk, blues, etc. these days.  The best bands and artists playing the old style now manage to win people over by their sheer passion for the sound and their translation of that passion into the way that they compose the songs and play the music.  Californian duo Alpha Mule actually bring some uniqueness into this well-tread genre and drop a diverse set of songs on their first duo offering, Peripheral Vision.  With the groundwork of their sound laid by banjo, acoustic guitar and vocals, they bring a brigade of supporting players to the table which helps round out their album with a very fully-fleshed, instrumentally dense take on blues, country, folk, soul and bluegrass originals inspired by the music of the great southern and western American expanses. 

The roughhewn acoustic guitar ride, bustling banjos and world-worn blues vocals of opener “Corpus Christi” sets the tone for an impenetrable album overflowing with southern hospitality.  Joe Forkan’s ebbing acoustic guitar malice and Eric Stoner’s charging banjo ditties congeal into a perpetual motion tumbleweed roll that doesn’t stop for nothing.  Enlivened by Connor Gallaher’s pedal steel, Steff Koeppen’s honey coated harmony vocals, a dash of harmonica and keys, this song conjures a hallucinatory peyote sparked vision of the Old West as seen through modern eyes.  “On the Moon” lives up to its title by sampling Commander Frank Borman’s Apollo 8 commentary during the outro.  The meat of the track moseys along on the haunches of a saddle-sore upright bass lick (performed by Joey Burns of Calexico fame), an entangled meshed of multi-tracked acoustic guitars and hoof clomping banjo pluckin’ that lends the mid-tempo tune a peppy hand even though it’s among the slower paced cuts on the record. 

Next up is the album’s namesake track and it’s an easy album standout thanks to deliberate tempos that never move beyond precision toe-tap balladry.  Haunting steel guitars mix elegantly into the acoustic fabric as Stoner’s banjo works up a steady though sparsely notated sweat that occupies a more rhythmic role than the lead element it often favors.  Forkan’s lead vocals are trembling with melodic grandeur as they reach some heights that nearly see his voice cracking under the emotionally harmonic duress.  “The Distance” is a translucent wisp of a tune populated by ghostly acoustic guitar/banjo surrealism and another sturdy lead vocal from Joe.  This is exactly the kind of tune you imagine to hear while you’re setting up camp for the night.  Jacob Valenzuela’s (also of Calexico fame) howling trumpet, the tumbling hand percussion and Forkan’s increasing emphasis on his baritone range make for a track born and bred to drench your hard in serene sadness.  It’s a far cry from the well-bottled, finely aged country n’ 50s rock n’ roll combination felt on the high proof fun of “Pavlov.”  This one’s all about a blue suede groove with steel, harmonica and a full rhythm section providing a ready steady backbeat beneath the core duo and their fully realized framework.  

You could stare all day long and I’ll bet you can’t find a single weak link or filler track on Peripheral Vision.  With each tune opting for a distinctive blend of influences and fantastic musicianship from the leading duo and everyone that they choose to surround themselves with, there’s absolutely no reason not to place this album in the “highly recommended” category.

Blue Apollo - Light Footed Hours + Circles (2017)

Written by Laura Dodero, posted by blog admin

Formed in the summer of 2014 by drummer Jeremiah Jensen and guitarist/vocalist Luke Nassar, the duo started writing songs together and thus the groundwork was laid for a new project called Blue Apollo.  Through the gradual process of band changes and development they signed up bass player Rodman Steele as well as lead guitarist Jean Paul Labastida.  Sadly, Jean Paul’s tenure didn’t last but the band was able to settle on a permanent line-up; a trio configuration that recorded 2017’s Light-Footed Hours EP.

Calling upon deliciously 90s influences like Midwestern space rock, pop punk, indie rock, emo and whatever else they can get their hands on, Blue Apollo are a tight knit unit all over these 6 songs.  “Walls” is the dipping, diving opener full of craggy guitar work that usually lays down a rhythm riff, splinters off into winding tapestries of spacey melody and even sends Nassar on a hot-blooded solo frenzy before the proceedings some to a close.  Throughout Jensen peppers the mixture with cranking beats heavy on the tom/snare flurries making sure time stays locked down while Steele smothers the percussive pop in a blanket of crystal clear low notes.  Luke also handles the lead vocals and his standout melodies just drip with passion and good taste as the song goes careening into a pretty explosive finale.  Though it halts the tempos and pacing about a half-step, follow-up number “Feeling Right” cooks up some stew-y, muscular grooves that’s all about fluid, spiraling bass grooves ripping and rollicking through a haze of indie jangle pop with pretty piercing melodies while Jeremiah produces a sneaky aural bushwhack thanks to some steadfast stick work on the snares.  The kick-off triplet concludes with the riff-y grooves of “Therapy.”  On this jam the rhythm section breaks off a chunk of slinking r & b, giving Luke plenty of room to set alight some grooving rock riffs. 

The album’s second half is much more subdued than the first, although it’s no less compelling.  “Avalanche” is a moody piano and vocal piece that takes a leisurely couple of minutes to pile on any additional layers.  Once textures are carefully sprinkled over Blue Apollo’s orchestral indie-pop platter, the song explodes into an indie-kissed, pop-rock extravaganza brimming with tranquil melodies and harmonies.  “Meant to Be” is almost the mirror image of “Avalanche” if you replace the piano with guitar and branch off from there.  Album endnote “Circles” takes the rocked-out indie groove of the first three tracks and alchemically mingles it with the tranquil ballad mix of the previous two tracks; effectively creating a harmonic merger of the band’s many different ideas and sound combinations. 

Light-Footed Hours is a phenomenal debut with 6 great songs that work as a front to back listen as well as collection of 6 individual tracks each with their own personality.  It’s pretty much safe to say that Blue Apollo is an experimental indie band that isn’t afraid to draw influences from a vast array of different musical genres.  This is well-worth a listen for all fans of upper echelon indie-rock. 

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Shofar - s/t (2017)

Written by Laura Dodero, posted by blog admin

Shofar is as likeable as they come. Rarely does a band show such a talent for crunchy guitar rock balanced out with an equally attention-grabbing melodic bent. The native Minnesota quintet has a couple of releases already under their belt, but they’ve been inactive as a recording unit for some time now and their self-titled EP release represents the band’s first officially released recordings since 2005’s Turn. Larry Hagner is the band’s primary artistic force, serving as both songwriter and lead singer, but the six songs on this release make it abundantly clear this is a group effort in every important sense and Hagner’s collaborators help him realize his ambitions for the material without ever compromising or obscuring his voice. This EP is as fine as any release in 2017, indie or mainstream, and is certain to build momentum for a memorable 2018.

They waste no time grabbing listeners by the ear. “Running’ is a visceral, urgent tune with rambunctious guitar pyrotechnics and hard-hitting drumming. It’s one of the harder edged tunes on the self-titled EP, only lightening ever so slightly with a more measured approach during the verses,  Despite the weighty subject matter, the track’s built from a beguiling set of changes and much more melodic than the opening number. Guitar is still a prominent instrument in the mix, but there’s a distinctly different feel than listeners experience with the first song. The drummer is consistently strong throughout the EP and one of its high points surprisingly comes with the song “Shades of Grey” because, in essence, it acts as a sort of counterpoint to the lighter strains of its guitar attack and emphasis on melody. Larry Hagner’s vocal on the song “Hands Down” rates as my personal highlight for the EP’s singing performances. It’s the straightest rock tune, both musically and lyrically, on the release and has some charged transitions that linger in the memory, What a song.

There’s no real drop off with the next track. “Countdown” unflinchingly tackles the literal end of the world for its subject matter and sets it alongside a sensitive, piano-focused arrangement for memorable contrast. It’s the song with the lightest touch on Shofar’s new recording but shows their uncompromising spirit without resorting to power chord guitar heroics. Shofar’s personal beliefs artfully shine through on the EP’s conclusion “The Coming” and it’s both entertaining and illuminating. There’s a little of the hard hitting guitar attack we’ve heard on earlier tracks, but it has a more experimental and dream-like edge than anything else they’ve included on the EP. This release should bring Shofar back in a big way while also whetting the appetite for a future full length hopefully to soon follow. This is vital music full of conviction.