Monday, October 22, 2018

Yam Haus - Stargazer (2018)

Written by Daniel Boyer, posted by blog admin

Originally from Wisconsin, the four piece pop rock band Yam Haus is rapidly becoming one of the most promising units working on the traditionally thriving Minnesota music scene thanks to their remarkably mature songwriting and effervescent performances. Their full length album Stargazer kicks off their attempt to reach a worldwide audience with immense stylishness and a clear sense of design far outstripping their contemporaries. The title track begins the release with a swirl of synthesizer lines gradually incorporating guitar into the mix before it takes a sharp turn into the first verse. Slashing guitar chords burn through the first verse before the band segues back into the quicksilver melodicism of the introduction. This opening and title cut provides us with an early opportunity to define the band’s style – they mix lively guitar textures with an often glistening electronic sweep.

Lead singer and guitarist Lars Pruitt has a pure, unvarnished quality to his voice while obviously exhibiting the ideal chops for this sort of material. He has enough oomph in his voice to give the songwriting immediacy, but he likewise carries the more melodic aspects of the band’s songs with effortless pop panache. The second song “West Coast” shows that in abundance. It has a similar structure to the first song in the way it begins with a brief synthesizer fanfare, but the verses and chorus are constitute the bulk of one of Stargazer’s marquee gems. The track is exceptional as it stands, but Pruitt’s vocal melody propels it to stratospheric heights of quality. The smooth, gliding feel of the song will enchant many listeners from their first listen.

“Kingdom” brings acoustic guitar into the mix, a possible hint to its origins as a song, but it boasts a stronger Eighties influence than anything else we’ve heard at this point. Don’t let that claim be misleading, however, as it isn’t a dominating element of the track. Instead, “Kingdom” mixes a near singer/songwriter sensibility with Yam Haus’ distinctive pop sound. It’s bold and expansive from the first. The same bright, positive veneer defining the earlier material continues with the song “Get Somewhere” and guitar brings nice ornamental touches around the chorus. The payoff moment for the song and accompanying backing vocals put an emphatic exclamation point on the song’s radio potential.

“Right Now, Forever” begins with the sound of early 20th century jazz seemingly piped through an old fashioned radio set before transforming into a delicate acoustic based number. There are some discreet piano touches scattered throughout the release and Ian Pruitt’s vocal strikes an appropriately soulful note. “Carry Me Home” opens with a gentle blossoming flourish built largely around Pruitt’s voice and synthesizer lines. The band comes in gradually, allowing tension to develop rather than exploiting the song’s possibilities in one fell swoop, and it has a tremendous effect. The full realized qualities of Yam Haus’ Stargazer are a rare accomplishment at this late date in pop music’s history and they are clearly poised at a remarkably early age to leave an indelible mark on modern music.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Astronomique - Sharp Divide (2018)

Written by Drew East, posted by blog admin

Astronomique’s new studio release Sharp Divide is the band’s first album length collection and they’ve amassed a powerful bevy of songs for this important benchmark in their career. None of the songs are remotely self indulgent, a semi frequent knock on acts working in the synth pop style, and songwriters Sean Hogan, the band’s guitarist, and lead vocalist Logan Andra Fongemie craft distinctly darker musical narratives than a lot of their peers and their subject matter has a decidedly different slant as well – you’ll find precious little in the way of “it’s Friday night and let’s have a good time” or “boy meets girl” songwriting on Sharp Divide. There’s a strongly personal and intimate feel to Sharp Divide, but there’s plenty of imagination powering this album as well.

“Forefathers” introduces us to one of the album’s strongest suits, the engine room of bass player Preston Saari and drummer Mitch Billings. They have a kinetic rapport with Hogan’s guitar and Fongemie’s vocals even on a recording, so it’s intriguing to wonder what they could accomplish live with these songs. “We Disappear” has a relentless thump from bass and drums working in lockstep with one another and staccato rhythms from guitarist Sean Hogan that expand with the song’s chorus and bridge. The chiming effect he achieves is effective for lightening the song’s melancholy mood without making it unfamiliar contrasted with the other songs. Despite any differences in approach, there’s a common stylistic and sonic thread uniting these songs.

The pulsing synthesizer intro to “Losing Our Control” sets the stage for one of Sharp Divide’s most forceful tracks and the gurgling bass from Preston Saari is particularly effective, but knows when to shift into a different gear and seamlessly does so. Sean Hogan’s guitar is clear and punchy here without ever dominating the performance. “Sharp Divide”, the album’s title song, has a more spartan musical thrust than the previous track, but Astronomique’s individual brand of synth pop continues to flex its muscles here, although in a decidedly darker, more thoughtful fashion than the album’s more straight-forward numbers. “Smoke” has a stronger synthesizer base than most of the album’s other songs, but it’s nonetheless quite successful and features one of Fongemie’s best vocals on Sharp Divide.

“Bleed Me” is another of the darker tracks from Astronomique’s latest that will gain listener’s attention. It’s one of the Fongemie’s most impassioned, haunted performances on Sharp Divide and the intensely human quality of her voice plays off nicely against her synthesizer playing. Billings and Saari, once again, lay down a steady groove for the song. “Heading Nowhere”, the album’s finale, doesn’t have nearly as defined of a groove, but Saari and Billings are standouts once again and everything else keys off their performance. Astronomique’s Sharp Divide is their strongest release yet and clears the road ahead of them for even greater triumphs to come.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Sky Orchid - Oculus (2017)

Written by Jay Snyder, posted by blog admin

Brothers from Kansas, Gabriel (vocals, guitar, keyboards) and Daniel Traknyak (drums and percussion) have been playing together for over a decade now.  Though their journey has included other band members at different times, they’ve now settled on a duo formation and the name, Sky Orchid.  Oculus is their debut and some of the music dates back to at least seven years ago.  This is obviously a labor of love for this familial twosome and as a result the music benefits from chemistry, collaboration and cohesiveness. 

Opener “The River” has huge, soulful vocal melodies balancing atop a rumbling foundation of tom drums, ambient keyboards and a crescendo of soaring singing brushing shoulders with sturdy electric guitar riffs.  It’s an atmospheric trip that dig in deep with its pulsating musical core that favors a low frequency bass throb over a minor-key romp fronted by the guitar.  “Sneakers” dwells in an ebbing, flowing wash of dub with a twinkling guitar intro giving way to programmed beats, washes of synth and vibrant vocals.  Electronically distorted snare enters midway through as the music ascends to symphonic, baroque rock with a foundation of guitar/drums that returns the tune to organic waters.  This difference split makes for a nice division between distinct vibes and in certain segments both the digital band and the rock band personas meet in a glorious melding of mindsets. 

“In the Fire (Part 1)” grooves on ripping post-rock guitar chords, taut backbeats and stellar harmony-intensive vocals that sounds like a less slacker-rock inspired version of Radiohead.  Not that “slacker-rock” is a band thing but this stuff feels more positive while never dropping into down mode.  Dynamic rises of sizzling guitar voltage and rocked-out snare beats give this number some much needed juice during the rock-solid choruses.  Saving the symphonic layering for the finale, “Wildfire” is a slow-burning scorcher of acoustic guitars, minimalist percussion and killer R & B leaned vocal styling that really scores a direct hit right in the eardrums.  Adopting a punk-rock pacing “I’ll Stop the World (Part 2)” is a high-energy merger of new wave and rock n’ roll with excellent atmospheric guitar licks, slower musical breaks highlight the fast parts and a lot of variety packed into its less than 4 minutes of playtime.  The molten crawl of “Lex” drapes its guitar work in a healthy supply of reverb/delay as it cautiously, deliberately ratchets up to a noisy finale; a far cry from its dark, downbeat beginnings. 

The oldest composition from the brothers’ repertoire “Breathe Easy” makes lyrical references to Bob Marley and even employs funky guitar lines that wouldn’t be out of place for reggae.  Intersecting these diving grooves are runs of heavier riffing, punk-laden speed-up and tuneful indie guitar licks.  “Take It All” flirts with Sublime’s patented style while the bleary-eyed and piano driven gothic swagger of “Yesterday” proves a fitting lead-in to playful noisy rock closer, “Fortify.”  Sky Orchid is given a smashing introduction to the music scene at large with Oculus.  Utilizing multiple styles and a no-holds barred song composition ethic, the 10 tunes all told here keep you guessing as to where the influences are coming from.  Points for originality in 2018 and this album is certainly worth a pick-up.       

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Rhett Repko - Thnx For The Ride (2017)

Written by Drew East, posted by bog admin

Rhett Repko’s latest release, an EP entitled Thnx for the Ride, opens with the title song and announces the collection’s arrival in a big way. The recording of the opener has a visceral quality capable of grabbing a listener’s attention and holding it while mixing up styles in a satisfying way. Despite the obvious rock slant of the EP, many of the seven songs feature a strong underpinning of acoustic guitar and ride fiery performances from each band member. “Thnx For The Ride” moves from an energetic stomp into ska-like passages with confidence and the shifts are never jarring.

The EP’s second song, “Please Don’t Laugh”, is a more straight-forward number establishing an early groove, but the band and Repko never sound anything less than energetic and there’s palpable commitment behind each line. The vocals for Thnx For The Ride make good use of harmony vocals without ever overdoing it, but what really stands out by the third song is the emotional tenor of his voice. None of these tracks aim to remake the wheel, but Repko’s singing lives out each one of them for the listener and it makes an impact. “It Ain’t Coming From You” is a great example of his voice’s transformative powers. It’s another great rock track married to a Repko lyric and vocal tinged with just the right balance of bitterness and heartache.

“Maybe I’m Weak” has jolting vulnerability, but there are undercurrents in Repko’s writing for discerning listeners to uncover and his vocal does a nice job, once again, getting under the skin of the song and dramatizing it for his audience in a gripping way. Repko and his band demonstrate, once again, their talent for turning on a dime musically with the track “And I Told Her So”. The song whips through some nifty tempo changes, never breaking a sweat, and lead guitarist Stefan Heuer even unleashes some torrid wah wah licks near the track’s conclusion. This rock song has a sinewy vibe during much of it upping the intensity.

The second to last track “Learn Your Name” has some strong riffing counterpointed by vocal harmonies softening the song’s otherwise lightly abrasive touch. Much of the punch in this song, thanks to its structure, comes from the rhythm section. Drummer Tom Bryant and bassist Dan Gallagher make quite a tandem throughout the entire EP, but this is one of their peak moments.
The EP concludes with “Make Me Right. It’s, arguably, Repko’s most impassioned vocal performance on the EP, befitting its status as closer, and the lyrics contain the same penchant for self-examination powering many of the earlier songs. It brings Thnx For The Ride to a charged ending few listeners will find unsatisfying. You’ll be challenged to not love this release, front to back, as Rhett Repko gets better with each new studio recording.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Joshua Ketchmark - Under Plastic Stars (2017)


Written by Laura Dodero, posted by blog admin

A longtime collaborator and sideman for many important and legendary musicians, Joshua Ketchmark has made his way in the modern music world based on work ethic and talent. It’s little wonder that his first effort at a solo album, Under Plastic Stars, turns out to be such a satisfying effort – these songs are long gestating gems further energized by his obvious commitment to the material. Ketchmark’s work definitely falls in the singer/songwriter category, but he’s much more storyteller than confessional would-be poet. Make no mistake, however – the twelve songs on Under Plastic Stars are noteworthy for their intelligence and often jaw-dropping eye for detail. There are a couple of moments when Ketchmark is definitely appealing to a potential mass audience and Under Plastic Stars needs at least one more uptempo songs at the expense of one of the slower numbers, but this is an album nonetheless full of riches.

“We Were Everything” starts the album off on a bold foot. Rather than going for the gusto and ushering us into his musical world with some sort of brisk, rollicking number. Instead, Ketchmark begins things in an introspective mood and the song throbs with emotion while never seeming too overwrought. The muted percussion and memorable melodies powering “Every Mystery” perfectly frames one of Ketchmark’s songs of yearning and he invokes the required emotions, once again, without ever straining for effect. “Let It Rain”, the album’s third song, is another number when there’s an obvious concern with establishing a musical mood and Ketchmark succeeds spectacularly without ever hamming things up too much. The clear discernment driving his performances is one of the key elements setting him apart from the pack and it comes through in every song.

“Hereafter” is one of the album’s more musically forceful numbers, but doesn’t deviate from the same patient tempos defining the earlier songs. The electric guitar is the difference maker here and Brad Rice’s guitar has an almost painterly touch with its ability to add color to the song. “Sweet Surrender” is, far and away, the album’s best ballad or the closest thing to it and should exert widespread appeal with both devotees and casual music fans alike. The piano is the straw that stirs the melodic drink here and Ketchmark plays off it quite beautifully, but bass player Dave Webb and drummer Kenny Wright make their mark as well. “!7” is another fine peak on the album and its finest character portrayal – Ketchmark shows deft touches throughout that other songwriters simply wouldn’t include and it makes for a more engrossing storytelling experience. “Losing Control” mixes the tempos up a little and it comes nicely as the band gets to unleash at something more than a slow match and they breeze through those respective parts of the song with the same loose limbed precision we hear elsewhere. “The Great Unknown”, as well, shows a more energetic pace and Ketchmark offers up one of his best vocals on the album to close it out. Under Plastic Stars isn’t a flawless effort, by many means, but Ketchmark’s first solo foray is rewarding in every way.