The Dark March – Off Shore

The Dark march - Offshore

Before the 1980’s pittsburgh was kind of the place to be if you were an industry worker. The city was responsible for its huge steel industry but then the industry collapsed which led to a loss of jobs and a bunch of other horrible things. Eventually, after decades of rebuilding it became known for its medical and tech enclave and as a livable city for young artist types. But even with the tech boom, Pittsburgh isn’t necessarily on the map in terms of electronic music and arguably is even less affiliated with hip-hop. Don’t get me wrong though; to say Pittsburgh doesn’t have a scene for both genres would be a lie (the VIA festival, Garfield Artworks (RIP)), its just that when you speak about music and Pittsburgh an image of a 20-something college drop out with 00 gauged earlobes and an Acacia Strain t-shirt is the first thing that pops into my mind. However, on any other day you might walk by a bar or coffee shop and catch a peek of a poetry session in progress. The performing poet may be Cliff Fields and when Fields isn’t doing an impromptu poetry jam he’s likely working on a number of projects, namely his acoustic hip-hop project The Dark March whose debut EP dropped right at the beginning of 2015.

‘Offshore‘ is a collection of 7 lo-fi acoustic or semi-acoustic songs in which Fields speaks wordy poetry and raps over. The artistry on ‘Offshore’ is much like the bedroom pop you’d find on a tape label like Orchid Tapes. There is a certain rewarding experience when listening to lo-fi music . Its rewarding because there is a level of intimacy between the musician and the listener that would otherwise be lost with a fully flesh out and produced record. As a listener you can image the artist sitting in their room writing and recording songs on a tape recorder or into their lap top – in a way you can envision yourself doing the same – you mouth the words to the songs and see yourself becoming the artist in a sense. Its easy to relate to because you could do it yourself.

Fields does this well on his EP, you can imagine him writing the opening track, ‘unfair’, a track that immediately sets the mood for the album – being that this isn’t a hip-hop album with acoustic instrumentals, its a folk record with a hip-hop attitude – from session musician, Kyle Roberts bedroom quality acoustic guitar to the “too far away from the mic / too close to the mic” vocal performances of Fields – the content is either in your face or its far in the distance – its raw but not in an off putting way. But even when Field’s voice gets lost in the mix, most notably on the instrumentally lush title track, his voice is still upfront in the way that it is confrontational – pulling the listener in to try to hear every word and dissect what exactly he’s talking about – heart ache, breaking habits, picking up the pieces? Its all up to you.

Between the first track and the album’s title track, the transition is quick but so smooth and is noticeably the only track that doesn’t feature acoustic guitar. The beat, a cut by Green Assassin Dollar is just so good but real merit is how well it maintains ties with the acoustic nature of the album regardless. The track is  short, much like a lot of the tracks on this album which is why it works so well, there’s no bullshitting around, its a to the point kind of deal that only makes it more enjoyable when you feel forced to play it back one more time.

The next track ‘eastside’ kind of breaks the ties with the previous tracks, much like that of ‘offshore’ in that it features some electronic accompaniment from PSI Diego. Its easily the more intense anything on the EP gets – Fields raps with strained intensity, each word comes with a bit of bite and the blown out sound that comes through with his voice only adds to the aggression that comes with each lyric. Its a nice separation from the otherwise mellow flow of the EP, presenting itself as a peak, a half way point sandwiched between the two calmer halves of the EP as the next three tracks feel wholly acoustic.

With the albums closer its easy to say that although Fields has a good ear for selecting a couple great instrumentals the real staying power of this EP comes with his songwriting and ability to tell a story through a series of short vignettes.

Overall Rating: 7.6

Favorite tracks: ‘offshore’, ‘unfair’, ‘eastside’

Recommended: For more Pittsburgh hip-hop check out Surface Level Records

Released: 2015 Jan 02

-Tyler Thompson

Half Milk – Kept Mang

Half Milk - Kept Mang

Release a few singles, an EP, a full length or two and then split. That seems to be the practice with a lot of bands. Pioneers like Cap’n Jazz, American Football, Rites of Spring, and Indian Summer  and modern classics like Algernon Cadwallader, Snowing, and My Heart To Joy. All of which happen to be bands that, although great, split up after putting out a few releases. In the case of the four piece Chicago band, Half Milk, they too have followed a similar cliche. However, what sets Half Milk apart from the many is their final release, ‘Kept Mang’. Where Half Milk may have ended with a cliche, their final album is a record that is entirely their own, one that showcases an undeniable sense of precision and melody. It’s an album that keeps listeners on their toes, throwing out splintered complex guitar passages not unlike the band’s Chicago contemporaries along with jazz inspired drumming and goofy semi-poetic lyricism.

From simple punk chords to the round noodly clean tones that you might expect to here on a Don Cabellero record, most of the songs feature harsh contrasting breaks; instrumental sections that go from melodic, harmoniously and complexly entangled and without warning will transition to the off-kilter, and discordant cacophony without loosing a single moment of clarity. Sometimes it sounds as though all of the instruments are fighting for a spot to be heard over one another but yet through all of the discordance each instrument remains identifiable. One of the best examples of this comes on “Icerev Turns In His Wings”; a blistering epic that feels more like a roller coaster than a track but is nonetheless one of my favorites. Its a track that sums up the entirety of the album, it’s crazy unpredictability and all of it’s artistry at once. ‘Kept Mang’ is certainly the type of record that has all of those little moments that you revisit if only to listen specifically to just those, no matter how brief they are.

While I do appreciate the instrumental diversity that Half Milk possesses it is Spencer LaBute’s strange and often humorous lyricism that gives ‘Kept Mang’ that added sense of energy that gets this release continuous listens. If the title of the second track, “Did You Like Collapse In Grass” didn’t give you an idea of what you were in for then the abstractly hilarious lyrics surely set the tone for the entire record:

“If you’re feeling tropical / Take a ride on the pineapple birthday boat / Fire on the plate / Shrimp fried rice / Remember its warmth that night”

But its not only the work of Half Milk alone that makes this album great. Alongside Mathew Frank, whose vocals are featured on a number of tracks, Little House (aka Charlotte Lovell, also the girl on the album cover) makes an appearance on the track, “Spliff Wizzurd” where, over a mess of layered guitar noise and discordant drumming forms beat-esque poetry where she goes on in a stream of consciousness about friends she can fuck up, shitting herself, buying money, licking the cut of a sandwich’s bite because she’s dangerous, and other eyebrow-raising things. Its weird and maybe a little off-putting but theres something whimsical and also infectiously beautiful about it; maybe its the nonchalance in her voice or the way the words seem to slip casually, calmly from her mouth alongside the otherwise urgent inharmoniousness of the track that makes this so appealing.

The lyrics, much like the eclectic musicianship don’t really do the job of easing the listener into the atmosphere of the album as much as it unforgivingly dunks you in head first, without warning immersing you in what they are, expecting the listener to make sense of what they are given. In other words, I feel like this is just a record where you either dig it or you don’t; you either “get it”, or rather realize theres nothing “to get“, or you just don’t get it in the first place. Most of the time it’s difficult to imagine what the lyrics are about or whether the dudes in Half Milk even knows what they meant when they were writing them, if they even mean anything at all. To get to the point, regardless of the intent, what the lyricism achieves so well is its ability to capture the imagination and put an image or an idea in your head that keeps you wondering and of course listening. Its a trip for sure but its all in good fun.

Chaotic yet smooth, mathy, complex, emotive, passionate, twinkly; all of these descriptors could easily describe any past or upcoming band, especially Half Milk but what separates this band from any other band in this convoluted genre is that Half Milk does it with such virtuosity and character. The band has distinctly created a set of songs that speaks for itself, sometimes half-jokingly laughing at itself and other times as serious as you want it to be. Although, most of the time its hard to distinguish when to take them seriously at all. I think it is this that makes them so different for me, acknowledging when to step back and laugh at themselves, to show that a record doesn’t have to be completely serious to be heard.

While the reasons for these kinds of bands splitting up varies from band to band its clear to me that no one wants to repeat themselves. If you’ve got something great to start with why not end with it as well. As for ‘Kept Mang’, the record is certainly one that proves Half Milk started out great and, although they only put out one record, also ended with an exceptional release at that.

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Overall Rating: 8.6

Favorite Tracks:  Did You Like Collapse In The Grass’, ‘Icerev Turns In His Wings’, Zeuhl Sesh (Like Drinking Ten Lightnings!), Last Halloween: Wish Upon A Fecostar, Kentucky Blue Gravity

Recommended: Check out Algernon Cadwallader

Released: January 2013

Links: Download the album or pick up a tape here

-Tyler Thompson

Cowtown – Dudes vs. Bad Dudes

Cowtown - Dudes vs. Bad Dudes

On the third album from Leeds post-punk / new-wave band, Cowtown embrace jangely pop tunes that feature a tinge of 80’s style synths; a sound that is, influentially, more along the lines of the brighter offerings from the genre, comparable to the likes of past genre-giants such as Devo or The Talking Heads.

While on the band’s first album, ‘Pine-Cone Express’ the band worked mainly with aspects of post-punk and pop they also showed interest in the experimental side of the respective genres. On this latest EP, however, the band does away with much of the experimentation found on these earlier releases and sticks to a constant palette of straightforwardness.

Cowtown has an ear for writing upbeat pop-influenced post-punk tunes;  the band’s sound emphasizing the title of their album, an album built on the ingredients of an old school record, that being the inclusion of thick bass, low end analogue synths,  rich guitar,  a crisp drum sound, and vocal flair; all elements of a production aesthetic that focused on clarity in all aspects of a band’s sound. It is a sound that seems intentionally derivative yet manages to maintain relevancy through sheer energy and character. Essentially ‘Dudes vs. Bad Dudes’ sounds just like the album cover; a set of colorful, fun, and “raaaaddd” party tunes to jam out to. While it is a fun listen, at the same time, just like the album cover, if you look at it for too long all of the colors that once stood out from one another blend seamlessly into a pool of saturated vibrancy. It becomes an eyesore, or in this case, a bit of a headache.

My main complaint with Cowtown is their affinity for slathering the guitar and vocals in a nauseating amount of reverb which, much of the time, overpowers a lot of what is going on. Typically, I don’t tend to mind reverb too much, I actually prefer it but when almost everything is either soaked or lost in a saturated mess of reverb it can become mind-numbingly grating and not in a good way. When the guitars aren’t water-logged with reverb there are some moments of brief but tasty solos and the tone the band pulls out along with them is a nice singing overdrive.

Some of the bands most energetic moments can be heard on tracks like ‘Nightbeats’ and most notably on ‘S.Y.P.S.’, a track that opens with some skillful drum work and driving guitar that features a tinge of middle-eastern vibe. The singing fuzzed out overdrive is loaded with color and crunchy chord progressions do a good job of breaking up the monotonous use of reverb.

‘Dudes vs. Bad Dudes’ is a record that will some may find n instant attraction for the vibrant songwriting and moments of cringe worthy but fun cheesiness, although, for myself it is a listen that sits right between listenability and being a bother after repeated listens.

Overall Rating: 4.9

Favorite Tracks: ‘Animals’, ‘Nightbeats’

Recommended: Check out Hired Muscle

Released: 01 April 2013

Links: Visit The Audacious Art Experiment to stream or purchase ‘Dudes vs. Bad Dudes’

-Tyler Thompson

Break Your Legs – Ghostcore

Break Your Legs - Ghostcore

On their Bananastand Records debut, ‘Ghostcore’, New Brunswick trio, Break Your Legs employ an assault of noisy, fuzz-drenched shredding infused with tasty rock n’ roll flavored punk.

‘Ghostcore’ is 9 tracks of straightforward noisy punk rock, an album with an affinity for sloppy playing, lo-fi production, hazy party punk anthems, and a pop sensibility that brings it all together in a package that is fun but still has a little bit of bite. While much of the time the vocalist can be heard shouting his head off over a mesh of distortion thick guitars it is all at a certain pace, not too fast yet not too slow but just loud enough to bang your head to while taking momentary breaks to sip a beer.

The fried vocals and fuzz-buried riffs sound perfect together, a wholeheartedly lo-fi experience, one that is best heard on cassette tape or played through a set of some old worn out speakers in a damp basement. Throughout every song, Break Your Legs hardly lays off of their love for intensity but with that said, it’s no secret that this is pop music at its most basic and there isn’t anything wrong with that. Where ‘Ghostcore’ feels scuzzy and grimy it is at once fun, refreshing, and simple.

It’s apparent that ‘Ghostcore’ is a sort of lightly themed album as indicated by the opener, a brief intro, the aptly titled, ‘HAIL SATAN’, which features an excerpt from the horror film ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ as the band plays along in the background. The track is followed by ‘Brace Yourself, Chick’, a surprisingly anthemic, upbeat transition from the former, a style that many of the tracks on ‘Ghostcore’ follow. The vocalist sounds like if Dave Grohl (of the Foo Fighters) just finished smoking an entire pack of cigarettes at once while listening to some early Misfits records and the production is at best basement-studio quality — in other words ‘Ghostcore’ couldn’t be more perfect for what it is, an album full of head-banging gems.

The horror-inspired themes return in tracks like ‘Laundry Ghost’ and ‘The Ballad of Manwolf Sharkpuncher’, a track that begs the listener to come howl at the moon, although the band never strays far from the straightforward rock n’ roll licks and grimy punk shredding. If Break Your Legs was looking to create a punk record with lightly inspired horor-themed lyrics then they succeeded at that but as indicated by ‘Every Rose Has It’s November Rain (On A Prayer)’, a humorous track that ends with lyrics ripped straight from Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’, a butchered gang vocal “WHA,OOAH WE’RE HALFWAY THEERRE!”, makes me feel as though this band is better at simply writing great party punk songs without the inclusion of the horror movie samples, which mostly feel out of place among the good songwriting.

Although the band’s debut sounds as though the were struggling with a definitive direction the tracks alone are a fun listen that will undoubtedly feel at home on the tape deck.

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Overall Rating: 6.3

Favorite Tracks: ‘Brace Yourself, Chick’, ‘Laundry Ghost’, and ‘Every Rose Has It’s November Rain (On A Prayer)’

Recommended: Check out Portland, OR’s White Fang

Released: 30 April 2013

Links:

Stream ‘Ghostcore’ on Soundcloud.

Grab a limited edition cassette over at the bandcamp page.

-Tyler Thompson

Zebra Pulse – Endings

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2012 delivered quite a few new and unexpected and refreshing acts, especially when considering the variety of great noise releases from this year including larger projects such as Kevin Drumm’s arresting long-form release, ‘Relief’ to newer gems such as Divorce, So Stressed, BNNT, White Suns, and that Wreck and Reference debut that resonate so well with me. Overall the amount of creativity that came out of the experimental music scene in 2012 was overwhelming to say the least. Zebra Pulse however, is a noise project of an entirely different variety, offering a their own take on what seems to be an infinitely expansive genre.

Within the past year I’ve been hearing and reviewing quite a few projects from Edmonton, Alberta, specifically noise and experimental music ranging from the meditative noise of Pigeon Breeders, to Taiwan’s surreal nostalgia driven soundtrack experimentalism, and Meat Force’s horror inspired glitch pieces just to name a few. Zebra Pulse is a four piece noise band whose wholly improvised approach to noise music combines free-form drumming with electronics such as tapes and turntables that results in a wholly organic collage-like body of sounds.

What you will hear on ‘Endings’ are plenty of off kilter drumming set to a background of strange and sometimes unsettling noises. These noises range from discordant harsh electronics to warped vocal samples. Like I mentioned at the beginning of the review, Zebra Pulse’s style works like a collage of sounds, each musician bringing together different pieces of the music, many times pieces that shouldn’t go together and build from it. Their approach to creating noise rock is much like attempting to fit a puzzle piece in a place where it shouldn’t go; instead of finding the proper pieces Zebra Pulse says “fuck it” and smashes it into place until it does fit and thats not to say that this technique doesn’t work well, in some cases it works surprisingly well, much more than you’d think a band with a drummer and three other guys playing with tape loops and record players would be able to make it work. Other times however, the songs do come of as sounding forced or just out of place.

While there are moments where the electronics do compliment the drumming for the most part they come off as sounding like improvised pieces where drums are just being played overtop of a bunch of noise. ‘Endings’ lacks cohesiveness, the album sounds more like a bunch of jams than a fully realized record but although not entirely gripping it makes for an interesting listening experience for fans of noise and experimental music who are looking for something out of the ordinary, even in genres where ordinary is an often foreign word.

Overall Rating: 6.2

Favorite Tracks: “In The Tub In The Club”, 1GB of Dada

Recommended: BNNT

Released: 12 October 2012

Links:

http://zebrapulse.bandcamp.com/

http://ramshackledayparade.wordpress.com/

-Tyler Thompson

[willscott] – willscott… recordings

will scott... recordings [disc one]

When I was first informed of Edmonton, Alberta noise / drone trio, Pigeon Breeders I never imagined that this small town in Canada actually had stable place for other acts dabbling in the likes of experimental music until I checked out the 2012 Ramshackle Day Parade comp. which featured a solid collection of acts from the area and surrounding areas, the likes of which included musician, Will Scott, one of the members in Pigeon Breeders whose guitar oriented solo compositions draw from a number of influences and span a vast array of styles taking mainly from psychedelic, blues, and progressive rock and repurposing them into experimental and sometimes noisy electronic infused compositions that retain the catchy aspects of their contemporaries while branching out into newer territory.

The first disc in this two disc release can be seen as the more cohesive or realized set of songs whereas the second disc is more of a collection of short experimental sounds and compositions, “b-sides” and extras. Both discs do maintain a similar sound, although disc two does branch out a bit more, playing around with noisier sounds (‘3ree’, along with the inclusion of more irregular rhythms and unorthodox song structures that take queues from the angular playing of early math rock band such as Don Cabellero (‘Our Home Is Next…’, ‘No Love’) while some remind me of that Matt Stevens album that I reviewed last year taking from and meshing together a number of styles (‘Maybe and Sometimes’, ‘Funkin Ugly’).

While the first disc does provide a clear direction I actually prefer the diversity of the songs on the second disc. It’s pretty clear to me that ‘Recordings’ most successful attributes is it’s ability to appeal to a diverse audience. Even with the more straightforward efforts heard on the first disc each song provides a strong amount of variation with abstract pieces such as “Lonely Ground”, a track that sets itself apart starting off with guitars and “Ooohs and Ahhhs” that build to a climax before panning out and picking up with this directionless discordant noise. Although out of place among an album full of guitar based songs the track never sounds like it doesn’t belong. Even though [willscott] is primarily considered a solo project Scott is joined by a number of guest musicians who contribute the likes of guitar, vocals, lyrics, drums, bass, samples electronic embellishments, etc. that bring a sense of character where it would likely be lacking. While some of the songs are instrumental many do feature vocals and lyrics on tracks such as “The Saga Continues” from the likes as Elissa Cook whose voice soars above driving guitars and arena sized drums that gives this track a huge amount of space. ‘This Is What It Sounds Like To Record In A Cave’ and ‘Phatty Beats Bruce and Old Man Johnson” offer this free-form “frame of mind” style vocals reminiscent of rapping that strangely reminds me of experimental hip-hop group, cLOUDDEAD or even (dare I say) Beck. Initially one might think that all of this might be overwhelming but even with all of this variation it still works as a cohesive album.

The production is unreal, at times sounding like some strange lost alien blues jams. The drums are bold and cut through the mix without detracting from other aspects of the music and although the guitars are loaded with an arsenal of effects they don’t water down the tone and prove to be necessary as oppose to just being another addition to the sound. It is clear that every aspect of instrumentation on ‘Recordings’ was payed equal attention to but this projects biggest accomplishment is not only this ear for a great sound. Where musicians who have emulated a style of music from the past in this way tend to go wrong is in their pursuit to take the strong points of their various influences and combine them together as one. In doing this they push aside the possibility of using their influences to create something original and are left with this soup of sounds whose ingredients don’t mix so well. In an attempt to spice things up they continue to add additional flavors which aren’t as palatable together as they would be if they were left alone. I realize this is a terrible and overused metaphor, one that is just as bad as any band reusing past sounds but where [willscott] makes a difference is these sounds aren’t reused but repurposed and formed into something unique in its own respect without bothering to “pay homage” to earlier sounds but rather using these old sounds to do something new.

At the end of two discs of material there really is something for everyone to be heard here; if you don’t like one song on this release it’s likely that there will be a track among these two discs that will resonate. ‘Willscott… Recordings’ may be composed mainly of rock songs centralized around instruments traditionally found in rock music but this isn’t just another throwback retro-revival act. What is heard on ‘Recordings’ is an amount of experimentation that would not typically be expected or initially wanted on your standard rock album but is nonetheless encouraged because this is not your standard rock album and although it isn’t entirely new it is a carefully thought out coming together of influences and ideas that worked well separately in the past and sound great as a whole in the present. Do check this out.

Overall Rating: 8.4

Favorite Tracks: ‘SOS Fest Sucked This Year…’, ‘The Saga Continues’, ‘This Is What It Sounds Like To Record In A Cave’, ‘Happy Ending’, ‘Our Home Is Next…’

Recommended: Check out the Ramshackle Day Parade net-label.

Released: 04 December 2011

Links:

http://willscott.bandcamp.com/

-Tyler Thompson

Studying – Sophomoronic

On Sophmoronic the now seven piece band continues to explore the post-rock influenced sound that was first heard on their 2011 EP ‘Songs About Leaving Home’ and most obviously so on their more recent split release with local friends, Carved Our In Snow. ‘Sophomoronic’ is the bands first full length and also their final release which features some guest appearances including the addition of trumpet and cello.

Although identifying mostly with mid-western emo, within the past few years the genre has developed and maintain strong ties to bordering genres such as math rock and in Studying’s case, post-rock. On the song “The Passing of 34 Days” from their split release with Carved Our Names In Snow the band showcased their most obvious transition toward a post-rock sound. The bands taste for anthemic songwriting laden with the twinkly tremolos and the lush crescendos found in post-rock combined with the vocal aspects of mid-western emo make for a combination that couldn’t be more fitting. The album starts off with an apparent post-rock influence featuring reverb heavy guitars that chime along with rolling drums leading to a chorus featuring an ocean of smooth rising tremolos and horns which carries over to other songs on the album in various forms.

The whole album brings a refreshingly new youthful and energetic take to the genre, a presence that Studying did well on their debut EP, a sound that has developed and translated quite well throughout their short time as a band. It hasn’t been until now that this sound has been able to see a fully realized form and thankfully it has worked out quite well in the case of ‘Sophomoronic’. The album maintains a certain consistency; each song flowing together while still carrying enough variation to set themselves apart from one another. There are more straightforward moments on the album such as the song “Where Bluestone Meets Carrier” which is something of a ballad. The title track and ‘Goodbye, I Guess’ shows the band expressing a more agressive side featuring a transition to shouted / half screamed vocals. All in all each song continues the breathy sound that runs throughout entire album while offering something different calling for repeated listens.

Although consistent there are times where the songs do mesh together. The extensive use of reverb and cresendo-based song structure, as crucial as it was to the bands transition to a more post-rock sound, a sound that has set them apart from the bands they share the genre with is at the same time the culprit for the repetitiousness of the sounds here. While at times I do feel like this genre has been plundered of diversity I still feel like Studying has managed to not simply find a “niche” for themselves within it but has instead carved a name for themselves.

From the opening tracks glisteningly wintery guitar work to the albums dirgy wholly instrumental end this final album is a solid last release from a group of friends who know how to write something that is both catchy and relatable in such a way that it doesn’t sacrifice any of it’s artistic merits in the process. Although I’m sad to see this group split up I do think they are leaving on a good note with this release.

Overall Rating: 8.1

Recommended: Associated acts: Caust, Solomon Solomon, Carved Our Names In Snow.

Favorite Track: ‘Because What Has Hardened Will Never Win’, ‘Nothing But Figures’, ‘Goodbye I Guess’,

Released: 17 August 2012

Links:

Listen to the band’s final release here.

Tyler Thompson