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