Album Review: Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins

Grizzly Bear have always made the sort of stylistically complex music that’s been hard to place in any one genre or even accurately convey to another person – they’re just… Grizzly Bear. Sure, you could spend an hour explaining what exactly chamber and baroque pop are, but the only way to truly understand Grizzly Bear is to listen. Their true charm lies not in their individual talents, but the way in which they bring those talents together while writing, recording, and performing, as if they exist as four heads resting comfortably on top of a large, singular body, complete with a harpsichord under one arm and a guitar in the other. Having since evolved from the Ed Droste fronted debut Horn of Plenty in 2004 to a four member group, the band has played around with different aesthetics throughout the years, afterwards with each member taking the time to understand their own style and purpose in the band as well as society. And now, five years since 2012’s Shields, they’ve returned with a stunning and, as is their want, an amazingly complex, textured album flawlessly conveying the process of decay, epiphany, and, partly, the slow, grueling process of rebirth, projecting those concepts inward into the self as well as out into the world around it.

Forget for a moment that Painted Ruins’s opener “Wasted Acres” is about riding an all terrain vehicle through a field and instead focus on it’s haunting repeated lyric sung by Daniel Rossen: “Were you even listening?” Although the rest of the song feels awfully esoteric and unfamiliar to the point of uneasiness, it’s an incredible strategy for the overall flow of the album – Rossen’s hollow tone mixed with the sensation of brooding, fantastical drums is the invitation into another one of Grizzly Bear’s intricately designed, heavily textured worlds, and he proceeds to ask you if you’ve ever taken the time to listen to your own desires, if you’re listening to the voices within yourself in the midst of a changing environment, begging you to tell him what you need, to trust him. Rossen repeatedly acts as your direct link connecting their world with the one in which you are familiar, being for the most part direct, outspoken, and hopeful, while Droste acts as the constant, incessant internal noise, the one that you feel you’ve battled and dealt with time and time again, even if you’ve never had to endure the pain of a breakup, the pain of not fully understanding yourself, or even just the pain of existing in a morally corrupt society lead by an equally corrupt leader, the last bit unfortunately being more accurate today than ever.

Despite the emotional weight of Droste’s contribution, Painted Ruins nonetheless explores the idea of re-enamoring yourself after the process of breaking apart, and is repeatedly explored in the lyrics, and we hear Droste’s laments of decay at an almost equal par with Rossen’s hopes of rebirth. Subsequently, there’s a wonderful sense of tension as well as a sense of resilience from enduring that tension, each song sounding like a catalyst for some sort of meaningful epiphany. As a result, Painted Ruins feels warm to the touch, housing a smoldering, aggressive nature begging for the chance to be released. Their instrumentals ricochet off each other while Droste and Rossen act as a tag team vocally, “Mourning Sound” being a wonderful example of their powerful dynamic. Droste sets the tone with his deep drawl, lamenting his mistakes and the slow decay of his love (“Let love age/ And watch it burn out and die”) and Rossen meanders in afterwards, riding the wave of bright guitar strums and electric synth, awoken to sounds reminiscent of wartime chaos, including “dogs,” “distant shots,” and “passing trucks.” It’s the first of the songs mostly dealing with decay and ruin, followed by the somber “Four Cypresses” and the idea of slow deterioration, the cypresses themselves directly symbolizing death as well as the life that came before it. Rossen repeats twice within the track that “it’s chaos, but it works,” which seems to be a catch-all phrase for their entire discography, from the quiet calamity of Yellow House to the colorful, bombastic Veckatimest, to the textured, complex Shields and now to this aggressive, brooding masterpiece.

“Three Rings” is the first to question the emotions long since buried deep inside, Droste asking through the midst of experimental, industrial sounding instrumentals if this is “the way it is” before sinking into a somber, teary-eyed “Ready, Able”-esque bridge of desperation and anguish, begging his beloved “don’t you ever leave me,” promising he can “make it better,” to make himself better too, if he can fit it in. It’s one of the handful of tracks that address the concept of epiphany, and as a result, the instrumentals usually begin with Christopher Bear’s relatively minimal chunky percussions and Chris Taylor’s disjointed bass plucks, only to later be met with a wave of techniques and styles that wash over to fill the space. Another, “Cut-out,” one of our absolute favorites on the album, also addresses the idea of letting go, to carve away at the parts causing you pain and eviscerate that “invading spore” within your body, “inhale your older self,” and move on. Instrumentally, it’s also one of the most interesting, beginning with a beautiful, subtle guitar melody and Droste’s voice swelling and deflating with ease, Rossen later acting as the chorus to his lead narrative, the voice of reason and action.

“Neighbors”’s grandiose composition and heartbreaking narrative hints at the idea that pain and strife are everlasting and seemingly impossible to prevent despite the human ideal to move on, perhaps even claiming it as part of the process to rebirth. Droste lamenting in drawn out breaths that “face to face/ We’ll watch our bodies break,” while Rossen lurks underneath with his own lucid tone, agreeing that yes, they “left [him] broken” and “helpless.” Closer “Sky Took Hold” is also one of the most stunning on the album, as it utilizes the power of Droste’s voice in the context of soliloquy, arguably where he shines most. After a soft, gentle introduction, the metallic synth that follow resemble five concentrated lightning strikes, which Droste uses as fuel to propel his voice higher until it seems to dissolve into the ether. At the end, he confides in the listener in the battlefield of instrumentals: “Since I was a young boy it was always there/ Inside me growing none of it seems fair/ I’ve grown to accept it, let it take the stage/ And leave me helpless, watching far away.” It’s a moment of clarity despite the noise it unravels itself in, and serves as a brilliant conclusion to an already dense, beautifully esoteric work.

Although the album contains the feelings of self-doubt and unease, the sense of hope and the chance for rebirth always seems to sit idly by, even sometimes embedded in the fibers of its complex instrumentals. In this, the image of the title’s painted ruins comes to mind, in both its negative and positive connotations; on one hand, the process of painting over something that has shattered seems fruitless, but on the other, it also symbolizes the act of moving on, taking into account your pain and your flaws and using them as the foundation for something even more beautiful than it was before. And sometimes, internal noise and external noise has the ability to cancel each other out, leaving in its wake something calm and lovely, and Painted Ruins is a fine example of just that, perhaps even one of the finest of the year. 

9.0/10

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photo by Tom Hines

The Jungle Giants – “Bad Dream”

Australian indie pop quartet The Jungle Giants released their third album Quiet Ferocity today, and it’s perhaps their best work yet, bursting at the seams with ten stunning tracks of non-stop vitality. The quirk of their past repertoire now has a sharp, jagged side, constantly mixing bright guitar melodies with moody basslines and eccentric synth effects. With every addictive dance track like “Feel The Way I Do,” “On Your Way Down,” and “Waiting For A Sign,” there are tracks like “Bad Dream” that mellow them out, rounding out the album effortlessly. The latter has frontman Sam Hales starting with a deeper tone than usual, which leads to a falsetto tinged, eerie sounding chorus laced with a skilled vocal run that induces goosebumps. It’s slower and moodier than the rest of the album, a come-down that still produces its own specific type of dizzying high.

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photo via amplifire music

Album Review: Alt-J – Relaxer

If there was a singular detail that separates Alt-J from their modern contemporaries, it would have to be the immense thought and care that goes into crafting their specific narratives, often times only immediately accessible to a certain few. Their music is not designed to be a fleeting, faded sound to be heard in the background, but exclusively reserved for those who wish to isolate themselves, peirce its thick, compact flesh, and let the juices freely flow down their chin. Relaxer, the trio’s third full length album, offers the chance for this savage practice tenfold, perhaps even more than their past work. But, true to its name, it also takes the time to release some of the pressure in order to tell wonderfully dense and detailed stories, most of which deal with how people perceive the idea of love and lust, satisfaction and sadness, either as individual concepts or how they interact simultaneously.

Relaxer might be the most obscure and experimental album Alt-J has ever released, as well as the most sensual; it’s almost as if it exists as a perfect amalgamation of their first two albums, taking the moody unpredictability of An Awesome Wave and the delicacy and romance of This Is All Yours. The sensuality, however, is at times placed not in a forgiving landscape, but instead an glitchy, savage wonderland where all rules go out the window, and somehow, Alt- J more than manage to get away with it. In fact, it’s the blatant, brilliant contradiction of their graphic, emotion soaked narratives to the fantastical, effect laden sounds that keeps the madness from gaining too much momentum – their thoughtful minds stabilize their feet that so desperately wish to float into the ether.  Of course, that doesn’t mean their more bizarre thoughts don’t bleed into their creations every now and again, and the ones they’ve chosen to include this time around are their most perplexing and arresting to date.

“In Cold Blood” begins with a slew of binary, arresting, piercing and esoteric, as is their want. While the track sounds bright and energetic, a deeper listen and glance at the lyrics reveals that a man has been killed during a pool party, and that same positive energy turns frantic and chaotic, the horns and glitchy keyboards mingling together in some sort of demented, violent menagerie – and it’s absolutely mesmerizing. “Adeline” is, literally, about a Tasmanian devil that falls in love with a woman after watching her swim, but from the amount of care and passion in both the smooth, milky guitar and piano instrumentals as well as Joe Newman’s vocal swells, you’d think the devil were a complicated being with a highly sensitive, bleeding heart, able to feel such complex emotions as mankind. Again, the listener sees and hears the contrast and concurrent communication between the savage and delicate as the creature must turn away from the object of his desire, for their lives are far too different. At the end of his journey through his emotions, he wishes her well as the urges in his head and heart battle each other, expressed through a thick, dense forest of vocal samples and grandiose instrumentals. The trio even messes around with the Animals’ 1964 hit “House of the Rising Sun,” where instead of a man chained to the world of gambling and alcohol, his father is chained instead, and his mother can’t help but sew jeans to pay for his addiction. As a result it sounds even darker, completely furloughing the miniscule shard of hope the original managed to secure.

The focus on differing perspectives on love and lust is also very much prominent throughout Relaxer, in both its blatant and subtle forms. “Hit Me Like That Snare” is very much in the former category, and exists not only as the British trio’s most bizarre and uncomfortable tracks, but perhaps one of the strangest tracks in the history of alt indie music. After what seems like a cowbell induced orgasm, Newman delivers a vocal line that resembles a drunken, hysteric drawl, with as many euphemisms for sex you can imagine. “Deadcrush” exists in the middle, where Newman and Gus Unger-Hamilton tell us about their “dead crushes,” photographer Elizabeth “Lee” Miller and Anna Bolina, referring to Anne Boleyn. It’s a narrative that hasn’t been touched on much in the past, but this as well as the long, drawn out “Last Year” and “Pleader” are tracks that will only immediately make sense to a certain few, and at first glance, may be far too overwhelming to fully embrace like the others.

The magnum opus of the album must be “3WW,” as it seems to utilize Alt-J’s unique composition style found in Relaxer the most eloquently. Much like the idea of love itself, it is multi-faceted, sounding like a love song one moment and a glitchy, eerie nightmare the next, as it focuses on two separate, but intertwining perspectives. The plucks of guitar simulate the “wayward lad’s” soft, anxious footsteps as he leaves the comfort of his pastoral life to discover love, or at least offer a love “in his own language.” He wishes for something more substantial, for the words “I love you” have become worn with overuse like the “rubbing hands of tourists in Verona,” referring to those who have ruined the patina of the statue of Juliet in Verona, wanting luck in love. The instrumentals become more industrial and sterile as he learns the hard way that others’ ideas of love are not as sincere and meaningful as his – the girls that take advantage of his purity leave him a note the morning after their encounter, asking him with a laugh if it was his “first time.” The instrumentals become quiet and ashamed, but the boy repeats his desire to love another the way he thinks is the most substantial, his morals remaining the last pure, quiet breath into the corrupt world he left everything to experience.

Relaxer is at the least a deep dive into the highly functioning minds of three incredibly talented musicians and songwriters, at the most a strange, yet rewarding third installment of a musical project that will never be replicated.

8.7/10

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photo by Gabriel Green / big hassle

Ulrika Spacek – “Silvertonic”

This Friday, Berlin-based quintet Ulrika Spacek will release their sophomore album Modern English Decoration, just a little over a year after their hypnotic, emotional debut The Album Paranoia. Their music is a moody, delicate concoction of 90’s indie rock (drawing inspiration from Pavement, Television, and even Sonic Youth), with sharp, indulgent specks of shoegaze, lo-fi guitars, and the two of the most addictive, relatable underlying concepts in music – angst and sadness. “Silvertonic,” along with the vast majority of the new album, shows those two ideas brilliantly and mercilessly, to the point where you need multiple listens to truly appreciate the amount of effort placed in balancing them out. The instrumentals are aggressive and brooding, then dips out towards the chorus save for bouts of swirling guitar and synth, in order to show frontman Rhys Edward’s soft, impassioned voice – as if finally succumbing to his own emotions.

Modern English Decoration will be released on June 2nd, but in the meantime, you can stream it here.

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photo courtesy of artist

Album Review: Hoops – Routines

More than anything, Indiana-based indie trio Hoops seem to understand the euphoric feeling of summer, considering their warm and addictive chillwave aesthetic perfected over the past few years. Their self-titled EP released just last summer featured moody, lo-fi guitar powered gems, all remarkably smooth and clear despite the fact that it was recorded primitively in their homes. Routines is the result of of that same aesthetic mixed with the wonders of a proper studio where that sun-drenched sound gets the depth and richness it deserves, and the boys get a chance to better flesh out their wistful narratives.

Considering that genres like chillwave pride themselves on being carefree and loose, Routines slyly attempts to sound perfectly imperfect at times. Even though being a perfectionist with a such a finicky genre might be detrimental with other groups, Hoops seems to pull it off mainly because its members are dedicated to constantly discovering their own sound through constant experimentation, with this group as well as their own projects – founder Drew Auscherman explores garage pop in his side project Permit, and bassist Kevin Krauter recently released one of the most gorgeous, delicate EPs we’ve heard in quite some time – allowing that time spent tinkering on their music to come off as charming rather than unnecessarily tedious.

Hoops are at their absolute best when a strong, vibrant guitar melody weaves itself through the rest of a track’s instrumentation and takes the helm by force, with electrifying opener “Rules” leaving the listener no time to think about anything other than the rambunctious medley of instrumentals that drive the sound. As if the echoed effect on the opening melody wasn’t enough for unyielding attention, the distorted, sour effect during the bridge triggers nostalgia, a feeling that’s always underrated in our book. “On Top” has its own delightful guitar morsel after the chorus, the bouncy guitars almost changing color as they play on. One main grievance, however, was the number of tracks that sounded like filler, a mere derivative of the ones that came before or after. Unfortunately, there’s only so much you can do before that same hazy sound can start to appear gratuitous, with the softer, more emotionally powered tracks rudely left in the minority. Tracks like “Underwater Theme” add to the band’s versatility, considering emotion is one of those concepts incredibly hard to fake – and the band does it so delicately that we wished there were more moments where that vulnerability was more potent. As if Hoops read our minds, closer “Worry” succeeds in being the most sincere track on Routines, based on the sultry, metallic sounding synth chimes as well as the guitar twangs reminiscent of dream-pop past. The deep throaty vocals offset the smoky vibe of the instrumentals, but also introduces the equally hazy saxophone shrieks that perfectly seals everything inside flawlessly.

Summer is often thought to be this euphoric, carefree time of the year, filled with nothing but sunshine, happiness, and the occasional fling, but many forget the lonely side – where the constant warmth, once exhilarating, can quickly turn commonplace. With Routines, Hoops do their part to soundtrack both of these phenomenons, and the result is wonderfully inviting.

7.0/10

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photo courtesy of artist

Album Review: Tim Darcy – Saturday Night

As the frontman of art punk band Ought, Tim Darcy is no stranger to vulnerability or sensitivity; in fact, his lyrics and the melodies that escape his guitar seem to feed off their presence. Ought, of course, being a band party born out of protest, perfectly rides the line of being intellectual but constantly pissed off, and Darcy’s contribution is similar; the music is anxious and jittery, filled with chunky guitars and meticulous basslines, and Darcy’s lyrics, yelped out with a tone existing somewhere between vitriol and inquisitiveness, touch on existentialism and human nature, as well as the monotony of everyday life. In Saturday Night, Darcy’s experimental debut solo album, he becomes a human conduit for emotion, and, as a result, the vulnerability appears less like divine annoyance and more like a lovesick serenade.

Saturday Night was recorded around the same time as Ought’s sophomore album Sun Coming Down, though some of the songs that appear on the solo album were materializing well before the creation of the group itself. Obviously, the songs are much more introspective, perhaps a result of allowing ideas to flow freely rather than attach them to any specific sentiment, politically charged or not, as was the case in Ought. Of course, there are a few overarching themes in Saturday Night – toxic masculinity, vulnerability, gender dynamics – expressed through half-fluid, half-disjointed instrumentals and more experimental effects. The title track begins with a bow across guitar strings, resulting in a just barely tolerable shriek before the splash of drums and deep, brooding vocals set in. It feels lost in time, as if it is the entirety of a performance art piece, especially when Darcy’s voice shouts into the void in a desperate attempt to make sense of his own existence. As a result, the album can sound self-indulgent at times, but then again, a debut solo album deserves no fault in that regard. “Found My Limit” follows that same hollowed out, eerie tone, its repeated phrase like a mantra learned over years of pain and slow realizations.

Some of the best tracks on the album, however, are the ones steeped in thick, chunky guitar and stark, confident vocals. “You Felt Comfort” is heavy, upbeat garage rock at its finest, while “Saint Germain” reads like an existential poem, and, almost appropriately, seems to unravel and stretch towards the edges of time the more it plays on. Darcy finds ways to explain his artistic process in this track as well, playing the philosopher and explaining that “creation is the loudest screech of escape/ which explains why mine sounds like a scream.”  “Tall Glass of Water,” the obvious stunner of the album, has Darcy’s voice so expertly nestled between rampant, electrified guitar, this time with lyrics analyzing his own abilities to muster on and understand himself, asking “if at then end of the river/there is more river/would you dare to swim again?,” then answering saying “surely I will stay, and I am not afraid/I went under once, I’ll go under once again.”

Needless to say, Darcy is as much a poet as he is a musician, and there are lyrics in Saturday Night that will stay with you long after the album is through, although it’s up to you to decide which to hold onto. Given Darcy’s unique voice, you might have to listen a number of times to truly grasp the essence of what he is communicating – one of the few grievances I have with the album – but once you do, the music becomes something else entirely. He  also dedicates three tracks to Joan of Arc, fascinated by her passion and constant destruction of the patriarchy, his most telling line of her personality being “Joan hasn’t got a gun/ but she’ll change the tide to bury you.”

Though he fulfills many roles – the intellectual protagonist, the enraptured existentialist, the hopeful cynic – there’s a part of me that wants to leave Saturday Night with  Tim Darcy being the lovesick, byronic hero he portrays himself to be in “Still Waking Up,” perhaps the most delicate track off the album. The saccharine sweet ballad is pure and unpretentious in both its Americana-esque instrumentation as well as the lyrics, and I still can’t get over the fact that he can sing the phrase “release the hounds” and still manage to sound like a hopeless romantic. It’s the simplest song off the album, but the most indicative of Darcy’s attempts to understand himself, and, by extension, the world in which he exists.

8.0/10

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photo by Shawn Brackbill

EP Review: Kadhja Bonet – The Visitor

When Kadhja Bonet released the gorgeous track “Honeycomb” last year, we were absolutely mesmerized, both from Bonet’s unparalleled, dynamic vocals as well as its perfect production. The seamless, dreamlike amalgamation of bold, powerful jazz and peaceful classical instrumentals highlighting Bonet’s honeyed voice sounded like something from another world, or even a whole other plane of existence. In The Vistor, Bonet’s first release since signing to Fat Possum, that dream-like aesthetic is presented in varying intensities throughout eight stunning tracks, packing in as much wonder and whimsy until it threatens to burst at the seams.

Each track on The Visitor is rich and luxurious, and beautifully feeds off of its own individual energy, never yielding the specific emotion it introduces until the song dissolves into the next completely. However, the EP still feels cohesive and fluid, considering the tracks’ overall otherworldly nature. The tracks themselves somehow simultaneously sound like sherbet-infused fairytales, soundtracks to various mythological epics, romances, and tragedies, and scores to a thousand love stories, mostly due to the complex instrumental arrangements. This isn’t surprising considering Bonet’s formal training is in classical music, and the majority of the time, it’s done spectacularly.

After an experimental, electronic-tinged introduction suitable for a more psychedelic-centered album, “Honeycomb” erupts, and Bonet’s voice immediately swells and flows with intense purpose and determination. Her lyrics are uniquely sweet and evocative, comparing herself to a “humble bee” bringing pollen to her lover’s lips in a thick, honeyed drawl. It ends with her vocals melting into a sludge of synth, providing a strange juxtaposition of tones. “The Visitor” is by far the most complex track that appears on the EP, where Bonet basically shows off her production chops. In fact, the individual effects and production quirks of each song add to their character as well – the harpsichord-style instrumentals that open “Fairweather Friend” provide brightness and color to Bonet’s more relaxed oohs, while the more baroque, renaissance style orchestral interludes in “Portraits of Tracy” give it a grandiose feel. However, the most stunning use of this technique appears in “Nobody Other,” our favorite track off the album. It stands apart from the rest of the EP due to its simplistic, comparably minimal composition, as well as the gorgeous way Bonet’s crystallized voice appears more muted and delicate in order to accurately portray her genuine romantic intentions. Again, it almost sounds three-dimensional, with its soft instrumentals floating and swaying like a breezy summer afternoon, the flute flourishes that appear every so often simulating bluebirds chirping in the trees.

It’s worth mentioning that Bonet handled a large majority of the writing, arranging, performing, and producing of this EP, which is incredibly impressive in and of itself due to its sheer intricacy and technical complexity. Because of this, The Visitor cannot simply be written off as a compilation of otherworldly musings or a series of happenstance hallucinations, but instead a testament to mortal emotion, considering the time it has spent growing and maturing in thoughtful human hands.

8.0/10

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photo courtesy of fat possum records

Weyes Blood – “Used To Be”

Weyes Blood’s highly anticipated album Front Row Seat To Earth is finally out today, and, considering its absolutely stunning, already securing a few nods for one of the year’s best. In her fourth album under the name, singer/songwriter/producer Natalie Mering channels late 60’s folk and the softer side of 70’s psychedelic rock, fusing it with the strange and unexpected. Her mellifluous voice acts as the binding force to the gorgeous instrumentals, sounding like everyone from Karen Carpenter to Judy Collins – but always returns to her own unique persona. “Used To Be,” our favorite from the album tied with “Do You Need My Love,” explores this beautifully, as stark, rich piano chords perfectly punctuate the thick, passionate swell in Mering’s vocals. It continues to build and rise in intensity until the very end, where brass instrumentals and rush to cushion Mering’s fall back to the harsh nature of reality. It’s an absolutely brilliant song, as is the new album, and definitely worth a thorough listen.

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photo by Katie Miller/via npr

EP Review: Von Sell – Von Sell

Brooklyn-based artist David Von Sell creates the kind of unique electronic pop that surely deserves its own genre, considering the complexity of its composition as well as the thoughtful way in which its ideas of love and passion are presented. His aesthetic has slowly revealed itself to be the perfect amalgamation of the addictive nature of the synthetic with a living, beating heart, and the electronic pop phenom has now solidified it in seven breathtaking tracks.

Before settling in Brooklyn, Von Sell began his journey while growing up in Hamburg, Germany, creating bedroom pop at home in his late teens. He has attended the British Academy of New Music and the Humboldt University in Berlin, as well as the Berklee College of Music, which simultaneously portrays Von Sell’s wunderkind-esque nature as well as explains how he’s able to create such complex, memorable sounds. He emerged back in 2014 with the boisterous, elaborate track “Ivan,” which was so stylistically dense that it ended up sounding like a bright menagerie of effects and techniques all rolled into one – glitchy, shimmering synth effortlessly floated in arpeggios above thick, splashy drum beats, and the strong vocals became their unrelenting, binding force, locking the listener in place. Throughout the year, other angles of his persona were revealed through additional tracks, including the softer, more emotional “I Insist” and the experimental, yet oddly delicate “Stay.” Both of these tracks have now seemingly found their direct counterparts within the new EP, being the sugary, infatuated “Miss Me,” and the blatantly human “Names,” respectively. The first pairing both sound beautifully desperate, emulating desire with screeching synth and soul baring lyrics (“come on and hurt me now/ you know I know you want to”), and “Miss Me” even tends to echo the soul and intensity of 90’s R&B. The second pairing both shudder with synth, although in “Names,” it eventually drops out to focus in on an evocative piano interlude where it sounds enraptured and possessed, a rare hollow in the track where it seems like countless epiphanies could take place. There’s a part in John Milton’s L’Allegro where the narrator, in his prayers to the goddess Mirth, wishes to be overwhelmed by a song “with wanton heed and giddy cunning/ the melting voice through mazes running/ untwisting all the chains that ty/ the hidden soul of harmony.” Perhaps it’s merely because my personal studies of Milton and my admiration of Von Sell have both occurred at the same time, but these brief lines have repeatedly come to mind when listening to this little spot within “Names,” possibly our favorite track off the EP.

One of the best parts about Von Sell as a whole is that it’s mixed masterfully. Each layer of sound and every effect can be heard without distortion or risk of them blending together, which really makes a difference in an electronic pop album, where essential aspects like vocals can often become distorted and unrecognizable. Von Sell’s vocals not only ring crystal clear, but also remain one of the most potent and powerful aspects of each track – it rises and falls in “I Insist,” swells and expands in “Names,” enters a bright falsetto in “Miss Me,” and adds to the experimental, cinematic quality of stunning opener “Energystabs.” The EP also includes a reworking of “Ivan,” where a jangly guitar melody is inserted seamlessly after the first chorus and ethereal vocals are added towards the end, making it even more of a multi-faceted masterpiece.

When listening to these songs, it’s easy to forget that they’re the result of a single person, someone delicately orchestrating electronic pop in such a way that it ultimately equates with pure human emotion and passion rather than noise meant to soundtrack a dance floor. Von Sell has changed what it means to operate within the confines of the electronic pop genre, showing that it doesn’t always have to be vapid or blatantly synthetic. Instead, his music remains intrinsically human, and, through these seven tracks, beautifully expresses the importance in letting the heart overpower the mind every now and again.

9.7/10

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photo by Jen Maler

Album Review: Ice Choir – Designs in Rhythm

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Considering his excellent work in sound design, it’s clear that Kurt Feldman is no stranger to the inner workings of production for both business and pleasure. He’s worked closely with various groups and artists such as The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and The Depreciation Guild as well as Kristin Kontrol, and has inserted his lush, dense instrumentation in films and video game soundtracks. His debut album Afar showed his knack at writing and producing his own original work, which, unsurprisingly, just so happened to be near flawless ‘80’s inspired synth-pop. Now, almost four years later, the Brooklyn-based producer is back with another stunning album, this time both more accessible and whimsical than ever.

When listening to “Unprepared,” the main single and first lyrical opener, you’re immediately dropped in Feldman’s sugar soaked, digital world, left to delightfully scamper in the vast fields of glittering synth and quirky, inevitable instrumental flourishes. This enchanting atmosphere sounds incredibly different from any other synth-driven musical project that it often feels as if Designs in Rhythm exists in a vacuum, self-contained in its own unique aura. Feldman never truly gives you a legitimate depiction of ‘80’s aesthetics as a whole, but rather romanticizes them and packs in every technique imaginable, which becomes an ambitious goal that surprisingly works in his favor as the album plays. Feldman gorgeously manipulates his instrumentals to the point where its argued that each song could be considered part of the humorously controversial vaporwave genre, though without the vapid sense of sterility or cynicism that usually comes complimentary. Instead, there’s a dense feeling of warmth and charm that radiates from the album, seen in the title track as well as the more modern “Amorous in Your Absence” and euphoric “Variant.” even when attempting to achieve an atmospheric, otherworldly sound, Feldman’s crisp, complex production shines through, which, ironically, combines beautifully to leave the tracks feeling heavily saturated in both color and emotion.

Though it’s definitely not confirmed to be true, I couldn’t help hearing certain influences throughout the album, or maybe that came when looking at the colors and shapes that made up the cover as I listened. “Unprepared,” for example, with its vivid coloring and whimsical undertones, as well as the brooding, bass powered “Noosphering” don’t sound out of place within certain nostalgic ‘80’s and ‘90s anime, or even ‘80s Japanese cyber-punk and dream imagery illustration. However, whether or not the listener sees these images when listening is highly dependent on the experiences of the listener themselves, and doesn’t necessarily hold much weight, as the album seems to be designed as bright, upbeat, and, most importantly, highly accessible, evoking a variety of lush, vivid images. There are several spots where it even feels almost familiar and warm, and that feeling for us begins and ends with the absolutely beautiful track “Windsurf.” Feldman’s voice is a powerhouse, able to glimmer alongside the lush, jaunty synth, and halfway through, the track emits delicate effects and sonic instrumentals, achieving that otherworldly sound once again.

Designs in Rhythm is just that – lush interpretations and variations of synth-pop, ‘80s electronica, and yes, even vaporwave, all presented in a highly ambitious, yet irresistibly charming package. It’s an album that actively transports you to another world, one where fantasy is able to repeatedly and successfully escape from the snarling teeth of reality.

8.0/10

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photo courtesy of shelflife records