Welcome to Check Your Mode

The all-inclusive, ever-changing, and uncomfortably flexible guide to all things music in the 2010's.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Julian Lynch - Terra: B+

Oh, Julian Lynch, you are just a treasure. You make music that is so pleasant and nice with that lush bass and that modest everything else. You make me think of mornings, you know. Stretching out on the grass and smelling the air, the sky, the clouds, the flowers, the bugs and the ground. Is that why you called your new album Terra? It’s a pretty name. And the music on it is so very nice! I can put it on and do other things and those other things will feel better as a result! You should be proud of that. Yeah, Terra’s good stuff. You should make more of it before I start to miss you again.


Grouper - A I A: B+

When you’ve been listening to and evaluating music nonstop for a full month -- your ears are constantly ringing, massive headaches are starting to set in and you’re seriously considering your life choices -- an album like A I A can make you want to throw your laptop out a window. It’s two. whole. discs. worth of ambient music. Throughout those two discs you will find:

1. 1. 1. Tracks that get close to and often exceed the eight minute mark

2. 2. 2. Grouper frontwoman Liz Harris strumming a guitar and singing just far enough away that her words cannot be comprehended

3. 3. 3. The standard bleep-bloop instrumentation from the ambient/drone tool kit

4. 4.4. Lots and lots of S P A C E

But damnit if it doesn’t sound beautiful most of the time. Despite A I A's length and lack of activity for long periods of time, many of its anonymous songs will strangely touch your heart. The album does this best on “Vapor Trails”, a nine-minute track that’s melancholic organ could make a Tyler Perry movie sound like an emotional masterstroke. You could make the argument that A I A is just a collection of “Vapor Trails”, but I would say that Harris does what she does so well that, in her case, I can accept a lack of deviation in favor of consistency. Luckily, she hardly disappoints.


Septic Flesh - The Great Mass: A-

It’s times like these I wonder if music ever had the power to scare people. When we listen to music, a whole plethora of emotions like happiness, sadness, anger and depression can come us and override any mood that we were feeling beforehand. We know that, when accompanied with visual images, music often defines the scariest moments in film. But as a singular medium, I have yet to find a piece of music that has disturbed me so much that I had difficulty listening to it.
This has come as a surprise to me over and over because I knew in overtaking this project I was going to have to listen to some terrifying, satanic and, ultimately, critically acclaimed metal albums. But again and again I found these albums all quite listenable, a sentiment typified by my reaction to Deathspell Omega’s newest album released in November of last year. Based on my knowledge of the band (of which there is very little as they are very mysterious), I thought Paracletus was going to scare the living shit out of me. Turns out I found it strangely charming, and liked it so much I put it on my list of best albums of 2010.
I wonder this now, because I thought for sure Septic Flesh’s newest album was going to scare me. Aside from the fact that the group’s name is Septic Flesh for crying out loud, I found the cover of the Greek metal outfit’s newest album, The Great Mass, quite upsetting. It’s a depiction of a pale bald man’s face ripped of his jaw fetal pig style while various miniaturized Greek artifacts lay at his feet, one of which holds up what is presumably his heart, blackened by who knows what kind of sickening darkness overtook his soul. At least Deathspell Omega had the decency to obscure their beast in shadows. Septic Flesh would seem to have put all their horrifying cards on the table.
Even though I have to look away when songs from The Great Mass come up on my iPod, Septic Flesh’s eighth album is not particularly scary. It has many fantastic head bang-worthy moments like first track “The Vampire from Nazareth”, but, more often than not, it’s actually quite beautiful. The group recruited the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra to play on it and it’s a valued addition, the orchestra’s involvement ranging from the decorative to the pivotal. If you wanted to gauge how relatively innocuous The Great Mass is, though, you could equate its use of an orchestra to Owen Pallett’s use of The Czech Republic Philharmonic Orchestra for his 2010 album Heartland and it would be a pretty valid comparison. The only difference is that Pallett’s frail coo is replaced here with blast beats and rancid screams. You know, little things.
The songs of The Great Mass, all of which feature The Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, practice a wide range of styles within the death metal genre, from the anthemic to the downright vaudevillian. The lead guitar line in “Rising” almost resembles power metal in its epic optimism, but “Oceans of Grey” and “Pyramid God” undercut their traditional foundations in favor of odd dalliances that only add more tension to their respective songs. In the case of the former, a standard buildup is interrupted by a plodding shuffle of remote guitar and vocal chants, working in the song’s favor by actually embodying the terror approaching just off in the distance. In the latter, a bouncy rhythm of militaristic snares and throbbing French horns disrupts the track’s similarly conventional arrangement, but is later incorporated into the mix in a way that allows the song to hit even harder.
Songs like “Oceans of Grey” and “Pyramid God” exhibit abrupt injections of gothic influence, but there are many great moments on The Great Mass that are so avant garde, they’d make Igor Stravinsky smirk. If put in the right context, the piano line that begins “The Mad Architect” could soundtrack a Charlie Chaplin film. Its presence is rinky-dink and genuinely surprising, but it’s not just used as a gimmick to grab your attention; with double bass drum and chugging riffs going off at full speed, you can still hear that piano line playing in the background. In fact, the group makes it sound so comfortable, you can almost feel the boundaries of death metal stretching around you as the song plays. Whenever the voice of bassist Seth Siro Anton appears on The Great Mass, the album instantly heightens in melodrama. His tone is nasally and frail and would be quite irritating if put as the centerpiece of The Great Mass. But, as the occasional hook or background accompaniment, Anton’s voice gives the album its own bitter ghost. Some days it’s even more unsettling than Sotiris Anunnaki V.’s snarls.
However, there are certain obstacles that non-mental fans will have trouble overcoming with The Great Mass. Anunnaki V.’s vocals are quite guttural, but, for what it’s worth, they are also often decipherable. His first line in “The Undead Keep Dreaming” sets an excellent tone for the song’s troubling subject matter. “In 1981,” he growls. “When I was but a child / I had the strangest dream / Something that still is haunting me.” The contradiction in the line between the lyrics’ vulnerability and the brash way in which they are performed makes the track all the more off-putting. In this and many cases, Anunaki V.’s vocals serve a structural as well as textural purpose. There are also female voices throughout The Great Mass that add appreciated depth to the album’s arrangements, but, to be honest, if you patently dislike metal, this album won’t convince you otherwise. Nevertheless, I’d suggest listening to it to potentially broaden your horizons. Pentagrams and lack of scariness aside, The Great Mass is another excellent release from one of the best metal bands making music today.


Eddie Vedder - Ukulele Songs: B+

It feels strange reviewing Ukulele Songs, because it is so clearly a one-off that its presence almost defies critical inspection. The album is full of flubs and curses and flaws and impurities that one would expect from an album that is essentially a collection of songs performed exclusively on that titular instrument. A track is spent hearing Vedder mess up a ukulele line and yelling, “fuck” in frustration. His phone goes off at the end of “Satellite” and he answers it as the recording fades out. Vedder even lights something up at the beginning of “Goodbye”, Lil Wayne style. If Ukulele Songs isn’t a compliment to Pearl Jam or Eddie Vedder as musician, it certainly is a compliment to Vedder as an engaging personality.

But this is why people love Pearl Jam. They have a rare connection with their fanbase that allows the group to release albums like Ukulele Songs that may never have seen the light of day in other hands, and these songs are all valued additions to the Vedder/PJ catalogue. Between fuck-ups and jokes, there are some brilliant products on Ukulele Songs. Vedder conveys longing brilliantly on album highlight, “Sleepless Nights” and, with Cat Power singer Chan Marshall in tow, the vocal frills of “Tonight You Belong to Me” are intimate and precious. Tracks like “You’re True” and “Can’t Keep” could be worthy additions to the tracklists of Backspacer and Vitalogy, respectively, if they were fleshed out. The album’s short and quaint, but it accomplishes all the goals it sets out for itself and often exceeds them.

So if you’re a fan of Pearl Jam and/or Eddie Vedder, Ukulele Songs is a must, because it is good enough to be comparable with Pearl Jam’s 2005 self-titled LP. And if “Just Breathe” was your favorite track off Backspacer, then you may want to listen to the album sitting down, because it is so delicate and authentic you may need to change your pants afterwards. As Ukulele Songs enters its second half, though, the songs start to sound more formulaic than Vedder’s more official work, but, as a side project of one of the greatest bands still making music today, it’s pretty hard to talk about expectations.


Fucked Up - David Comes to Life: A-

Crazy world we live in, ain’t it? When the most ambitious work of the year comes from a hardcore group with an unprintable name fleshing out the components of a concept album through the growls of a 300-pound bald guy named Pink Eyes. A tale of a light bulb factory worker put on trial for the possible killing of his girlfriend, with all the twists and turns of any crime novel sitting on the shelves of the Walgreens stationary section nearest you. And it’s not even a hardcore record, really; Fucked Up have progressed thus far as to have adopted a sound of robust indie rock guitars juxtaposed with harsh scowls, which results in an arguably more unsettling listening experience.

But it slays, through and through. You could take yourself out of the storyline entirely and find every track of David Comes to Life invigorating. You’ll scream back at Pink Eyes as he introduces the main character with a rousing, “Hello my name is David!” in “Queen of Hearts” and marvel at the talk of shoe droppings and trust dilemmas. Your contempt will build with Pink Eyes’s in “Turn of the Season” as he screams, “Dying on the inside!” over the callous monotony of two stubborn guitar chords. You’ll be moved by the finale, “Lights Go Up”. Storyline notwithstanding, the track will feel like an all-encompassing closer to an excellent record. When the instrumentation fades, leaving only Pink Eyes to holler into the abyss, at least something will have felt completed.

If you want to hear music that is intelligent as well as gripping, the concept of David Comes to Life will always be there, and it is as genuinely interesting of an execution as you’re bound to find. You’ve got different characters voiced by different people and a theatrical flow that will engross to the very end. As for me, I’m just astounded at how David Comes to Life just keeps going, pummeling relentlessly and somehow always managing to sound fresh and intuitive. The album is brilliant and great fun. It will keep you guessing, whether you’re following along with a lyrics sheet or not.