Welcome to Check Your Mode

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

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Greatest Albums of 2011: #46: WU LYF - Go Tell Fire to the Mountain

It’s very rare that an indie rock group so thoroughly strives to be epic. When I ponder the few examples, I immediately think of Arcade Fire, but AF have not tried to systematically hone in on their bombast quite like WU LYF does on their debut album. A few details:
  1. WU LYF stands for World Unite Lucifer Youth Foundation. I feel like with that information alone they’re pretty much halfway to their goal
  2. The album cover takes the title literally, but, as opposed to it being a pic of someone just giving fire to a mountain, the friggen fire’s turning into a mountain thingy to actually meet the mountain. And it’s a mountain cut and pasted from a picture of a forest burning, so it looks like what would result if you asked a 3rd grader their interpretation of the title.
  3. A few track names: “LYF,” “Heavy Pop,” “14 Crowns for Me & Your Friends,” “We Bros"
  4. The album has space to it but doesn’t feel muddled by copious amounts of reverb. You’ve got your standard rock group setup, but then you’ve got some organ that makes it all feel so much greater than the sum of its parts. You feel like this thing could fill stadiums by virtue of the fact that it would fill any container by volume in which it is put.
  5. About five whole lines on the album can be understood. The words are nonsensical and sung by a bear-throated lunatic, but it’s somehow more universal than the most rote lyrical clich├ęs as a result. You see, not everyone can understand words, but everyone can speak gibberish.



Greatest Albums of 2011: #47: Yuck - Yuck

Every time I hear the snare-snapping intro to “Operation” nine tracks into London band Yuck’s debut, I’m startled. On any other album that would ever consider itself remotely rock, such an intro would hardly be out of the ordinary, but Yuck is such an incredibly soothing album that so much as an elevated bass drum can make you feel like a bomb just went off. Its beauty is apparent immediately, gently pulling you into its world with treats like “The Wall” and “Suicide Policeman.” And, sure, that journey is abruptly interrupted with that “Operation” intro, but it isn’t long before you forget about it and the beauty goo reattaches to your synapses.  It’s good that Yuck ends in a flurry of distortion on “Rubber,” because it’s too peaceful to do anything but disintegrate. After all, there’s nothing worse than that sticky pink residue that’s left after eating the perfect cotton candy.  


Greatest Albums of 2011: #48: Thrice - Major/Minor

Thrice is one of those bands whose albums fans will always find excellent. If they play melodic hardcore, it’s excellent. If they ditch their major label and embark on a project about the four elements, it’s excellent. If they go for a blatant pop move by incorporating balladry and get immensely popular off a song that appears on the soundtrack to Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland, guess what? It’s their best album to date.

So the least surprising thing about Major/Minor, Thrice’s seventh album, is that it’s excellent. At this point, longtime fans should expect the quintet to be a well-oiled machine that knows exactly what and how to play. I said during my review for the new Bayside LP that I really liked the kind of music the group played, but I would have liked to hear it played… not terribly. Now, I have found that sound in the post-hardcore genre; the crunch of Thursday, the clean scree of La Dispute and the grit of Thrice. All over Major/Minor, the group is its own cohesive rhythm section, pushing and pulling upon itself on tracks like “Call It in the Air” and “Cataracts” for a truly elastic listening experience.

In fact, Major/Minor’s consistency is its only significant limitation. The album is a collection of excellent tunes with no distinct theme or direction. Singer Dustin Kensrue’s lyrics convey this approach. Gone is the political sloganeering present on 2009’s Beggars and 2005’s Vheissu. Here, Kensrue seems to be singing to a person as opposed to a crowd, discussing interpersonal relationships as opposed to the state of the union. Some fans will tell you that’s a lateral pass from a band that, up to the new decade, was quite unpredictable, but Kensrue’s singing talent more than makes up for those shortcomings. Kensrue settles into a coarse howl on the album that is just as powerful on bombastic numbers like “Call It in the Air” as it is on mid-tempo tracks like album highlight “Anthology” and ballad “Words in the Water.” Its tone makes me think of sand rushing by your legs as the water comes in while standing on the beach; much like the band itself, a perfect blend of aggression and tenderness.

So, yes, with Major/Minor, we don’t learn anything new about Thrice. But, what it does do is solidify what we already know: That (1) Thrice are bona fide professionals at this stuff, (2) They have to be in at least the top twenty most consistent hard rock groups of all time, and (3) That we should be glad they haven’t waned so much as a little creatively in the past decade, considering how hard rock has become bizarrely in threat of extinction. I’m sure you’ve heard me say countless times that innovation always trumps complacency, but this is different. This is knowing your strengths and playing off them. Show me a man who doesn’t appreciate that and I’ll show you a man with no ears.


Greatest Albums of 2011: #49: The Atlas Moth - An Ache for the Distance

What started as an aside last year became a full-blown phenomenon this year for music scribes to scrounge for and delight in black metal bands that were releasing dramatic recontextualizations of the genre into something more palatable and, thusly, more divisive. I do not doubt that such a movement is occurring, but, as I have said in my reviews for recent records by bands such as Liturgy and The Body, what has come out so far from these artists has been hardly as interesting as the movement they represent. While I acknowledge that this shift could be exciting, I have stubbornly resisted fawning over their forebears simply because they are innovative.
That is until I broke, of course.
An Ache for the Distance, the second album from Chicago’s The Atlas Moth, could very much be filed under the movement I just mentioned. And yet, unlike almost all the records that it has yielded so far, it engages you with sounds both serrated and majestic. It tries just as hard as Liturgy’s Aesthethica and Wolves in the Throne Room’s Celestial Lineage to stretch the boundaries of black metal, but it keeps you listening for more reasons than simply academia. In a way, the album performs its task more effectively than both those records, because it tricks you into shifting your impressions of the genre. That you don’t notice the boundaries expanding while you listen to it is a testament to its strength to stand up on its own.
There’s a reason for this. It’s not like The Atlas Moth did the exact same thing as Liturgy and somehow got different results. No, they brought a personality to their craft, which, apparently, makes a world of difference. Their songs are propulsive. Even when they roam, it feels like to a definite end as opposed to a mirthless purgatory. Movements alternate, songs ebb and flow. Hell, there’s even a hint of what you could call swagger in the riff to “Perpetual Generations.” Genuine surprise is generated when the title track switches to a waltz halfway through its runtime. The track fades out with band members interchangeably hollering for “the open road.” It’s a harrowing moment, despite its relatable subject matter.  
Shrieking vocals abound on An Ache for the Distance, but it’s interesting, because they are layered meticulously and accompanied with sung and spoken passages as well as effects such as conservatively applied reverb and echo. Even if you don’t like this mode of expression, it’s impressive to hear a metal band take the production of their singing just as seriously as their guitar sound. It’s a welcome innovation from a bright piece of music in a movement that hasn’t been nearly as fruitful as it could be. If the direction of black metal has discouraged you over the past few years, pick this up to soothe your nerves. Perhaps there’s hope for a greater learning curve after all.


Greatest Albums of 2011: #50: Mastodon - The Hunter

Longtime fans know there are two Mastodons. There’s the one that has the herculean strength to write and perform magnanimous prog metal on a daily basis, who don’t so much as speak a word of stage banter at their concerts and who build albums around evermore-complicated concepts. Then, there’s the one in their music videos who dress up as yetis to play guitar solos or put clowns in moshpits or, more recently, show dudes growing multiple arms. The Atlanta quartet has done a pretty impressive job of keeping the two Mastodons separate. However, on their fifth full length, The Hunter, the group dabbles in some absurdist humor, giving songs titles like “Octopus Has No Friends” and “Bedazzled Fingernails.” This new inclusion of humor into the Mastodon on record shouldn’t be a surprise given the group’s career as a whole, but the action communicated one clear thing to me: For the first time in their career, Mastodon are letting their guard down.

This would be a logical conclusion given the events leading up to this point. Members of Mastodon had been noted as being irritated over having to explain to interviewers over and over the details to the excellent but no less convoluted concept to the group’s 2009 album, Crack the Skye. It’s understandable that they would want to step away from such lofty ambitions and write something decidedly less self-serious, and this sentiment has been expressed by group members in reference to The Hunter. Even the term “Mastodon mixtape” has been thrown around a little bit.

In a way, that description is incredibly apt. The Hunter borrows sounds from almost all phases of Mastodon’s wide-ranging career. “Spectrelight” has the distorted heaviness of prime Leviathan and “Bedazzled Fingernails” has the melodicism and spindly guitar parts to make it a fine fit for Blood Mountain. By far, though, the phase of Mastodon’s career represented the most on The Hunter is Crack the Skye. Many tracks have introductions reminiscent of the album’s characteristic spaciousness, the title track and “Thickening” even sounding like condensed versions of the epics from that album “The Last Baron” and “The Czar” respectively. At first, such rampant self-reference is a little distracting in enjoying The Hunter, but, once you find that such tactics result in excellent songs regardless, you can pretty much forgive them for such creative transgressions.

The only new direction Mastodon go on The Hunter is into places decidedly less metallic. The bloozy riffing on “Curl of the Burl” makes the Ozzy comparisons to Brent Hinds’s voice that much more relevant and “Black Tongue” stuffs all the group’s defining characteristics into a fairly comprehensive three and a half minutes. Sung exclusively by drummer Brad Dailor, “Creature Lives” contains no aggression at all, and for that it will probably be The Hunter‘s most controversial track. However, with its swooning pre-chorus and immaculate production, it’s an album highlight, nonetheless. The best track, though, is the one that doesn’t fit into any of the aforementioned categories. At a blistering two and a half minutes, “Blasteroid” freebases Mastodon’s intensity to “Bladecatcher” levels of absurdity. (Choice Quote: “I WANNA BREAK SOME FUCKING GLAAAAAAAAAAAAAASS”)

All this proves to be a rewarding experience, but criticisms of The Hunter for being creatively stagnant are valid. While the album may be fun, it certainly doesn’t propel the group forward nearly as much as anything they have created before. To that, though, I would say, considering Mastodon’s been the formative American metal group of the past decade, I think we can forgive them for a quick breather before moving onto something else. That being said, if Mastodon feels like pumping out albums like The Hunter for the rest of their career, I and many others will not be so welcoming. The record is an excellent pseudo-retrospective of one of the most fascinating rock groups of our generation, even though, technically, it’s their second to worst album. (Wasn’t that big a fan of Remission) Still, entering a new decade, it only makes me more excited to see what Mastodon will come up with next.


Greatest Songs of 2011: #46: Wilco - "One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)"

A lot of the narrative that went along with The Whole Love was that it was the return of “The Weird Wilco,” which was only true if you listened to the first track then turned the music off to start writing your blurb. The Chicago stalwarts’ newest was very good, but the majority of its tracks were hardly experimental; it was much of the same solid, scholarly indie pop that fans have been hearing since 2007’s Sky Blue Sky. Saying that The Whole Love was a striking left turn for Wilco was incredibly misleading. At most, you could equate it to the gentle jerk that can come when you accidentally turn the dial on a massage chair too high.
That is until you got to the end of the album, when you were faced with “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend),” an acoustic track that topped off at twelve minutes of heavy repetition. It was experimental because of its length, sure, but its simplicity was also daring. Can we make each one of literally forty-eight repetitions of the same chord progression sound fresh? Can we throw in some holy skepticism as well? (“I said it’s your God I don’t believe in / No, your Bible can’t be true”) And how about that production? Can we make it sound like we’re literally making music off the back porch of Jeff Tweedy’s summer house?
If you thought asking such questions resulted in the best track off The Whole Love, then you’d be right.  “One Sunday Morning” is experimental in the way that the first blues guitarists were experimental, seeing length as an afterthought and instead focusing on how far a melody can go. The track fades out after twelve verses, but it probably could’ve gone longer. Maybe if it were stretched to an entire third disc I would get bored of it. Maybe.


Greatest Songs of 2011: #47: Wild Flag - "Romance"

Some songs you just know what the music video’s going to look like. If the video for “Romance” didn’t feature car chases and some form of mischief, it would be borderline criminal. You could spook some old people, have a house party while the folks aren't home or, like in the actual music video, steal a coffee shop's inventory. That works too. As long as you have some visual accompaniment to this song's bravado, its oomph, its chutzpah. Personally, when I hear “Romance,” I think of the van scene in Old School. (One of the few times I would ever be okay with swapping out “Master of Puppets” for a different song.) The track tows the same line of 90’s indie rock that some of the members of Wild Flag came to define with other bands, but it still feels unquestionably contemporary. Because being a dick never goes out of style. Lesson learned.


Greatest Songs of 2011: #48: When Saints Go Machine - "Kelly"

If my name were Kelly, I’m not sure how I’d feel about a song like this existing. On one hand, it’s absolutely beautiful, a stubbornly playful buoy on a sea of gummy electronics. Its lyrical content is positively adorable. “First time Kelly kissed a boy,” lead singer Nikolaj Vonsild croons in his brittle falsetto. “Was an echo in smiles in a virginal love letter.” How cute is that? It’s a precious representation of an event so formative as a first kiss, and it’s even more impressive when you think about how no one’s ever communicated that event in a song before.

But, then again, there is a very real darkness to “Kelly.” The first kiss in question is almost too joyous, and that is made apparent with continued lyrics sung no differently by Vonslid. “At a dead end / That’s why I’m finding my own,” he sings on the chorus, and it’s made apparent that Kelly’s life pretty much peaked when she had her first kiss. Which kinda makes sense given the context. If your first kiss was so powerful “the economy broke down,” would you blame the colors of May finding your subsequent life so boring they would be prompted to just up and leave? That sounds devastating to me. It almost doesn’t sound worth it. A pop song like “Kelly” shouldn’t make you ponder such existentialism, and yet still be so much fun. (Did I mention it’s bouncy?) I suppose if my name were Kelly, I’d be down for letting this track soundtrack my sidewalk strolls. I just wouldn’t take its implications too literally, you know?


Greatest Songs of 2011: #49: Ill Blu - "Meltdown"

A lot of music publications putting “Meltdown” on their year-end lists will give you a lot of history that will run tangential to any substantive commentary about the track. Perhaps they will tell you what movement of electronic music it came from, the history of singles Ill Blu has produced over the years to get to this point, how the track’s relevant to the constantly shifting phalanx of grimestep or whatever and maybe even link it to an asinine hype genre like moombahton.

I know none of that stuff, nor do I particularly care to learn it. What I do know is that I like the way “Meltdown” makes me feel. I like how the synths and percussion jab at me like pistons. I like the synthetic haze that conflicts with the tribal drums that begin the track, like “Sandstorm”’s trying to get into the party, but the bouncer won’t let it in. The song reminds me of a Night at the Roxbury type situation with a room full of Will Ferrells and Chris Kattans. A girl gets into a groove, but is inevitably disgusted to the point where she utters the track’s ubiquitous “Ew,” and moves on, only to be disappointed again.  She keeps trying though, as the song fades into the horizon and the “Ew”’s grow distant. It’s a bittersweet ending for a song that’s actually pretty sweet if you don’t overanalyze the shit out of it.