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SubRosa – “For This We Fought the Battle of Ages”

August 30, 2016 Leave a comment

One of the words most ruined by the internet is “epic,” which went from describing massive works of art like Beowulf to GIFs of people falling off their skateboards. In music, the word is similarly misused, attached to bands who offer bombast but don’t actually provide substance while they pummel their listeners with noise that ultimately becomes meaningless.

Salt Lake City’s SubRosa distinguish themselves by being legitimately epic. Their songs resemble those ancient tales that the word once described, with weighty, allegorical stories, eerie landscapes, and powerful climaxes. Their latest album, For This We Fought the Battle of Ages, continues to establish them as one of the most original and compelling bands in rock music today — a group that can sound as huge as anyone, but also isn’t afraid to be quiet when the time calls for it.

It’s easy to focus on the massiveness of SubRosa, who can create an avalanche of sound with layers of doomy guitars and their trademark pair of otherworldly electric violins, a combination that makes them sound like no one else. With songs that stretch past the 10 minute mark (with a couple going for 15), they work on a scale that few bands can equal. But what most impresses me about them on this album is their commitment to the littler things: the melodies and harmonies, and the quieter portions that help make their larger sound more impactful.

The opening track, “Despair is a Siren,” starts with one of these quiet folk-influenced parts, and it’s the most overtly pretty portion of music the band has created yet. Like most Subrosa songs, it has distinct loud and quiet sections (almost like there are two different bands playing), and the way both styles are accentuated by the other shows how powerful a simple use of dynamics can be. When the band does go into metal mode after a couple minutes of softness, it feels earned, because they took the time to build to that crescendo and made it matter. The band makes these shifts feel organic in large part due to Rebecca Vernon, who sings convincingly in a full range of styles, from roaring and growling to practically a lullaby, sometimes in the span of a single song.

Vernon’s voice is part of the band’s primary contrast, which is the feminine vocals from her and the two violin players, Rebecca Pendleton and Kim Pack, with the band’s crushing guitars. Their presence is how the band subverts traditional metal, a genre often defined by its masculinity, and infuses it with emotion and beauty instead of being a one-dimensional blast of noise. At times, the band feels like a progression from shoegaze groups like My Bloody Valentine, who combined more indie rock influenced guitar noise with lighter vocals to make music that was simultaneously chaotic and beautiful.

Over the last few years, SubRosa have refined their sound, emphasizing these contrasts in their music, and For This We Fought the Battle of Ages sees them pushing themselves to new highs and new lows. It’s their most towering, monumental achievement yet — as well as their most intimate — and it’s one of the best rock albums of 2016.

 

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Kristin Kontrol – “X-Communicate”

August 22, 2016 Leave a comment

As the mastermind behind Dum Dum Girls, Kristin Welchez (at the time known as DeeDee) perfected the art of making the old seem new again. From album to album, the band traveled through time, morphing their sound around influences from different decades while still sounding like the same group. They peaked with 2014’s Too True, which went back to the 80s with a Siouxsie and the Banshees meets C86 aesthetic and was one of my favorite albums from that year.

Artists are often pressured to make music that is confessional, where they reveal their darkest fears and sing about horrible things that have happened to them. But in Dum Dum Girls, Kristin made a point of remaining anonymous — the band always had a focused style with the members dressing alike, and she rarely sang overtly personal lyrics. Now she has left Dum Dum Girls behind, but chosen to remain behind a veil of anonymity with the persona Kristin Kontrol, a name that I doubt is a coincidence. After years of being in Dum Dum Girls, Kristin has expressed frustration with how she felt boxed-in by the group and the preconceptions people had about it. With X-Communicate, she retakes control of her musical identity and the result is the closest she has come to an individual statement.

Kristin’s personality comes through more in the construction of her songs than her lyrics. Something I noticed about the last Dum Dum Girls album was how much I appreciated a band that could just craft simple pop songs that sounded good without relying on goofy instrumentation or other gimmickry. This is a gift Kristin has that has translated to X-Communicate, and it comes from her deep knowledge of pop music and what her idols have done before her to make it great.

And while Dum Dum Girls could sometimes be justifiably knocked for being too into nostalgia, X-Communicate feels more like a current pop statement. Similar to Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion, it is borrowing from the past to make music that feels fresher than what is actually trendy right now. It also has the same feeling of an artist breaking free from how they have been perceived and starting a new musical life for themselves through pop music.

For most of her career, Kristin has had one foot in pop and the other foot in “indie.” The biggest difference on X-Communicate is that it is pure pop, which allows her more room to showcase her vocals compared to some of the more minimalist music she made in the past. The songs also have a lot more rhythm than her previous music did, with prominent bass and danceable beats, and guitar takes a backseat to keyboards and synthesizers as she channels pop from the 80s.

The fifth track, “Skin Shed,” most obviously states the album’s theme of reinvention, and near the end Kristin name-drops Nina Simone and Stevie Nicks. X-Communicate is a worthy tribute to those artists and others that Kristin idolized, and is also proof that she can stand on her own as a solo artist.

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Bat for Lashes – “The Bride”

August 20, 2016 Leave a comment

Nobody wants their art to be called boring. Artists say it in interviews all the time: “You know, you can love or hate my music, as long as you have a reaction to it and care about it. That’s what I’m really looking for.” Given how disastrous it is to be called boring, maybe the riskiest thing an artist can do is make something that invites the criticism head-on by eschewing excitement and novelty for subtlety and craft.

On her fourth album, The Bride, Natasha Khan, aka Bat for Lashes, takes that risk. It’s a concept album about a bride whose husband-to-be dies in a car accident on the way to a wedding, so she embarks on a honeymoon alone — not exactly something that is going to put asses in the seats, so to speak. Musically, the album is a similarly tough sell. Khan avoids the large-scale histrionics that might be expected of such a concept, instead focusing on quiet, contemplative songs that rarely offer the listener the satisfaction of a catchy chorus or a feel-good lyric.

And yet, The Bride is certainly not boring, at least to me, because Khan commits so fully to the concept, inhabiting her character and story and exploring its various themes — mostly heartbreak, with some bonus thoughts about the institution of marriage and how it affects women — with unusual depth for an album. Like a lot of “difficult” albums, it’s one that rewards the right listener, who has the patience to engage with it on Khan’s terms.

The Bride‘s greatest strength is Khan’s voice, which carries an album that is stacked with slow, melancholy songs that could be disengaging in the hands of a less talented vocalist. And more than just singing, Khan is also acting as the protagonist of this fictional story. That she pulls off this double-act is a testament to her talent, and it’s how The Bride works despite stacking the deck against itself with its inaccessible concept.

As for the story, it’s about what I expect from a concept album. It doesn’t have novel-level detail or development because it’s an album and that’s impossible, and it sometimes gets a bit repetitive with the “why me” and “where did my lover go” type lyrics. At the same time, it provides a through line that ties all of the songs together, and there is actual growth in Khan’s character over the course of the album, as she goes from excitement for her wedding, to heartbreak, to a kind of uplift and resolve at the end as she vows to love again.

For most of her career, like a lot of solo women artists, Khan has been burdened by comparisons to PJ Harvey, Kate Bush and Björk — singular artists who are impossible to truly replicate. On The Bride, she puts herself into that tier of innovative music storytellers, but does it in her own way with a work that feels very individual. It’s an album that is refreshing in its quiet boldness and its refusal to do the expected.