Monday, October 29, 2012

Symbolyst - Lymbyc Systym


Lymbyc Systym
Western Vinyl Records.

SCQ Rating: 73%

You have to hand it to Lymbyc Systym; they know who they are. Three years after their last full-length Shutter Release, which merged bite-sized shades of post-rock with symphonic and electronic elements, the Arizona-based duo reconvene with the equally ear-pleasing Symbolyst. And while this new record sounds motivated by a deeper appreciation for the synthesizer, Symbolyst underlines the same polite middle-ground, lodged between a handful of indie genres, that risk diminishing the chances of anyone (besides the band) truly knowing Lymbyc Systym.

As with Shutter Release, this new record offers no obvious weakness that one could accuse of keeping its song-cycle from due greatness. Neither the Bell brothers’ kinetic approach nor their array of instrumental know-how can be viewed as flawed once you’ve heard some of these highlights; “Prairie School” comes off like the most adventurous Album Leaf track in years while the skittering, break-neck euphoria of “Falling Together” speaks for itself. “Dragon Year”, which leans especially toward the electronic medium, is perhaps the best track on offer. But despite a foundation of engaging instrumentals, Symbolyst feels partially at a loss. 

Selections such as “Downtime” and “Condense” are elegantly assembled with serviceable twists but they reveal Lymbyc Systym’s true deficiency: tension. Without persuasive conviction, Symbolyst’s ten tracks progress like finely honed jams instead of a bolder artistic statement the brothers seem perfectly armed to create. Until then, these songs excel as engaging background music – tunes ideal to score your studies or recreational time with but resistant to any deeper presence. And that would be all well and good (I mean, not every record aims for that subjective dimension) but Symbolyst repeatedly hints at blossoming into something more purposeful.

Paraphrases - Christoph Berg


Christoph Berg
Facture Records.

SCQ Rating: 75%

A few weeks ago while driving around Lake Huron with Nils Frahm’s Screws scoring the autumnal blur, my wife asked what distinguishes post-classical music from the classical genre. The question gave me a moment’s pause; I’ve never conversed with or read an opinion that unearthed some discrepancy regarding what fit in the post-classical canon and what didn’t. Yet I also couldn’t recall finding a definition that ensured any of us knew what post-classical means.

The answer I attempted then and will try to put more eloquently here is that people who gravitate to post-classical music are looking for the grand emotional scale that old world instrumentation can create, but from artists who are willing to flirt with modern technology; less about structure and rigid playfulness, more about mood, texture and evocation. With exception to the remixes attached to its tail end, Paraphrases flirts with notions of electronic or rock music just as seldom as Mr. Frahm’s lovely, surprise collection but both dedicate themselves to richly somber (if a tad dry) explorations of texture. 

The edge goes to Mr. Berg, whose meditative string work and occasional found-sounds blur into warmly organic drone pieces. As if catching traces of classical music in a state of evaporation, tracks like “Interlude” and “Buildings At Night” suggest progressions rather than treading headlong into them. And rounded out more vividly by “Quiet Times At the Library” and “Falling Asleep” (in which the strings – jogging over one another – seem hopelessly intent on staying focused), Paraphrases becomes a beautiful soundtrack for remaining in stasis. 

Here On A Wire - Jenny Berkel

Here On A Wire

Jenny Berkel
Independent / Bandcamp.

SCQ Rating: 76%

Oh records by lone songwriters, adorned in quaint illustrations and full of contributions from session players I’ve never heard of; there’s so much to learn from you. Crops of you appear every year in local record stores and taped to streetlight posts, with but a fraction ascending to any level of notoriety or acclaim. That’s the risk of trudging on alone: all the riches or failures tend to fall on your birth-name. And yet each year brings a handful of mature and unpolished gems, consolidated by wise musicians, a tasteful palette and songwriting that yearns to connect; Canada is positively blessed to wind up with so many records of this quiet caliber.

Here On A Wire, the sophomore release by Jenny Berkel, deserves recognition as a showcase for the young Winnipeg songwriter’s overcast vein of traditional folk. And by “traditional”, I mean hard-earned; Berkel doesn’t shy away from tough decisions or seek to camouflage her material in studio trickery. Each song stands on account of its own conviction and only through the appreciation of Berkel’s songwriting foundation can Here On A Wire’s subtle arrangements intoxicate her surroundings. The tempered, finger-picked “Love Is a Stone” converts to a bluesy groove without missing a beat while an intimate group of strings court Berkel’s smoky vocals over “Cover My Grave”. Clever twists aside, Berkel spends most of these eleven tracks revealing folk tunes that often, as in the case of “All Is Undone”, rise to the rank of softly heroic. 

With year-end lists around the corner and Canada prepping another new class of budding songwriters, it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see Jenny Berkel graduate to some rightful acclaim.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


As the Niagara region nears its foliage-colored peak, let SCQ introduce a few newer records for walks beneath the yellows, oranges and reds. All the best for these days of dying sunlight!

~ Love SCQ

Among the Leaves - Sun Kil Moon (FALL ALBUMS 2012)

Among the Leaves

Sun Kil Moon
Caldo Verde Records.

SCQ Rating: 91%

As faultless as 2010’s Admiral Fell Promises was technically, it was that same adherence to method and minimalism that occasionally parched the recordings. One might argue self-exiled songwriter Mark Kozelek had a hunch in this regard, given that in a catalog of seventy-some-minute marathons, he chose to wrap up that 2010 effort within an hour. As a penultimate growers-album sitting atop a life’s work of growers, Admiral Fell Promises confirmed that Mark Kozelek doesn’t have a lot of readily comparable contemporaries: his scope is massive but understated, his songwriting is intensely personal and, most importantly, he gets away with it.

Sun Kil Moon’s latest addition, Among the Leaves, veers unexpectedly on impulses; its seventeen tracks, much like chapters ripped directly from Kozelek’s tour-diary, dive into matters close to the singer’s heart without the former record’s relaxed, classical-guitar flourishes. This relatively direct approach allows Kozelek to detail a myriad of lyrical topics in quick succession, and make no mistake: the man has a lot to discuss. Among the road-weary muses, there’s romance (“I Know It’s Pathetic But That Was the Greatest Night Of My Life”), disdain (“Sunshine In Chicago”), and full-on fatigue (“UK Blues”, “UK Blues 2”) – all of them delivered with Kozelek’s studious ear for melancholy and dry humor. He even pens a tribute to his favourite guitar-mender on the mystery-tinged “Song For Richard Collopy”.

With his temperament placed closer to the front of the mix – making the lyrics more clearly discernable – Kozelek risks alienating casual listeners over nearly eighty minutes of storytelling; a track spent complaining about the chores of songwriting (“Track Number 8”) should, in particular, draw ire. Yet longtime fans of Sun Kil Moon will instantly gravitate to Among the Leaves’ various snapshots and emotions. The potent immediacy employed by shorter compositions creates a surprisingly digestible whole, with folk songs “Not Much Rhymes With Everything’s Awesome At All Times” and “Red Poison” bridging lengthier new classics such as “Lonely Mountain” and “Young Love”. Like a rough-hewn tapestry spanning two or so years in a working-artist’s life, Among the Leaves occupies a messily satisfying place in Sun Kil Moon’s formidable career.

Still and Moving Lines - Departures (FALL ALBUMS 2012)

Still and Moving Lines

Borana Records.

SCQ Rating: 84%

Word has it that Departures aren’t looking for an online presence, and it shows. Despite having Twitter, Facebook and Bandcamp pages, there’s precious little information to gather besides the descriptors “post-punk” and “Winnipeg”. It’s as though well-meaning friends signed them up for a host of social media tools, like parents enrolling their kids in summer soccer, but this quintet doesn’t look like the type to run with a swarm. Even the post-punk parameters that supposedly outline their debut can’t contain several breach points that make Still and Moving Lines so much more than a revivalist’s ploy.

Before “Pillars” establishes an escalating coda of intertwined guitar and taunt percussion, listeners are subjected to a minute or so of cloudy fade-in: fatigued voices in choral with a barren guitar and saloon-drunk piano. While such a non-starter can’t compete with that subsequent first single, it foreshadows a few curves in the road ahead. Between brawny, emotive rock tunes like “Being There”, the summer-long chug of “Swimming” and the memorable, sing-out-loud choruses they deliver, Departures drop wickedly unexpected gems that cater more to imaginative post-rock than any monochromatic love affair with Joy Division. Anchored on a dewy bass riff, “After Today” blossoms out of overlapping ambient swells that gradually connect for a sweet catharsis. At the opposite end of tuneful, “Winter Friend” spends half of its time in an off-kilter percussive stutter, peppered with snarling bouts of feedback, before flipping its sonic gears into an ear-pleasing remedy that rewards whatever faith listeners put into it.

Everything on Still and Moving Lines, from the vaguely synthetic “Left You Here”, which converts to full-band, organic momentum in the end, to the harmonizing, teeth-baring highlight “Sleepless” gels as part of Departures’ raw but alluring canvas. Much like The Wrens’ The Meadowlands, this record seems to engage several identities that, by fluke or determination, prove entirely compatible as one repeatedly surprising new voice. At the risk of upping Departures’ online profile, Still and Moving Lines deserves way more praise than the band’s willing to accept. 

Dedicate Function - Martin Eden (FALL ALBUMS 2012)

Dedicate Function

Martin Eden
Lefse Records.

SCQ Rating: 77%

Martin Eden is almost certainly someone’s birth name, but not the artist responsible for Dedicate Function. As an alias for Matthew Cooper, the ambient-romancing brain behind Eluvium, Martin Eden allows what any good disguise should afford: freedom to indulge in things typically suppressed. In Cooper’s – I’m sorry, Eden’s – case, these indulgences include pummeled beats that loop around introspective but tuneful vapours.

Its percussive momentum sprints a few miles clear of any tempo one might discern from Cooper’s past catalog but Martin Eden’s handiwork doesn’t completely abandon Eluvium territory. Let’s not forget that Cooper already branched away from traditional ambient music with 2010’s Similes, which incorporated his vocals and lyrics, and what bridged that gap – his attention to texture – works wonders again on Dedicate Function. “Verions”, with its tenderly warped synth and an overlapping swarm of horns at its centre, perfectly demonstrates how Cooper can render samples and instruments somehow lived-in. The pulse in “Etc Etc”, for example, creates rhythm out of a complex echo process that resembles the sound of fireworks ricocheting off of city buildings, whereas “Return Life” gathers its beat from some faint but gurgling found-sounds in (and likely from) nature.

An experimental reprieve from Eluvium’s somber musings, Dedicate Function could’ve easily assumed the expectations of a middle-of-the-road techno record. The melodies and rhythms aren’t especially unique, nor do they try to propel their compositions down surprising paths. But not unlike Aphex Twin, Martin Eden’s ambition lies in the microscopic, and his wealth of textural know-how deepens the hypnotic ambience behind these armchair-techno tunes to the point where the whole project’s swallowed whole. It's an engaging descent.

Offering - Bird By Snow (FALL ALBUMS 2012)


Bird By Snow
Gnome Life Records.

SCQ Rating: 76%

Fletcher Tucker knows how to compile a full-length. On his fifth outing as Bird By Snow, the songwriter weaves between tumultuous drones and rustic folk arrangements for a listening experience less about dual song-forms than about presenting a constantly transient weather pattern. Offering is anchored on mood, a woodsy serenity that nevertheless contains stormy fits over the course of the rattling “Before Names” and the dense field-recording of “Black Ocean”. It's almost too bad Bird By Snow’s drone-y ruminations have so much real estate on an album that fades out around the half-hour mark, but there's something to be said for intimacy when discussing themes as loaded as prayer and nature.

The highlights remain hinged on Tucker’s lyric-driven folk tunes, however, with “My People”, “Grace” and “Wide Open” forming meditative bones out of piano, guitar and percussion that sounds evoked from sticks and stones. Such a description, not to mention the cover-art, could easily mislabel Offering as a late addition to the freak-folk canon revived by Akron/Family and Devendra Banhart. But Bird By Snow’s eclectic and understated thoroughness dispels any kitschy categorization, instead gifting these songs of mortality and mysticism to anyone in need of solace this autumn. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Four - Bloc Party


Bloc Party
Frenchkiss Records.

SCQ Rating: 75%

There was a sense of disappointment as we left the mall / All the young people looked the same,” Kele Okereke intoned on A Weekend In the City's centerpiece, and it’s a lyric I’ve never comfortably moved beyond. Delivered as one of many rites of passage for that excellent sophomore record, it’s an epiphany that nevertheless sounded naïve or, at least, most likely to resonate among those same self-conscious mall-loiterers. And aptly, many fans of Silent Alarm’s angular ferocity felt letdown by a burgeoning emotive scale that elbowed Bloc Party, lyrically and sonically, toward the mainstream.

That perceived turning point, beginning with A Weekend In the City and continuing on the electronic-minded Intimacy, seesaws more violently than ever between evolution and regression with Four. Example: following the back-to-basics dynamic of love-song “Real Talk” (evolution, check), Okereke adlibs a bad pun about holding a turkey breast while singing as a means of “keeping abreast of the situation” (regression, check). Granted, nothing else on Four approaches that regrettable spike, with most of Bloc Party’s impulses choosing to engage heavier material that will nevertheless deepen the fanbase divide. The disappointed half responsible for calls of “emo” in recent years will find fresh evidence on “Kettling”, a track barely disguising its Weezer circa Pinkerton ambitions, whereas most fans will stand bewildered by “Coliseum”’s promising blues being buried by metal-aping riffs. While Okereke's voice has probably never sounded better than it does on Four, drummer Matt Tong's gutteral screaming feels like an awkward step outside of the group's comfort zone.

Bloc Party’s two primary strengths – immaculate rhythm and pitch-perfect atmospherics – have always worked best en masse. Even 2007's “Where Is Home?”, arguably the band’s angriest track, wouldn’t have sounded so immersive without a layer of dreaminess underpinning it all. And Four delivers a handful of tracks that live up to that reputation, from tenderly off-kilter ballad “The Healing” and the hypnotic lushness of “Day Four” to “Team A”’s thunderous, effect-laden menacing. Navigating the record’s snarling terrain can be perilous – tracks like “3 x 3” and “We Are Not Good People” seem to be designed solely for speaker-shaking volume – but a solid pop song like “V.A.L.I.S.” usually waits around the corner. 

Can’t shake the feeling we’re moving backwards,” Okereke shrugs on “Coliseum” but I remain a neutral fan, commending Bloc Party for testing the raw edge of their capabilities even though it presents a less flattering showcase of their talents. Four isn’t a full-on regression but it’s a far cry from their best work.

Long Slow Dance - The Fresh & Onlys

Long Slow Dance

The Fresh & Onlys
Mexican Summer Records.

SCQ Rating: 83%

The Fresh & Onlys have carried a sterling reputation for years now, one cemented by word of mouth and critical praise instead of magazine covers and sold-out performances at Radio City Music Hall. While less opportunistic in terms of perks, The Fresh & Onlys’ status is weighed in a different sort of gold – one common among career-artists and those thriving by the beat of their own drum. Likewise, Long Slow Dance takes its time with a collection of rock songs that gradually unveils a timeless heart beneath its understated surface.

These layers surprise because Long Slow Dance doesn’t initially sound like it has much to hide. Songs like “Executioner’s Song” and the title track prove instantly likeable, both manning a shuffling jangle-rock pulse through melancholic guitar hues. Basing an entire full-length on the merits of such traditional instrumentation qualifies as risqué by 2012’s indie standards but what sounds half-hearted gathers steam on account of subtle choices that render the arrangements as classic as vocalist Tim Cohen’s songwriting. The surf-tinged jam coinciding with “No Regard”, that lone synth streaking through “Fire Alarm”, the faint horn section backing “Executioner’s Song”; these flourishes have to stand their own amidst a restraint that's rather bold for a band operating in the same arena as, say, Ariel Pink.

The band’s well-known love of psychedelia still permeates the disc but intimately; with the exception of “Foolish Person”, it isn’t trying to call the shots. And by imbedding that experimentation lovingly into the corners of Long Slow Dance, The Fresh & Onlys have reached a new plateau. 

s/t - You'll Never Get To Heaven

You’ll Never Get To Heaven

You’ll Never Get To Heaven
Divorce Records.

SCQ Rating: 79%

For a duo that incorporates most of its source material from 20th century classical and 70s dub records, You’ll Never Get To Heaven doesn’t sound as distinct as one might imagine. But maybe “distinct” isn’t the idea here; Chuck Blazevic’s soundscapes tread a gamut of pristine, melodic snippets and gritty, textural exposition, suggesting a mysterious but no less tangible universe. With vocalist Alice Hansen’s soft coos as a guide, this debut unfurls with the one-two punch of “Drowning Out” and the break-beat indebted “You’ve Got the Sun” before slithering through an assortment of weird, sonic pastures.

Even when You’ll Never Get To Heaven acknowledges modern pop music by obeying a loose verse/chorus structure, their compositional foundation remains defiantly ambient. In that respect, this London Ontario duo consolidates its sound like My Bloody Valentine (moreso than other contemporary electronic-pop kids such as Purity Ring, Phantogram) as heard on “Come Over”, a pop song struggling to exist in the shadow of an overbearing ambient piece. Other tracks that carry prerogatives dualistic in nature include “Little Vera”, in which Hansen counteracts a pounding albeit twinkling blood-rush, and “Violet”, a procession of quiet surges that contemplate brimming over.

This You’ll Never Get To Heaven LP is not only a surprising turn for Divorce Records but a minor revelation for Canada’s independent scene. Be sure to catch this on vinyl before its limited run – only 300 copies – expires.