Review: Berlina – Berlina

In the latest in a series of slightly misleading dream pop/shoegaze band names, Berlina is the work of Madrid resident Alfonso Herrero and his co-musicians. To date, they have recorded just two EPs and it’s their self-titled second release which is under the microscope here.

Berlina EP Cover

In what some would say is a brave move, Herrero sings in his native Spanish tongue but it’s a good decision as his tones add a haunting counterpoint to the dreamlike backdrops. ‘Tiempo y Transfiguración’ (Time and Transfiguration) is dramatic but – even more so – rather eerie as swooning guitars and soothing keyboard washes fade in and out, wrapped around Herrero’s breathy vocals. It’s an intoxicating beginning. The synths are piled on high for ‘Sintex’ which – at only two and a half minutes in length – essentially serves as an interlude to the epic final track. ‘Estado de Naturaleza’ (‘State Of Nature’) begins with three minutes of scene-setting, driving Krautrock rhythms but then the track evolves; bringing in ghostly vocals, some equally spooky synths and an extra dose of funk muscle. It’s a testament to Herrera’s arrangement skills that the song never flags during its nine minute duration.

Berlina delight on each track with breezy, ambient washes adding an air of intrigue to proceedings, in a not dissimilar way to Auburn Lull or Mahogany. Naturally, when judging an act just on seventeen minutes of music, one can never get too carried away but this is certainly an excellent, mysterious and beguiling introduction to Berlina’s music.

Web Sites:
Berlina Bandcamp
Video for Berlina – Tiempo y Transfiguración

Further Listening:
Mahogany, Auburn Lull, The Meeting Places

Review: Shadowpeak – Shadowpeak

The name may suggest a goth rock outfit but Shadowpeak are a band more concerned with shoegaze and dream pop, it seems. However, this band from Utrecht in the Netherlands certainly belong to the dark side when it comes to inspiration on their brutally effective first EP.

Shadowpeak EP Cover

‘Daisy’ begins as slowcore but then grinds its way to a near-apocalyptic state, then slows down and repeats the formula once more. It’s an attention grabbing and intense beginning for the band which relies on only the faintest of vocals. Grinding guitars are to the fore again for ‘Inside My Dreams’ which features some murmuring female voices but it’s another rather bleak affair. So too is ‘Remembrance’, a track with the most pronounced gothic rock leanings thanks to its spindly guitar interplay, whereas for ‘Falling Down’ and ‘Wild Dreams’ the feet are pressed firmly down on the FX pedals; the folk vocals emerging on the latter providing a rare moment of fragility. Not surprisingly, by the time of the pummeling, breathless finale ‘Fernweh’, Shadowpeak’s energy must have been well and truly sapped, bringing a close to this EP.

To play on the name of the band, they could do with peeking out of the darkness a little more at times because this is heavy, murky material which could do with some variety. Having said that, the relentlessness, musicianship and aggression of Shadowpeak’s performance should prove to be very durable for head nodders everywhere.

Web Sites:
Shadowpeak Bandcamp

Further Listening:
My Bloody Valentine, My Majestic Star

Review: Placebo – Loud Like Love

Of all the bands who existed twenty years ago, it is perhaps surpising that Placebo are still a going concern. This is the band who created anthems called ‘Teenage Angst’ and ‘Nancy Boy’, after all and – for many – will forever be associated with a particular era and demographic. After 1998’s brilliant and mature ‘Without You I’m Nothing’, their star appeared to be on the wane at the turn of the Century but a long recording gap seems to have reinvigorated Brian Molko and co. for their latest album.

Placebo Album Cover

There is a sense of reassurance when the title track opens up with a supercharged burst of guitars and percussion, followed by Molko’s eternally bruised vocals which have gained a certain richness over the last few years. ‘Scene Of The Crime’ is a muscular, driven song and – proving the relevance of the band – there is an on the money, state of the nation song about social media called ‘Too Many Friends’ (“Too many people and I’ll never be there for”). Backed up by the satisfyingly chugging ‘Rob The Bank’ and the hooky and stylish ‘A Million Little Pieces’, all appears to be well in Placebo world. Admittedly, despite plenty of production heft, a couple of songs struggle to linger in the memory (‘Purify’, ‘Exit Wounds’) but the skittering beats of ‘Begin The End’ and a reflective ‘Bosco’ help to restore the quality of the first half of the album.

‘Loud Like Love’ is a slick and largely flab-free album, containing a number of tracks which will sit proudly alongside their classic anthems for future set lists. Proof indeed that Molko can also speak to a considerably more mature audience after all those years of making songs for the disaffected youth.

Web Sites:
Placebo Official Site
Video for Placebo – Too Many Friends

Further Listening:
Pine For Cedars

Review: Rat Trap – Halfway To Infinity

If Rat Trap’s three album career were a school report, they performed with merit on their indie folk-flavoured debut ‘The Western Boundary’ and achieved distinctions in alt rock for the follow-up ‘Blueprints Of A Paper City’. It seems a long time ago when I wrote about the California-based band’s first album in 2011 but main songwriter Grant Simmons has actually only just graduated from high school.

Rat Trap Album Cover

A sense of confusion and inner turmoil is apparent from the opening line to their new album: “Lately I’ve been sleeping in a head that isn’t mine”. It’s the first of an opening two parter called ‘Canoe’ but it’s the second part where Rat Trap show their arranging prowess much better; augmenting a stylistically varied song with string and brass instruments. Then they unleash the brilliantly wired and infectious ‘Exploding Head Syndrome’ and – in a similar vein – ‘Hippopotamus’ revisits their favourites Pavement with a typically awkward, off-key melody. ‘Creeks And Rivers’, meanwhile is a lovely, bittersweet tune featuring a sweet vocal turn from Simmons. Yet this album is as much about sensitive souls as arch songwriting. On that score, some of the material comes across as rather timid but ‘The Best A While’ rings and chimes delightfully and ‘Saltwater’ is a joyful ramble through strings and piano.

The album closes in somewhat valedictory fashion via the fading keys and poignant words (“The swan only has one song”) of ‘Outro’. It represents a somewhat fitting finale because this is the band’s last outing for the “foreseeable future” as presumably the band members find their next path after graduation. So it’s the end of a musical era but the beginning of something exciting for the individuals concerned. Whatever happens, ‘Halfway To Infinity’ presents the last part of a musical trilogy in growing up and Rat Trap have done themselves very proud throughout.

Web Sites:
Album Stream for Rat Trap – Halfway To Infinity

Further Listening:
Pavement, Belle And Sebastian

Review: Kahl Monticone – Monkey-Flower-Shell

Australia’s Kahl Monticone is a man to be envied. For the last decade, he has been working four days a week at Queenland’s largest and oldest independent record store and away from the shop he is a busy musician; having played in numerous bands and shared stages with Low, Rowland S. Howard and Damo Suzuki during a lengthy career. Judging by ‘Monkey-Flower-Shell’, he’s a very talented artist too.

Kahl Monticone Album Cover

Each of these short pieces are named as Part numbers 1 to 11; varying in texture and tone but following a logical progression. Most tracks feature woozy ambience, rustic passages of guitar and rumbling percussion. The inclusion of these layers creates a folktronica feel which hits a peak for the tender and forlorn Part 5. In addition, Monticone populates his compositions with playful, children’s TV-worthy segments (Part 8) and gorgeous juxtapositions of disorientating rhythms and sweet tunes (Parts 3, 6 and 10 deserving special mention).

These “carefully constructed miniatures” are delightful, with the only criticism being you want them to last for longer. However, treated as one long instrumental piece, ‘Monkey-Flower-Shell’ consistently delivers with its intricate melodies and arrangements.

Web Sites:
Duskdarter Label Site
Stream for Kahl Monticone – Monkey-Flower-Shell

Further Listening:
Minotaur Shock, Four-Tet

Review: Delay Trees – Readymade

In a rare display of overstatement, Finland’s Delay Trees claim to have “found a way to a mystical sphere of music that had overtaken us by surprise”. Until now these shoegazers have been a largely unheard of outfit but now they’ve been playlisted on BBC 6 Music and created a sure-footed third album, that situation surely needs to change.

Delay Trees Album Cover

Followers of LA’s The Meeting Places will immediately appreciate ‘Fireworks’, which has all their hallmarks of breezy, insouciant vocals, shimmering production and low-slung guitars. ‘Perfect Heartache’ and ‘Howl’ embrace similar chiming aesthetics and propulsive rhythms but with more strident choruses. Yet the core of Delay Trees’ music really portrays them as sensitive souls.

In keeping with the title, ‘Steady’ floats on the surface but its insistent Krautrock-like groove ensures an uneasy undercurrent prevails. In their most understated moments, the subtle, ringing charms of ‘Sister’ sits alongside ‘Woods’, which is such a quiet number, it has more in common with folk music than shoegaze. Then, as the album draws to a close, an elegant ‘Big Sleep’ recalls the mystery of early Engineers and even the glacial end piece ‘The Atlantic’ is epic without being overbearing.

Delay Trees never push too hard on the effects pedals, meaning that this is a gently persuasive set of songs. ‘Readymade’ may fall under the radar on that basis but here is evidence of a band fully aware of their strengths on an impressively atmospheric and moving third album.

Web Sites:
Delay Trees Official Site
Listen to Delay Trees – Fireworks

Further Listening:
The Meeting Places, Engineers, Windsor For The Derby

Review: Emby Alexander – Frontispiece

The first EPs from Emby Alexander painted pictures of baroque pop where it was tough to decide whether it was the band or the listeners who were in need of medication. Nevertheless, there was clearly an awful lot of creativity and imagination on display which makes wonder how they would handle a full album’s worth of material. ‘Frontispiece’ is the vibrant, mind-bending answer, then.

Frontispiece Album Cover

‘Come Breathe The Downstairs Air’ is structurally more coherent than their earlier material. Sure, the song sounds like no other bands (particular the curious female backing vocals) but the set-up of military percussion and a distinguishable verse and chorus show signs of a new maturity. Sometimes, there’s a real sense of “blink and you’ll miss it” since several songs flit by before you’ve had chance to digest them but ‘Sleeping In The Library’ sounds like a drunken children’s choir and ‘Lower Come Closer’ is a twinkling highlight. ‘Don’t Go Bed Tonight’, meanwhile, distills the intensity and passion of early Arcade Fire.

The second half is something else entirely with the band’s theatrical side coming even more into the foreground. The key moment is the seven minutes of ‘E Major Baroque Youthful’, where the group tread a fine line between high camp, madness and exuberant chamber pop. ‘Tallwave II’ heads off into edgy post-punk territory, ‘Lay Your Wet Hair Down’ brings in jingle bells and ‘Losing Your Teeth’ is one of many tracks to feature glockenspiel but its vocal melody and pin sharp guitars certainly provide one of the most enduring moments. Finally, thanks to its stately, trembling piano melodies and wounded singing, ‘Make Me Feel Unsafe Again’ is also a timely reminder that underneath the performance, there are vulnerable humans behind this project.

‘Frontispiece’ is the kind of album you can listen to ten times and still not be able to work out whether you like it or not. Ultimately, I found it equally confusing and fantastic but undoubtedly original and entertaining. For these reasons alone, Emby Alexander should be heard and applauded.

Web Sites:
Emby Alexander Official Site
Stream for Emby Alexander – Frontispiece

Further Listening:
Mystery Jets, Arcade Fire


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